Type Casting Cats and Directing Actors

– Posted in: Directing Performance

I just listened to NPR’s Fresh Air’s Terry Gross interview the Coen Brothers about their movie Inside LIewyn Davis. By the way, Terry Gross is a master interviewer and she often interviews directors, actors and other creative types. In this interview Terry asked the brothers about working with the cat and directing actors in the film and both brothers sighed, grumbled and quickly agreed that it was one of the most frustrating production experiences of their career.

They said cats are the hardest to work with because unlike a dog who wants to please its master, a cat wants to please himself. They needed a cat doing specific things in numerous scenes and were told by the cat trainer they didn’t need one cat, they need several cats. They needed a cat that would bolt out an open door so they found one that always does that. They needed one that would go down a fire escape, one that would allow someone to hold it in their arms for extended periods of time and one that was very fidgety.

The cat trainer explained that these were character traits and if the cat was a fidgety cat it was unlikely to be a cuddly cat and that they can’t expect a cat to play out of character because that’s not what they do.


So what does this have to do with actors?

Your protagonist or any of your other characters need to embody real characteristics. Their quirks, their body language, the way they interact with the world speaks volumes about who they are. If they’re playing out of character, they better have some real acting chops and if they don’t, you’d better find someone who already has some of these character traits. I’m not saying you should always do flat out type casting, but why push a round boulder up a hill when you can roll it down.

But what’s a director to do? 

Learn enough about each of your characters to understand their quirks and the key character traits that make them authentic during your director’s script analysis. With these characteristics in mind, go into your casting process with your antennas up for any of the actors that naturally have these traits. This is especially important if you’re working with actors who have little or no experience.

I would even go as far to say that in certain situations you’re better off casting a less experienced actor or a real person before casting a “trained” actor who doesn’t have important traits.

Just because an actor has a great look or has been great in other parts doesn’t mean they are the right choice for this character. The camera magnifies nuances in people and somehow it always seems to uncover the truth.

You’re the director and that’s your job! What’s your favorite Coen Brothers movie? Do you think I was unfair to actors in this post? Leave a comment. Let’s engage and learn from each other.

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