My Casting Origin Story

My Grandmother can easily be credited with kick-starting my Casting career. When I was 15 or 16 years old, we were watching a movie together and as the end credits rolled, I saw “Casting By Ronnie Yeskel.” I turned to my Grandma, “Are we related to Ronnie Yeskel?” (My Grandma’s sister married a Yeskel.) “Yep! […]

The Value of Unpaid or Low-Paying Jobs

As the Geoffrey Owens story reverberated around the internet last week, I was literally vibrating with utter rage at this view of actors/artists, and the idea that to work a day job or a second job makes you sad or unsuccessful. Geoffrey is not only a WILDLY talented actor, he is also a massively big-hearted […]

My Biggest Career Regret

My biggest career regret doesn’t actually involve Casting. (Lord knows I’ve made plenty of mistakes in my career, but those all feel like true lessons and growth experiences, not regrets.) I think about this particular story often because when I was faced with a clear choice, I made the objectively wrong decision and the pain […]

The Value of Unpaid or Low-Paying Jobs

As the Geoffrey Owens story reverberated around the internet last week, I was literally vibrating with utter rage at this view of actors/artists, and the idea that to work a day job or a second job makes you sad or unsuccessful. Geoffrey is not only a WILDLY talented actor, he is also a massively big-hearted and incredibly professional guy. I know because he’s worked for me, for little-to-no money, when I ecstatically cast him in a web series a million years ago.

And that brings up an important topic: if you are cast in a low-paying or no-paying job, (and supplementing your income some other way,) is that work any less valuable?

I have cast a number of projects that pay $100/day (web series, short films, ULB features,) or $9/performance (LA theatre.) I have cast many projects (including several TV shows,) where the union minimums were all we could pay, and that is sometimes far less than an actor’s earned quote. For ALL of these projects, I and the creative team involved would always want the best possible actor for the job: the actor who will elevate the material in ways we could only dream. So we would reach and hope to not insult anybody by offering a (sometimes laughably) nominal fee.

Of course, for these low-paying offers, Casting will often get passes based solely on the money; some actors prefer not to work for such low rates, and some simply can’t commit the time (child care, time away from other paying jobs, etc.) for that kind of fee. But we can get fabulous actors to come work for very little money because the script is SO good, or the producers all have track records, or because it’s an amazing program/school/cause, etc. In those cases, it is clear that the actor is not there for the money but for the creativity, or for the relationship-building, or to bolster and support a new/young/underrepresented filmmaker, or any other special combination of reasons with emotional value.

And guess what: every craft person in the entertainment industry has at one time or another worked for free or for very little. I have cast numerous plays and I get “paid” in the form of reserved seats to a performance, (and love, so much love.) The web series I cast Geoffrey in… I did that as a favor to the producers. For a number of the series I have worked on, I took a pay cut because I wanted to work on that particular project, with those people. I haven’t regretted any of them. Casting theatre is one of the most precious things I do; it fills my heart every time. All of the jobs I volunteered on or took pay cuts for were worth it for one reason or another. But I couldn’t have committed time to them if I didn’t have a second or third paying job to help cover my expenses. (Day care ain’t free, yo.)

(Addendum: I do RESENT one of these low-paying gigs. I don’t regret this particular project or my work on it, but I object to the way the producers valued my and the actors’ work.)

This is what we, as artists do. We make things work financially because we NEED to be creatively fulfilled. Are there times when we need to say “no” to low-paying/no-paying jobs: absolutely. Not every project or role will pay enough emotional dividends to make it worth the time or energy. It’s ok to pass on those ones.

Here’s an easy list of questions to ask yourself when faced with a low-paying/no paying/”please do me this favor” gig:

Q. Do I LOVE the script/role?

Q. Is there a chance this character could evolve and more work could come from it?

Q. Am I excited and energized to work with the creative team (Casting Directors, Director, Producers, Writer)?

Q. Am I feeling at all resentful because it seems like the project has a big budget but they’re shooting non-union (and paying very little)?

Q. Does the creative team and crew seem professional and respectful?

Q. Will this provide great footage for my reel OR a great relationship for future work?

Q. How much time is required? If it’s a long stretch of time, will I have time for another source of income?

Q. Is this a union job? Will it get me into the union?

Weigh the pros and cons each time so you are fully aware of the financial/emotional cost and payout. If it ultimately feels VALUABLE then it will be, even if it simply serves as a learning experience.

