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Tracy WeisertSynopsis by Tracy Weisert

Our Inside the Industry Seminars ended with a giant bang for 2008!

Our guest speaker on December 13 was feature film casting director extraordinaire, Debra Zane. Some of the feature films she has cast include Revolutionary Road, Dreamgirls, Traffic, American Beauty, Seabiscuit, The Terminal, Men In Black, Pleasantville and Ocean’s Eleven, Twelve andThirteen – just to name a few. Ms. Zane has also been nominated twelve times for the Casting Society of America’s Artios Awards and has won three times!

I was particularly proud of this seminar because a month earlier, I had decided on the spur of the moment to call Ms. Zane and ask her to be our guest speaker. When she said “yes” to my invitation, the pragmatic businesswoman in me was calm and collected, but the professional actor in me was jumping for joy and feeling butterflies inside! Yowza!!!!!

For someone with her credits and the level of esteem she has achieved in her field, Ms. Zane was very humble and down-to-earth. She started the seminar by saying, “I never know what I’m going to say that’s going to hit one or two of you and change something in your heads.”

We also had a record response to the seminar. I want to personally thank everyone in attendance for their patience as we packed the room to its rafters (and legal limits!) so that no one was turned away.

Once we got started, someone in the audience immediately asked, “What do you look for?”

“That is the wrong question,” Ms Zane said. “It’s not about what I look for.  It’s about you and what you bring to an audition. Casting directors generally have much better imaginations than directors and producers who need to see you in a role much more than they can imagine you in it. Go the extra mile. I am not saying go rent some elaborate Crusader costume or whatever, but do something to help yourself. I know sometimes it’s a little bit harder to figure it out, but that’s the point.  Other people will be going the extra mile – other people who are your competition.  You will not move forward unless you try extra hard, because it’s too competitive.”

“When you ask the question, ‘What are you looking for?’, my answer is that I am looking for characters to populate a story the director and writer are trying to tell – forever and always – because casting is forever in film, right?”

“You see a movie and forever, from now on, Harrison Ford is Han Solo. That’s it. Now think about yourself within this context. If I am looking for someone who is going through a divorce in the story, any actor can imagine what that might feel like. But if you’re an actor who I know has gone through a divorce, perhaps you might cut it closer to the bone with your performance. I’m not saying that you have to murder someone to play a serial killer, but an actor who I know can get in touch with more of those kinds of feelings is going to be the one I’m interested in.”

“Sometimes who you are personally is not how you are perceived, which is why you see a lot of ‘bad guys’ playing bad guys all the time. They might be the sweetest guys in the world, or they might be your neighbor – you might know these guys, but they are always playing the bad guy because they look like killers. That’s how it is. You may spend a whole career playing bad guys and there is nothing you can do about it. You can go onstage and play a comedy or try and show people what you can do, but it is unlikely that you will be able to break that impression of you in the minds of casting directors, directors and producers.”

Ms. Zane went on to tell us a little bit about how she got into casting to begin with.

“Here’s a little about me, just so that you know how people come into the field of casting. This is my experience only, and I cannot speak for all casting people because everyone has a different way of doing things. I tend to work in features, so I don’t know about commercials or [one hour] episodics.”

“I had been involved in theatre since elementary school, and then I studied it in college. I studied the Meisner technique in New York City after that and decided that I didn’t have the patience to search for an agent and try to go on auditions.  I found that in the scheme of my lifetime I wasn’t comfortable with letting agents I had met be in charge of my career trajectory.  I knew I loved actors, though.  I am amazed by actors.”

“I feel like I got lucky, because I kind of fell into feature films. I was a production assistant, but after the film wrapped the casting director, David Rubin, hired me. I began at the bottom.”

Ms. Zane moved up within the industry. “I think this is an important thing to know,” she said. “You can look at my list of credits and think that I only work on really big films, but I do have a Dolf Lundgren movie on my resume.  You take what you can get when you’re getting started, because work begets work.  After a while, because I didn’t spend more than I earned, I was able to start saying, ‘no’ to projects I wouldn’t want to go see or that I wouldn’t want my name on. I ended up in a weird way getting to work on projects that were maybe a little classier, and then I guess I built a reputation of, ‘Oh, she wouldn’t do that.’

“By the way, if anyone’s looking for a casting director now, I just might do it!  We are working in a totally different climate right now.  In this climate, we need to say ‘yes’ to all jobs! I think this has to be everybody’s motto for awhile.”

Ms. Zane advised us to be prepared when reading for her, but to also lend ourselves to the role. She gave this great example of what she meant: while helping a friend cast a role in a “highly coveted” film in New York that took place in the 1920s, she auditioned an actor who gave a very good first audition.  The “top shelf” director couldn’t picture him in the role because he looked too modern, so Ms. Zane advised him to “wear a button-down shirt and a vest and shave off his scruff.”

Ms. Zane also had these thoughts to share:

  • “I am definitely going to sit up straighter if I see Julliard, Tisch School of the Arts or Carnegie Mellon on your resume, but I also know that actors with this kind of training can be a bit over-the-top. If you don’t have a school like that on your resume, you have to have some acting chops.”
  • “Please spend a little bit less time worrying about your headshots. You’ve got to get your head into a different place – a place about the work and your performance. Start thinking about things a bit differently.”
  • “I look for you to be prepared. Please never come in and say, ‘Is this a comedy or a drama?’ There is too much information available to you not to have as much as you need to go into a room and present yourself in the best way you can.  Give yourself the best possible chance to compete with other people who are auditioning for the same part. Don’t just wing it! It is less likely that you will have a career if you fly by the seat of your pants. It’s too competitive.”
  • “Be prepared, but be willing to dial your performance down. When you’ve spent the time preparing, it shows.”
  • “I like an actor to have their lines memorized but hold their sides. Since all auditions are taped, I want the camera to see your face and eyes!”
  • “There is no downside to self-submissions except the postage.  Just make sure they’re smart, classy and timely.  I’ve gotten submissions for movies that are already in theaters!”
  • “I go through the mail every day. Right now, I’m not working on a film, so I go through the mail more casually. When I was casting Jarhead, I looked at every postcard and headshot submission from young men.”
  • “Actors should think of themselves as a small business. You have to figure it out and you have to be in charge of your career. Don’t let anything stop you.”
  • “Casting directors want you to do well. Please understand that.”
  • “I like electronic submissions and they’re an important tool.  I can send them on to directors and producers really easily.  Show me your very best stuff when you send them, though.”

Ms. Zane also told us an enlightening story about how she worked as a background player on Dreamgirls for one day. She had worked casting the film for months. After being made up in her 1960’s beehive hairdo, make-up and wardrobe, she went on set and none of her film colleagues recognized her. She told us that she finally felt “the cold shoulder that extras get” and it was illuminating.

Thank you, Ms. Zane, for your warmth and candid, savvy wisdom about the industry. It was invaluable!

Email Tracy, or find her on IMDB