Casting Young Performers
Ruth O’Dowd, Daniel Edwards and Catherine Willis discuss their approaches to casting children and the best way to make an impression in the room.
As part of our Digital Summer School, we hosted a panel with casting directors Ruth O’Dowd, Daniel Edwards and Catherine Willis who shared their advice about self-taping, dealing with rejection and more. Read on to find out what they had to say.
I think it's really important that you know that this sort of myth that only experienced actors get cast, It's actually not true all the time.
How does a newcomer get into the industry, especially if they don’t have any experience?
Daniel Edwards: Sometimes that's the best, particularly with young people as I think for children and teenagers, that it's all instinctive. If they haven't been to drama school or they've been in a freeing youth theatre environment that hasn't restricted their way of acting and made it too technical, everything comes from the heart with kids and it's either going to land or it's not going to land and that's what's so wonderful.
Sometimes we're looking for naturalism and authenticity. And sometimes if you have too much experience, you come with too much baggage. Billy Barratt, who I just cast in a very dark drama called Responsible Child for BBC Two, I had previously cast when he was six in Mr Selfridge and he has remained very naturalistic, although he is now at Sylvia Young's. His approach, his style still remains very much like he's just walked in off the street. I think that is absolutely exciting to find.
To all the parents out there and any young people that are listening, I think it's really important that you know that this sort of myth that only experienced actors get cast, it's actually not true all the time.
Catherine Willis: I think acting is completely different from any other industry. We probably auditioned about over 300 kids for The Duchess, and the girl we cast had done nothing and that was exciting. We saw people who'd been in films and been leads and all of that, but we saw loads of people who had not done anything. And it's really exciting because I've got a whole bag full of young actresses now that I'm just looking for places to put them.
Experience gives you different things, it gives you technical ability, so when you walk onto the stage or when you walk onto the set, you understand the terminology, you know how everything functions around you as an actor. But ultimately, what we're looking for is to watch you be that person and believe you and be moved by you.
Would you say as far as experience goes, it’s slightly different in theatre?
Ruth O'Dowd: It depends on what it is. When we're starting to look, then you'd be honing that in and pinpointing what you're looking for. I think a lot of young performers, if they're going to sing or dance or have a specific skill, then they will be learning that from a young age anyway.
Catherine Willis: Experience comes in. In terms of having the confidence of going, 'Can this person handle walking out in front of an audience of however many people and hold their nerve?' And that's often when directors and producers go, I really want to know that someone has stood in front of a room with at least a hundred people before I put them on a stage in front of a thousand.
Is there something you're particularly looking for when a young performer walks into a room?
Daniel Edwards: It's really hard to articulate because it's not the science, it's a feeling. If I equate it in real life, we meet people in all of our lives, and some people just are absolutely engaging in any scenario and you're drawn to those people. And some young performers come into a room and they're not fazed, they've understood the words of their reading, they've understood the story, they understand that they're in an audition and mum and dad are waiting outside and there's an inbuilt natural unfearful confidence, which is electric. If you marry that with the ability to deliver the lines as the character would say them, it's a wonderful thing, especially when that child has not got a back catalogue of experience.
And from a purely shallow point of view we, as casting directors, get employed. We're all freelance and if we do something that gets a bit of buzz about it, then we get more work. So, for us to find new talent, the excitement of discovering somebody new, it's exhilarating and it makes us look good because we're doing our job.
Even directors and producers we work with don't fully understand what it is that we do. Though actually, that's one element that people do understand, "Oh, that actor or actress was discovered by dah, dah, dah, dah, dah." So, it is thrilling in that respect.
Catherine Willis: Even the girl we cast in The Duchess, I think she came in about four or five times before she got that. I had four execs on that show and before you even got to the channel and there wasn't complete agreement. But I think what you also have to remember is that when we're auditioning anybody for any character, we don't always have exactly the same idea of what we're looking for. And quite often what we're looking for changes because of the auditioning process. We start to find things out about characters and what works and what doesn't.
