Five Useful Mantras for Pilot Season (and Beyond!)

It’s a stressful time of year. Many of us cling to whatever form of sanity (read: wine) to help us survive until mid-April. But as you all know, the more we let anxiety and stress into our bodies, the harder it is to function. So here are a few helpful mantras or mindsets to aid […]

10 Things to Remember as We Enter Pilot Season

As we head in to the craziest time of year, here are a few things to remember (in no particular order): 1. Practice patience with appointments and sessions. Appointments or self-tape requests may not be flooding in yet. Stay calm and read this blog post. And please be patient with Casting when we run an […]

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! […]

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! Distantly,” she answered.

My interest was piqued. I had ZERO idea what “Casting” meant, what it involved, how you did it or how you became someone who had a career in it, but I had a good guess that Casting was related to actors. And through Ronnie, I sort of “knew” somebody who did it. Those two things seemed pretty awesome to me. My Grandma, ever the educator and go-getter, saw my interest, (and also saw that I was in North Dakota where I was unlikely to gain any sort of relevant experience or find any information on the career,) and set out to help me learn more about it.

During one visit to Manhattan, she bought me an issue of the Ross Reports. There was a big article listing that year’s “Top 10 Casting Directors” with interviews and the occasional (gasp!) email address. (This was the late 90s… Casting was still very much a messenger/snail mail field.) I wrote to every CD who listed an address, asking how they became Casting Directors and what I should do to follow in their footsteps. One of them wrote back. I don’t remember much about our exchange (and those emails have gone the way of my aol account,) but I do remember him saying that there’s nothing you could study in school to be a CD and that I should start interning immediately.

Thus, my NJ-based Grandma set out on a quest to find me an internship. She doesn’t have any direct connection to the industry herself, but she has friends who have friends and she’s not afraid to ask. A few months before I graduated high school, my Grandma called to tell me that she had gotten me an internship at a NY talent agency for the summer. If I wanted it, I had to call this number and say I was Marion Landew’s granddaughter and yes, I’d be thrilled to have the opportunity.

So I did exactly that. I was 18 years old, taking the train from my grandparents’ house in Jersey into Manhattan every day. After a few weeks doing all kinds of tasks from calling to release clients after a commercial hold (ugh,) to sorting head shots, to working the front desk, some kind agents asked me what I REALLY wanted to do. “I think I want to be a Casting Director,” I said. The next day, one of the assistants called to tell me that instead of coming in to the office, I should go to this other building. I was going to help out a commercial Casting Director for a day while she had a session.

I sat in that hot waiting room, (July in New York with maybe a whiff of window AC,) checking actors in, taking their Polaroids, answering phones, pointing people in the direction of the bathroom… it was a (sweaty) three hour day of work and it might’ve been the most exciting three hours of my life. After that, I had no doubt that I wanted to be a Casting Director.

Flash forward a few years… I’ve just graduated from USC and I’m trying to find a job as a Casting Assistant in Los Angeles. By now, I’ve had about eight different internships, many of them coming by way of the previous thanks to that very first Grandma-supplied opportunity in New York. Lo and behold, one day I see a notice that Ronnie Yeskel is looking for an assistant. I’m literally panting with anticipation as I shoot her an email and not-so-subtly say that “if nothing else, it would be great to meet a member of my family.”

A few days later, I go in to interview with Ronnie. She asks me some cursory questions and then after a few minutes blurts, “so, HOW exactly are we related?” I explain: my grandmother is Marion, her sister is Evelyn and she’s married to Stanley. Ronnie nods and then dials someone on speaker phone. A woman picks up and Ronnie says, “Mom… do you know Marion Landew?” “Oh yes!” her mom says. “That’s Stanley and Evelyn’s sister. You’ve met her before at so-and-so’s Bar Mitzvah.” The conversation goes on a few more minutes. Ronnie is smiling ear-to-ear by the end of the call and I leave that meeting having been given a job assisting the woman who first piqued my interest in the field.

If it weren’t for my Grandmother, there’s a decent chance I would be doing something else right now. When I was first interested in Casting, there were not many places I could go to find information. It was at such a pivotal (about-to-apply-to-college) point in my life, that I could’ve just as easily gone on and studied some other part of film (or something else entirely.) She guided my research and knocked on doors when I had no idea where or how to begin doing either.

I name-dropped the hell out of her to get my first internship and my first full-time gig. But then, I have always been proud to introduce myself as “Marion Landew’s granddaughter.”

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.

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