Films are notoriously difficult to get made. A producer might have a good script, established director and crew, and have painstakingly cobbled the finances together, but all of those will count for nought if the actors are miscast.
Enter the casting director. “Casting is 95% of directing,” says John Butler, the director of The Stag. “If you get it wrong, the film can’t work. If you get it right, you have a really good chance. So much rests with the casting.
“I don’t believe so much that you can get uncharacteristic performances out of actors. You cast a person who is best for the job. It’s so important to get that right.”
Butler worked with one of Ireland’s leading casting directors, Maureen Hughes, on his Kevin Barry-scripted short film, The Ballad of Kid Kanturk.
Hughes’s fingerprints are all over some of Ireland’s most notable films of the last two decades, including Noble and the Oscar winners, Six Shooters and Once.
Hughes began at the Druid Theatre, with Garry Hynes, during the 1980s, before working in film and TV in the 1990s. Her casting of the unknown Eamonn Owens, as the lead in Neil Jordan’s 1997 adaptation of Pat McCabe’s novel The Butcher Boy, was inspired. She stumbled upon him in a small Co Cavan town, during her six-week trawl of Ireland’s national schools.
“I think, at the time, Eamonn was in fourth class,” she says. “My uncle guided me towards his school because he knew Eamonn. Eamonn was the son of the local shop-owner. My uncle said: ‘You have to see this young kid. He’s the young fella out of the VG in Killeshandra. He’s absolutely fantastic.’
“I remember walking into the classroom and seeing Eamonn immediately — you couldn’t miss him, with that big shock of red hair and the freckles. I remember looking at him and thinking ‘I hope he speaks English! This is probably it.’ He had all the fire and craziness.
One of the reasons Owens understood the script so well was because he worked in his parents’ shop. “Every character within a 10-mile radius visited that shop, coming through with the problems of the day, the gossip and stories, and he soaked it all up.
“He had an innate knowledge of old people, of how kids behaved, of how the world worked, at a very educated level. He would arrive on set in character. He knew where to move, how to behave, how to be a fool. He knew how to do everything and he was 11 years of age.”
Casting methods have changed. In sourcing Owens, Hughes availed of liberal laws regarding access to children. She would arrive at a school and do unplanned auditions, six a day. Today, she would need clearance in advance from the Department of Education.
At this week’s Digital Biscuit Festival in Dublin, Hughes will do a masterclass in self-taping techniques, which is one of the ways technology has transformed casting over the last two or three years.
Previously, if an Irish actor heard about an audition for a film in, say, London, they might have to fly over for the audition or, if they were tied up filming or doing a play, they’d send a show-reel, a stock package of their acting highlights. Now, once actors have a good digital recorder, even an iPhone, they can customise and deliver an audition across the ether in an hour.
The casting director’s intuition is still a key attribute, as is access to a hefty Rolodex. “Having a good memory is super-helpful, and know ing as many actors as you can,” says Ali Coffey, who has recently cast several Irish actors in American TV drama series, including Tadhg Murphy in Black Sails and Duncan Lacroix in Outlander.
Casting directors also need ice in their veins.
“They have to be hard,” says Stephen Murray, who played Jim Larkin, the lead role in The Inquiry, one of the hits of last year’s Jameson Dublin International Film Festival. “It’s a tough business. They have to fight a lot for the people they want. They have to have a lot of confidence in their own decisions. They also need to be able to see beyond the exterior image of the person and what’s underneath it all, seeing character in somebody’s demeanour. They have to be a good judge of horseflesh.”
Butler references Ray Winstone and Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast. Kingsley was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as the unhinged criminal, Don Logan, which was effective reverse casting. Before shooting, Winstone and Kingsley swapped roles, at Kingsley’s request.
Murray cites the casting of Cillian Murphy as the violent gangster in the BBC’s Peaky Blinders as another example of counter-intuitive casting. “He can look quite frail, quite wan. You could see him playing a tubercular-ridden poet or playing, as he did, a transvestite in Breakfast on Pluto. In Peaky Blinders, it’s not that he’s playing against type as a baddie, a borderline psychotic, but he does both of those extremes very well.”
Similarly, both Coffey and Hughes, who does the casting for RTÉ’s Love/Hate, mention Tom Vaughan-Lawlor’s depiction of the visceral, cult character Nidge. “It’s a classic example of casting against type,” says Hughes.
“The man Tom Vaughan-Lawlor is nothing like the creation he made of Nidge. He’s incredibly mild-mannered, softly spoken. He has none of the aggressive qualities associated with Nidge.
“I cast him immediately once he came out of acting school — in a Druid production of a John B Keane play. I would have known he was capable of making a performance like Nidge. He has a distinct talent.”
Hughes also cast Vaughan-Lawlor in the RTÉ drama series, Charlie, as Charles J Haughey’s sidekick, the spin-doctor, PJ Mara.
Hughes says she found the casting for the biopic tricky. “I remember saying at the end of it, ‘I never want to cast real people again.’ The demands are that they are, in some strange way, supposed to look like the people they’re meant to look like. I found that challenging. It was one thing finding ‘Charlie Haughey’. Then, you had to find Brian Lenihan and Albert Reynolds and Des O‘Malley.”