How a casting director goes through thousands of submissions, what it’s like casting for LOST, and how to stand out in auditions
Farrah West is a casting director in Los Angeles with projects like LOST, What About Brian and dozens of feature films on her ever-growing resume. She has impeccable taste in talent especially because she recently cast one of my actors, Tom Plumley, as the lead actor in Max Reload and the Nether Blasters, a super fun, adventurous video-game feature film that’s currently filming in Phoenix, Arizona. Working with Farrah on casting my actor was easy and exciting, which isn’t always a given in our bottom-line-obsessed industry. I could tell she took a deep interest in protecting the talent while also being passionate about the project and its possibilities. I was so excited when Farrah wanted to sit down and be interviewed on Actors For Lunch—check it out!
How did you become a casting director?
FARRAH: I wanted to do casting since I was 11. But I was from Ohio so I didn’t know how to do it or really what it was. All I knew was that I watched so many shows like Love Boat, Night Rider, old 80’s stuff, and a lot of movies, too, like Ferris Bueller, any John Hughes movies, and I was so fascinated. I thought, ‘I just want to be the person picking these actors out. That’s all I want to do.’ Later, I got into dancing and musical theatre, even pageant-land. I was with an agency for commercials in Columbus, Ohio called Colleen Shannon Talent Agency. One day, the owner told me she was closing the business. I was 19 and I thought, ‘This is what I want to do. I don’t want this business to close.’ So I went to my mom and told her, ‘I want to buy this company.’ She asked me if I was sure and I was, so she agreed to co-sign for me. So I bought a talent agency! Colleen gave me all her talent and all her clients that booked the talent. All of the local commercials would call me, Rescue 9-1-1 would call me, all of the industrials and voiceovers. But, eventually I just wanted to be a kid so I stopped and closed the company.
So how long did that last?
FARRAH: Well I left Ohio when I was 21, so a year-and-a-half. But I still always knew I wanted to do casting. Then I got out here and I wasn’t ready to settle down yet so I did extra and stand-in work for 3 years because I still loved being on set. Then one day, I met Liz Paulson and she was doing commercials and she told me she was doing a campaign for Clean & Clear and asked if I wanted to jump on to see if this was what I wanted to do. So that was my very first casting! After that I did a movie called All In as an intern/assistant, then CSI:NY, then things really took off when I met Mandy Sherman. I interviewed with her for What About Brian and we just clicked. She’s amazing. She introduced me to the whole J.J. Abrams Family, so after What About Brian got cancelled, the assistant that was on Lost, moved up to Star Trek so they said they had an opening on Lost and asked if I wanted to join.
I LOVE LOST!
FARRAH: Me too! I was a bit nervous because I loved Lost so much I didn’t want to know secrets. We would tell our writers, ‘If we don’t have to read the scripts, we’re not going to read the scripts.’ They’re all fake sides anyway. After Lost, Eddie and Adam did Once Upon A Time so I hopped on the pilot. And then you just keep working, working, working and next thing you know, your resume is just filling up!
What is your favorite genre to cast?
FARRAH: My friend was just telling me that I need to establish my niche for what I cast. I think comedy is fun but, honestly, I just want good projects. I recently read an amazing script and thought, ‘I have to do this.’ They were interviewing people and I waited 3 months. I never heard back. Then I finally got the email that they wanted to hire me. I was so excited!
So you also have to pitch yourself and book the project!
FARRAH: Girl, you don’t even know!
Do you pass on projects, too?
FARRAH: No. I haven’t had any bad scripts my way yet.
So sometimes when you’re working with newer producers you have to help them understand the rules and budgets of hiring talent based on SAG-AFTRA terms.
FARRAH: Yes! Sometimes I even want producer credit because I’m so hands on. I have to call SAG-AFTRA and figure out exactly how much per diem is supposed to be paid on what day, or if a meal isn’t served on this particular day then how much more is the actor paid, what the pay for travel is if it happens during this time, etc. because I’m presenting the contract via the producer to the agent and it has to all be legal and I have to protect the talent.
Do you prefer movie casting to television?
FARRAH: Television is nice for the paycheck but movies are where my heart is.
Tell me about casting directors you’ve looked up to.
FARRAH: I get very star-strucky with casting directors.
FARRAH: Oh my god! This is what I wanted to do all my life. When I’ve just been looking at people’s names and then I finally get to meet them, I’m star-struck.
Who in particular?
FARRAH: Jane Jenkins! She came into the office one day when I was working with April Webster and she says, ‘Excuse me,’ and I look up. I actually had her book, A Star Is Found: Our Adventures Casting Some of Hollywood’s Biggest Movies on my desk. She says her name and asks if April was there and I froze. And maybe I got teary-eyed. I was so in awe. I told her that I watched all her movies growing up and that I wanted to be her and she was so happy to hear that. She did everything in the ’80’s!
