Incorporating the Variety Artistes' Federation

Giovanni's Story

It's easy to dismiss frustrations about castings as bitter rantings of disgruntled actors. It’s worth remembering that - unlike in other employment fields – when it comes to casting, at least in many of our employers' perception, “artistic decisions” trump all; and because “artistic decisions” are by definition subjective and thus not quantifiable, they can't be questioned.

Before we even get into who is allowed into the room and how they are treated, there is very little oversight over how castings are run: I found myself being sent 15 pages at 5pm for a casting the following day. Everyone can't stay up all night to be off book, because those less privileged among us do have other commitments (and, in fact, even the more successful ones might have things like shows to perform in). It didn't help that, in this particular case, when I got to the audition room, it turned out that the people reading in (the writer/lead/director and the producer) were working from a completely different script, and while they were very apologetic about it, it still meant I had to try and guess where in the script we were. In any other field, all this would be grounds to lodge a complaint – actors are meant to get on with it and stay charming throughout.

In recent years, self-taping has become the norm for screen castings, but there is no unified approach, neither technically nor in terms of what is required.  You're flying blind: you don't necessarily know what is required, nor can you get feedback from the caster in the room. I once was asked to record three different scenes, in two different languages, with two different takes for each scene – that's 12 different videos that I had to then edit (with the addition of an ident – one per language – where I introduced myself – that's 14 videos in total) splice together according to their very specific instructions and upload onto a website of their choice. Including the line learning (and translating, which I was asked to do), recording and post-production, that took me the best part of two days. It goes without saying that the casters and producers can decide to switch it all off after 10 seconds or not watch it at all.  While it gives you access to castings you may normally not be seen for (because of logistics, if nothing else), it also means that it places the onus entirely on you.

All this is before you're even allowed into the room. What gets you or doesn't get you in the room is of course only speculation and unlike with other jobs, where you can test any bias that may be guiding the casting people with blind application, with acting jobs your face is often what gets you – or DOESN'T get you – in the room. Unless you've been (un)lucky enough to sit on the other side of the casting table, you wouldn't know. I had the (mis)fortune of working as a general dogsbody for a theatre producer, and some of the myths that we actors like to propagate to make ourselves feel less inadequate sadly proved to have some bearing on reality. Yes, now and then an actor – especially at the end of the day, when you're tired – will be invited just as something for the panel to laugh at. Yes, sometimes actors – professional working actors who've previously worked for the panel – will be invited just to show the panel “what we don't want” - this is somebody who prepared for this audition and thought they had a chance. They didn't know they were there only as an embodiment of what they weren't looking for.

Sometimes, however, you're lucky enough to hear face-to-face what they're thinking. You will hear on two separate instances, in fact, that you're not English-looking enough to be English, but “not ethnic enough to be ethnic” (that's a literal quote). Or maybe your agent will tell you before you go to a casting for the romantic interest (and you NEVER usually get seen for the romantic interest) that you shouldn't take this personally, but she got some feedback on another one of her actors who was being seen for a similar part. The feedback was that even though the reading was fine, during the post-reading chat, it became clear that he was... you know... he was... and could he keep it up? You want to shout back that Tom Hanks and Sean Penn were never asked if he could keep up “the gay”, but you don't. And when you're auditioning for a Bollywood movie, and your character is a pastry baker and they keep emphasising that over and over again in the casting as you try to play a human being until you realise what they mean by a “baker” and as you give them the caricature they were hoping to get, their eyes light up...

Being an LGB (I am purposely leaving out non-cisgender actors, as they face a whole series of issues a non-cisgender actor would be able to speak to more eloquently and knowledgeably) actor is unique in that your sexuality is not necessarily visible and intangible and in some ways only starts existing in the casters' heads once it's openly revealed in whatever shape or form. The moment that happens, however, it dramatically changes how you're perceived. Suddenly, authenticity becomes a totem everyone has to kneel in front of and once you've opened that box it becomes difficult to close it again. Unless the perception of you is so solid that changing it is almost impossible, in which case coming out with it is a calculated risk, allowing that to be known or even to seep through (one wrong remark may do the trick ) is a decision you have to make. It's a decision between matching a preconceived ideal -one that, even if you're out you have to subscribe to and the “opposite” of which you have to publicly decry in order to be allowed to embody it or being true to yourself, which will most probably make you a better actor, but might severely limit how you're viewed. And it's a question that – based on conversations I've had – is more controversial than one might think for an industry as ostensibly enlightened as ours.