Casting is an intangible art. I am looking for something in a person that brings the words on a page to life and turns an imaginary character into flesh and blood. I haven’t found a scientific formula for casting yet, but I can’t wait until somebody does – it would save a whole lot of time.
Following your hunches comes at a cost. Ultimately I have to trust my instinct, but that means a terrifying wait to see if the hunch is right, which doesn’t do anything for my insomnia. Or my recurrent dreams about hiring the wrong actor, or having to go on stage myself!
Inevitably, I disappoint actors. I have to cast the right person for the role, even if that means upsetting actors who I like and rate. Every day I have to dash people’s hopes, which is quite depressing. If you are going into casting, it’s really important that you actually like people and particularly actors because you are going to spend every waking hour thinking about them. You have to love them for their willingness to put themselves on the spot – I couldn’t do it to save my life
It’s hard to switch off: I have to spend so much time watching tapes and the telly, and going to the theatre. I can’t ever just watch things for fun; the whole time I’m trying to build a database of actors and performances to refer to later.
You can’t always predict a success. Even when all the elements are there – the script, director and great cast are all in place – the magic can still somehow not happen. When it does all come together, such as with Wolf Hall or Vera Drake, it’s a really wonderful feeling.
You’ll never know all the answers. I spend a lot of time stressing about how little I know and waiting for the tap on the shoulder. I would like to remind myself – the younger me and the current middle-aged one – that no one has all the answers, which is a relief. If there were a secret to getting it right, somebody would have let it slip by now.
You can learn a lot about people if you pay attention. When Mike Leigh asked me to cast Topsy-Turvy in 1996 I had only cast three films before. I couldn’t believe my luck. I also thought he must have gone insane, as I was very inexperienced, knew nothing whatsoever about Gilbert and Sullivan or actors with musical skills, or much about anything really. But I worked very hard and tried to soak up as much as possible from Mike and his encyclopaedic knowledge of actors, and from musical director Gary Yershon. I also met loads of actors and tried to learn about who could really do what. That all helped and I ended up being very proud of my contribution to that film, though still a bit embarrassed about all the crying I did in the musical auditions.
The weird thing is that you can get it too right. If casting is too on the nose, it can be a bit boring. It’s more fun sometimes if it is a bit imaginative.