And in the meantime, remember that there is zero shame in working multiple jobs so as to allow yourself the freedom to take class, to write, to perform, to help out friends, to say “yes” when a low-paying acting job feels RIGHT… the freedom to pursue your dream career.

My Biggest Career Regret

My biggest career regret doesn’t actually involve Casting. (Lord knows I’ve made plenty of mistakes in my career, but those all feel like true lessons and growth experiences, not regrets.) I think about this particular story often because when I was faced with a clear choice, I made the objectively wrong decision and the pain of that is still with me to this day.

When I was 23 years old, I was the associate producer on a big annual showcase. I had never had that kind of responsibility, and I truly LOVED it. I was so proud of the show and of our actors. I was beyond thrilled to be involved, especially in (what I deemed) was such an important capacity.

Three days before our first performance, during a tech rehearsal, I got a call from my Mom: my 92-year old grandfather (in North Dakota) had passed away. It’s Jewish custom to bury the dead quickly, so the funeral would be in two days, (the day of our final dress rehearsal and when everything needed to composed, compiled and in tip-top shape.) I was not close with this grandfather: there’s a mile-long story there, but suffice it to say that I would only want to be at the funeral to support the rest of my family. So my first reaction in hearing this news was to cry not in mourning but in total unfairness at the TIMING. This was my first really big and “important” job, and now I would have to fly home (at great cost,) to North Dakota to help eulogize a man for whom I didn’t particularly care, getting me back to LA after our opening performance. Not to mention that it was January and when you’re flying in and out of North Dakota in January, there is ZERO guarantee of getting anywhere, let alone on time.

My parents, being as supportive as ever, told me not to worry about coming home. Everyone understood that I had a “big job” and it was ok to stay in LA and focus on it. I told my boss what was going on and she was kind and sympathetic, but she also didn’t try to convince me to go. I took that as a sign that I really was NEEDED in LA, and flying home would clearly leave too many people in the lurch. I called my parents and told them I wouldn’t be there.

The day of the funeral, my Mom thoughtfully called me and held up her cell phone during the graveside service so I could hear what was happening. (Technology was pretty crappy then… I really couldn’t hear anything.) But by (literally) phoning in for the funeral, I felt absolved of my guilt for not being there. The service was short, and afterwards I hung up and went back to the booth to check on lighting cues.

The next day our show opened and everything went great; audiences loved it, the actors were getting great feedback, and I was flying on pure adrenaline. It was about a week later, once the dust had settled and life started to feel normal again, that I felt this hard stone of regret in my belly. I couldn’t shake the shame that grew from it and to this day, many (cough) years later, that lump of remorse is still very much with me.

At the end of the day, despite any nuances in my reasoning, I made a conscious decision to forgo a major family event because I thought I was irreplaceable and that they, (the show, the actors, my boss,) couldn’t function without me. (Hint: they ALL would’ve functioned JUST FINE without me. Self-importance – 1, Me – 0.) I will never forget the moment when it finally occurred to me that I had put my career before my family, and the clarity of how wrong that was.

So to all of you hard-working artists, you self-employed passionate people, heed this advice: you are human beings FIRST. Your family, your/their health (mental and physical,) should ALWAYS take priority over work, even when it feels like a career-ending decision. (It won’t be, I promise you. That was the first and last show I ever produced.) Ever since this experience, I do whatever I can to show up for my family, including flying cross-country for 24 hours out of a week-long family vacation. It was a painful lesson to learn, and I’m grateful for how it’s changed me, but I wouldn’t wish the experience on anyone.

Mark my words: there is no job that will pay you enough (financially, creatively,) to make up for endless regret.

Tales from the Audition Room: Part 4

Back when I was 22 yrs old, (which was yesterday, obviously,) I cast my very first ultra low budget feature. The producer was a friend of mine and the script was an interesting psychological thriller, being directed by the writer, (who was also 22 yrs old, and fresh out of film school.)

We held auditions for the lead roles and some wonderful and experienced actors came in to read for our little $100/day project. Many actors passed or decided to be offer only, but the few who did come in provided an invaluable experience to these budding filmmakers.

