David Rapaport is a TV and film casting director working on a string of hit shows including The CW's Arrow, Supergirl, Flash, Legends of Tomorrow and the reboot of teen classic Sabrina. Here he tells Mandy News what makes a great audition, how to self tape and how he got to where he is today.
David, please introduce yourself and tell us how you got into the film and TV industries?
I’m originally from Boston, Massachusetts but I’ve been out in California now for about 18 years now. I was always a fan of TV and film, especially pop culture and knew I wanted to be in the business. In some regard, I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do when I went to Emerson College back in Boston; which is a communications-focused college. I got a four-year degree as a generalist which is basically liberal arts so it meant I had no real focus if I’m truly honest. I had a lot of school friends that were very specific in what they wanted to be but I really struggled finding what I wanted to do. Luckily, I did an internship in Boston for a man named Kevin Fennessy who was a local casting director who was doing small films, commercials, industrials and independent films.
I worked with him for a couple of semesters and felt like I had found my calling and fell in love with casting. It’s not something they teach you in school and there certainly wasn’t a course or class for it. When I came out to California for my final semester of college, I did a three-month internship in casting for credit with Mali Finn who was at the time the premier casting director; she had done Titanic and LA Confidential. She became my mentor and solidified the idea of being a casting director for me.
I fell in love with the business through working with Mali and I ended up staying on with her for five years. Mali brilliantly towed the line between art and commerce. She loved actors and first-time directors and with her I was able to work with people like Gus Van Sant on Elephant and Last Days, James Cameron on developing a reality show for ABC, Ryan Murphy on Running with Scissors, David Gordon Green on some of his first films and we did some student films too, such as Art Installations for Doug Aitken. So we ran the whole gamut.
She was always doing about six projects at a time and constantly busy. She really shared the process with me. After about six years of working with her as an intern assistant associate, I didn’t look back. I didn’t really have a choice; there was no other other option for me at that point. I put all my eggs in the casting basket and knew exactly that this is what I wanted to do.
In around 2006, I then decided to go out on my own. Without using any of Mali’s contacts, me and my business partner basically dropped our resumes throughout the entire city and tried as hard as we could to get a job. Our early jobs were very short-lived. There was a series on NBC called Fear Itself and one on Showtime called Masters of Horror. Certainly a lot of low-budget and horror shows. To me, it was not only very exciting to get our own jobs and opportunities but a chance to really start to learn and find my voice so I could share my opinions with producers. That was the exciting part but the hard part was we weren’t making any money and the jobs would last a season or half a season and then dry up.
Right after leaving Mali’s office, I had a general meeting with the casting department at Warner Bros and it was one of the best meetings I’ve ever had. We all got along so well and I thought my career was made after that. I then didn’t hear from them for two years and I was devastated. Two years later, this pilot of Gossip Girl came up and I got a call from Warner Bros casting and they thought I’d be perfect for the pilot as it was youth-oriented. I was around 26 at the time and that’s probably as young as you can get for a casting director. My interest really lied in discovering talent, doing searches and youth-oriented projects so it seemed like a perfect combination.
I read the script and thought it was one of the best things I’ve ever read and was thrilled to have booked it. I certainly didn’t know what a phenomenon the show would go on to be. That definitely helped put my name on the map and secured that relationship with Warner Bros and The CW. Both of whom I have worked with for almost 10 years now. I got booking after booking with them. After that, I was looking for another mentor in the business. Someone who could guide me and who I could look up to. I’d always been a huge fan of Greg Berlanti’s work and I was really desperate to work with him. I got in touch with him via his agent and arranged a meeting on the Arrow pilot and that was another defining moment in my career. It led to this amazing relationship with Greg and consequently working on Tomorrow People, Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow, Riverdale, Sabrina, Titans and the list goes on.
