Casting is one of the trickier aspects of making your short film, but it’s also one of the most rewarding. Watching a great actor bring your words to life in a way that’s better than you could have imagined is a genuinely thrilling experience.
So… how do you find actors?
You can check out local theater companies or groups, general acting classes, or try to reach out to college students on film and theater courses. Finding groups or classes is a matter of googling in your area, but you can also check the noticeboards in local coffee shops, or go to some theaters near you and ask if they know of any acting classes nearby. For schools, you can reach out to the relevant professor of acting or theater courses. In all cases, speak to whoever runs the class or course or workshop, and ask if you can sit in. This way you can watch the actors doing their thing, and start getting an idea of who you might want in your movie.
If you find a local acting class or workshop, consider joining it and taking part. It will only help you as a writer if you know what it feels like to be saying words in front of a camera, and it will also help you genuinely connect with actors. You might also get the chance to test drive some of your pages or scenes — this is a hugely helpful process, since sometimes you only know when a scene is working once you get it on its feet. Oftentimes, you’ll want to rewrite when you see things aren’t working, or if the actors discover something about your scene beyond what you originally wrote — that’s especially satisfying!
Before you cast, you will need to consider whether you want to hire SAG actors, or nonunion actors. Working with SAG will require more logistics and a great budget. If you’re at the lower budget, DIY end of the short film spectrum (like us, and most others), your best bet is to use nonunion actors. If you’re really low budget, you may not be paying them at all — the key thing is to be upfront about your project with them. You will absolutely have to feed them, on the shoot day, maybe at table reads, and you should make sure to burn the movie onto DVDs for them afterwards, so they have material they can use for their acting reels. Many low budget shorts don’t pay the actors, and often don’t pay anyone else either. The art of making a low budget short movie is the art of calling in favors, and being amazingly efficient with the money you do have. (More on that in a later post).
Good actors love working, and nonunion actors will often agree to work for free if your project is genuinely small, low or no budget, and you are upfront with them. They get to do the thing they love, get something for their reel (and free food for however many days you shoot for), and they get to work with someone who might make it big someday (we’re talking about you! Yes, you!). Be passionate about your script, and be understanding and supportive of your actors, and you can get beautiful results.
If you attend an acting class, you may get an idea of which particular actors you’d like to cast, especially if you bring some scenes and have different actors play the roles. If you’re not sure, you can set up an audition. If it turns out that you can’t find the right actor for a particular part, it may be worth rewriting the script slightly to accommodate the actors that you have access to. (We’ll cover that later to0)!
If you’re part of a local class or course of actors, setting up an audition in the space they use can be relatively easy, if you have the OK of the class leader or professor. You’ll have a ready made space, and usually cameras and lights too. Again, as long as you’re respectful and professional, actors won’t mind auditioning for you — it gives them extra practice at the nerve-wracking art of auditioning.
If you don’t have a connection to local actors, you can advertise locally, by putting up notices in coffee shops, or theaters, or community centers. You can also put your notice on backstage.com, which is an essential resource for actors. You’ll need somewhere to hold your audition — you might want to try asking favors, e.g. if your local coffee shop has a room for events or readings, you can ask if you can use it for a reduced, or no, fee. Same for your local library. Be resourceful — you need a room, with an area outside for your actors to wait their turn. Be aware, this all refers to open auditions, so you have no idea of who is going to show up! It’s easier all round if you can sync up with a local group of actors, but we get that it’s not always possible. As with every aspect of making a short film on a low budget, you can only do what’s realistic for you and your situation. If you can’t make a local connection, and the idea of setting up and holding auditions seems beyond the scope of what you had planned, you may need to use friends and family. You never know, you may uncover some hidden talent!
Once you’ve tracked down your gang of actors and hired them, you should have them sign release forms — basically, you cannot use someone’s likeness unless they specifically give you written permission to do so. You can then proceed with the rest of preproduction, and also start scheduling your shooting days.
It’s always exciting when you lock down your cast, because then you can really start to see how great your short is going to be!