Interview: Writer/Director Mark L. Mann on the Secret to Being an Engaging Actor and What He Looks for When Casting

Mark L Mann Interview

Bite-Size 6 with Writer/Director Mark L. Mann

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Mark L Mann, the Emmy nominated writer/director behind ‘Finishing Heaven’ and  ‘Generation Um’ starring Keanu Reeves, talks writing, the secret to being an engaging actor and that ‘x factor’ quality that a director is looking for when casting. 

Mark gives us ‘the bite’ on your 6 hot questions. 

What inspires your projects and drives you through the writing process into production? 

Mark L Mann: Well I think I’m always attracted to characters. Usually I start with the type of character I am exploring and it evolves into a story. That’s how I have worked in the past. I am beginning to experiment with more plot based inspiration, but in general, I am usually attracted to (characters) who have a specific state of mind. And I try to break them down, get into the facets that make up that state of mind. And then I lead them through a journey. For me it’s very important to have a beginning and an end. The passage of time being my narrative. It’s about a character interacting with the passage of time.

Can you talk us through your process of selecting an actor for a role?

Mark L Mann: Hmm… Well in general, it usually starts with finding your anchor. The pieces I have worked on have usually had a central character. You find your actor and you cast around that person, because all the relationships respond to this. In terms of finding the main person, that comes down to it just making sense. I find I am either writing with the person in mind or a specific type of person in mind. When I begin to look at different actors, they separate pretty quickly into personality types. When you think of a character, they’re already a type of a person and you start looking at a range of people who you think would play that well. And then once you get into the relationships that the (main) character has in the piece. You look at people considering whether it would be a believable type of relationship.

Do you feel it is important to cast new unknown talent?

Mark L Mann: Yeah, of course it is. I think it’s always great to cast people that are up and coming or people that you haven’t heard of. It’s good to mix it up. But it is show ‘business’, so depending on what type of production you are working on, you are always looking for someone who has experience to ‘be in it’. It’s like anything else, they know what they are doing. And they bring that experience and that anchor to your project. Also being unknown doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have experience. Most of the people who I have worked with, even the people you don’t know, have done a lot of stuff. In the end it always comes down to what’s best for the piece. And I think there’s room for both. So yes I do think it’s important to cast people that you might not necessarily recognize. But it’s also important to have a mix that serves the piece and what you are trying to achieve with your film project.

Can you describe the ‘X-Factor’ quality that you are looking for in an actor who comes in to audition? 

Mark L Mann: I think it’s an honesty. An entitlement to express your feelings. A sort of ease of expression and then deal with what happens afterwards. You just want someone who expresses themselves very well and it comes across as honest, which usually means they are honest in their performance. You know .. I tend to like people who like to push the envelope a little bit and take risks. Ultimately, you want to be entertained if you are watching.

The secret of being engaging is to tap into that piece of your brain that is just in the moment at that time. And that’s honest. You want someone who is being themselves within the structure of the language you are giving them to operate within. And with that comes confidence. I am hesitant to use words like these because I think they have connotations, but when watching two people interact on set, they are actually talking to each other. They are listening. They are communicating. So I guess there is no ‘one thing’ that I am looking for except that I believe they are going through what they are going through and it fits. As a director you are building a little box for actors to perform in and they have to stay in the box. But you have to forget they are in a box. So maybe the best actors are capable of making us believe that they are not in a box.

So if you feel an actor is right for the part but the producer disagrees… How do you resolve this? 

Mark L Mann: You call (the actor) back and you prove it (Laughter).  I mean, I’ve been in this situation before and I’ve gone both ways. In general, when a director and producer disagree, most of the time each one is making a valid point. It’s by further discussion and consideration that you kinda figure it out. I’ve been lucky with the people I’ve worked with. I’ve ‘won a few and lost a few’ as they say, but it’s not really about that. Ultimately it’s about finding the best person for the role. And if there’s a disagreement, we’ve done call backs. Usually if two people have differing opinions, it’s because you haven’t seen enough of either of the people that you are considering. So yeah I have fought very hard for the people that I wanted but I’ve also been very open to somebody else fighting very hard for it too.  Because ultimately it’s not about you or (the producer) it’s about the production. Simple answer is – Do a call back.

If an actor found a clever way of contacting you to self promote (so no emails, no calling or creepy stuff). Would you welcome it? 

Mark L Mann: I’ve been contacted a lot, for whatever reason, by actors. And there is no reason not to (contact). You just have to realize that you are contacting a person and it’s not going to get you a job. You are establishing a connection on some level but you have to let go of the sense of immediate gain. If you are going to make contact or a cold call, you should be adding something worthy into the mix. And I have to be honest, the things I respond to the most in terms of being contacted are when people take a moment to look at my work and say something thoughtful about it.

In the end I don’t know if it helps or hurts. But it definitely makes the interaction about a sense of community as opposed to looking for a job, which is not going to work. There is a structure in place when it comes to casting. And usually, the director has the ultimate say, but there are a lot of other people involved along the way. So there’s a vetting process.

(Contact) could help create a longer term relationship, which I think ultimately is what all of this is really about. So if you are going to do it, do it right.

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