The Art and Science of Casting a Movie

by Heidi Levitt


Casting is an art that’s increasingly being aided by science.

In 1985 I was a casting assistant on Alan Parker’s film Angel Heart that starred Mickey Rourke, Robert De Niro and Lisa Bonet in her feature film debut.

The Casting Directors, Risa Bramon Garcia and Billy Hopkins had recently promoted me from intern to assistant. I did all the regular jobs any assistant did from answer phones, type lists upon lists on our IBM selectric typewriter, to scheduling auditions, to rescheduling them.

But, I got lucky when Alan wanted to cast a musician in one of the key supporting roles.

It was important to him that we find a real musician who could act, rather than an actor who could also play an instrument.

Risa and Billy were my mentors and both had extensive experience directing plays off Broadway in New York. They had the pulse on the New York theater scene and I am forever grateful to them for teaching me the art of casting, and most importantly for teaching me how to direct auditions, and pull the best out of each and every actor.

I was so thrilled they entrusted this search to me as I loved to research. l took my job as though I were “Harriet the Spy,” talent detective who would not stop until she found “the one.”

I did my homework and studied the music listings in the Village Voice, listened to good old fashioned vinyl and then put the word out. The hunt began old school and it took the time we would not have gotten if we were doing this search today.

Brownie “Facts of Life” McGhee

First we began with musicians in New York then I went on the road with stops in Chicago, San Francisco, New Orleans and Los Angeles. I was equipped with a clunky VHS camcorder and a Rolodex of contacts collected from the Yellow Pages, the musician union directories, music festivals and ASCAP listings.

I managed to find and audition some of America’s best jazz and blues musicians from Dizzy Gillespie to B. B. King to Buddy Guy and Johnny Lee Hooker to Ornette Coleman and along the way I stumbled into Alligator Records in Chicago and met Koko Taylor.

There was no role exactly for a bluesy, blousy, effervescent soul singer, but I think I convinced Alan to find a small part for her, which unfortunately must have been cut from the film later on . But that was all part of the fun.

The search for this key supporting role took time and patience. About three months into the search, the Blues guitarist Brownie McGhee emerged as the top candidate.

After several intense taped auditions, he was cast in the role of Toots Sweet. Brownie was a Blues guitar legend and partner of Sonny Terry. His adventure into film was a one-time event for him, but for me it was the launch pad for my career in film.

Alan Parker cast several musicians I found along the way from legendary Harmonica player Sugar Blue and piano man Pinetop Perkins.

A sample of some of the Polaroids of a few of the “Angel Heart” extras stapled to notecards

Alan could probably tell that I loved this work and every face was a story to me, so he asked me to stay on in New Orleans and cast the extras.

Alan was as specific about each and every extra as he was about every detail of the film.

I used the opportunity to deeply explore every corner of New Orleans and the outskirts of the Bayou near Thibodaux to find the extras and bit players: from the Cajun fisherman trolling for crawfish to Voo Doo dancers to the best local Baptist choir members.

The experience on Angel Heart led me to realize how much I wanted to learn about filmmaking and inspired me to move to Los Angeles and go to the American Film Institute to hone my filmmaking skills.

When I think back on that search to ones I have done more recently, I feel a sense of nostalgia.

I miss having the time to spend on research, I miss the connections, the open calls, the serendipity of organic discovery made without the help of Google or a call to social media to put the word out.

Today such searches and open calls can all be done from our computer desktops.

We can see many more people and cast the net around the world with technology and social media. We can create portals for actors to self submit their auditions and see actors from around the world on our laptops.

Tom Holland, Marvel’s new Spider-man used Instagram to showcase his skills and The Telegraph reported that his aerobatic videos may have helped land him the role.

Technology has allowed us to search globally. We have gone from one-on-one auditions to taped auditions to digitally delivered auditions that can be shared at a moment’s notice.

Who knows if the next step could be to technologically enhance an audition
with an Instagram filter?

And even the casting directors’ treasured lists that we made for each and every film using old Playbills, collected editions of Theatre World, and the Academy of Players Guides to Variety’s year-end guides have gone to be created using online websites like IMDbPro, Breakdown Services. and Spotlight in the UK.

In my own office we recently developed desktop software (Qwire/Cast) that allows casting directors to make lists with features that allow you to automatically add pictures and auto-populated information on talent.

The truth is, the elements of talent, tenacity and skill are as necessary now as ever for casting directors, agents and actors.

The skill to Google search, the Skype audition, and the online open calls do not replace the old fashioned search for the right actor.

Indeed, we now have fancy tools to do our work, but the true art of casting relies on the same key ingredient that it always relied on, human interaction, acting and reacting.

Just like there is no replacement for the key ingredients of character and story in any great film, , finding the right actor is skilled alchemy and no one can just Google it.


Heidi Levitt has cast a wide variety of films from The Artist to Nixon and the forthcoming Wim Wenders film Every Thing Will Be Fine. She can be found online at HeidiLevitt.com and at ActorGenie.com

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