Interview: Casting Director Richard Hicks on Auditioning, Self-Tapes and ‘The Last Thing He Told Me’

Richard Hicks chats about the challenges casting the show auditioning with self-tapes, getting re-directed and more.

“I need to find somebody great and somebody who’s really interesting. And if they can get on our vibe or if they show to us that they have flexibility in what they’re doing, then that’s an interesting actor, which is kind of a rare thing I would say.” – Richard Hicks

Casting Director Richard Hicks, whose eye for talent has brought us some terrific ensembles in both TV and film (Hell or High Water, Zero Dark Thirty) has assembled yet another exceptional cast for the Apple TV+ series, The Last thing He Told Me. Alongside his casting partner, David Rubin, the Jennifer Garner led series premiered to huge ratings and great reviews, most mentioning how wonderful the cast was.

In this interview, Hicks chats about some of the challenges casting the show, finding actors for each role and having the chance to cast David Morse. He also talks about being a former actor and how it helps him as a casting director, auditioning with self-tapes, getting re-directed and more. These are edited excerpts from that conversation. For the full interview, check out the video above or on our YouTube channel.

You’ve cast so many great projects. Zero Dark Thirty. Hell or High Water is fantastic. Gravity. But as a former Maryland boy, I have to go with, John Waters’ Hairspray.

Richard Hicks: Absolutely. That was a really fun one to cast. We went to Baltimore to do casting there and it was really a good thing to do.

I was living there at the time. I don’t know where the heck I was for that.

Richard Hicks: We had an open call, but it was for Tracy and Seaweed. So, you wouldn’t have been right for either part.

I’m not right for Tracy. Yeah.

Richard Hicks: No. [laughter]

Congrats on The Last Thing He Told Me. I saw that it killed in its first month of streaming. Does that put a little extra pep in your step?

Richard Hicks: Yeah, it does. It’s always nice when people respond to what’s being put out, because there’s some things you love, and it doesn’t catch on and you wonder why they didn’t love it the same way you did.

Was anybody attached to it when you came on board?

Richard Hicks: I cast it with my casting partner, David Rubin, but Jennifer Garner was attached when we started.

And then, you guys brought on David Morse. I think he should be in everything.

Richard Hicks: I know, he’s really an underused, underrated actor I find. I like the quality of what he does is always good, and it was a thrill to be able to hire him on a show that we were doing because we always bring him up.

You do?

Richard Hicks: Yeah. Sure. There are actors you love that you try to… You know, who are versatile enough and you try to find a place for them, if you can.

What was the hardest role you guys had to cast for the show?

Richard Hicks: That’s a good question. I don’t know. There wasn’t one role that was extraordinarily painful to do. Each one was a process and almost all of them took some time.

The group of filmmakers we had were smart and had legitimate, if differing, opinions and so it was just getting into it and following through on the conversation to get to where we needed to go. And sometimes we made a couple offers that didn’t take and but most of the time it was a methodical, process to get to where we ended up.

When you start casting, do you  have a list of actors you love and try to bring in?

Richard Hicks: Yes and no. We have databases from all the other projects that we have done. So, over the course of years, when I’m making a list for this new thing, I will think of ideas that occur to me. I will look at IMDB. I will look at old lists of projects that are similar, to remind myself about people who might be on the edges of what is right for this, or who might be an interesting way to go for this one when they were like in the center of the old thing. Here they are right on the edge of it, but, “oh, that might be cool, so let’s add that.”

You guys cast a ton of stuff. When you watch the finished product of the things you do, watch the actors that you brought in, are you happy when they’ve nailed their roles?

Richard Hicks: Yes. Yeah. I feel a sense of pride when people are as good as you hope they’re gonna be. And  it’s also a kind of an alchemy with the director too, because sometimes things turn out different and better than you thought and sometimes not so much [laughter], but the but it’s always interesting to see because what casting often is, is a kind of interpolation. You’re seeing the audition and you are imagining the possibilities inherent in the complexity of the actor you’re watching to give some… To make something that you won’t be a part around to be see made, but to kind of have hope that it will be a certain kind of thing. Like it will be complex and deep and interesting and or sexy or whatever the vibe of the part needs to be.

I was spying on your Instagram page, and I saw you went to New York and saw a bunch of shows. Since you’re a big fan of theater, do you try to bring in theater actors?

Richard Hicks: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. Theater actors are uniquely skilled in that they are in charge of their own performance from beginning to end on the stage. So not all the time because  there’s different things that are important about a movie performance versus a theater performance. But theater actors have… Are required to be self-possessed about what they’re doing and they are able to, as a group, be generally more nimble and/or more skilled, for lack of a better word.

There’s a quote about auditioning that says, “You have to win the room.” How can you win the room now with self-tapes?

Richard Hicks: By, “I am winning what I’m doing for you now. You can love it, you cannot like it, but here is what I have.” And it’s not that you don’t care, but you win by giving us the clearest version of what you think this part should be. And “you can take it or you can leave it, but you’d be a fool to leave.” It’s a way that you can win without being in the room to work your mojo on a person in a room.

