Interview: Casting Director Kelly Martin Wagner on Auditioning Actors and Working in the Horror Genre
Veteran Casting Director Kelly Martin Wagner has entered a new phase in her long career: producer. Alongside partner Nick Phillips, they’ve formed Revolver Picture Company, a horror-genre production company.
Kelly started out as a voice-over actor but quickly moved into casting and has been doing it now for over 20 years, with films like Hostel, The Exorcism of Emily Rose and The Devil Inside.
I talked to Kelly about her new company and how she likes her role as producer, her role as a casting director, fighting for actors and more!
Haunt, the first film from Revolver Picture Company, will be released this weekend.
Follow Revolver Picture Company on Twitter!
For the full interview, click the audio link above or download it from iTunes.
You started out as a voice-over actress?
Kelly Martin Wagner: Yes, a million years ago.
It wasn’t that long ago.
Kelly Martin Wagner: 20!
How how did you transition from doing that into casting?
Kelly Martin Wagner: Honestly, it wasn’t thought out. I was pursuing voice over acting, I grew up in Los Angeles so I’d always been involved in the entertainment industry. I went to Crossroads in Santa Monica and it was just all I ever knew. And after school I moved to Telluride, Colorado for a year or so to get my bearings. I came back after spending a year there and was pursuing voiceover and working a little bit and I needed a day job and a friend of mine managed Central Casting and she said, “Oh, we need a temp assistant,” or something. So I said, “Great, I’ll come do a temp job.”
And I was there for a little bit and a friend of mine called and said, “I’m doing a low budget, independent film.” And I was probably 22 at the time. And they said, “Why don’t you come in and audition for something.” And I read the script and I said, “You know what? This isn’t me and I really wanna be a part of this and I’ve been casting extras for the last couple of months. Why don’t I give casting a shot.” And they were like, “Great. We don’t have a casting director because it’s a low budget movie.”
So I kinda just fell into it. Ignorance is kinda bliss at the beginning. I went into it and the first thing I ever did behind the camera was be the casting director on a film. So I fell into it and then one job kinda just rolled over to the next. The director of that first film was Brent Bell, who 12 years later I went on to do The Devil Inside with. It came full circle.
Looking at the things you’ve done, it doesn’t look like you haven’t not worked.
Kelly Martin Wagner: No, it was one of those things that was meant to be, I guess. I just fell into it and it kept rolling and it would just be project after project, but it was interesting because I didn’t, at the beginning, work for anybody. I actually was the casting director and I kinda had to learn on my own for the first few films.
And then a little bit in I got the opportunity to go back and associate and help some bigger casting directors where I got to learn some tricks of the trade and how to kinda do things that I’d been winging before. But I was surprised to see that I’d been doing it well. I’d known it from the other side. I’d known it from going in and auditioning, so I just figured, “Oh, I’ll flip the tables and pretend I’m the other person.” And it worked out, so I ended up casting by fate, I guess. And definitely kind of fell into the horror genre, and I’ve just continued to cast from there.
I’m an actor as well and I think I can feel or tell when a casting director has either done some acting or was an actor in the past. You can feel that sort of empathy from their side.
Kelly Martin Wagner: Yeah, absolutely. I think that there’s, I said this in an interview last week actually, I feel like there’s a big misconception. It’s not even just empathy, we want you to do right. We want you to get the part. There’s always those rumors that casting directors are against the actor and don’t want you to do well, but it’s the exact opposite. We’re looking for you to do well. We want you to nail it each time.
It was fun coming from that perspective around to the other side of the desk and just get the opportunity to get to know everybody and let them do their thing in the audition room. Which, of course, an audition room is a totally different beast than being on set, as you would know. A whole different job.
Do you ever fight for actors? You see something in them that maybe the director or producers don’t?
Kelly Martin Wagner: For sure. Yeah. Absolutely. If there’s something that we feel… it happens, God, it happens all the time. If there’s something we feel that they’re not seeing, sometimes they figure it out eventually and, look, sometimes… I’ve been wrong. Sometimes I didn’t see it right.
Oh, you’ve been wrong yourself?
Kelly Martin Wagner: Oh, sure. Sure. I’ve pushed for someone and then we’ve gone with someone else and I’ve thought, “Oh, God. Thank God we didn’t go with that other person.” But, yeah, I mean, with that… 15 or 12 years I guess into casting before I kind of moved out of it? Yeah, there’s every situation.
