Irish casting agent Ros Hubbard on what it takes to be a star

Irish casting agent Ros Hubbard discovered some of Ireland’s brightest acting talent, and cast everything from Lord of the Rings to The Commitments. No wonder she’s being honoured this month by the Irish film community in London, writes Esther McCarthy.

She’s the woman who found the stars of Ireland’s most-loved films, who helped young wannabes Colin Farrell and Jonathan Rhys Meyers find a foothold in the film industry, and who first spotted the potential in a teenager by the name of Kate Winslet.

Ros Hubbard is regarded as a somewhat legendary figure in film circles, and with good reason. 

It was she who helped find the young stars of The Commitments — consistency voted the best-ever Irish film. 

It was she who found the cast for Peter Jackson’s epic Lord of the Rings trilogy. Along with husband John, she has matched the right faces to dozens of well-known films. 

Their children, Dan and Amy, have since followed them into the business.

Now she’s to be honoured by the Irish film community in London — and she says she’s grateful to be so involved in an industry that she fell in to.

“I moved to London after I married, John is English and he was one of the whizz kids in Ireland in advertising. He suddenly decided he had to go back to London and make things hard for himself, so back he went and I thought: ‘I’d better go or else the husband’s gone as well’,” she smiled.

“I was running a model agency with two other girls at the time in Dublin, and we weren’t making a single penny. I had started casting in Dublin, doing the odd job for people coming in to shoot commercials.

“But I got over to London and people who knew me started to give me work, and I became very busy quite fast.”

In fact, the speed of her success put her on the radar of union executives. 

“I had a phone call from the British union one day, saying: ‘There are 19 commercials going on air tonight that you’ve cast, and you don’t have a ticket and they’re all blacked’.” 

The issue was sorted, she says, thanks to the intervention of Irish

union boss Pat Keenan, who helped organise her membership.

In the years since, she has become one of the most established and respected casting agents in the film industry. Casting is a skill that is almost impossible t

o teach. Does she work on instinct or prefer to research when casting a film?

“Both. Instinct in all cases, because your taste is employed, your hunch that the chemistry might be good. But, the information you find out on actors, the work you look at, the material you look at, or you go to the theatre and see them, can only further your knowledge and your ability to know how much they can do.”

Hubbard casting has become synonymous with finding new faces who went on to achieve great success, most notably Kate Winslet. 

The Oscar winner was cast in Heavenly Creatures in what became her breakthrough role when she was a teenager.

“Kate came in at 15 and met John. John actually stopped taping halfway through her reading, said: ‘Thank you, that’s fine’ and Kate said: ‘What did I do wrong?!’ and he said: ‘No, you’re great, you’re going to come in and meet the director’.”

She says you have a feeling when someone special comes into a casting session. “You get a chill on the back of your neck that says Star! Star! Star! and you’re nearly always right. But the audience makes the stars in the end.

“Jonathan Rhys Meyers I discovered in the Vic Sporting Club in Cork. 

“We explained what we were looking for to the guy in the Vic and he said Jonathan wasn’t in today but he’d be in tomorrow.

“Mary Maguire, who used to work with me a lot, and is still a great friend of mine, went up from Skibbereen, put him on tape, rang me and said: ‘He’s amazing’. I said: ‘Put him in the car and bring him down’. 

“You couldn’t do that nowadays! It was for War of the Buttons which he didn’t do in the end. But we got him an agent and the rest is history.”

In fact, many Irish actors credit Hubbard casting with some of their early breakthroughs — the agency used to have an office in Dublin and cast dozens of Irish projects.

“Colin Farrell says he threw himself into Hubbards, thought he might do a few commercials. Again, we got him into Lisa Richards Agency. 

“The first job we put him in was Falling For a Dancer, he was the young beautiful love interest in that, he was unknown. 

“The shape of his career took off at the rate of 90 miles an hour after it, because he is pure screen talent, Colin. He is a really good film actor.”

A young Saoirse Ronan also came to meet the Hubbards when her father, Paul, an actor who knew the couple, told them of her interest in drama.

“Little Saoirse Ronan did her first job with us. I knew her parents, and they said: ‘The little one wants to do a bit of work’ so we met her. 

“She says to me when I meet her now: ‘You don’t even remember what the flippin’ thing was called that you cast me in!’ 

“You can discover them but not cast them, and just get them moving. 

“I think she was born with star quality written on her. We are friendly with Saoirse, she comes and stays with us in our house in Kerry.”

While Ronan is a friend, and Hubbard swells with pride when she sees a young star go on to have a successful career, she says she is wary of forming too close a bond.

“I now find that actors are like your children — you couldn’t give them enough time. You can’t do enough to bolster their absolute confidence.

“You do your best to give them that confidence and then you say: ‘Now you’re on your own kid and you’re bloody good anyway’.

“But I don’t become a confidante, and the other thing is I don’t have a load of actors who are my friends.  Because it confuses the issue. 

“They sometimes confuse friendship with work, it’s not. I’ve disliked actors and brought them up and cast them, because they’re right for the job and that’s my job.”

In recent years, the internet has become a big player in her industry, she says, and self-taping for a role has both made the world a smaller place and can be a lifeline for actors who struggle with the audition process.

“If it’s good, we might get them in to meet the director, or we might get them to do it again or to come and meet us. If gives the actor more of a chance.

“In some cases, actors absolutely hate auditioning. I almost hate saying it because — tough! 

“That’s how you get the part. But you have a terrific actor that you know gets nerves and blows it in a session then you might just say to him or her: ‘pop yourself on tape and I’ll show it’. It’s a very good chance for them and you could be talking about some quite big, successful actors there.”

It’s one of the reasons, she says, that actors struggle with rejection. 

“Doctors don’t have to take your tonsils out to show you they know how to do it. But an actor has to act the part almost better than the actual job to get it. They have to walk in there and hit that spot and hit it right. 

“They learn in drama school — if you’re going to be an actor, you’d better get that steel pulse into you.”

She’s currently casting a WW1 drama called Journey’s End, which she senses will go down as one of her favourite projects to work on. She has moved into producing films also — Starfish, the true story of a man who contracted sepsis, is currently being well-received on the festival circuit.

But she doesn’t miss a beat when I ask what her favourite film to cast was. “The Commitments. Number one. A no-brainer. 

“They were all street musicians. The only big actor was Johnny Murphy who played Joey The Lips. He died last year, bless him. 

“Angeline Ball was an actress — Twink, Adele King, told me about her being in the panto with her. I loved that film and working on it. I could watch it now.”

Later this month, she will host a casting workshop/advice session at the Irish Film Festival London, of which she is a patron. 

An inaugural Ros Hubbard Award for Acting will also be presented to an acting talent from this year’s line-up.

“Kilburn was Irish and it’s become more cosmopolitan now. But it’s still associated a great deal with Irish emigrants and it has a really big theatre and cinema (scene) which is very successful, and they have the festival there every year.”

When she and John want time out, they return to their Co Kerry home. They love the contrast between the Kingdom and London. 

“It’s as different as going to Mars, because we live in the centre of town, in Covent Garden, we trip over traffic and noise and dirt and excitement and verve and vivacity. Then in Ireland I could be walking along a road just looking up at the sky in the pitch dark, looking at the stars. We’re absolutely blessed in that way.”

The Irish Film Festival London runs from November 23-27.



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