If somebody sent you a self-tape, and they completely misread what the character is, but they’re great, do you ever send over a re-direct?

Richard Hicks: Yeah. Yeah. Like, it depends, if they’re right, very right for the part, but they have a wrong interpretation, we’ll call the agent and say, “Could we ask to speak to them to do it again with these notes?” and see how they take it.

Because it serves no one if I reject everybody. I need to find somebody great and somebody who’s really interesting is likely to still be interesting, and if they can get on our vibe or if they show to us that they have flexibility in what they’re doing, then that’s an interesting actor, which is kind of a rare thing I would say.

Often actors are chasing what they think we want and rather than calmly self possessively delivering an artistic interpretation of what they want to show us. And when you take the lead, that’s when we follow you. If you are chasing us, we feel that and we judge that.

I’ve always said, it looks like the power in Hollywood. It’s in casting directors and directors and producers and studios and blah blah blah. I have a theory that people around the world are willing to pay good money to be moved along watching an actor interpret something.

And so, the power is always in the actor. And it’s very hard to see that and it’s easy to give up that power but the actors who are willing to take on the responsibility and the possibilities inherent in holding onto that power are ones that tend to do better than those who don’t. That’s what I’ve found.

It’s easy for me to say because it really hurts to want something badly and really go for it and not get it, and to be vulnerable and then get your feelings hurt. That’s hard on the heart. And I think a lot of actors develop a defense against that. And that defense acts as kind of a scar tissue on what they’re willing to show us. And it inhibits their ability to be completely available for the next audition opportunity.

Do you suggest getting in that self-tape as soon as possible so that redirect can happen if needed?

Richard Hicks: No. Maybe other offices operate differently, but as long as you get it in by the deadline, you’re doing what I asked you to do and then it’s on you. I would say send it when you feel ready to send it, if it’s within our deadline. If you don’t like what you did in the morning, do it again in the afternoon. Or if you think you’ve done it and it’s time to let it go, then just let it go.

You used to be an actor?

Richard Hicks: I was. I went to college, then I went to RADA, Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. And then I tried to stay in England and couldn’t get a work permit, so I came back to America. And then I worked in theater for about seven years, mostly regional theater, mostly classical theater. I worked at the Guthrie and then the Roundabout and the Public in Tiny, in small little parts.

I loved acting, but I didn’t audition well. And so a job in casting came along and despite what I thought when I was 24, this is a better fit because I can be really close to the creative moment, but it’s not my ass on the line. So, I don’t have to be self-conscious and I don’t have to be vulnerable and still lose and all the things that are hard about being an actor.

I feel like going in for a casting director who used to be an actor, you can feel that sort of empathy with what we’re going through.

Richard Hicks: Yes, yes, yes. Totally. And I love how I can kind of intuit a direction to give the actor that kind of gets underneath what they’re doing and lifts it up so it becomes something better efficiently, you know?

Like one of the directions I often gave when I was in the room was, “Oh, that was a good audition. That was the audition version of what we’re doing of the scene. Now, let’s do the documentary version of what we’re doing.” And what I meant by that was, the desire to get a job and doing the objectives in the scene, doing the beats of the scene, so to get the job… isn’t what the character’s doing. And that serves as a kind of static as you watch it. Other people describe it as the hunger that people shy away from.

But when the character is only doing what they’re doing and the camera’s observing that, that’s when it’s truest and most like what we would like in a movie, you know what I mean? Because we’re just watching the character. We’re not watching an actor trying to show us they can do something to get a job. And that I think is a note that I’m not sure I would know I would’ve known to give if I hadn’t been an actor.

For demo reels and airchecks clips and edits, I know a big trend right now is actors want like a 15 second clip of something they do, and I feel like it doesn’t show them actually doing anything, not actually acting opposite someone.

Richard Hicks: I don’t know how to answer that. Like, when I watch demo reels, I have the filter of the part… so what do I need and is it in the ballpark? So, I take kind of like the vibe of the role, and then I expand that so that I catch the maybes. And so, with that lens, I look if they are even close enough to be worrying about? And if they are, what kind of actor are they? And what do they lead with as an actor? With their smarts, with their sexuality, with their charm, with their humor, with their layers? What I’m I watching and how much do I need what I’m seeing in this part? So, anything that shows me a lot of you. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, as long as I get a vibe.

If somebody wanted to get in touch with you to say, “Here’s my new reel. Here’s my headshot…”

Richard Hicks: My email is findable on the internet and I’m on Instagram and there is outreach that you can and should do. But I would say go do something that moves you and is awesome and keep, keep, keep doing that and set up your life so that you can, so that you can just go make sh**. Then somebody will, one of us will, find you eventually. We will because that’s the whole job.

There are people who I now bring in for stuff that I saw on their Instagram feed, or they were in an improv group with other people who weren’t famous too, but I got invited.

Do good work. Try to keep the focus on doing awesome work instead of networking awesomely, because it feels more roundabout cause networking means they’ll see me. But you need to have something amazing for us to see when we turn our head to you.

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