That’s Why it’s Called “Casting” (part 2: fishing in the backyard)

Of course, even when Canadian productions draw upon the Canadian talent pool — whether it be actual, domestically-based actors, or importing ex-pats who have moved to Hollywood, various factors are at play.

And contradictory stories are told. I’ve heard anecdotes about how famous Hollywood-based Canadians bend over backwards to support the Canadian film industry (taking pay cuts, or appearing in roles beneath their stature just to help out a struggling Canadian film). I’ve also heard the opposite, that Canadians who are successful will kind of exploit their success — actually charging more to appear in a Canadian film than they would for an American movie, because they figure the Canadian filmmaker is more desperate to land them! So sometimes hiring an American actor is actually cheaper than hiring a Canadian “star”!

Because of limited budgets, just as Canadian movies that import stars are limited in their options, so to even when drawing upon the Canadian talent pool it’s probable they don’t exactly have limitless choices. They cast who they can as much as they cast who they might actually want.

As well, I’ve often wondered whether the very fact that Canadian film is often struggling, still seeking to establish itself (even after decades!) kind of leads to a kind of, well, Messiah Complex among filmmakers. They don’t want to be part of the system…they want to be Moses leading his people to the promised land.

Okay, maybe that’s a bit overly dramatic. But I do sometimes wonder if in Canadian movies there is a desire (even if subconscious) to create something out of nothing. In others words, just as some productions will (as mentioned) hire even mediocre American actors just because they have some vague aura of “fame” about them (as I wrote about in my last post)…I also wonder if there are productions that deliberately eschew the more famous face at the audition in order to “discover” someone new. Or, to put it more fairly, because a newer face can embody the role better than an actor who might already have a kind of public persona.

Now this can be great, if the filmmaker is genuinely going for the best actor for the role. But it can equally be a problem if, to some extent, they are letting this desire to “discover” someone blind them to the fact that their discovery maybe isn’t quite ready for the centre seat yet.

So just as there are roles a Canadian actor knows they don’t have even a shot at because the producers have already ear marked it for an imported actor, there can be the opposite.

The fact that there is the this “indie” film mentality in Canada can be great for the actors. To know that in a lot of cases you can go to an audition and you have just as much chance at winning the role as the more familiar actor next to you because the filmmakers aren’t going by “star” power is great and empowering. And it has led to a long history of Canadian films where actors will star in a movie one week…even as they are playing “third bus passenger on the left” in something else the next week.

But there’s the question as to whether you should be casting the best person for the role or, in a way, you should be casting the best person for future roles.

Which gets back to my recurring point about industry building. Maybe your job when casting your movie isn’t just to ask whether the actor is right for your movie…but whether you can see them being right for someone else’s movie, and someone else’s movie after that. In other words: do they have the slight whiff of potential stardom about them? Are you just trying to make a good movie…or are you trying to help lay the building blocks for an industry?

I’ve seen movies where the lead parts will be played by fine actors, well suited to their roles, making the movie a successful experience…but I can’t really see the actors carrying, say, a thriller, or a romantic comedy, or whatever. In other words, the movie works for itself…but it hasn’t necessarily added to the industry as a whole.

Yet then there’s the opposite. Actors who just seem to crop up in movie after movie, walking away with the lead role — good, capable, perfectly agreeable actors. Yet actors who, nonetheless, can maybe leave you wondering if there had been any other options during the casting process. Did they get the part because they were best, or did they get the part because they are a “star” in Canadian film…which is a problem if most other movies they were in bombed. And, of course, there’s the whole behind the scenes connections — people who are friends and move in the same social circles (reading interviews, it’s clear Canadian film can, at times, seem like an exclusive club).

… hmmm.

I wasn’t going to name names ’cause I prefer musing in the abstract and because I don’t really want to knock anyone. But maybe it’s worth it just to be a little controversial — to get the jaws flapping.

