Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Casting for an LDS Movie

It's inevitable that no matter where a director goes, he will approached by folks who boldly (or timidly) ask, "Can I be in your next movie?" or "I have a nephew who really loves your books and he would like to know when you are casting your next film?" or "How do I find out about auditions for other LDS movies?"

The most important thing that I should communicate--at least when it comes to any project that I direct (and this would also apply this to what I do when casting voices for my audio books or whatever)--the first place that I will always look is with professional talent agencies.

I learned a lot with the casting process behind "Passage to Zarahemla." Mostly, I learned that I am very picky. Perhaps more picky than some other LDS directors. Or maybe it was just that "Passage" had, by its very nature, more difficult roles to perform than some other LDS films. I really didn't want to waste too much time with inexperienced actors who were more interested in telling their friends they were in a movie than they were in giving me a great performance. But I also had a promise to keep on "Passage to Zarahemla." So many of my fans had for years followed the whole drama from writing the screenplay, to publishing the novel, to raising the money for production. As a result of this, the requests to try out for the movie were overwhelming. So I advertised such an opportunity to any fan who wanted to give it a go. But the lesson that I learned from this is that good acting is much harder than I thought. I was sure I could direct a good performance out of anybody, no matter what their talent level. Even if I had to mimmick the whole performance, offer line reads, etc. But as time went on this simply became exhausting. Suddenly I became so braindead that when someone auditioned who actually knew how to act, it was like a breathe of fresh air.

"Passage" had a much longer casting phase than most other films. It began in March of 2005 and didn't officially end until July. I had a talent agent named Jennifer Buster who was there beside me every step of the way. And admittedly, our efforts to audition actors in Utah from totally amateur sources turned out to be very fruitful. Summer Naomi Smart, who played the lead role of Kerra, is a great example of this. Prior to "Passage to Zarahemla," Summer had done nothing on film. All her talents had been reserved for the stage. From her experience on "Passage" she was immediately hired for two other productions, a Liken the Scriptures movie called "Esther" and a Brian Brough movie called "Beauty and the Beast." Both of these roles were garnered for her because of how impressed folks were with her performance on "Passage." Brian, for example, was a producer on "Passage" and got to see her talent first hand. He had her specifically in mind when he went searching for his character in "Beauty and the Beast." (Admittedly, Summer was also performing at Tuacahn that season and playing Belle in the Disney musical version of "Beauty and the Beast," and that may have also had some influence.)

Another great find from amateur ranks was Moronai Kanekoa, who played the Nephite warrior, Kiddoni. Both he and Summer auditioned on the same day when from the theatre department at BYU. Since both Moronai and Summer were amateurs without agency representation, I suppose this could be considered proof that someone can get a major role in a movie just on their own talent and merits.

But overall, most of the actors in "Passage to Zarahemla" came from talent agencies. Mostly, they were cast from local agencies in Utah (one single agency called TMG would account for over half of these). But even using professional Utah agencies, I still found that I was unsuccessful filling several roles and ended up letting my casting director spirit me off to Los Angeles to cast two final roles--that of 11-year-old Brock (Brian Kary) and bad guy, Hitch (Alex Petrovich). Perhaps a boy of 11 who could perform as well as Brian was here in Utah somewhere, but that person didn't audition. And I just couldn't seem to find the right kind of gang member for Hitch here in Utah either. I wanted someone who could pass for caucasion or ethnic, and Brazilian born Alex filled that role perfectly.

I think all the time and stress that I exerted trying to fill each of these roles with just the right actor paid off. I'm very proud of the performances and considering my own inexperience, I am pleased that when I think about the entire movie, there are only one or two actors that I might have been miscast. Overall, for a low-budget movie, the casting was no less than miraculous.

So my advice to any person who wishes to do any acting, but particularly those who wish to act in an LDS movie or in some other production that originates here in Utah (or even in a movie that comes here from Hollywood!) is to get yourself connected with an agent. If no agency will yet represent you, I would recommend acting classes. Some talent agencies offer acting classes along with representation. But be careful here. I found that most of these kinds of agencies did little to help me as a director by screening talent beforehand, and I lost a lot of time dealing with agencies that obviously made most of their money doing acting classes, rather than getting commissions from actors landing parts. The most reputable agencies in the Salt Lake City area, and the ones that were the most cooperative with me on "Passage to Zarahemla," were TMG, McCarty, and Urban.

Also, for you young actors, never pass up an opportunity to be involved in theatre and play production at your local schools and community theatres. This is where you "find your chops." Read extensively. Practice. Do stand-up comedy. Sing in Church. Whatever gets you in front of a crowd.

I am a great believer in the future of the arts in the lives of all Latter-day Saints--especially in those who will inevitably contribute great works of art to the world. Acting is one of those arts. But it may be a while before the LDS film community is producing enough material to keep an actor employed full time. Until then, be prepared to stand up for your values. I firmly believe the Lord will support those who stand by Him.

Chris Heimerdinger

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