So, sometimes you may meet for something and not hear forever or you might have a recall and another recall. It's not that you're doing anything badly, it's that we're kind of honing it down and we're also honing what the role needs to be.
How long does it take to cast something?
Catherine Willis: How long is a piece of string!
Daniel Edwards: One of the elements of the industry that people don't understand is money. In America for example, their budgets are much much bigger so for a show like Euphoria, the casting directors are given longer periods of prep in order to search wide. I had that luxury on The Innocents. Netflix got me in six months before pre-production started so I could find the two young leads. But for Responsible Child, I had five weeks, so it limited what I could do. So, you're either casting five weeks or you could get six months. Sometimes you can get the luxury of looking for a year, which is very, very rare. So, it depends on the budget, it depends on when the channel wants to air and then they track backwards. So, that question could never really truly be answered.
Don't be afraid to ask questions if you don't understand something, if you don't understand the pronunciation of a word. That's what we're here for because we want you to do the best possible job
What advice would you give for dealing with rejection?
Ruth O'Dowd: The best thing that you can do is go in as prepared as possible. Sometimes you only get the sides rather than the whole script depending on what the project is, so just make sure that you have a good grasp of what the sides are.
Don't be afraid to ask questions if you don't understand something, if you don't understand the pronunciation of a word. That's what we're here for because we want you to do the best possible job, so please always come back to the casting person or your agent if you have any questions.
Continue to also have other interests outside of acting and learn about the world and be well-rounded. So then you know when you go into a room and you've done the best possible job that you can do. You can only be yourself. And that might be what we need, it might be further down the line you're suitable for something, but you know within yourself that you've done the best job that you can do.
Catherine Willis: The important thing is you met someone. [As casting directors] you meet someone and then you go, 'They're not right for this'. But you keep them in mind. There are young actors I have met when they were very young and then suddenly go, 'Oh, I need a 14-year-old now. I need a 12-year-old now'. As young actors grow and develop and have these different experiences, it utterly impacts how they perform, how they process the script and their emotions and everything, so you have to keep reviewing stuff. I've gone about six, seven, eight years and found people for stuff and they've come in and been absolutely right.
The important thing is to be in the room and then walk away and forget about it. You've done what you can do because so much of the rest of it is out of your control. If you're being cast as part of a family, do you look like the parents? Do you have the right accent and do you fit with that? We don't want two boys with brown hair, we need to find someone with different colouring or one of the parents comes from there or whatever. You've done your bit.
If a performer doesn’t understand something, is it ok to ask questions?
Ruth O'Dowd: I think that we all want to work with people who are open and it should be a collaboration. I think it's quite nice actually if someone really is open to discussing that.
Catherine Willis: I think what every actor needs to think about it is when you are in that room, that is your time. If you don't understand something, it may be because sometimes we don't send the whole script out, and that there's quite a key piece of information you’re missing. So if you're like, 'I don't really understand why she said that or why she's suddenly cross when he said that or whatever'. I think it's really important for you to go, 'This is my time and I want to do my best'. Because as casting directors particularly, we're there for you, we want you to be brilliant. Thankfully, the fallacy that casting directors are demons is fading. But we are, like Daniel said, we're desperate for any actor who comes in the room to be brilliant because A. it's casting and B. we look amazing.
Ruth O'Dowd: But what's been a bit sad about COVID in that everyone has to self-tape. And I'm so used to being able to work with people in the room and I just miss it so much because we just think you could've directed them a bit or helped a bit more.
Can you explain what a chemistry read is?
Daniel Edwards: If you've got siblings [played by] two actors, and if the story means that this brother and sister get on incredibly well, you need to see two actors that you think would physically look like siblings, but also see that they actually get on. Because you don't want six-month shoots, and especially if it's a big, big show for potentially five years, with two actors that have no spark in their connection.
So, a chemistry read is really about connections, physicalities, the actors are comfortable with each other. They don't happen all the time.
Catherine Willis: They happen more and more, don't they?