One such actress is someone with a long resume, who you would all know and recognize. She came in to read and was terrific; very respectful and gave a great read. I advocated like crazy for her, but my filmmakers were undecided and wanted to do callbacks. (Callbacks on $100/day projects are a hard sell to agents and actors, alike. If it’s a chemistry read, that’s one thing, but to have a callback with the same group of people who were there for the first read… if we can get anybody to come back in, it’s often begrudgingly.)

This actor came back without any sort of complaint. She walked into the room with positivity and calmness, and the director said to her, “thanks for coming back. We just want to try a few things.” She said, “Great!” and then crouched down a few feet in front of him while he explained what he wanted to do. She listened closely, asked a few clarifying questions and then stood up and performed his notes brilliantly. I’ve always remembered that behavior – she physically put herself in a position where she had to look up at him. It wasn’t that she was being obsequious or suggestive, she was giving him the feeling of being the one to listen to. (And there could have been a multitude of reasons she did this – get her blood pumping, for one – but whatever her reasons, this move gave the impression that she was actively ready to get his notes and implement his ideas.)

This woman had years of experience on all of us – her credits far outweighed all of ours (combined,) and without question, she had been on about a zillion more sets and through hundreds of more auditions than the rest of us. But for the five minutes that she was in that tiny room for a callback on an ultra low budget feature by a brand new director, she made all of us feel as though we were the most important filmmakers she’s ever worked with, and that she was there to be an instrument in our symphony. It instilled in all of us a newfound confidence that we employed through the rest of the project, (and for me, far beyond this particular feature.)

I have remembered that woman and that moment since then. I’ve tried to hire her (or at least audition her,) as often as I can. Any actor with that kind of kindness, openness and respect for others is someone ANY of us would be lucky to work with.

Tales from the Audition Room: Part 3

Several years ago, we were casting a pilot with well-known producers and a big name director. It was an ensemble cast, but there was a leading man role that you could assume would be offered out based on his description, (40s, male, former hero and “leader of the pack” type,) story line and the people involved with the show. We had our lists of namey-name actors, and we did try to offer it out to a few of them, but nothing was sticking and after seeing some guys read, our producers wanted it to come from someone who would audition. So, we read guys, and re-read them, tested a few with no success, and pulled self-tapes from England, Australia, Canada, the moon and beyond.

As we were getting down to the wire, we brought in an actor who had everything we were looking for: he had a leading man look, charisma, and was age-appropriate. He had been the lead of series previously, (not super recently, but nonetheless,) and he could certainly handle the material.

He shuffled back toward our audition room with his shoulders slightly slumped and his head down. As we were mic-ing him and providing some additional back story, he looked at us and said, “I’m not really sure why I’m here.” My boss and I looked at him, a little dumbfounded. “What do you mean?” she said. “Well, I can tell what you need in this character, and I’m sure I’m just not enough of a name for it, so I don’t really know what I’m doing here.” He didn’t say this with any sort of disdain. He stated it with the utter sadness of not being talented or well-known enough to even deserve a shot.

We spent the next five minutes trying to explain that he truly DID have a shot, for the reasons I’ve already mentioned and many more. We also told him that we wouldn’t just be reading him for the hell of it this late in the game. You could see that he took our emphatic reasoning as lip-service. He listened, acknowledged what we were saying but didn’t truly believe it. Unsurprisingly, he gave a vaguely depressing read with zero heart or energy. He left looking just as disappointed as he had when he walked in.

The moral of the story is this: you will sometimes go out for roles that you think, “I’m totally wrong for this,” or “they might offer this out,” or you may even go in for roles knowing that there is CURRENTLY an offer out on that role. In all of those scenarios, you STILL have a shot at that role, (Casting wouldn’t be reading you otherwise.) And if nothing else, give a great read and Casting will be excited to think of you for something else.

If you think there’s been a MISUNDERSTANDING – something about your headshot or resume made it seem like you were capable of something that you really aren’t, THEN it would behoove you to have your reps call Casting to ask if you should still read. If it doesn’t matter that much, we will tell you to still come in. If it’s utterly important to the character or world, we will appreciate your honesty and read you for something else down the line.

Otherwise, you should always walk into the audition room with the confidence that Casting has selected YOU, out of THOUSANDS to be there. If you’ve gotten that far, you’ve got a real shot at it. Check your emotional baggage at the door and focus on being there, in that moment, and having fun.

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