Casting guru Kirsty McGregor on the joys and challenges of casting
(L-R) McGregor Casting’s Josh Algie, Lucky Gorka Creative’s Lucky Gorka, Stevie Ray, Kirsty McGregor, Gemma Brown and Will Pearce at the 2019 Casting Guild awards.
McGregor Casting founder Kirsty McGregor expresses her support for out of work creatives and discusses her current and recent projects and her bullish outlook for Australian cinema.
Q: Which film and TV projects were you casting when productions were shut down or delayed in late March and were you able to finish each job?
A: We were working on a big TV series which had to pause production in New Zealand. And we had Endemol Shine Australia’s RFDS just about to start shooting in Broken Hill so that was halted. Other than that, most of our work was still in pre-pre-production so whilst they’ve also pushed back they weren’t as close to shooting.
Q: Since then, which projects have hired you?
A: I have a few things in development. But we’ve actively started on an excellent half-hour comedy for Claudia Karvan and John and Dan Edwards. A lot of the cast are from the Latin community and it’s been a real gift to work with Claudia again. She’s incredibly collaborative and supportive and passionate about showing a side of Sydney we haven’t seen before.
Also season 5 of Doctor Doctor was greenlit. I’ve absolutely loved working on that show for the last five years. The producers, directors and our regular cast have been a dream to work with. It’s a little family. I just wish we had more than 10 episodes every year. I’d love to work on something old school like a 22 x 1 hour A Country Practice that provides some real stability for cast and also there isn’t a whole year between story lines.
Q: As most actors are out of work, I guess they are all keen to audition despite the uncertainty over start dates and covering the COVID-19 insurance risk?
A: I think a lot of people in this country are actively casting projects in the hope they will go into production from August. Speaking to casting colleagues in the UK and the USA it’s really quiet – not many people are working, which speaks to the hope that we have in Australia that things will be getting back on track sooner. The Casting Guild also started an initiative inviting actors to submit a self tape of their choosing to be stored in a library that members can access. The response was staggering – I believe there were around 3,000 tapes submitted.
Q: As a former actress with credits in GP, Brides of Christ and A Country Practice, does that mean you can really empathize with actors, particularly during these tough times?
A: Ah gosh – I have enormous respect for anyone trying to make a go of it in this industry. Producers can have it just as hard as actors; they put themselves on the line to try to employ people and get things made. And they start from scratch every single time. People don’t think of that. Writers are incredible and I wish we could find a way to better support them also – not just financially but when it comes to their creative vision which can be taken away from them.
I really do empathize with actors. They have to go through rejection again and again and again. So do any freelancers but an actor relies not just on their talent but also their physical being. Ironically, actors need to be the most vulnerable to do their job well – but unfortunately it’s a job which requires a really thick skin. It can be a terrible roller coaster.
Q: Looking back over your career, which roles have been the hardest to cast in recent years?
A: Lion was hard because we needed a five-year-old boy who could carry the first act of a film. But it was also easy because it was such a beautiful project and led by one of the kindest and most collaborative directors in Garth Davis. We saw about 3,000 kids and each one was divine. Casting in India was something I will never forget.
One of the hardest things as a casting director are projects where the producer or director isn’t interested in collaborating but just sees the casting team as admin people. It makes everything difficult and also just not fun. I’m not interested in those jobs. Sometimes you don’t know though until you start the job that that’s what it’s going to be.
Sometimes (often) you will read a script and you KNOW who should play the role but also know you will probably have to jump through hoops to cast them. I’m lucky to be busy, and a result of being busy is that we see many many different actors for different projects.
Often a script will land on my desk and I will just know who should be cast in a particular role and I will say so – but we will still have to go through a casting process because the producer and director want to explore creatively, as they should. But I would say in 90 per cent of these occasions we have ended up casting our first instinct. Meanwhile, I lose sleep and hair worrying that we are going to lose the actor I think IS the character because they will get another offer.
Guy Pearce and Robert Pattinson in ‘The Rover.’
Q: Any notable discoveries you’d like to highlight?
A: Some of the best moments are not necessarily uncovering a ‘new’ actor but casting an actor in an unexpected role. After Animal Kingdom I worked on The Rover with David Michôd and I had the advantage that every actor in the world wanted to work with him. We auditioned Robert Pattinson for the co-lead. He didn’t have to audition but he wanted the kind of roles that people wouldn’t just offer him.
Rob was definitely not the guy I imagined when I read the script. I had no idea the depth of his talent. But his agent called me and I asked if he’d audition and they agreed. Rob admitted he was terrified of the role and had worked with an acting coach to prepare for the audition. I was so impressed not only by his performance but his work ethic.
He wasn’t the only A-lister to read, but he was the one who came prepared to work. He didn’t come with an expectation that we should just give him the role because he was famous. He was at a time in his career that the people he wanted to work with were not taking him seriously. It would have been easy to rest on fame and just take jobs he was offered. It’s probably even harder to be famous and face rejection. But he put himself out there.
When we finally cast Rob I was called by the American agent of another actor we had had to turn down and she completely bawled me out, saying we were crazy and that we had ruined our film. I’d completely forgotten about it until after the film was released and she called me again said, “I was wrong. He’s amazing.” I loved that call; I felt both vindicated and relieved.
Q: When you are casting kids and/or newcomers, apart from issuing casting calls where do you search?
A: Totally depends on the role. I go where it takes me.
Q: As you were the casting director on a lot of upcoming releases including Babyteeth, RAMS, Dirt Music, Penguin Bloom and June Again, are you optimistic about Australian cinema’s prospects?
A: I would love to stay massively optimistic about Australian film. Shannon Murphy’s Babyteeth [which Universal is launching in cinemas on July 23] has become one of my favourite films of all time, not just one I’ve worked on. I have not yet seen any of the other films you mentioned. They too could make the list.
I do think getting a film financed is just getting harder and harder with every year – there’s so much online content and getting audiences to a cinema if it’s not a tentpole film is just so hard. But it’s still happening and people are still trying and we have to support them.
Q: You and fellow judges Noni Hazlehurst and Aran Michael chose Sunny S. Walia as the winner of the latest Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts pitch competition. How did his audition stand out?
A: It was just really good. All the actors used a generic script they were given and he’d put a lot of thought into finding interesting circumstances but still finding the comedy and, most importantly, the truth. It was a unanimous and easy decision.
Q: The Casting Guild of Australia awards and Rising Star selections usually happen in December. What is the plan this year?
A: I don’t know. I imagine there will be a postponement, but I haven’t heard. It’s become one of my favourite nights because all the casting directors get together and just have a really good time together. I’ve made some wonderful friendships through being a part of the Casting Guild.