Daniel Edwards: Yeah, they do. And I think that comes down to business and a lot of shows getting greenlit for second, third, fourth series. Execs get very worried that they're not going to have their core cast with them for the whole journey, so they want to make sure they tick every single box at the beginning and make sure they've got a sort of solidity in the connections with their actors.
Sometimes you bring people in for chemistry read and there was absolutely no chemistry as it is in human life. You can't force that natural chemistry and you can really see it when it doesn't work. I don't believe personally that that's something that will happen in time, It's either there or it's not and it's usually there from the off.
What are the dos and don’ts for self-taping? What makes a good self-tape?
Catherine Willis: For me, the key one is, can I see you? Can I hear you? I know that sounds really basic, but quite often, people stand against a window because it's a plain backdrop but they're backlit so you can't really see their face.
The other thing is if the sound quality is bad, everybody watching it just gets frustrated. When we're auditioning young actors, my office always sends tips and hints for your self-tape, which are as simple as trying to record it in landscape so that it looks like the TV. Follow the instructions. Your casting director should be getting clear instructions to you, and if not, ask the agent to get them for you.
I always prefer an eyeline off-camera rather than staring straight [at the camera] saying your lines, but that might be my preference.
Daniel Edwards: Never look at the camera unless it specifically asks you to. We'll say that in our notes, "Do look at the camera this time because that's what's going to happen in the actual show."
It's very trite to say everybody has an iPhone, but I know many people do, but you don't need expensive equipment. You don't need big lights. You can use natural light so if you are facing a window, the natural daylight is on your face. Sometimes you may get a self-tape that comes in, and winter's the hardest because you come out of school and the self-tape has to be in maybe the next afternoon and it's only a couple of lines, but it's dark and you don't have that natural light. On Amazon, you've got the natural daylight rings, they're like £15.99 and are really good as a backup. Don't be spending more than £25 on equipment like that, because you don't need it at all.
Ruth O'Dowd: At the moment, people are having to work with what they've got because everyone is stuck at home.
Catherine Willis: Make sure when you send a link that it's downloadable. Lots of people send me links on YouTube that I then can't put into my system. So [use] things like Dropbox, WeTransfer, Vimeo, Tagmin.
Daniel Edwards: You have to remember what happens once we get it because it isn't a matter of you sending it to us and us just pinging it out to execs. We have to make it look all lovely and hone it with other actors. And most of us have viewing platforms that we download onto our sites and we then will send notes and things. So, there's a lot of tweaking that has to be done, we edit them and cut them down a bit.
Ruth O'Dowd: And if the deadline's Monday, don't leave it 'til Monday morning to send your tape. Get it done in advance because sometimes your internet connection will go down, something will happen. And as Daniel said, we need time to actually have a look at it to see if we need anything else. Maybe we might want you to re-tape with some direction. So, just don't leave it till the last minute, because that's a recipe for disaster.
Do you expect a child to have a showreel?
Daniel Edwards: I really don't. The only showreels I would look at for children is work that they've done, but I personally don't feel the need to have to see that on there.
Catherine Willis: I think a lot of people are tempted because they want to have something up, they'll put up something that maybe they filmed at home in front of their nana's curtains, or something that's not professionally produced, and I actually think that does more harm than good.
If you do have anything professional, TV programme, film, a commercial, just so we can see you moving, that can be helpful, but don't feel that you have to record something or pay someone to film something for you. You should not be spending money on that. Just wait till when you get the work, then you can put that up.
Would you rather not see amateur or youth theatre roles in credits or in training on a Spotlight Profile?
Daniel Edwards: I think for children if the credit isn't there, we already established that we're open to finding new talent, so actually put anything that you've been involved in in the training section unless it is a performance. If you were a child singer at the Royal Albert Hall with something, then that's a credit. It may not feel like the lead and a guest role in EastEnders, but it's something.
