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The Casting Process: Articulating the Description

Although these standard categories are used less and less because there is so much crossing over, it is helpful to identify for the casting director or the Breakdown Service the category that your search involves. What is really needed is a specific and articulate description of the role you’re trying to fill. This is where the process frays for many because the usual descriptive paragraph is often so general that it might well imply the inclusion of just about every actor in America. Let me give you an example of what I mean with a sample of a typical paragraph:

Photo by photologue_np

“Seeking young attractive male to play part of neurotic, depressed, artistic character in a Chekhov play titled The Seagull.” (Haven’t read it? Again, I send you to your local library!)

The ad is for the part of Trepliov of course. What actor of any age wouldn’t think of himself as able to play “young” and “attractive?” Also, what actor worth his salt wouldn’t think of himself as able to play “neurotic,” “artistic,” or “depressed?” The result of this generalized ad would be hundreds upon hundreds of responses, either with gluts of the pictures we lovingly call 8[1]10 glossies or phone calls and emails if you’ve been foolish enough to give out that information.

Then hours of time go by as 40- and 55-year-old men of varying weights and ethnicities file in to be seen. Alas, the ego of the actor! What a waste of our time and theirs (and let me remind you that time is money in our business).

So the first step is to master the art of writing the character description for the casting director, the breakdown service, or the ad in such a way as to maximize communication and minimize unwanted response. Here is where the concept of specificity becomes of primary importance.

Let us go back to our prototype, Ordinary People, and the role of Conrad. What are the words that would bring in actors who are as close to the right type as possible? Well, let’s start with “high school student, must look 16” (Timothy Hutton was, I believe, in his twenties when he played the part, so we don’t need to say “must be 16”). Perhaps “competitive swimmer.” (This would eliminate the grossly overweight, hopefully.) According to our working throughline, we might also use the words “Caucasian” or “Anglo Saxon.” This can be a sensitive area. I am a firm believer in what Actor’s Equity calls nontraditional casting, i.e., casting with disregard as to the color or ethnicity of an actor as long as that actor is capable of playing the role. (There is a website for Equity’s nontraditional casting project at However, because this script clearly calls for a specific segment of our society, it is only fair to save the time of the minority actors too visually specific as to be useable. Because we can’t use someone with a Brooklyn accent, we might use “middle American environment.” (If they have an accent but can lose it successfully because they are wonderful actors, we don’t want to automatically eliminate them.) We also need to signal to the casting directors and agents the size and demand of the role so I would include the words “young lead.” So the ad for Conrad in the Breakdown Service or trade paper might be something like:

“Casting young lead in family drama. Anglo Saxon student in middle American high school must look 16 and be a competitive swimmer.”

The important thing to remember is that the more specific facts you can supply and the less descriptive prose you include, the more likely you are to slim down the process and enable those that are assisting to be of constructive use.

Excerpt from Changing Direction: A Practical Approach to Directing Actors in Film and Theatre by Lenore DeKoven © 2013 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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