Interview: Casting Director Heidi Levitt talks ‘The Artist’, What She Finds in Successful Actors and Her App, ActorGenie
With the help of Casting Director Heidi Levitt‘s incredible work on The Artist, the film grabbed a whopping 10 nominations, including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Berenice Bejo) and Best Actor (Jean Dujardin).
When she was casting the film, she said that she was “very careful to try to find actors that would feel like they would look correct in the role as well as be able to improvise.” After casting Missi Pyle and Joel Murray among others, she told me that she could have cast a handful of other actors in the parts but in each case they had “really specific choices in their work.”
Heidi has cast theater, film (the Oliver Stone films, Nixon, Natural Born Killers and JFK, Neil LaBute‘s Lakeview Terrace and Nurse Betty and the upcoming Chavez (with John Malkovich) and Bomb (starring Elle Fanning, Annette Bening and Christina Hendricks) and also has an incredibly useful app called Actor Genie.
She is busy! Thankfully though, she took time out of her schedule to talk to me about The Artist, how she finds actors, audition tips, common things actors need to avoid, her Actor Genie and tons more!
Actor Genie is available for both iPhone and Android phones.
Congratulations on The Artist. When you first read that script, did you know how special it was going to be?
Heidi Levitt: It was definitely not your run of the mill kind of project from the get go.
I was given this really beautiful script which was much more like, not a manuscript but it was in between being like a novela and a screenplay. It had some pictures and illustrations of kind of what he was thinking about and it was immediately clear that Michel had a very distinct vision for his movie. It made it really lovely to work on because you sort of knew exactly what he wanted to do and I have to say that the movie itself is really close to what he had originally conceived of in the screenplay.
That’s an interesting thing because often, you’ll work on the movie and then it finishes and you see the movie and you’re like, “Wow, that was really quite different from what I might have read.” But in this case I think it was really, really similar. It didn’t evolve. It really was more like a completion of a dream.
You cast really wonderful character actors, Beth Grant, Missi Pyle, Ed Lauter and Joel Murray. What are the things that they did at the audition that kind of set them apart from the other actors auditioning for the roles?
Heidi Levitt: There were really wonderful actors coming in for this who connected to the material. We had a situation that was sort of a self-selected group of actors. I went after the character actors that I have known for 20, 30 years. I started as an assistant for Risa Bramon Garcia and Billy Hopkins. I started in New York and I started in the theatre. Risa and Billy were amazing, really knowledgeable casting directors and directors themselves and a lot of the things that I’ve learned in terms of casting really kind of came out of that New York experience. A lot of the actors that I brought in were people that I’ve known for 20 years. I’d cast them in other things, I’d known them before, so it was really lovely to have an opportunity to cast the movie with so many actors that you actually have knowledge of their work. You’ve known them, you worked with them or you have auditioned them.
It’s always hard. You’re an actor, so there’s always more than one actor for a role. Almost always. There are choices and I think to myself sometimes about all the other wonderful actors that I wasn’t able to give a part to but I know they were just as good. But there was something about each of these actors that physically fit the image of what the director was looking for.
We really were very careful to try to find actors that would feel like they would look correct in the role as well as be able to improvise but not be the hammy kind of actor. Because there’s a whole sense of “oh it’s a silent film” so everything is bigger and it’s mime. People think about Charlie Chaplin movies or things that have much more of a heightened sort of acting style.
This was really much more in the other classic silent film kind of genre, like films by Murnau. If you look at films like Sunrise or something, the actors they are quite natural. It’s much more of naturalistic sort of style but they are also highly aware of how they are using their body and their expression.
But I think you say the action is just communicated through the eyes. Because really what comes out is truly the spirit behind you. That’s what we always look for. We’re not only looking for people who can deliver great lines but we’re looking at people who can deliver great lines and that we can look at them and then understand them and that they are breathing another life into it. It’s really about what kind of soul you bring to it.
I can give you five or six other people who didn’t get the part and were good. They were really good. But in each of these cases, each of these people have really specific choices in their work.
I think that there were actors who were like smart actors. Missi Pyle sometimes tells a story when we’re doing the Q&A’s about the first time when she was auditioning, it was really strange. I did it with my associate, Michael Sanford. I worked with him on this movie. He is a commercial casting director and I did it in his studio. You know as an actor, when you go on commercials, they are very different than going in on a theatrical, right?
