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The Industry

John Cannon has been working in casting since 1989 with the National Theatre, having headed up the casting department at the RSC, cast several independent films and television, he now works at the BBC. He spoke to actress and blogger Domenique Fragale, to talk about his past work, life experience, and casting today.

What made you want to go into casting?

Initially I’d wanted to go into acting, only for a very short time – I played Trinculo in an am-dram production, something I believed I played very well!

Photo ©: John Cannon

Then when we went on a school trip to see Derek Jacobi in the RSC’s The Tempest; Alun Armstrong played Trinculo. He did everything that I did, except one hundred times better.  I gave up on my acting pretensions and discovered the joys of stage management and that’s what led me into casting.

I was stage-managing a fringe show, whilst temping in an agent’s office during the day and he offered me a full time job. I always found it interesting, so I took it and then fell into his habit of going to the theatre every night.

I saw a lot of plays and when I was doing that and I kept bumping into Serena Hill, who, at the time, was Head of Casting at the National and she told me that a maternity leave replacement was coming up. I applied and got the job. I went freelance after three years; and was working for many companies that didn’t have an in-house casting director, such as the Gate, the Bush, the Almeida, ETT and basically doing a ton of plays, when the Deputy Head of Casting at the RSC came up, a ten year job, and frighteningly I’ve now been at the BBC for ten years – it’s gone by so fast!

When you get hundreds upon hundreds of applications for actors to be seen for a role, what attracts you initially to call someone in?

Initially a photo will spark your interest when you are looking through Spotlight – if it is someone you know already you have that familiarity filed in your head. If you are considering people you don’t know, in those cases you look closely at their face, their back credits and see ‘well if they’ve played that role; that requires similar emotional territory to what we’re looking for’. Have they worked with the same director more than once etc. Especially considering that Spotlight is so great now as a showcase for skills; you can look at several photos, watch a showreel, and get a much better image of what someone’s like.

Do you remember actors from a casting that perhaps weren’t right for one role, but are for another?

No meetings are ever wasted, especially when you’re doing the continuing television that I am doing now. If an actor doesn’t get this episode, there will be another in four/five months’ time where the actor will be equally suitable for the role. It’s not so painful to say ‘Sorry, it’s not worked out.’

Whereas, in theatre, if you get someone auditioning for Romeo, they get through to the final stage and you have to call them and say they haven’t got it, that’s quite painful.

It’s always a difficult choice when you see actors throw in all their blood, sweat and tears.

When you bring in the actors for a role, you bring them in because you believe they can each do the role equally well, it’s just a case of choosing the ‘right’ one for what you’re doing.

It’s rare for an actor not to get the job because of their quality of acting, it’s all the other elements – how they fit, what they look like, physical traits, who they’re related to in the storyline for example.

How many actors on average do you bring in to be seen?

It’s brutal, but I generally start with around five actors and then go on from there – if things don’t work out. A big part of our job is to save people time, there is often only a short amount of time available for casting – so part of our expertise is putting the right people in front of the director  so they don’t have to continuously keep going on to find ‘the One.’

When we are casting a new regular we throw the net much wider and start with approx. twenty people but the character brief is often much more fluid.

Is it true or ‘rumour’ that actors represented by lesser-known agencies do not get seen as much as those from the bigger agencies?

That is an urban myth; there is an undeniable logic that those bigger agents do have a bigger pool of talent, so that is why it looks like they get all the parts. But there’s no real truth to casting directors going straight to them solely.

We certainly don’t at the BBC; our remit is that everyone is a stakeholder because they have a television license. We put our breakdowns on the Spotlight Link and our Holby list has something like 279 agents on it and that isn’t even everyone! So we get thousands of suggestions made for our episodes that we look at.

One of the great things about our work is that we are on the look out for people that are off the beaten track and yet to be discovered.​

Do you have any pet peeves and top tips for actors?

There are the obvious tips, such as being on time, doing your prep.

There is an element of flannelling that I don’t like – try and keep questions as specific as possible.

