Best known for the casting director on the hit film The Square, A Royal Affair and the TV series Pros and Cons, Tanja Grunwald talks to Mandy News about how she became a casting director plus she discusses her latest work on the series The Rain.
Hi Tanja, could you please introduce yourself to the Mandy News audience and tell us how you got involved with casting for the TV and film industry?
Hello! My name is Tanja Grunwald. I come from Copenhagen, Denmark. I’m a casting director who’s been working since 1997. I was raised by two actors and I worked backstage a lot in theatres. I went to the theatre often, when my parents were working, so it was very natural for me to be in that environment, where I got to know actors.
When I had my second child, I had a girlfriend who worked for a commercial company and she said, ‘We have a casting director who’s sick and I really think it’s something for you because you love people, you’re very into them.’ And I got a funny assignment, actually. I had to find Slavic-looking specialists for a Nescafé commercial. So I went to the Russian and Polish embassies and found a good gallery, of non-professionals of course.
They had to be extras, there weren’t any actors at that time. It’s always good to pinpoint the really good faces. Maybe they’re not trained but you can find them and they can work in film. They are also cheaper than trained actors! In commercials, a lot of people are non-verbal. They can just be in the environment and react, just be there. Some of them had the skills to do that even though they’re not trained, right? So I went to the production company with this great gallery and they were just blown away and I started working there.
Then I won a lion for a commercial film in Cannes, people talked and it started. I was hooked on the business. I was actually quite pleased because I had small children and when you work in theatre, you’re often away in the evening so that didn’t work. Then I worked in the commercials business for seven years, before I got the chance to do fiction films and series.
It depends on the directors that you meet, you have good dialogue with them and they say, ‘Would you like to work on my next feature film?’ then you’re pleased and you say, ’I would love to do that!’ So yes, that’s how it happened!
Amazing! So how did you come to work on the Netflix show, The Rain?
Actually, I’ve worked a lot with the company who did The Rain. It was – as we say in Denmark – in the cards. I had worked for them as a casting director, when the director had no special preference, so I was pleased when they had the opportunity to do the first Netflix series. Plus I knew the company really well, so that was really good. They had confidence in me.
So how was working on The Rain different to working on other shows? What was your process in finding the right people to cast?
Netflix is a bigger machine to work for, right? There are so many people who have an opinion! And that’s how it is. It has to go through a lot of channels, which takes a lot of time. To get good actors for shows like this is new in Denmark: when you sign your contract, you commit for a certain amount of seasons. They have to get used to that because then they can’t do anything else. It’s quite a long journey to make it work, but actually a lot of Danish actors are thrilled to be asked, because it’s a window to the world.
One of main characters, Rasmus, actor Lucas Lynggaard Tennesen, went from 700 Instagram followers to over 100,000 in one week. So it’s really an adventure for these guys. It’s so different and for me also. I get a lot of posts from all over the world because I’m in the credits. That’s quite funny!
Great! You spoke earlier about getting a gallery of faces together for your corporate ad. How did you find your actors for The Rain?
That was quite good, because I found that the director who started the show, and I were on the same level: we wanted to do a show with real people, not too hyped, not too beautiful, if you know what I mean. We didn’t want models who could walk around, we wanted actors. We weren’t too sure about how Netflix would react to that.
I was really pleased with everyone who was chosen. I said, ‘OK, maybe I’ll be pleased about one or two, and then they will have the power to say something else.’ But I was quite confident about what we wanted so that was a success, I think.
We started shooting the second series today! We have some new characters, some of whom are exotic and beautiful! I think it’s still working very well as a gallery, yeah.
So when you’re looking for somebody for show like this, how do you bring them in? What makes a good audition?
Of course I know a lot of them, I know how they work, I know how good they are, how professional. Their parts are very young. I look at the way they process things when they come in. Do they know their lines well enough? Have they thought about what they’re wearing? Are they good at changing direction, when they do the scene? Because it shows something about how much they can deal with, if that makes sense. That’s a good skill, so when you do the scene in a practical sense, you see how much they can cope with.
Because you know, when we do a series like that, you have two takes then it’s go, go, go! It’s not an arthouse movie. We have a really tight schedule, so they have to be like soldiers, in a way, to make it work. They have to nail it, more or less the first time. So, that’s what we’re looking for. And then of course, sometimes you work more with one scene than another, because it might be more difficult to do. But it’s the basic skill that’s important: that they have their own thoughts about something and they are flexible. They can’t be fixed in the way that they rehearsed it.
Amazing. It sounds like you need a lot of different skills to see these qualities in people.
Yeah, but we don’t have anyone here in Denmark who could have trained me in this. It came over a number of years by working with directors. You listen and follow up on what they are telling the actors. It makes sense. You know how to get them from A to B. You suck it up and put in your bag! Your mental bag, and have it there, right?
Absolutely. You just mentioned the second series…
Yes, we started shooting today. We have been casting for the first two episodes, and I have six to go.
Oh, the process isn’t that you cast for the whole series? Are you casting throughout the episodes?
I mean, sometimes. We got the green light very late, so we had to run fast. Also because we have different directors – normally one director does two episodes. Then another and another, so we have three directors this time.
Wow, so you have different casting directors for that?
Yes, then they have to go into the editing booth for each pair of episodes, so it’s not possible to cast for more than two.
Makes perfect sense! Finally, what advice would you give for people wanting to become casting directors? Also, what advice would you give to up-and-coming actors in their auditions?
If you want to become a casting director, try to get in touch with as many casting directors as possible. Become an intern or an assistant. I don’t know if there is any training for casting directors. For this sort of job, you should be in the room with the caster. You can’t be in the classroom with people telling you this stuff. You need to be out there, being hands-on with the material.
It’s very important that you like people and you like talking to them because actors need security – not that I want to nurse them – but you must be able to talk to them and be understanding. Also, develop the skill of analysing the scene. You can learn this over time, but you must have this basic skill.
To actors, I would say, if there are a lot of lines – be prepared. Because if they are not in your head then you cannot deliver, you are not able to work, you can’t take direction, like I was saying before, right? And also, make up your mind about the scene. Give me your interpretation, first. But don’t be fixed in this viewpoint. You have to be flexible. I think the most important thing is that the lines are in your head. You have rehearsed them thoroughly.
Yes, to prepare properly.
To prepare properly! And also to have thought, ‘What is this about?’ actually. Because sometimes you see actors coming in, struggling with the lines, and you wonder if they know what the scene is about. That’s very important. But I think untrained actors are more likely to have problems like that.
Now in Denmark, there is more and more film education. We have film and theatre schools. You act differently in theatre to how you act in film. So sometimes it’s a problem. People overact because they think they have to be heard on the 14th row. And I have to say, ’the camera sees it – don’t show it to me.’
This is somebody I would love to work with. Continued success. Have a great year ahead.
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