Acting Tips | Q&A with Casting Director Suzy Catliff

Suzy Catliff works as a theatre director, casting director and published author - The Casting Handbook for Film and Theatre Makers. Some of her TV and film projects include: Primeval, The Murdoch Mysteries, Silent Witness, Casualty, Tangled, The English Patient and Wilde. Suzy also works as a guest lecturer at various universities and drama schools in the UK and US.

How did you first get into casting?

I first got into casting after working in rep theatre as a director and before that in stage management. I did a degree in Drama, worked as a stage manager then did a directing post graduate course at BOVTS. I got into casting through a friend of mine who was working for two casting directors, Sarah Bird and Michelle Guish, who needed an extra pair of hands for a week - I went for a week and was there for two years! I assisted them with all their film and television projects; did contracts, did suggestions, did meetings, did everything. That's where I learnt my craft, my values and saw lots of actors work. All of this work I have put into a book which I co-wrote about casting - the only one of its kind - which was published last year in the UK and US by Routledge, The Casting Handbook (www.thecastinghandbook.co.uk), well worth checking out for anyone who is interested in the process, order and creativity of casting.

You have worked on lots of amazing projects, which ones are you most proud of?

To start, the work we did on ‘Sense and Sensibility’ which was cast by Michelle Guish and I was assistant. I think it was Ang Lee's first trip to the UK, never mind casting UK actors, so it was really marvellous being able to introduce him to some really amazing actors and have a say. I did a drama documentary about ten years ago called ‘D-Day’ where we were casting a lot of young actors and as our executive producer was also our director, we were able to fight it out in the room - me, the producer and him and so we got a really pure through line on the casting of which I am still very proud. I’m also really proud of all the casting on ‘Casualty’, which is being repeated on BBC Drama 10pm and midnight, would you believe. All my series are on at the moment - I’m taping them all!

What advice would you give actors who are finding it hard to get seen for TV and film roles?

I would say it’s a question of getting into the consciousness of the casting directors who are doing that work, which is either through your agent or just inviting them to shows that you’re in and hoping that they’ll come to see you at some point. But it’s worth remembering that you may not be suitable for anything they’re casting at the moment.

A lot of it comes down to serendipity - right place, right time and being realistic and not expecting it to happen tomorrow. You need to have a game plan that’s longer than a week and focus on what you want to do and be specific.

You were talking about getting Casting Directors along to shows. How should actors approach them?

Emails are a marvellous thing and then maybe a follow up phone call. And if you’re in a theatre production, work with the rest of the company to put together a campaign to get people along because if they’re seeing you, they’re seeing everyone. So be collaborative, give them notice and follow up. And invite everyone you have worked with before or has seen you, just to keep all connections going.

Actors are told it’s crucial to have a showreel to catch the casting director’s eye, but what makes a good showreel?

Stuff that you’re proud of, that’s not too long and is good quality - so you can see and hear it - which sounds obvious, but it ain’t! If at all possible, show some variety in what you do, so it’s not just one thing. But if you’ve just got one thing, fine, just don’t have it all on it! It’s just something to give a three dimensional snap shot - how you move, how you sound. It’s the same with voice-reels, they’re very useful because you can match up the headshot with the voice to give you an idea of who they are.

And how do you feel about montages?

They’re alright. I don’t have a strong view of them, do you?

I like a montage! But casting directors seem to fall into one camp or the other, so a lot of members are unsure about whether to include them or not.

I mean, if it’s 20 or 30 seconds, then it doesn’t really matter. I just think you have to be careful and cherry pick what material you’ve got. And keep your showreel updated, like you do with your CV, especially now as it’s easier than ever.

What’s the biggest 'no no' in a casting session?

Being late or not turning up! And not being prepared and that doesn’t mean learning it, but could just mean making sure you very familiar with the scenes. If it’s one of the long running series, you should know something about it. It’s important to do your research before the meeting, know who you’re meeting and being prepared to play ball and be on the front foot. Some actors find that very hard and aren’t very good at meetings which that doesn’t mean they can’t act, but it’s about being open in the situation and enjoying it. It might be the only time you have, so you might as well enjoy it and a good meeting could mean you are remembered for another project.

How much control do you usually have over which actor gets the job?

We have no control over who secures the job. Our job is to give the director choice. Everybody who’s in the room is a choice, a valid choice. You are not going to be in the room if you can’t do the job if you’ve been brought in by a casting director who has chosen to bring you in and even better, knows your work. Everyone in the room wants you to get the job. We want you to be the solution. Remember that most decisions are out of your control: whether I am having to match a family, or the project has a lead who is already cast so we are having to match to that, these are just a couple of issues that come up. And then there are some actors who just have an energy and enthusiasm that sparks with a certain director. There is also a lot to to be said for being good to work with, no one wants anyone who is unreliable or difficult (which doesn’t mean they won’t work, plenty do!) but you need to be a good company member. Know your job and be professional.

Any final words of wisdom for our actors?

It’s really hard! It’s a career and a job and some people can get their heads around the very insecure nature of it and some people can’t. And it doesn’t go away! It might be that you take a break or you’re a character actor, but you’re 18 and you ain’t going to necessarily work until you’re 35! I think it’s important to be realistic about the business and your expectations and not take it personally. Be prepared to be in it for the long haul if you can bear it, pick interesting projects that you’re passionate about and don't expect to grow rich doing it!


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