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March 25, 2009

Reel Festival for Women Interview w/ Bonnie Gillespie

Interview posted at Reel Festival for Women, conducted by Iva Franks for Reel Festival for Women.

1. How old were you when you first knew you wanted to be in the Film/TV industry?

I had a very early love for performing and storytelling. Did the whole dress-up, put-on-a-show for family thing. Actually would "sell tickets" and seat people in the living room and have one of my cousins do a warm-up act. I wrote songs, wrote plays, wrote short stories, and performed everything I wrote for anyone who would watch. When did I learn that all of these childhood activities could be parlayed into a career? Probably around the age of six, when I went to see a "real" play. By intermission, I knew I wanted to have a job where I could affect people like I had been affected so deeply in such a short period of time. The very next play at that theatre, I had a role. Yes, I started out as a child actor (and survived).

2. Who was your greatest inspiration and how did they inspire you?

My mother has always been my greatest inspiration in all things. She was amazing. Brilliant on so many levels while being so very simple on other levels. Of the many things she taught me that I certainly use every day, what's probably most applicable to a career in show business is that there is no one way of accomplishing anything. Everything is an option. There is no "absolute" in this life and therefore anything is worth trying, if it makes your heart sing. That's pretty badass.

3. How long have you been casting and mentoring?

I started casting in February 2003. I had cast a play or two a few years prior, but that was just me--producing a play--being sure that I could cast without a casting director. Turns out a lot of newbie producers feel that way. They soon learn they'd rather hire a pro than try and "cast it themselves." Heh. I get that now. Anyway, one of the casting directors I had interviewed for Back Stage West (one of my actor survival jobs) asked me to come work with her on a few shows for Fox. I was reluctant but once I got started it was clear casting was a very good fit for me. Between shows one and two for Fox, I wrote Self-Management for Actors. Between shows two and three for Fox, I cast my first indie feature film. That was July 2003. I left TV casting behind soon after that, so I could focus on indie film. I had worked at the Sundance Institute in 2001 and 2002, so I knew I had a passion for indie film and indie filmmakers. Much better fit for me than network TV!

As for mentoring, I guess I've always been doing that. When I was a kid, a teacher saw that I was bored in some of my less-challenging classes and she gave me a "job" as a tutor for Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees who were new to our school. They spoke no English, so my job was to sit with them for an hour a day using a beginning spelling book and just start teaching the language at the very basic level, so they could follow anything going on in the classes. All through school, I was a peer tutor for many academic subjects. I was a peer advocate for the college judicial system. I currently mentor young writers for an organization called Write Girl. It's just kind of in my hard-wiring to share what I know with those who crave the knowledge.

4. Is there a particular project that you consider your favorite and why?

That's like asking me to pick a favorite baby! They're all favorites for various reasons. I learn something new on every project I cast and I reach another tier of my career on each project as well. I've started taking on the role of associate producer on many of the films I cast and that's been incredibly rewarding (and challenging, of course). But there's one film that broke my heart, another that allowed me to Taft-Hartley an actor for the first time. There's one film that led me to another dozen films with the same team, another that taught me there's not enough money on the planet to work with some people. There's one film that made me weep when I saw it on the big screen for the first time, another that I can't bring myself to watch. Certainly, I have favorites for various reasons. But because I approach my career as a means of learning more about the world and about myself, I could never truly pick one favorite. They have all enriched my life in some way.

5. Have you ever played a role in a project you cast?

Absolutely not. I retired from acting in 2000 when my mother passed away. I had taken a hiatus to go take care of her back in Georgia, but she died quickly and when I came back to LA I just stayed on hiatus. My agents were very understanding and supportive, and six months later (at the end of the timeline I had given myself to get back to acting), I was so completely gratified by my career as a writer (remember, I mentioned that writing survival job) that I decided I didn't need to or want to go back to acting. Then writing led to casting which led to producing... and honestly I have no interest in acting right now. The good news about this industry is that if you decide you want to do something, you just go do it. And if you're successful, you're encouraged to do it again and again. So you don't have to "earn" the right to be anything in this business. Have a story to tell? Tell it. Want to act? Do it. Produce? Great. Have at it! And if you're good at what you do, you'll be given many opportunities to do it. I like that about this business. If I should ever want to try my hand at acting again, I'll do it. But it's not what makes my heart sing, and I'm too focused on the many things that do make my heart sing. That's fun for me.

6. What are some bad habits that you've seen actors develop that you've had a hard time dealing with?

I don't have "a hard time dealing with" anything, so this is a difficult question for me. Everything is "deal-with-able," in my book. You just have to be open to the best way to communicate with the person bringing his or her blocks to the experience. Bad actor habits are all over the map. There's little stuff like a tick or a trick an actor does in the audition that distracts us from seeing the work. Then there's big stuff like becoming bitter or staying friends with poison playmates and energy vampires, and thinking you can still have a career because you've "earned it, dammit." No such thing. No one earns anything in this business. There's nothing linear about it and there's no recipe of "doing X number auditions yields Y number roles." Nope. No way.