Catherine Willis: I know Ruth does things with the National Youth Theatre (NYT), I think things like that are definitely helpful because we know as casting directors what the kind of standard is there. And we also know the people there, we can also phone their teachers and say, 'Tell me about such and such'. I do a lot of stuff with the National Youth Theatre actually. I always see loads of people from them if we've got the resources to do it. You may have played Annie in Annie for your local performing arts school but that doesn't mean anything to us, we don't have any context for that.
Ruth O'Dowd: Yeah, like BRIT School or Sylvia Young or any of those. Stagecoach, I see that a lot on people's CVs. If it's kind of a reputable company, then I think it is worthwhile putting it down. And as Catherine said, with NYT, they do quite specific training. A lot of the stuff they do is devising and creating your own performances or they might adopt a text, and that's really useful to me because it shows that you can think outside of the box. So, I know when I get an NYT kid in, then that's how they're trained or how their mind works.
Catherine Willis: Or a youth theatre with one of the regional theatres, because when I used to work at Derby Playhouse, now called Derby Theatre, they had a phenomenal youth theatre and places like the Royal Exchange in Manchester.
Does living outside of London have a negative impact on you being seen?
Catherine Willis: I think especially now, no. The negative impact before was you had to get on a train or a bus and usually come to London unless we were doing a big search. When I did Wolfblood, which was set in the Northeast, I spent a couple of weeks there. When I did Ladhood, we went to Leeds. I think the thing is, that often directors and particularly producers don't want you to play against your accent, so it depends on the role, but I love it because I just think there are quite a lot opportunities for kids in London, whereas it's actually kind of fun to get people who aren't from here.
Daniel Edwards: I think it's casting director by casting director or job by job. My first protocol for every wide search, for teenagers in particular, is I go to Nottingham Television Workshop just because it's almost become like a pattern for me. And then I move around to different places all over the UK.
Sometimes it's an accent. If I'm doing something that is working-class London girls, although I've got girls from youth theatres in Scotland self-taping, If they've got very strong Glaswegian or Aberdeenshire accents, please only get them to self-tape if they 100% can do a flawless accent, and that's hard. The same for Londoners doing a Scottish accent. If an accent is very broad and is very much part of the character, you tend to focus more on the area where that accent sits more comfortably.
Catherine Willis: I think there is a budgetary thing that is out of the casting director's control in that if you're filming something that is in or near London, to travel a young actor, who may need a parent or a chaperone to travel them, to put them in accommodation, to feed them and all of that is potentially a significant chunk of your budget. There are times when I will look at it and say, we're London based and if I want to cast a child out of London, it comes out of my actors budget, so I'm taking money out of all my other actors and sometimes I just can't afford to do that.
Ruth O'Dowd: The positive though, is that more and more stuff in my experience is shooting outside of London. In the Midlands, in Wales and Scotland. And as you said in terms of budget, you want to cast locally.
Catherine Willis: If I'm filming something that's in Poland, then it doesn't matter where in this country that kid comes from because I'm going to have to fly them and put them in a hotel anyway, so that's kind of the fun bit when you're like, oh, it's filming in Snowdonia, so let's go crazy.
if you do get auditions, just go out for them even if you think, "Well, they'll never cast me," go and do it. Get the experience. There might be another role that you don't even know about.
How is it best to stand out when you’re in an in-between age (14-15) where you look older than you are?
Catherine Willis: There isn't a nice way of saying it, but the trouble is, if you're 15 and look older, you're going to find it really hard to get cast for a couple of years. Because first of all, you need licencing, we have a lot of safeguarding for young actors that has an impact on how scripts are sent out, what you receive and all of that. So, I'm really sorry you're going to struggle, because what casting directors and what productions will do is cast 16 to 18-year-olds to play 14 and 15-year-olds.
Daniel Edwards: I completely agree with Catherine. If this is what you want to do, if this is where your heart and soul is, then this is your life. You've got decades ahead of you, this is just one year so, why don't you utilise this time to read and watch everything? Get your database in your head, which directors are working? Which writers? Michaela Coel, is she my goddess? Look at different writers, look at what's being made, look at all the casting directors that cast things that maybe you will be right for.