Heidi Levitt: The environment is different, everything about it. And it’s kind of weird for me because I’m much more like, I have a little homey environment and I don’t have a factory and I don’t like to have like a million people waiting there. I want the actor to their best work so I want them to be comfortable.
In Michael’s office, it’s a little bit more, it’s on that commercial side. There’s a lot of people in the hall, there’s a lot of other things going on so it disorients the actor a little bit. Then they came into the room and we have this really large studio and a lot of those actors weren’t necessarily “commercial actors” so they sort of had to adjust to it. But the reason why I wanted to do it there is because he had a really large space that we could utilize. I feel like because it was a silent movie, I wanted the actors to be free to use their bodies as well. They needed to be able to physically move around and I think that was the key for the movie a lot.
I interviewed James Cromwell a couple of weeks ago.
Heidi Levitt: Oh yeah. He’s amazing.
When I was talking to him, he mentioned that he had a streak of bad auditions early on in his career, not now obviously. He said that when he finally got hired, he asked the director, “What did I do in this audition that you gave me this job?” And the director told him it had nothing to do with his audition. It was just whether he fit the picture that the person casting has in their head. Do you think that’s the case?
Heidi Levitt: You know, it really depends because some directors have a very specific idea of what they are looking for physically and sometimes, it will go completely in a different direction.
I’m working on something right now with Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the director who did Amelie, and in the movie, there’s this character that’s written as sort of an uptight man. And he had in mind one particular actor but then it couldn’t work out for various reasons. So then we were like, “Well, what about a woman?” That could really change this character but it could really work, and it did. He is going to cast a woman I think in this one part.
So really, it’s case by case. I think that a director is often looking for somebody to bring that character to life as they wrote it and then there’s the director who is looking for someone to bring it to life and surprise them in a new way. And they are open for that.
How do you find your actors?
Heidi Levitt: Well, I find actors in traditional ways like by looking at the Breakdowns and Actors Access, Now Casting. I actually even found an actor in this movie through Actor Genie, which is the app I created.
An actress had contacted me through Actor Genie, just about the app, and her name is Adria Tennor. She plays John Goodman’s secretary. She’s in the movie quite a bit and I got to meet her and I started bringing her in for auditions. I’ve met a couple of actors now through the app. There is a highly interesting proactive actor community who are out there researching and doing all things that I want them to do. I’m a casting director that wants everybody to know as much as they can about what’s going on out there because we all have to be our own advocates I think.
Heidi Levitt: I totally am open to new people. Obviously, I have like my years of experience and trust relationships with agents and managers who say, “You’ve got to meet this person. They are just new and they are fantastic.” There’s always a combination of things going on but I think with the advent of the internet, there is much more access on both ends of it, from us and from them.
I think that they still have to really work hard to distinguish yourself but I think as an actor today, you can utilize all of these different tools and try and get yourself out there. You know somebody sending me a fantastic website, that’s really going to be helpful. The problem is most actors still haven’t sort of caught up with what they can do with that technology today. It’s hard. I understand. A lot of people have websites but they are not good.
Yeah, they are awful, aren’t they?
Heidi Levitt: I think want to do some kind of a session on what it is that you need because it’s like, in some ways, I want to go back to an old black and white photograph. I would rather see that, something that’s good. Something that shows who you are rather than this glitzy, over fluffed up picture and then a website that looks really cheesy.
Has music blaring and…
Heidi Levitt: Yeah I know.
So what’s the one thing you see in successful actors?
Heidi Levitt: I think that they are in it for the long term. The job of the actor is you have to have training. I really believe in that wholeheartedly. I look for actors with good theatre training. I really feel like that was the beginning for me where I found the actors and understood the process. It’s essential for me to know that an actor has technique because you can come in and just have natural instinct but instinct, in the end, will only go so far.
So, I want an actor who is willing to work the long haul and not just looking for success like immediately. I think we live in the world of faster, cheaper, now. And I think that for the successful actor, it’s about building a long career and it’s about building it from the ground up. That means starting with training then doing smaller roles, getting your feet wet, moving up the ladder.
I think a tremendous success story in that regard would be Melissa McCarthy. I knew her because she was my kid’s babysitter. I started to bring her in for auditions. She never asked. She never was that kind of person. I just felt like, “Well, she’s kind of funny. I bet she’d be really good.” And then every single audition she would nail and it could be one line. She worked her way up. It’s amazing because what she has done is really transformative, I think.
