Casting Director Ellen Lewis on Finding the Right Actors and Working with Martin Scorsese

Casting Director Ellen Lewis

“There are so many cooks involved now in decisions and it can dilute the creative process” – Casting Director Ellen Lewis on the new realities of casting


Ellen Lewis is not a name familiar to even the most dedicated moviegoers, but chances are at least a few projects she has worked on are among your favorite films or televisions shows. Lewis has worked in casting since 1982, and has worked closely with Martin Scorsese with casting ever since 1989’s New York Stories. Movies and television shows she has cast have gone on to win Oscars and Emmys, so even though she’s also responsible for casting Gigli we won’t hold that against her, right? In an interview with The New York Times, Lewis talks about the challenges of the casting process, working with Scorsese, and why she feels there should be an Oscar category for casting.

Lewis says that she finds matching a specific actor to a role as one of the most enjoyable aspects of casting. She says, “One of the things I love about casting is trying to be as specific as possible with the types of people that you’re trying to fill the screen with.” However, she points out the difficulties of the process that are becoming increasingly problematic in casting: too many people involved in the process and directors not watching auditions in person. She points out, “There are so many cooks involved now in decisions and it can dilute the creative process. The other big change is taping people. Directors for the most part are not seeing actors in person.”

When asked to elaborate what she means by “so many cooks,” Lewis says it has to do with executives trying to cast “names” for money-making purposes. She says, “I think there’s a lot more pressure now on trying to ensure what’s going to make money and so networks and studios and executives – it’s not like those people weren’t always there and involved but I think it’s ramped up. ”

As far as Lewis is concerned, casting should start at the top down by casting the leads and then finding other actors who would work with them. She uses her experience working with Scorsese to explain her process. “Casting for the most part starts with the leads... I start lists of those main characters and I’ll sit with Marty and go over them. I’ll have the pictures with me, and through that we will start narrowing down ideas. I will either have them audition or have tape that I can show him. For a large role I will maybe show him 10 or 12 people, but other directors may want to see a hundred people”

Lewis, like other casting directors, thinks that casting should be an Oscar category, pointing out that a project’s cast is important in drawing interest in the production. She says, “I hope so. I certainly think we should have one. When you read a review of a play or a movie or a television show, what are you first reading about? Who’s in it.”

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