Making of a PSA: Interview with Casting Director Jessica Daniels

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Casting Director Jessica Daniels (right) and Casting Associate Candice Alustiza-Lee (left) at the Little Leading Ladies casting session. Image courtesy of Adorama Rentals.


This is the second installment of a five-part series co-presented by New York Women in Film & Television and Adorama Rentals.

NYWIFT member Amanda Lin Costa interviews Casting Director Jessica Daniels about her work casting the PSA Little Leading Ladies, directed by Aubrey Smyth. 

When you read the Little Leading Ladies script, did you have certainly actors that came to mind immediately? 
Certainly when I read a script, actors come to mind. With kids it’s different because they quickly age out of roles and it’s more hit and miss. Two of the girls I ended up casting I knew to call in from previous projects, and two of the girls I found through this particular audition process.

When you know a film is depicting a different era, in this case multiple eras, does that affect your thoughts on casting?
I didn’t concern myself much with the period factor for this piece because I knew that they would be styled accordingly. With adults, a malleable look isn’t as common as with kids—and I think some adult actors are more believable in period than others who really feel modern. For this project, I was on the hunt for compelling girls who could be natural and have that extra special spark.

What are the unique issues that come up when casting children for projects? Is the casting process different than with adults?
When casting adults, you’re starting out with a bigger familiarity factor—you can bring in people you know, and also from films or plays you’ve seen. For many kids, they’re just starting out. Maybe they’ve been in a school or regional play, but they’ve never been on camera. Or maybe they’ve done a small role on a TV show, but it’s not like they’ve had a chance to prove themselves. The kids’ casting process always involves a search element in that not only are you bringing in professional young actors, but you’re also looking to the schools, acting camps, theatre groups and classes, etc., to find unrepresented talent as well.

Auditioning children is usually about stripping down their performances to let their natural selves shine through the character. Sometimes that means breaking them of a pattern of lines they’ve been rehearsing with a parent, or just making them feel more at ease or comfortable in the room.

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Screenshot from Little Leading Ladies (L-R): Lara Valery, Giselle Eisenberg, and Eileen Berger.

There was a last-minute change with one of the actors—what is the best advice you can give to directors when this happens to keep the project on track and moving ahead?
The show must go on as they say. We lost an actor due to another booking but we gained a phenom who had suddenly become available. Unless there’s a big budget involved, actors fall out all the time. Regardless of an original vision, at the end of the day, you need to be able to make peace with it and tread onward or the project suffers.

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Casting Director Jessica Daniels works with Writer/Director Aubrey Smyth at Little Leading Ladies casting session. Image courtesy of Adorama Rentals.

Can you share any advice with directors who might be working with casting directors and/or children for the first time?
For young directors who haven’t worked with a casting director, I recommend asking questions and keeping open communication. It’s our job to introduce you to talented actors that will bring your script to life. We don’t expect you to fall in love with everyone we bring in, but we do hope that you’ll to keep an open mind, and hopefully some will surprise you! It’s a collaboration, and we are your advocates. It’s important that there’s a trust there.

Practically speaking, it’s useful to consider your budget and try to have as much in place as possible. Have the final draft of your script in good shape and free of typos. Select appropriate sides (scenes for the actors to read). The auditions are not the shoot, so it’s not necessary and often too time-consuming to incorporate things like costumes or props. It’s more important to focus on the actors and their performances and trust that those other elements will come in to play later.

In working with kids, it’s imperative to give them the material beforehand—and not on the spot if it’s more than a line. It’s useful to talk to them and make sure that they can take direction. Many times, with smaller kids especially, that comes from talking to them and explaining what’s going on in a way they understand without condescending to them. When you cast a kid, you’re also inheriting the parent or guardian that is going to be with them on set, which is important to keep in mind.

Please join us Wednesday when the series continues with an interview with Little Leading Ladies Director of Photograph Bryant Fisher and Gaffer Jerred Sanusi. Catch up on yesterday’s post: Interview with Little Leading Ladies Writer/Director Aubrey Smyth here.

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