Lisa Beach was another. I worked in her office (with another casting director) on Corporate for Comedy Central. And when Lisa got Wisdom of the Crowd, they were looking for an assistant and I really just wanted to work on their team and I knew I was probably over-qualified but I asked to please be on their team. They absolutely agreed and said they would give me associate credit. I was so honored to be with them. I just wanted to work with them and have that on my resume. She did 17 Again, all the Horrible Bosses, Vacation…
ACTORS, AUDITIONS & SUBMISSIONS
Tell me about actors in the audition room. What makes them really stand out?
FARRAH: I always tell my actor friends- confidence! Own the room. But I also want actors to know that we are always on your team. When an actor is really great in the room, they make ME look good. We want to cast you. We want to look good. We want you to look good. Also, stick with the script if you can. In addition to that, I also always say, if you want to know what we see, then come into the room for a session, because then you’ll get it. When the right actor for the role comes in, you just know. Or sometimes you know exactly the actor that will be right for it. For this particular role I’m casting in Max Reload (the video game movie my actor was cast in), I knew exactly who would play one of the supporting roles, so I called the agent right away to tell him about the project and asked about the actress I had in mind. For that role, I had 3,000 submissions.
How do you go through all those submissions?
FARRAH: Well, thank goodness I didn’t have to. I knew that role was her. For the lead role of Max though, I had 4,500 submissions.
Wow! Do you go through all of those submissions?
FARRAH: I do. You have to. Because usually you don’t know who half the people are. Like for the role of Reggie in Max Reload, the friend, I really wanted someone specific. And then when I saw the actor’s headshot, I thought to myself, Who is THIS guy? I love what’s going on here. And I clicked on his reel and he was in Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse and then I just knew that I needed him in my project. His materials just spoke to me. The role of Seth was harder. You throw a rock and you find a good looking guy. But he had to be a prick AND you also had to like him. There was one actor that came in from the show Awkward and he was SO good. He also had a big following. But another amazing actor ended up getting it because it’s not up to me. I just weed them out. That’s my job.
How big of a deal is a following nowadays?
FARRAH: It’s really huge.
So can you confirm that actors with reels automatically go to the top of the submissions when you look through them?
FARRAH: Yes. It’s set up that way. So with the 4,500 submissions for the lead role of Max, I first go through the submissions to see who has a good face. And then I go back and look through the reels. I had one guy who I was really cheerleading for based on his headshot and reel and he was in a big project on Netflix, but then he didn’t nail it in the audition room. And I can’t help you if you don’t nail it. I also have to put big names into the mix to, just because producers want to see that.
How often do actors not look like their headshot? Do you get excited about them online and then they come in and you can’t even recognize that that’s them?
FARRAH: No, that’s never a problem for me, personally. Because I also have the reel to look at.
That’s actually surprising because I hear a lot of casting directors complain about that.
FARRAH: Well, it’s mainly girls, if anything. They want to be so pretty so they touch up their headshots but you can’t. You have to be you. And weight is also very important. Someone came in recently for a sexy girl role, and she was definitely pretty pudgy and when she walked in, we all thought that she wasn’t the girl from the headshot. She looked very thin in the headshot!
What other mistakes do actors make?
FARRAH: My biggest pet-peeve is this: hold your sides! I don’t care if you look at them, but just have them. Because it’s more distracting if someone is reading their lines and then stops because they forgot a line. Or when an actor pauses because the conversation keeps going on the next page. THERE’S NO PAUSE! Why did you pause? It doesn’t make sense to me.
“…he didn’t nail it in the audition room. And I can’t help you if you don’t nail it. I also have to put big names into the mix to, just because producers want to see that.”
I really hope my actors aren’t doing that!
FARRAH: Well I’m very honest. I don’t sugarcoat in my personal life and I don’t professionally, either. When an agent calls and asks for feedback, I’m going to be honest.
I SO appreciate that because often times the casting director will say the actor was great. And of course they weren’t because they didn’t get the job but now I don’t know if I should pitch the same actor to that casting director again because I don’t really know how they feel. So now I could be potentially wasting my time and the casting director’s by pitching the same actor. Time would be saved if they were just honest with me. (End rant.)
What are some of your pet-peeves in working with agents and managers?
FARRAH: Well this is what I don’t understand. I have so many situations where they say so-and-so actor needs money and a job, so then I put an offer out to that actor for the movie and then they pass. And it’s good material!
So what do you do besides casting?
FARRAH: I love drinking wine. I went to wine school so I really do love it. I’m a First-Level Sommelier.
*Farrah notices a theatrical agent passing as we have lunch and calls him over.*
We talk, we talk, we talk….
Apparently, the agent passed on Mishel Prada, an actor that Farrah had pitched to him for representation. Now he’s kicking himself because she just landed a major recurring on one show and booked a series regular on Vida on Starz!
I pitch one of my actors to him. He asks if my actor is Caucasian. He is which I know is a hard sell nowadays. But, moral of the story? Farrah and I have great taste in actors so you should meet with everyone we pitch to you! Just kidding. Kind of… 🙂
WHAT’S FOR LUNCH
LOCATION: 5925 Franklin Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90028
DISH: 1/4 Chicken with Artichoke Garlic Aioli & Thai Sweet Chilli Sauces, Macaroni & Cheese
NOTES: Awesome casual spot with comfort foods, outdoor seating, a full bar and amazing chicken!
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