I’ve been working with Greg now consistently for a couple of years and have done 10-11 projects with him. As I didn’t grow up reading comic books, it was fascinating being thrown into a world I didn’t know much about and that’s what I love about casting. You’re casting people from all walks of life. The ease and the challenge of a job is finding an essence of a character on a page and matching it to an actor. Not knowing the source material, I could approach it with a fresh perspective.
It’s been a beautiful marriage of work with Greg and his whole company and, since then, we’ve built a great staff of people I work with daily. We have nine employees and a business partner in Lyndsey Baldasare as well as a counterpart in Vancouver named Sean Cossey and JJ Ogilvy who oversee lots of our casting as most of the shows we currently cast are in Vancouver. We not only have a good rapport with Warner Bros, who I do all my shows through, but all of the networks such as The CW, Netflix and ABC.
Talking of The CW shows such as Arrow or Supergirl, what’s the process of casting one of those shows from the very beginning?
Casting a pilot is about a 10 week process. You’re usually hired with the guarantee of at least 10 weeks to do it. In most cases, you can probably cast a full pilot of 10-35 roles in that time depending on how big the pilot is. With Flash, it took about 20 weeks as we were looking for the Flash before the pilot was picked up and we used the Barry Allen character as a guest star on Arrow to find him. We searched for roughly seven to ten weeks for the Barry Allen character. Funnily enough, Grant Gustin was the first person I brought in for the producers.
Based on the idea of the essence of a character, we were looking for the opposite of Arrow. Someone who wasn’t born a superhero but became one. Someone who was an average, relatable, everyday kind of guy who had this power trust upon him. What was explained to me was the beginning stages of the story would be watching him become a superhero and how you or I would deal with having these immediate superpowers and what that would be like. I had cast Grant and Stephen Amell previously on 90210 so I knew them and their work very well. I brought him in and he did a great job. I knew Grant for years, the process for years and knew that kind of age group quite well.
You have to basically educate the studio and producers on who’s out there. The unfortunate thing about showing them your favourite choice first is that they wanna see more! They think there is going to be another 20 Grant Gustins there. So you go through a process where you read over 1000 guys for the role all over the world. We had self-tapes, casting directors in the UK, in Australia, Vancouver, Toronto and in New York all looking for the role. It was my job to oversee all of that and watch every tape that came in, sit through every read and help narrow down the choices. Which we ultimately did, down to three guys, who we then screen-tested over at Warner Bros. Then we shared the tape with the studio and network and finally decided on Grant. Again, that was just the talent process for one role.
The pilot then gets picked up and you have to do all of that for seven series of regulars. It’s fast, furious and you see a ton of people. You really have to just trust your instincts and gut. I worked with David Nutter who’s one of the most successful pilot directors in the business. Everything he touches turns to gold and this was no exception. David, Greg and Geoff Johns (producer and Chief Creative Officer of DC Comics) and I would sit in a room and sit through auditions, watch tapes and see who worked well together.
At the end of the day, we were lucky enough to be able to do a couple of chemistry reads. An example of a chemistry read is getting Grant to do a read with a couple of women to play Iris West. The point of them is to not only look for just sexual chemistry but also how they look and work together. You then start to build an ensemble. You really hope for the best. Sometimes you think you have a hit on your hands and it turns out to be garbage and other times you’re not quite sure but it turns out to be magic.
The pilot season process was so fast and furious that it amazes me that these shows turn out as well as they do. However, more often than not, shows don’t get picked up. We knew that this one was going to special though. Not only because of the source material but because we found some really amazing talent that gelled very well together.
What is pilot season like for you as a casting director?
It’s really hectic! Usually, the pilot season, for the majority of the major networks such as ABC, NBC, FOX, etc, happens between January and March. Each network picks up a number of pilots and casting for them begins mid-January through March. It’s a frenzy and the town has been abuzz! As a casting director, you’re competing with every other show in town as there are more shows casting at that moment than the rest of the year. This means every actor that wants to do TV wants to be on a pilot and want to be on a series for the longevity. The problem is they go so quickly because it’s so competitive.
