'Write to people whose work inspires you' Casting director Anna McAuley offers up audition tips
Anna McAuley is a London-based casting director for TV, film, commercials and music videos – here she chats to Andy Wooding of Mandy News about how casting decisions are made and what actors can do after an audition.
Anna, tell us where you’re from, what attracted you to casting and how you got into it?
I’m from Preston, Lancashire. I trained at drama school and gave acting a go professionally for about five years. Becoming a casting director was something that happened very organically. Someone I knew who was a casting director asked if I’d thought about trying casting.
So I sought out experience because there’s no official training for it. It was always something that I had been interested in – even since drama school.
I wrote to lots of different casting directors and worked freelance for a few of them and ended up spending the most amount of time working for Shaheen Baig. That was just from writing to her. I wrote to her and told her what I liked, what I was interested in. They said to come in and meet them and that was it, really.
I wanted to cast because I love people. Getting to meet people from all different backgrounds is what fascinates me. Even when an actor walks into the room, I’m almost more interested in who they are and where they’ve come form than how they’re going to read the script.
Tell us a little bit about the differences between casting for film, television, commercials and music videos.
First of all, the difference is the amount of time you’ve got to turn it around. Commercials are super quick, whereas a film can be six months to a year long. Film is a lot more of a process in terms of the fact that the director might not really have a defined idea of what each character is. It’s almost a process of elimination, exploring who that character could be. You don’t know until you meet those people.
Television, again, is quite a quick turnaround. That’s where you really just want to have a really good knowledge of actors, because you’ve got to see quite a lot of people if you’re doing episodes.
Music videos – along with commercials – are popular culture. You have to have a good understanding of what’s fashionable, what’s interesting, what’s not been done before, and being able to think outside the box in that respect.
I think they all attract different skillsets, really.
Tell us a little about your work on Trespass Against Us. It was incredible.
I’m glad you enjoyed it, because I loved working on it. It was really exciting. I remember that it was one of the first scripts I read at Shaheen’s office, and I was like ‘I want to work on that film.’
That was probably one of my favourite jobs I’ve ever worked on. I moved over to Gloucester, lived in Cheltenham for two months, and I did about four schools a day and then community centres, different classes, traveller sites.
That was an amazing experience, and finding Georgie was brilliant. He’s brilliant. That is what makes me want to do this, because he was just the real deal and that was the reason that we didn’t go through Spotlight or more usual channels. That child had to feel like he was from that world. You couldn’t have done it any other way. You can’t act that. You can’t.
And Swallows and Amazons?
Swallows and Amazons is a good one as well. I went down and, again, lived in Southampton, Poole, did a massive search down there, then moved to the Lake District.
I lived in the Lake District, did all the schools there, was workshopping all of these children. I was literally just walking into a classroom and going ‘he’s wearing that shirt. I like that.’ It’s usually the ones that aren’t really studious and listening, it’s the ones that are looking out the window, daydreaming.
What major mistakes should actors avoid when either entering an audition room, or casting?
Trying to be something that they’re not. Don’t do that - just be yourself. I mean that in every way. Follow your instincts, don’t do something just because you’ve read it or someone’s told you to do it.
It’s subjective, it’s art, so every single person is going to react differently to what you do, but if you act truthfully then I feel like the right thing will come along for you at the right time.
Even if you’re not right for this, if you’ve come in and been yourself, I know I can get you in for something that you actually are right for. If you’re pretending to be something, I’m never going to know who you are, so I’m not going to know what you can play well.
Also, don’t ring me. Email me if you’ve got something to invite me to or show me, but don’t just email without having a decent reason.
What kind of relationships do you have with actors, writers, directors and producers?
I work very closely with the producer, the director, potentially the writer, if the writer’s involved in the casting. And, the agent, and the person.
The producer, the director - either of those could be the closest person depending on the project. It really does depend, but most of the time I’d say that I work really closely with a director. That’s what actors have got to understand. Most of our day is taken up with emailing and being in contact with producers and directors, it’s not about being in contact with actors. That’s as little time as possible, almost.
It’s like, let's book you in, and see (if you’ve self-taped) what you’ve self-taped, but my communication is constantly between the director and producer.
Many actors wonder why they don’t get jobs after a seemingly good audition. What’s your advice to them?
My advice would be, as soon as you’ve left the room, leave it. Let it go. You might feel, in the room, like you’ve got the job, and then it doesn’t happen. That could be down to not even our decision – it’s an executive producer’s decision and for some reason they just see that character as having blonde hair rather than brown hair. It’s out of our control.
It is out of your control. All that you can do is come in and do the best that you can do.
Don’t underestimate going into a room and working with a casting assistant, because we know of people that have come in and said ‘I want to be seen by x person’ and you don’t know who that person is going to end up being.
Also, the casting assistants are the eyes and ears of every casting director, so when the casting assistant goes to the theatre to see people, they’re the ones coming back saying ‘Yes, this person was brilliant, you should get them in,’ and you’re adding to the lists, you’re making the lists. They’re the people that you should keep on your side, and they’re also the people that are more accessible than the casting director themselves.
Don’t underestimate or be frightened when someone really high up is in the room. Just be yourself, because they’re really interested in you.
You were saying earlier that you’ve got a specific taste in film. What is that? What are your favourite films of the last year or two?
Ken Loach. British film in general. I love working on anything that is British. I suppose it’s on the back of that, it’s something that I understand. Telling real people’s stories.
Studio films are about as far away as you can get. It’s the opposite of that, which is what I’m interested in. So, I Daniel Blake, for me, was just incredible, and was really inventive casting as well, such a good use of Hayley Squires and Dave Johns. That was just genius, casting him, because he wasn’t so well known, and you could then feel like you were in that world. You really believed it. Whereas if it had been someone really famous that we all know, you wouldn’t have invested in that story in the same way.
Shane Meadows is a legend. I’d love to work with. They’re the kind of films I’m interested in.
I still work with Adam Smith quite a lot, who did Trespass Against Us. He does commercials. I love working with him. It doesn’t matter what it is, and I’m not a snob about what I am going to work on. For me, the most important part of it is the casting process. That’s what I love, and the more diverse and unique those different character breakdowns and briefs are, that’s what excites me.
Who would you most like to work with?
I’ve always wanted to work with Peter Kay. I love him. Watching Car Share, I was like, yes! They just nailed it. It’s a really good use of real people casting. When I say real people casting, it might be that they’re actors, but there’s an authenticity that you get. Car Share is just brilliant. He’s brilliant.
What advice would you give to people wanting to be a casting director today?
I would say, write to the people whose work has inspired you. So, if you’ve watched a film or a TV program and you think ‘I’d really like to have been a part of making that,’ write to the person. Write to those people. Don’t just write to casting directors in general, write to people whose work inspires you.
You want to be making the TV that you want to watch, not the TV that you’re forced to watch because that’s where you work. Write to them. Don’t ramble on, just send an email saying ‘I’d really like to come and work for you.’
Expect to work for very little money to begin with, but see it as your training, or University. Write to as many people as possible.
Don’t worry if you don’t hear back the first time. Shaheen Baig for example, I heard back from them six months or so after because obviously they weren’t looking at the time. Just remind them, obviously not all the time, but if it’s six months down the line and you still really want to get in there, there’s nothing wrong with writing again.