So, y’know, if I didn’t see Emily Hampshire’s or Don McKellar’s name in a movie for a few months I wouldn’t be heartbroken. Now here’s the thing: I’m not knocking them as actors. I’ve liked them in things. But they are somewhat ubiquitous and, as a movie goer, aren’t maybe always what I’m looking for in leads.

One anecdote I heard from some years ago (and here I won’t name names) was of a filmmaker who cast an actress in the lead role of her movie…largely because she was impressed with the actress’ resume, which included other lead roles. Now, it was a limited budget film, so the filmmaker was, one assumes, just pleased an actress of such experience had even auditioned. She didn’t exactly ace the reading but, hey, she had that resume proving that clearly other, more experienced filmmakers thought she had the goods. So the filmmaker cast her and part way through the filming, as the dailies came back, the filmmaker realized she had made a terrible mistake. The actress just wasn’t working at all in the part. And the irony was, if the filmmaker had watched some of the actress’ other roles, she probably would’ve known that…instead of being impressed just with her resume. (Likewise, perhaps the earlier filmmakers had cast her, impressed with her resume…or simply her pretty face).

So sometimes, just because an actor can boast previous credits…doesn’t necessarily prove they are a great actor.

Yet, too, sometimes blaming actors can be too easy an out.

Another anecdote, about a different film, was one where a movie came out, did poorly and, yes, the reviews weren’t exactly impressed with the lead actress’ performance. The filmmakers were quick to blame the actress, suggesting she just wasn’t bringing what was needed to the part. Except that it turned out the script had undergone a long process of readings (not unlike a Hollywood film) where test groups were given the script and asked to comment upon its problems. A recurring complaint had been that the main character, as written, was unlikeable and, frankly, often unfathomable. So when the film is finally made and released, who’s at fault? Were the filmmakers just counting on the actress to save a mediocre script and them blamed her when she could only work with what she was given?

So what’s my point in all this? A post which basically ping pongs back and forth with a lot of “on the other hand” and “but then again”?

Well…just to say: it’s hard, ain’t it?

Casting is, arguably, one of the most important things in making a film or TV series. The American filmmaker Robert Altman once suggested casting the right actors was essentially 75 percent of directing!

Yet it’s as subjective as anything else. One person’s charismatic star is another person’s limp dishrag. One person’s sex goddess (or god) is another person’s homely pit bull. I’ve seen movies that I’ve loved in part simply due to the presence of the lead actors as much as the script…and then I’ll read a review that dismisses the movie, blaming the uncompelling leads. Or movies that don’t work for me in large part because of a weak star…only to then have other people praise the movie for the actor’s tour de force performance.

As someone who has watched a lot of Canadian film and TV over the years — more, I’d dare say, than most of you and, indeed, more than most of the people actually working in the biz — I have my opinions.

Actors I really like…who rarely get good roles, and rarely in good vehicles. And part of me wonders, cynically, is it because others don’t share my opinion…or because the actors just aren’t part of the right clique, the right circle of movers and shakers. One does suspect the industry suffers from certain divides — regional and creative. Actors who have a genuine celebrity internationally thanks to all the pulpy genre and sci-fi productions shot in Canada…yet rarely seem to get cast in the serious “Canadian” movies (or at least in good roles in those films) — and vice versa.

And equally I’ve seen actors who do get work, who often are cast as leads…and I wonder why. Sometimes because I literally don’t think they’re that good. Other times — perhaps more contentiously — I might agree they are fine actors…but they just don’t excite me, they don’t bestir my interest to see their movie. The are fine actors, but not necessarily charismatic actors, or interesting actors.

Sometimes I grumble because a familiar actor I like doesn’t get more work…and other times I’ll be deeply impressed with the fresh new face that was jumped into the centre seat. Or actors I was never a big fan of will then appear in something where they are great.

But honestly, if I was in charge, if I was pulling strings…I suspect some people would get more work and some people would get less. But would that make the industry better, more successful? Am I really that astute and that much of creative genius?


But it probably wouldn’t make things worse, neither.

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