Sometimes, it feels like there are more shows than actors. I always encourage my producers that if they see someone they like in auditions to then start a test deal with them. A test deal starts the process of holding onto somebody and holds them in first position so another pilot can’t steal them. It’s all a wild puzzle of securing someone you like, that is still available and can test for us. It’s a weird situation!
It starts with an audition, likely a pre-read with me or one of my associates, then a producer session in front of producers and directors. Before they see the studio, business affairs negotiate a deal with their agent so that once you show that person to the studio, and ideally the network, there is already a deal in place that they can pick up. Most auditions are the pre-read, the producer session and then a choice is made and if the network sign off on them, you make the deal.
In pilot season, the deals are made in advance of you showing the tape to the studio and the network. As a result, there are lot of actors doing six to seven auditions in a day and having to make major life decisions. They’re signing seven-year contracts sometimes within hours of an audition. It’s an exciting time but there is a lot of high-level stress and everyone feels it from casting to actors to agent.
Part of what I like about the business is it’s a little like a lottery and you want to keep playing and getting those opportunities. You can sometime lose your spirit but we keep throwing in as it’s exciting and fun.
What are the differences between working on TV series to films?
You generally get more time to work on films. Quarantine and The Strangers were such great opportunities for myself. I co-casted both of those with a woman named Lindsey Kroeger.
Strangers was a script from a first-time director called Bryan Bertino and what I remember about that project specifically was watching him watch the actors read their lines. He got very emotional hearing it for the first time and I got emotional watching him. It was one of the most beautiful experiences I’ve seen in filmmaking.
A lot of the time in television, we have anywhere from 13 to 23 episodes in a season and you have anywhere between three to eight days to cast an episode. The process is very quick and a lot of the time the directors and writers aren’t even in the room as we shoot out of town a lot. A TV show can sometimes feel a bit mechanical. Almost like you’re in a hamster wheel churning out these episodes.
Whereas a film takes a little bit more time and allows you to make a wider search and see more people. In that instance, working so closely together with the director/writer is such an incredible experience. It also allows you to delve deeper into what the project was about. On the surface it’s a horror film but for me and the director it’s was about a couple breaking up and the emotions they’re going through. The violence was very random, scary and relatable as that situation could happen to anyone at home. It was terrifying.
Quarantine was based on a Spanish film called Rec which scared the hell out of me. What was so cool about that film was it appears as if it’s all one shot which was such a fresh approach to filmmaking. We were looking for theatre actors who could maintain a piece and the sense of scene for an hour and a half without it seeming theatrical. Ultimately, it wasn’t shot in one shot but a lot of the scenes were very long. Five to ten minutes at a time. We did a lot of rehearsals and group readings and tried not to remake the film but put our own spin on it. It was such a fun film to work on.
What makes a good audition? Additionally, what makes a good taped audition?
Basically, it takes good lighting and good sound make a good taped audition. I watch literally thousands of self-tapes and I’m not too picky about quality but when I show them to the producers, anything that distracts them – such as props or not being centred on camera – can hinder chances.
You want to mimic the audition process as much as possible for a self-tape. It should be mid-chest to right above the head, centred in the frame, with good lighting and we should be able to hear them properly. But it can be tough. I understand some actors are on location or at home with their parents and can find it hard to read lines with somebody but a reader can make a big difference.
If someone has done a self-tape and re-recorded their own voice or they’re reading with someone on Skype, it can take me the first 30 seconds to understand what is actually going on. It sounds picky but it can be very distracting as you want to focus on the read. You want see their eyes, get into the emotional process and see what’s going on. Those are my biggest hiccups for self-tapes.
In terms of in-the-room auditions, I understand how hard it can be. I give actors so much credit to walk into a room they’ve never been in before and feel comfortable or vulnerable enough to share with us and show us their unique selves. It’s a difficult process but I’m always looking for someone who see it as an opportunity to act, to play, to have fun, and who wants to connect with the material and show us what they came up with.
