'Preparation is key' Casting Director Belinda Norcliffe's offers amazing casting advice to actors
Belinda Norcliffe Casting find acting talent for film, TV and music videos in London and the UK.
Mandy News had the pleasure of talking to Belinda about how casting works, how it differs across the mediums of TV, film and music videos and shares advice for actors who want to win acting jobs.
Here's our chat:
Belinda, tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into the industry in general.
I’ve been casting essentially commercials for about twenty five years. I started as an assistant with another casting director called Camilla Arthur. She had another assistant there called Claudie Layton. After a while, Camilla gave up so Claudie and I took over and set up our own company. We worked together for nearly ten years as a company called Layton & Norcliffe Casting.
Then, Claudie gave up as well so I went on my own and partnered with my husband, Matt Selby, who was an actor. We’ve been casting together now as Belinda Norcliffe Casting for fourteen years, so three different companies within that time.
What made you want to get into casting?
To be totally honest, I worked in music for a long time beforehand. Since I left school. I worked for Warner Music, East West Records, and I became a bit disheartened by the music industry. Working for it made me lose my love of it. My sister knew Camilla Arthur and said that she was looking for an assistant. I was quite young back then, and I was looking for a bit of a change in my life, so it wasn’t that I was actively looking to get into casting. I don’t think I know how many people do, actually.
For me, it was definitely more something I fell into. I then realised that I really enjoyed it and loved the theatre. More than anything, I really enjoy discovering young talent. In commercials, especially, you really get to see people that don’t come straight out of drama school, so that I can really tell in the room when they’ve got something really special.
I love that about my job, discovering young talent, seeing young actors evolve and how their careers go on after they’ve stopped doing commercials. I love that side of it.
When you worked for Warners, was that also in a talent spotting capacity?
I worked in A&R as a secretary, then I moved into the TV and radio department. I worked there for a long time, going off to Top of the Pops and radio stations with artists. It was really fun, but you have to go to gigs every night and you get a bit tired after all that.
What are the realities of setting up your own company, how did that work out?
We were really young, so Claudie and I went into it quite blind. We didn’t really have a choice, because Camilla had decided that she didn’t want to do it anymore. I had just left Warners. I hadn’t been at Camilla’s for that long. I think it was about six months before Camilla moved to America and Claudie and I decided to set up on our own. I think we were kind of led into it rather than it being something we really wanted to do.
The reality is, you have to get your own office and all the responsibilities that come with that, but casting was very different back then. Claudie and I used to fax out our briefs to people individually to fifteen to twenty agents, and we’d sit faxing them. Then we’d wait for a fax to come back with spotlight numbers, and then we’d sit on the floor with huge spotlight books and look at pictures. There were no CVs on there, it was just a picture of an actor.
You didn’t get the choice, that you do now of a portfolio of pictures, reading the CVs and seeing what everyone’s been up to. You would have to go through all the books looking for a person’s number to find one picture, and you would decide based on that if you wanted them or not. Then you had to ring everybody in. It was a much slower process than it is now.
Do you feel anything else has changed since you started? Anything that’s easier or harder today?
The whole process of casting commercials is much quicker, much more immediate, than it used to be. Budgets have gone down massively; you used to get car commercials that would pay 50 grand or more, even. I haven’t seen one of those in years. When we used to get repeats, there wasn’t really a question of whether agents would do it or not, because the fees were so set. It was 250 plus repeats. That’s pretty much what every commercial for the UK was.
But now, everyone gets given buy-outs so you know that certain agents will do it and certain agents won’t, depending on the buy-outs. That’s changed for the worse. That makes it a little harder.
What was it like for you working on commercials with big directors like Paolo Sorrentino and such?
That’s always really exciting, because you know their work beforehand. There’s no difference, really, between doing the job for somebody like Paolo and doing the job for an up-and-coming director. The process is still the same. The only thing that might change is that some of the bigger agents might suggest some people that wouldn’t normally do commercials. That might be the only kind of change. My process is still the same.
What would you say is the difference between casting commercials, TV and film?
We’re casting a film at the moment and I think the real difference is the speed of everything. With commercials, you give everybody in the room anything between five and ten minutes. In a film, we’re casting from the studio at home, and everyone gets at least half an hour. The scripts are longer, and you have to do different sides of it with them, so the actors that come in for a film definitely get more time to prepare and longer in the room with us.