If people mistake you for being older than you are, I know that could be problematic sometimes, but actually how wonderful that when you are 16 or 17, we may be casting you as an 18 or 19-year-old. So, don't think of this as a negative period in your life, because that will have an adverse effect on your future.
Catherine Willis: You've got a lovely training window where you can do lots of other things. Do theatre. And if you do get auditions, just go out for them even if you think, 'Well, they'll never cast me', go and do it. Get the experience. There might be another role that you don't even know about. But it is hard. I feel so sorry for 14, 15-year-olds because the first thing producers always say is, "Can we get someone above licencing age?"
One young performer commented that opportunities for Black actors seem limited, what's your take on that?
Catherine Willis: I'm always desperate for young actors from all different backgrounds and actually make a point of casting all roles colourblind, but I think also there's probably more work coming through for you than you think.
Daniel Edwards: I think it's probably another conversation, a deeper conversation. But obviously, with everything that's happened recently, I think you will see a shift. Well, I hope we're doing the best to shift in the industry, maybe not as much as we would like it to be, but there is certainly a shift.
Casting directors use search on Spotlight to find performers, what can actors do to make sure they’re found?
Daniel Edwards: Don't ever lie.
Catherine Willis: Because you get found out.
Daniel Edwards: It can really backfire. This is to all parents, if your child rode the donkey at Blackpool once, please don't say that they can horse ride. I mean, that sounds like a silly thing to say but the well-being of your nine or 10-year-old if we get them in and then we discover that they can't horse ride, there's the embarrassment and humiliation for the child. I think it's really important as it's the adults that are doing the profile for their children, I think it's so, so important. Better to have less on there than to fill it with things that aren't actually true.
Catherine Willis: I think it's hilarious when people have it, 'Oh, I can do these 18 accents as a native'. I immediately discount them being able to do any of it, because you know it's not true.
How does American casting differ from the UK?
Daniel Edwards: If you look at American television there is sort of a gloss, even to the darker edged programming. In particular with network television in America, it's very, very glossy. I think the producers' expectations are very different. What I love about the British industry is, although it can be very shallow often, we are looking for realism and authenticity and grit and personality. Whereas in America, much of it is the aesthetic at 70% and then 30% the ability to act for a lot of network things.
Americans, I find, love the idea of having British talent because we produce such fantastic talent in this country from children right up to adults, but actually, they don't really just want the skill, they want everyone to look cookie-cutter and sweet and freckly and curly-haired. And I say that with a bit of humour, it's not as rigid as that. That's why I do pilot scenes and I don't like saying to actors and actresses, 'Make sure you spruce up', but they have to. You have to put a brush through your hair and you have to look natural, make-up, all of those things, which I find quite shallow and unnecessary, but that is their market. That is what sells in America.
Catherine Willis: I think they also have a taste for something that's much closer to what they're looking for. Whereas I think in this country, we know what make-up can do, we know what wardrobe can do. The girl we cast in The Duchess was from the Midlands and could do a very good, quite neutral Estuary accent, but we knew we could do a little bit of dialect coaching with her if we needed to. Whereas I think in America, they don't often invest that much to get people to where they need them to be. You kind of come in and they make very quick decisions. They're seeing a lot of people, but if you're the one, then great.
Daniel Edwards: Somebody has to get the gig. I mean, we're saying the negative aspects of it, but somebody gets cast. If you look at someone like Noah Jupe, probably one of the most astonishing child actors to come from this country, with an incredible career and a lot of people don't even realise he's English. He's a movie star, he's 14 and he's a phenomenal actor. So, there is the love of the British actor over there. Somebody gets the gig. Somebody gets an amazing career so I don't want to sound negative about those of you that are auditioning for American projects, there is always hope, but the expectation of what producers want tends to be very different than what we have in the UK.
Do you pass on feedback to performers?