A big mistake a lot of actors tend to do is they try to impress me or the producers by guessing what we want. The whole purpose of auditions is to see what they can come up with and discover what they can bring to the game. If we knew what we wanted, we wouldn’t be doing auditions, we’d be making straight offers.
It is high pressure, scary and over-whelming but those few minutes are your few minutes and we want you to shine. It’s a big misconception that casting directors and producers don’t want you to do well but we want the exact opposite. I want you to feel safe, to feel comfortable and be an answer to my problem.
What else do you have coming up at the moment and beyond?
I can’t say too much but I can say that we are in production on Titans. You has wrapped production and that’s going to be an amazing series. We started production yesterday on Sabrina for Netflix which will be exciting. We are currently in production on Arrow, Flash and Supergirl. We wrapped Legends of Tomorrow. This is our last week on Riverdale.
Deception aired in the states just last week. That was a pilot I did last year for Warner Bros and ABC. That’s it!
So if somebody wanted to emulate what you have done and become a successful casting director, what advice would you give them?
First and foremost, you have to love actors and be an encyclopaedia of actors. It starts as a kid with just seeing as many TV shows and films as you possibly can. Especially nowadays, as you can watch YouTube series and small films nobody else has seen and hone your taste for talent. Casting directors are hired for their tastes and their opinions.
I would strongly encourage internships, including unpaid ones, as I did. I learnt more in the three months of my internship than I have done in anything else in my life. If you’re in school or college, be the casting director for your friend’s films.
That’s the tough thing about Hollywood; there doesn’t seem to be one specific way to get into the business. That can apply to anything whether it’s getting an agent, becoming an actor or becoming a casting director. It’s all about keeping your options open and being somewhat creative.
I would also encourage people to reach out to casting assistants and associates as they have a lot of knowledge and stuff to share. Sometimes, casting directors are so busy that if you try to reach them personally for an internship they may not respond. Casting assistants and associates would probably welcome or be interested in hearing about somebody’s journey or problems. Perhaps you could reach out to them for an informational interview. I’ve done that throughout my whole career.
Even as a casting director, there was a period, about two years ago, where I wasn’t quite sure on what the next step was. So I reached out to a couple of fellow casting directors whom I knew and asked about their experiences, their career path and some of the things they said really clicked with me. Maybe the same could happen to a younger person meeting with an assistant or associate, not necessarily with a job on the line, and hopefully something could spark and make sense to them on what their path should be.
Find this casting director interview useful? Check out our chat with Mandy.com casting director of the year Peter Hunt who is Head of Casting for Hollyoaks.
5 hours ago
Thank you David, very interesting and informative.
1 day ago
Thank you David, it was very informative.
I hope I can work with you in the future.
2 days ago
Interesting and inspiring read! I always enjoy reading these articles.
2 days ago
Really interesting . Good level of fitness is very important . Most young actors do not understand acting is hard , demanding work . Long hours on filming set ,different , sometimes extreme , locations oblige actors to show strong will and determination . Very good point about internship , perfect experience for young actors . Thanks David for very informative article .
Kind Regards .
Jason La Shard
2 days ago
Wow, thanks for such an uplifting and honest article. I especially would like to point out how important articles like this one from David are to struggling actors. This information should be printed into some type of print publication along with others like it and distributed online and at participating distribution points. Thanks again. Gordon Welke
2 days ago
Thank you for sharing your insights! Truly fascinating how quickly it all moves.
3 days ago
Yeah good read.
3 days ago
David thank you for taking time out of your hectic schedule to share your experiences with us.
I hope to be able to work with you one day. I travel between London. Los Angeles, and Atlanta for acting opportunities. I am working on obtaining my Green Card to be able to work in America.
3 days ago
Very informative! Thanks! I have often wondered how to catch the eye of Casting Agencies when a new actor is just starting to break into the business. I am frequently asked that question by people who do not have much on their resumes yet. What would you tell them?
Nevertheless - thanks for sharing. Anne Evanoff
3 days ago
An interesting and informative read,many thanks David for sharing. Sally
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