With commercials, you can be casting eight characters in one session, so that can be quite hard. When we send appointment times out, we do try to give everybody as much information as possible – sometimes a script if we’re allowed to. We try to make sure that the actors come prepared. That applies in commercials and film: the more preparation actors do for either, the better.
I live with a couple of actors myself. I know that when they’ve gone for casting sometimes they’ve been sent a single scene from a script. Sometimes it’s a fake scene that’s been created specially for the casting if it’s a secret script and sometimes they get the entire script. I know from watching them personally that when they get the entire script and they get time to prepare, they can really see themselves more as the characters and get more involved in it. I know they look forward to castings a lot more when they have more information.
Do you feel that when people come into the room?
Of course. Definitely. It must be so hard for an actor. They come in, they get given a script and the head sheets, and they have five minutes in which to fill out the head sheets and read the script. Then before they’ve even thought about it, they’re in the room. We know from our point of view that if somebody comes in a lot more prepared, it looks better on us as well.
We did a script recently with some dialogue in it and we did send out the script prior. Some actors had prepared and some hadn’t. If they haven’t had time or inclination to go through it the night before, it shows the next day. Dressing accordingly is also important. If they’ve got the script, or if they know what the role is, coming in looking like a nice mum or a nurse or whatever really helps.
During and after the casting, what is the difference in your process, whether you have the director in the room or whether you report back to the director?
We do a lot of overseas work. Half of our commercials are for European countries, so we often don’t have directors in the room. I don’t think it really matters. Normally the UK directors come in for the recall. Sometimes they’ll call us and ask our opinion. Not always though. They can tell what they are looking for.
A director has such a way of viewing people that sometimes he’ll see something that I don’t in somebody. Whether a director’s in the room or not, I don’t think it really affects the process too much. As long as I’m given a clear description of what they want me to do in the room, which they obviously make sure of beforehand, I can interpret how he or she sees the script.
So, would your first part of the process be trying to understand what the director wants in order to get the right people in the room to begin with?
Exactly. I’ll get a brief through from the director, I’ll have a good read of that and the script so I can imagine it for myself. Then, I’ll give the director a call and we’ll run through the script together and we’ll run through the characters together. Sometimes they’ll give me references of well-known actors, which often helps. Sometimes I’ll say, “If you could cast anybody in the world, who would you want in this role?” and they’ll give me somebody. That can lead towards the specific direction that they’re going in.
A good chat with the director prior to me putting the brief out is really a necessity for us to understand exactly what they are looking for.
What about your experience of the worst casting, or the worst traits that people have when they come into casting, if there’s anything in particular that comes to mind
When actors aren’t prepared, that’s awful.
Heidi (Belinda’s assistant): “If they’re feeling quite nervous, they put up a kind of guard which comes out as arrogance or rudeness when you’re giving a bit of direction. I think it comes down to insecurity and I can see that, so I give people the benefit of doubt. You’ve got to be easy to work with, polite and understanding. Our job is to get the best out of the actors.”
Belinda: It makes us look good as well if we can show many good people to the director. But if people have a guard up and aren’t listening to our direction, that’s very hard. Often we let them do it, then we offer some alternative direction. It’s quite hard if they’re closed off to that and have a set mind of how they want to do it. Because we have an understanding of what the directors are looking for, we try to redirect with that in mind.
Would you say that when someone gives you an audition and you redirect them, is that an indication that they might have given you something that you like and that you want more?
Yes. The directors say they would like to see it a couple of different ways. The actors come in to the room and they give us their interpretation of it, which I always want because good actors will always give you something that you might not have thought of.
I’m not an actress, I’ve never acted in my life, so sometimes they give me something that works brilliantly. Directors love that in castings as well, when actors come in with their own interpretation, but are happy to be redirected as well. Those are the best ones, when people have their own thoughts but are happy to do another take on it.
Listening is really important. We’re doing it because we’ve spoken to the director and have an understanding of how that character is. We’re giving redirection with that in mind.
Do you have any more advice for aspiring casting directors or actors?
Preparation is key. And attitude. Coming into the room with a lovely and open attitude, with a smiley face. Everyone has problems in the day, maybe the train was delayed or whatever it is, but you leave that outside the room.
Walk in prepared and with a great attitude, with an open heart, an open face, and an open mind. When you leave the room, pick up all that baggage again if you need to but leave it all outside and make those five or ten minutes count when you’re in the room. There’s no point coming all the way to a casting and letting anything affect you. Leave it, do the best you can do, and then you’re in with a shot.