Can you tell when an actor comes in unprepared?
Kelly Martin Wagner: Yeah, for sure. I mean, if someone comes in, and I’m thinking of a few examples of people walking in on things. “Oh, hey. Can I get some sides?” Really? You haven’t seen the sides yet? You know? Yeah, you can tell when they’re unprepared in that respect.
I don’t believe in over rehearsing. I don’t believe in over preparation for an audition. So it can go two ways. If someone’s over prepared it can be detrimental as well because it means they don’t have the fluidity to change up what we may need. So as you know as an actor, imagine you’re reading something on paper. A lot of items you’re only getting the sides, you’re not getting the full script. There’s probably 200 different ways you could play that. So you’re just gonna make your best guess and you’re just gonna go with how you saw and felt it. Well, that might not be the way that this film sees it or the director sees it and it’s our job as the casting director to be able to help you transition into that. And if someone’s over prepared, they tend to not be able to get out of their head enough from what they’ve prepared to make the changes necessary.
Yeah, that’s happened to me a couple of times too.
Kelly Martin Wagner: Yeah. Personally I don’t believe in coaching for a first audition. I think that for me, when someone comes in, for me I wanna see who they are. I wanna connect on a human level first. I’ve always had that. It may be frustrating to some actors. I tend to talk a little bit before the read, which can throw some… which sometimes people say throws them off. But that’s life. That’s driving the set, that’s being on set, that’s running into a glitch in hair and wardrobe. That’s getting the phone call. You can’t live in that mentality.
I love that. Walking into a strange room and just having a bit of small talk before hand. That just puts me at ease completely. So I love that.
Kelly Martin Wagner: From our perspective in our office, we’re looking for a person, not a read. And I think that’s where it can get confusing. People think they need to come in and nail the read. I don’t need to see somebody off book on a first audition. I want you to hold your side. I want you to be able to glance down. I want you to be able to use your own words. You know? You can fix the words later. You can rearrange the sentence later. It’s about your vibe, not about the words falling out of your mouth.
So that’s always been something that’s really important to me. That’s what makes people stick out in our room is who they are and how they are as a person in the situation rather than… and especially when you’re doing horror movies. A lot of our auditions aren’t screaming and being attacked. So we kind of have to trust that under those circumstances you’ll be fearful. We can envision how you would be under those circumstances.
Why did you guys decide to branch out and form Revolver?
Kelly Martin Wagner: Well, my partner, Nick Phillips, was an exec who used to hire me a lot to cast films and I had known for a while that I kind of wanted to morph out of casting. As I said, I grew up in Los Angeles, I went to film school. I just felt like I had a lot more to say than just that sliver of the pie and I found myself growing a little bit frustrated after the casting process was over because then you just kind of say goodbye and you kinda waive as everyone goes off to location, and hope that the movie works out. And you see them all at the premiere and I just started to feel like I wanted to be involved in more of the picture.
I’ve actually never thought of that. You’re totally right. I can see that perspective.
Kelly Martin Wagner: So I had started to go down that path of associate producing or getting involved early on to help solidify talent, to lock in their financing. So I started getting producer credits, things like that, and then finally I got an amazing opportunity to be in the financer spot and the production company’s spot. So Nick Phillips and I got together and started Revolver and it’s actually been wonderful because I obviously still get to participate in the casting process and then I get to continue on with the whole film.
How do you like your new role?
Kelly Martin Wagner: I love it.
Is it more work than you imagined?
Kelly Martin Wagner: It’s so different. The work as a casting director is very condensed. It’s crazy full days for, you know, 8 to 10 weeks and you’re just immersed. And then I think as I pulled back or out into the producer position, it’s longer. It’s, you know, a move is 8 months, a year of my life now instead of 8 to 10 weeks. I find more peace in it. I find that I’m more calm in knowing that I’m involved in the whole pie. It’s just different work. It’s not as condensed. Obviously when we’re in casting sessions, yeah, you’re sitting in a room all day and when you’re on set you’re on set all day. But there’s just so much more. There’s more to be excited about throughout the day for me. I’m sure it’s different for everyone.
Are you still the main casting person for Revolver?