Another tip is that I want an actor to be sharp and look prepared – there is so much information available these days. It’s easy to watch a couple of episodes of the show you’re coming in for; to suss out what the director’s like; what they have done before. Immediately it puts you on a good footing.

Avoid excuse making such as ‘I only just got the script last night, I haven’t had time.’ It may well be a true and valid reason, but not something you want to play too strongly.

There is also a funny thing as to whether you should learn sides or not – certain casting directors and situations I know expect you to be off book, but for our material, we don’t. We know it is most likely going to be re-written by the time you get to set anyway, but we don’t want you to get stuck in your head trying to remember what comes next instead of being fluid in your natural emotional playing of the scene.

My advice is to always decide before entering the room what you’re going to do; if you’re going to learn them off by heart, that’s fine, the same if you want to read them, but avoid that middle ground of being unsure; half-learned can be bad and counterproductive for your performance. If you’re half remembering it, you’re most likely going to add in pauses, noises or extra words like ‘like’ whilst you try to remember what to say – it destroys the performance, so for me it’s either all or nothing. Like everything – if in doubt get your agent to check what is required.

New modern technology is fantastic, it’s incredibly efficient, scripts can be sent, meetings set up speedily, the down side is they are often arranged with less than twenty-four hours’ notice, providing a very short window of time to prep, on top of living your life outside of acting. We understand it can be difficult for an actor so I do strive to set up auditions with as much time beforehand as possible.

I also want an actor to be honest. If we ask ‘so what have you been up to recently?’ and the answer is that it has been quiet for you, then just say so. You’re in the room; you’re there because we want you to get the job so whatever you say is fine. It is not shameful if you haven’t been working for six months, it’s just how it is. It’s always more interesting to know what a person’s been doing for real.

What is your process in the room?

It can vary, most of our meetings we set up to be either fifteen or twenty minutes. We’ll most likely start with an initial ‘relaxing’ chat to make you feel at your most comfortable.

We’re riding the green wave, so we’ve stopped printing sides and leaving them for actors at the stage door and instead just keep a copy in the room. We’ll always keep a copy ready for you to use because we know that printing sides, and in some cases full scripts, is another financial cost actors have to deal with, so we of course want to help with that as much as we can.

Things that may seem a big deal to you aren’t usually to me, such as performing with glasses on. I know there are debates about that, but I don’t mind either way – you wouldn’t believe the amount of times I have had actors really fret over that.

We’ll most likely get you to re-do the scene under different direction – for a better impression of what you can do, as well as to see how you take direction.

During or after, if you have any questions, I want an actor to just ask (regardless of how small or insignificant you think it may be, they never are) if it helps you, the actor, in any way, it’s only a benefit.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

Seeing the end product is definitely a big one. Doing the meetings as well, because you’re hearing the script performed and brought to life in different ways; people come in with such diverse approaches. So putting it all together is great. When you watch the final edit, it can be very rewarding.  Especially with new people, and you’re giving them their first job, then a few years later they pop up doing something really interesting and you feel satisfied.

Even though we do this job for many years, no two days are ever the same because the work is always changing.


A note from Domenique:

As actors we’re always anxious to see what the casting director is going to be like as soon as we walk into the audition room. Sometimes we’re lucky and they’re patient, supportive and easy-going. Other times they’re short on time, brash, or cold – thankfully John was one of the friendliest people I’ve ever met! However, what came to my mind when writing this article was that no matter who’s in that room; the big name reading with you or casting this job, don’t be intimidated. We’re all equal. They’re there because they’re good at their job and so are you. You wouldn’t have been asked to be there if no-one believed you could do it.

Of course we all get nervous, but try to put that to the back of your mind or use it as fuel for your emotion, because you got this! If you can leave the room thinking ‘I did the best that I could possibly do’, you did your job. The rest is out of your control and if your look or style is right for the role, it’s yours. If not, move on to the next one because you never know, you might not have been right for this role, but that phone call for the next role with the same casting director could be right around the corner.