Daniel Edwards: We have a technical system in place, which means that when we can release people, we release every single actor, in particular with children. Now, I will only give feedback to either agents who call and ask for it or for children in particular or adults if they're in recall stages. If they’ve gone through that process, they earn that.
I've been in the realm where you're looking at hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of performers, you've not got the time. You could have an entire career of just giving feedback to actors. But then if an agent rings and says, "This kid is new to us...", then I will give them that information. But sometimes I think it's very hard because sometimes the child isn't very good, how do you then give that information?
I will be honest with agents, if it's direct contact with the parents then you have to be very careful what you say. You're talking about somebody's child, so I have to articulate myself. And then also, there are some children, where you realise this child should not be in the industry. You can see that they're being pressured by the parent and they're just disinterested, they're really anxious, and they clearly don't want to be there, how do you then pass that information onto a parent? Because they're there because of the parent. So, feedback is very tricky. And this is no offence to any parents listening, and this is human, parents actually only want feedback if it's positive. They think they want feedback, but actually, they don't, they don't want to hear that their child has not been very good.
Do casting directors go to specific agents or do they share breakdowns widely?
Daniel Edwards: For me, particularly for children, I go completely wide. If the network wants a Noah Jupe, a rising star child, then obviously I will probably tailor-make it to certain agents just because I know that's what they're looking for. But if I'm looking for a newbie or open to searching for a new actor, I will go completely wide.
Catherine Willis: Yeah, same.
Ruth O'Dowd: It just depends on the project really, because sometimes it is just a completely open search and usually off the back of those searches, the children will sign with agents. You do notice patterns that certain agents will have a lot of good kids but I like to keep it as open as possible.
Catherine Willis: This is so specific to each role, there might be an agency where you've seen kids from there for 12 years and not cast one of them or not really rated them, but that one kid comes in who's right for that role. With younger actors, you always have to keep it as open as possible.
Thanks to Catherine, Daniel and Ruth for taking the time to chat with Spotlight members.
Daniel Edwards CDG began his solo casting career in 2014 and to date has incorporated a broad spectrum of screen projects ranging from comedic and dark short films, low budget features to high-end television. Having been a child actor himself he has a forte in child and youth-based drama including finding Fionn Whitehead for ITV’s 'Him' and casting Jack Rowan in his first series lead for 'Born To Kill'. Recently Daniel cast 12-year-old Billy Barratt in the deeply moving BAFTA-nominated 'Responsible Child', having previously cast Billy when he was aged six in 'Mr Selfridge'.
Catherine Willis CDG started Television casting at the BBC in series and serials. She has done extensive casting of young actors for CBBC shows including ‘Hetty Feather’, ‘Wolfblood’, ‘Millie Inbetween’, ‘Secret Life of Boys’ and youth feature film ‘All Stars’. Recent series that include young actors as leading characters include ‘This Way Up’, ‘King Gary’, ‘In The Long Run’, ‘Ladhood’ and soon to be seen Netflix’s ‘The Duchess’.
Ruth O’Dowd is originally from the West of Ireland, Ruth began her career in theatre working in community and education. Ruth is currently working on the feature film ‘Benediction’ and projects for Netflix and Aardman with Lucy Rands CDG. Ruth has also worked with Anne McNulty CDG and Shaheen Baig CDG. Recent theatre projects include 'The High Table' (Bush Theatre & Birmingham Rep), 'My Uncle Is Not Pablo Escobar' (The Advocacy Academy), 'Square Go' (Francesca Moody Productions), 'A New and Better You', 'A Kettle of Fish' (Yard Theatre), 'Skin A Cat' (Bunker Theatre), 'The Velveteen Rabbit', 'How Nigeria Became', 'Caucasian Chalk Circle', 'The Nutcracker', 'My Father Odysseus', 'Minotaur', 'Henry The Fifth', and 'Britain’s Best Recruiting Sergeant' (Unicorn Theatre). Ruth is a mentor to the National Youth Theatre Rep Company, and also mentors on the Roundhouse Creative Leadership Programme.