I love seeing those kinds of stories because those people truly earned their success and then ultimately that has a much, much longer shelf life. Actresses like Meryl Streep and Glenn Close, they started in the theatre. You remember that moment of Meryl Streep in The Deer Hunter. It might have been two or three scenes but they were really wonderful. Obviously, she was really special and went on to get big parts quite quickly but there are so many wonderful actors out there that sort of had to kick around for a while. Mark Ruffalo is another actor I worked with for years. I would always bring him in for auditions and I could never get him cast. I just was like “I don’t understand. Why don’t they see that this is an amazing actor?” Then he went to New York and he did theatre and everything transformed for him. And I watched him sort of grow into being that star. I love those actors that I remember that really did work their way up from the ground up and truly stayed in it for a long time.
What’s the common thing you see actors to do to shoot themselves in the foot when they are in your room?
Heidi Levitt: I think that they blow an audition by saying often, “I just got the sides or I’m not really ready or I’m not really sure what you want.” First of all, I always try to give my actors enough time to have the material. Unfortunately, what happens is the agent or the manager, by the time it gets to the actor – it kills me – but they might not have had it for a week, even though I set up their audition a week ahead of time. That kills me. But I think that no matter what, an actor shouldn’t go into a room unless they are ready to be in the room. The audition is an invitation. It is not a nasty thing. If you chose to be an actor, that’s part of the job and you need to go into that confident and not needy.
When an actor comes in with their suitcases because they just got kicked out of their apartment by their boyfriend, that’s a whole history I don’t really need to know.
Heidi Levitt: Yeah. You have to look at it as a serious job interview like anything and you need to go in prepared. The thing that an actor shoots themselves in the foot with is not being prepared. There’s no reason they should not come in if they are not ready to do it. It won’t serve them well and it won’t serve the project well. Be prepared. Be a good boy scout. That’s kind of a no-brainer but it’s amazing how many people don’t take full advantage. There’s a lot of people who do. I don’t like to say that most actors just show up. I know for TV pilots it’s really difficult for them because they are running around and they don’t get enough time for anything.
But I think that an actor will do fine as long as they make a choice and they are coming in and bringing their choice into the room. I don’t think they should come in and always ask “What do you want?” because then it’s like, I don’t know what are you really thinking.
Tell me about Actor Genie. How did you get the idea?
Heidi Levitt: I saw these actors coming out of these fancy graduate programs with smart phones but had no clue about what was really going on. Like who the players were? What was casting? How do I know what to look for?
When I was starting out as a young casting assistant, I used to look at Variety every week at the production report so I could figure out what movies were going into production and maybe I could try to find a job that way. I felt like it would be really great if people just knew what was going on so that they could research it. It’s not going to give them the job and it’s not a submission tool but it’s a great resource that every actor should have because it’s a shorthand. And it also helps for agents and managers because they could also look at it as a quick shorthand. It’s not releasing breakdown but it’s releasing what I like to say the thumbnail of what you need to know.
I just felt like we live in this time of great information and access, why not put good information out there. It kills me when I see all these websites out there for actors that are soliciting their money and half of them are claiming that they have auditions. They are not real auditions and they don’t have really good information. So, I really wanted to have something that would be solid, that would be connected and it would have good information that people could then act upon.
I came up with that and then I wanted to share the inspiration of so many great actors, writers and directors that I’ve worked with because I feel that everybody needs a little boost every day. So, I try to put a quote everyday from a working actor, writer, director or casting director that would give them something to chew on for the day.
You know, those are interesting people to know that they are not out there alone, that even if you’ve made it, there are people out there who went through the same kind of process that young actors or new actors to the business are going through now. I really was hoping that I could create something that would help people and at the same time, obviously for me, doing independent films is really tough. We’re all getting paid less money. Actors are suffering from… I mean, I’m only offering scale so often, it’s ridiculous, to people who have worked 20, 30 years and have a rate. It doesn’t matter in today’s day and age because the movies that we make for $20 million don’t exist anymore. I mean, this movie is a complete iconoclast. Here’s a movie from a French filmmaker, making a silent film and it was like an $8 million movie. That’s completely rare. We didn’t pay anybody any real money but we tried to be respectful of people and give them at least something a little bit more than scale if they had a larger role. But again, we really weren’t able to meet anybody’s quote. I’m not making what my supposed quote was so I wanted to come up with another business idea that would help sustain me being able to continue to work in independent film, which I love, because I feel like I’m working constantly for nothing, which everybody else is too. I’m not alone.