Working Lives: Casting Director

Working Lives: Casting Director

Line of Duty (Credit: BBC)
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Kate Rhodes James has cast some of the most-loved British drama series of the past 25 years, including Cold Feet, Sherlock and Line of Duty.

What does the job involve?

I have to keep on top of the talent and be knowledgeable about not just their abilities but also where they are in their working lives. 

You need to know when an actor is trying to change their trajectory and doesn’t want to be sent the same scripts. I present my casting ideas to the creative team, usually the director, producer, executive producers and broadcaster.

Do you offer an opinion?

Yes, I see my role as one of challenging preconceptions. A cast makes a story come alive; our job as casting directors is to push for original choices that produce inspired moments in drama.

Is good casting a collaborative process?

Yes. I cast all six series of Line of Duty, the last three with my colleague Daniel Edwards. The show’s creator, Jed Mercurio, is one of the most collaborative and supportive people I’ve worked with in the industry. 

I have the same experience with Steven Moffat and Sue Vertue on their projects. We’ve always had brilliant conversations about casting. To be truly creative, you need a collaborative working environment. If it’s not, you don’t have the opportunity to fully discuss and challenge perceptions.

Which people do you work with closely when casting a series?

The relationship with the director is paramount. Sometimes it doesn’t work – because we all have individual tastes or maybe our personalities don’t match – but that’s fine.

Is it easy to persuade actors to take on new challenges?

If they don’t want to do it, actors will say no. But if you bring them in for an audition and it does work, it could prove to be a stroke of genius.

How do you keep tabs on actors, given the huge amount of drama on TV?

I spent my entire childhood watching television and I still love it – it’s my passion. So, it’s not exactly a hardship. 

When I first started as an assistant 30 years ago, I’d catch up on something every other week. Now, it’s every day, and we have to divide up series among the people in the office. Even then, we can’t watch everything.

How did you become a casting director?

I went to drama school in the late 1980s. I soon discovered that I didn’t want the life of an actor – I was surrounded by so many talented people and knew I didn’t have what it takes. 

But being at drama school allowed me to understand what makes a great actor. I acted for about three years before giving it all up. 

My first job was assisting Bond casting director Debbie McWilliams on GoldenEye, Pierce Brosnan’s first outing as 007 – it was unbelievable fun. I then started to work for Janey Fothergill as well, which took me into television.

The Terror (Credit: BBC)
The Terror (Credit: BBC)

Is acting the ideal training for becoming a casting director?

One hundred per cent. I know exactly what to do when I’m auditioning an actor and how to help them. You never forget how uncomfortable an audition is and so I make sure actors feel welcome.

What was the first TV programme you cast?

I was sent a script for a pilot by a young producer at ITV and asked to cast it – I was petrified. It was broadcast to little fanfare and then nothing happened, so I went back to assisting Debbie. ITV then entered it for the Montreux Television Festival and it won the Silver Rose for Humour. 

That programme was Cold Feet, which starred James Nesbitt, Helen Baxendale, John Thomson, Fay Ripley, Hermione Norris and Robert Bathurst, all then at the start of their careers. The next drama I cast was Jimmy McGovern’s BBC One drama The Lakes, which starred John Simm in his first high-profile role.

What makes a good casting director?

You have to be really confident about your taste and able to stand up for your choices. Our job is not to say “yes” to everything – it’s to push a little bit further to achieve something more interesting or daring.

What shows are you most proud of casting?

There are so many shows I’ve loved casting but I’m immensely proud of Bleak House, which Andrew Davies adapted for the BBC in half-hour episodes. People were really negative about it while we were making it, but the response when it aired was astonishing. AMC’s The Terror is another fantastic piece – it was criminally undersold but, when people found it, how they loved it. Jared Harris starred with Ciarán Hinds and Tobias Menzies, and a selection of some of the finest British character actors, such as Ian Hart and Paul Ready.

What do you bring to work with you?

I have a trolley, containing a camera, tripod, the script, computer and charger, pens and pencils, lots of Post-it notes – and endless snacks to get me through the day.

What are the best and worst parts of the job?

The best is when you read a script, identify the ideal actor, they’re available, they do a brilliant reading and then get the job. It’s even better if the actor is new to the director. The worst is when you can’t make the deal or get dates to work and you lose an actor.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to become a casting director?

Watch television and makes notes of the people you like and why. You have to be able to articulate why someone is right for a role and fight for them.

Is casting becoming more diverse?

Yes – and rightly so. I was just looking at the BBC’s drama slate and there’s a fantastic range of different voices. I don’t want to watch white, middle-­class women like myself all the time.

Can casting be too prescriptive?

Yes. Actors are being asked to reveal too many aspects of their personal life, which I do not agree with. I think the most important thing an actor can achieve is a level of mystery. They are actors and need to be supported in what they do and not allow politics to dictate choices.

Do you have any unrealised ambitions?

Besides becoming a French starlet, I guess it would be to work more in Europe. I’ve worked with European directors such as Dome Karukosk on BritBox’s first original drama, The Beast Must Die, and Edward Berger on The Terror, and they come with a completely different perspective. They all really enjoy the process of casting. 

Casting director Kate Rhodes James was interviewed by Matthew Bell.