Kelly Martin Wagner: No. I own the company and I own my casting company. And I have a partner, Dominika Posseren, who was my junior casting director for my last few years at Kelly Wagner Casting and she’s kind of stepped up in the ranks. And she runs the day to day of casting. I’m there for producer sessions and just by osmosis of needing to know what’s going on. I’m always asking her to tell me what’s going on or I’m getting involved. But I’m not the day to day on the phone scheduling. I guess, happily moved out of sitting in the room all day, every day. It’s hard. You know? I’m an empathetic person and I’m a nervous person and I find it hard to sit in a room with 30 different people all day and take in all the energy. You know? I Want them all to succeed so badly.
That’s gotta be hard because now you’re the one who hires everybody, right?
Kelly Martin Wagner: Yeah. Yeah. There’s a committee of us. Myself, Nick, Dominika weighs in heavily, whoever’s directing. In this last movie we did, there’s a couple of actors that I’d worked with before and it was hard because I knew them well and I wanted it for them and I knew they knew that I was now in the power position, but I still wanted it to be just perfect. You know?
You guys have a film, I think it’s coming out soon. I’s called Haunt?
Kelly Martin Wagner: Yeah. Haunt was our first film as a company and we… it came out on VOD on February 7th and it comes out in theaters this Friday.
How do you guys find your scripts?
Kelly Martin Wagner: Through mostly through the normal channels of the agencies and… because Nick and I have both been in the horror genre for so long, a lot of filmmakers, producers, directors, writers, people we’ve worked with before. But primarily through the proper channels of the agencies. Friends, family, I don’t know. Everywhere. Anywhere you can get your hands on one. We read hundreds of them.
And that’s actually something that’s very interesting and very different from when I was casting. When I was casting I could do 15 movies a year. You’re not exclusive, you can juggle a couple at a time, you can say yes to everything, you can say, “Yeah, I kind of really like this, I wanna do this.” But now, producing and financing them, I can do maybe one and a half a year. So that’s actually the hard part is having to say no to so many things and so many people who I really respect and projects that I would say I do really like, but we can’t do them all so it has to be the golden apple.
And it’s hard because it’s art. It’s an opinion. It’s not a fact. And it’s personal to everybody. And I feel the same about acting. It’s art. I mean, I’ve had 2 movies going simultaneously where one actor has come in and on one film they thought they were terrible and hated them and on the second film they couldn’t wait to get them the offer. So it really just is opinion and you really have to give everyone, you know, whoever you can a chance in any situation. You can’t determine that someone’s not good just because someone didn’t want them on one film. I will never, that’s one thing I’ve never done, is I don’t give feedback. I don’t believe in feedback.
It’s a simple answer. You’re either in for this film, this role that you just came in for, or you’re not. You’re either up for this one or you’re not. It doesn’t mean you were bad. 30 people can audition for a role. All 30 can be great, but only one can do it. And if this is an actor’s site and I’m speaking to actors, I always wanna say to actors, it doesn’t mean you did something wrong if you don’t get the part. And to have agents call you all day and say, “Well, what did they do wrong?” Well, they didn’t do anything wrong. They just weren’t the one person who’s gonna get the role. In fact, they maybe did 10 things right. You know? 10 out of 10 things right, it’s just for whatever reason someone else is gonna be better for this role.
Someone taught me a long time ago, and I really appreciated this. I wanna say it was Sebastian Gutierrez, said to me on a film probably 8 years ago, “You don’t always hire the best actor, you hire the best person for the role.”
Have you ever had somebody who was just kind of bad in the room and then but yet you kinda saw something in them and brought them back for another part in a different project?
Kelly Martin Wagner: God, I’m sure I have at one point. I mean, if someone… very rarely is there a situation where just someone comes in and you’re just like, “Oh, this person is just bad. I just never wanna see this person again.” Most of, you know, for me at least I’m like, “Ok, not for this role.”
I don’t really focus on the no’s and the negatives. I really move off of them quickly. So, yeah, people do usually get a lot of opportunities in our office. Because I tend to not remember the people that weren’t good, that weren’t right. You know? Every once in a while you get someone who’s just not good and you’re like, “They’re never gonna be able to figure this out for anything.” I’ve never really focused on that, so I don’t really know that answer.