Interview: Casting Director Jessica Daniels On Finding New Talent and Self-Taped Audition Tips

"I worked on 12 pilots this year and most of the series regular roles went to working actors who auditioned." - Casting Director Jessica Daniels

Casting Director Jessica Daniels
Photo by Jocelyn Baun

Bite-Size 6 with Jessica Daniels
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Jessica Daniels, the Emmy award-winning casting director behind 30 Rock, I Am Legend and The Unusuals, talks the reality of a casting director’s shortlist, getting on the radar and the joy of introducing new talent.

Jessica gives us ‘the bite’ on your 6 hot questions!

You are an Emmy award-winning casting director, with a wealth of experience casting shows. What keeps you going to the office to look at actors all day long?

Jessica Daniels: I love my job, I really do. Each project provides a challenge of piecing together an ensemble that will help make the piece sing. With pilot season coverage, it’s a different process. Often, I’m doing searches for specific roles or covering the talent pool in New York. In that sense, I feel responsible for making sure New York-based actors have a chance with a market that can be heavily weighted towards LA.

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

Jessica Daniels: I think it’s more important to cast the right talent. I always laugh when an actor gets cast in a film or TV role and you hear people calling them unknown when really that actor has been starring on Broadway for decades. I’ve also cast actors, and particularly kids who don’t have professional credits. I primarily work with agents and managers, but I also do searches and go to schools, camps and theatre groups depending on the project. It can be an exciting but also a difficult because you have to see a vast amount of kids to find that special one who fits the role. It’s a different process when I’m casting actors with experience where I am already aware of their sensibility and what they might be good at.

Can you talk us through your process of selecting a shortlist of actors for a role?

Jessica Daniels: I get a script, get a feel for it and break it down role by role. I then generate ideas of better known actors who are considered offer only. Simultaneously, I’m seeing actors who I know, or am meeting for the first time for the roles. In the beginning stages, the floodgates are open and I get ideas of who could be right and who is reading well, what’s working and what’s not working. It’s going through that process and understanding who the director or the producers are responding to that helps whittle the pool down to what we call a shortlist. Most of your readers might know or maybe some don’t, that the casting director isn’t the person who ultimately casts the talent. We curate a group of actors from which the director or the producers select.

What would you say is the rough ballpark, percentage wise that ‘unknowns’ are really being considered for roles as series regulars in pilots? Is it really just star names?

Jessica Daniels: In my experience, it’s not a big percentage. Most often, actors who have had some television and film experience, have done some guest star roles, are more primed to take on a series regular role.   I don’t think it’s just star names, but I also don’t think it’s people who don’t have many television credits. It’s very difficult to go from doing one or two co-star roles to being a series regular. I did some coverage on ‘Tyrant’ this year, an FX show in season two that Amy Hubbard casts out of London. They were looking to the states to cast a couple of the younger roles, and there was a great opportunity to cast what I guess you could call lesser known talents. Everyone cast had representatives, but a few of them didn’t have any professional TV or film credits. One young actor in particular had only one on-camera credit, a student film, yet he is very self-possessed, and was great fit for the role. Let’s be honest, he was lucky!

There are many more actors that I’ve been seeing for years and they’re still trying to book bigger roles. The pilot machine is tough. It takes a lot of stamina to make it through that audition process. Actors are called in for dozens of auditions, sometimes in a week. If they get to the callback phase and to the testing round, it can be really difficult to withstand all that scrutiny. It can feel like there’s an army of studio executives, producers, network executives all weighing in and everyone has a different opinion. I worked on 12 pilots this year and most of the series regular roles went to working actors who auditioned.

What would you consider are your three pet peeves that actors do on self-tapes?

Jessica Daniels: Firstly, bad lighting and sound. It’s really important to be in a well-lit space that’s not back lit. So sit yourself in front of a window and put your camera in front of the window so that you are naturally lit. Make sure the audio is decent. If possible, use a lav or exterior mic if there is ambient noise.   Your reader shouldn’t be so loud that it’s distracting (despite proximity to the camera mic.)

Secondly, Slating. It’s important to do a full body shot, even when it’s not requested. Since you’re not physically in the room with the casting director or director or producers, you want them to have an accurate sense of what you look like. I generally like the scenes to be shot in a medium close up, chest up, so the body shot can be part of a separate wide shot or tilt up and down.

Thirdly, Eyeline. Ask whomever is reading opposite you to stand close to the camera. Your eyeline should appear as though you are looking right next to the camera, never into it (with the rare exceptions for when it’s docu- or mockumentary-style or you’re playing a newscaster.)

I know it’s more than three, but I personally don’t love it when people record the other roles’ lines if they can’t find someone to read with them. I get it. It’s a last resort. But if at all possible, find someone to read with you.

If an actor was to contact you in a clever way to self-promote (so no emails, no phone calls, no weird stuff), would you welcome it?

Jessica Daniels: I don’t know, it feels like a gimmick, frankly, even if it’s clever. I appreciate the difficulty of trying to get a foot in the door, but I think the most enterprising thing an actor can do is focus on making good work. There are so many different ways to do that now with webseries, shortfilms, theatre, improv etc. I know it’s not the fast route, but if you do good work it will get noticed. It will. I am really welcoming of all kinds of good work and I try very hard to pay attention. If I see someone talented in something obscure, and I’m able to introduce them to a director or producer who sparks to that talent, that’s very gratifying.

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