But my point is that actors who do have bad habits (and that's not all of the actors out there, by any stretch) have bad habits that range from very tiny and manageable all the way up to soul-sucking, career-killing, miserable HUMAN BEING type habits. I'm not a therapist. I'm a casting director. So if an actor is in his or her own way when he or she comes in and auditions for a role, it's not my job to fix that. It's my job to get the role cast. Now, hopefully the work I put out there as a writer (my weekly columns at Showfax, my books) can help actors get out of their own way and do better when they're in the room, but if an actor is coming to me on an audition and is blocking success at every turn, I may feel sorry for that person, but the way I "deal with" that actor is to say, "Great. Thanks. NEXT!"

7. Have you ever written any projects and if so did you cast them as well?

I'm constantly writing, but the bulk of what I write is non-fiction actor-focused content for my weekly column and for my books. I've written a few comedic scenes for the Cricket Feet Showcase (most came out of a spec script I wrote a couple of years ago) but if I ever were to write a pilot or film script that I wanted to produce, I would probably hire another person to cast the project. While I'm a big fan of the hyphenate lifestyle, I am acutely aware that--especially where creative endeavors are involved--a project needs more than one filter through which it passes in order to be a success. I call it "the island syndrome." When the same person is the writer, producer, director, and star of a project, it's far less likely to feel real. It's only going through one filter and while the ego of that person getting to wear all of those hats is swelling, the project itself is usually suffering for the lack of collaboration.

I'm a big fan of surrounding myself with other really wonderful, creative, brilliant people. So, if I were to write and produce a project, I'd probably not also cast it. And if I were to write a project and not produce it, I might consider casting it. But I would also trust the producers who bought this hypothetical project I had written to hire the right person to cast it. And if they thought that person might be me? Fine. Also fine if not. ;) I know this business well enough to know better than to be emotionally attached to what happens to anything I create. All I can do is put my best stuff out there and surround myself with brilliant people who can take it to its best level.

8. What is your philosophy on the profession of working within the industry?

I'm not sure I understand this question. What's my philosophy on my profession? What's my philosophy on working within the industry in general? Yeah... this question doesn't make sense to me. I'm sorry. Not sure how to answer, since I can't tell what you're asking. Not sure how to have a philosophy on a profession. Or on working within the industry.

I mean... you like what you do and you do it. My philosophy on life is fairly simple: Have fun. Do what you love. Surround yourself with people you enjoy. Repeat.

9. Was there ever a project you felt was miscast after the fact? If so how did you deal with this?

There have been many times a director or producer went with the actor I would have not preferred they use in the role. My job is to bring choices to the decision-makers, and that means everyone who is considered is going to be talented, right for the part, and someone I'd be happy to see cast. So, while I'll have a favorite, in the end it's not my money, so I can't really push my will upon anyone else. I'll share my thoughts, but then I let it go. None of the choices I will have brought to this point in the casting process is a bad choice or a wrong choice. It's just a choice! And in the end, it's not my choice to make.

Now, there have been times a producer or director will insist a role be filled by his or her spouse or lover or best friend (or himself or herself) and there's not a whole lot I can do about that. This is a business filled with healthy egos and that means there will sometimes be a conversation that involves, "Trust me. This will work. She's perfect for the role," from someone who doesn't have a clue how very bad that person is for that role. Ah well...

What I do in that case is prepare for working with that person the next time. He or she will absolutely have learned that I was right and there was a better choice for the role. And we'll either have a much easier time with the trust issue the next time I say, "Trust me on this. This is the best actor for the role," or this director or producer will be so ready to move on from that bad call that we'll never speak of it again. ;) But we'll both know and have a better run next time. When the goal is "to serve the project" it gets very easy to stay focused on what casting tells the best story. No one wants to make a bad film, so we all know that we're expressing our opinions to make the best possible project.

10. What advice would you give to someone who wants to get into the industry?

Relax. Have fun. Do research. TONS of research. Take it seriously but don't be rigid. Read everything you can get your hands on and really immerse yourself in the community. See plays, read plays, write plays. See films, read scripts, write scripts. Go to TV show tapings, read spec scripts, write spec scripts. Be ready to be a hyphenate but get very clear on your main goal, your primary brand, your most bankable angle. Don't scare anyone off by being too desperate or too "everything everyone needs every time." Don't be afraid to be a beginner. That's when all of the possibilities exist! Realize that most folks never come anywhere close to getting to live a life of their dreams, and you should be thrilled to have made a bold choice to go for it! Enjoy the pursuit, because that's what you'll spend most of your time doing: pursuing the work. Relax. Have fun. Do research. But I already said that. Yes. Because it's important.

11. How important do you feel film festivals are for anyone who wants to work in the industry?

The right film festivals are vitally important. There are so many "little festivals" that spring up every year and--while I absolutely applaud folks on creating new opportunities for up-and-coming filmmakers to have their work exposed to the public--it becomes necessary for filmmakers to do a very good job vetting the festivals. Some are just a way for organizers to make their rent through collecting submission fees. Really pay attention to what else you're getting, with any festival. Are there panel discussions and lectures by experts in the field? Is the judging process transparent? Is your work getting in front of the buyers you want to access? When you look at past films from the festival, are you honored to be within their company or is your film far better than anything they've screened before? If the festival is getting more out of your involvement than you are getting out of being involved, you may have to write it off as a mentoring opportunity (and you know I love mentoring, so this can absolutely be a good thing) and try to make the festival better for future participants.

Obviously, the "biggies" are essential for indie filmmakers to experience. Getting in even the smallest of the "biggies" can make the difference between your film only ever being seen by a few friends and your film getting major distribution. But it's never only about the immediate opportunity. It's the cumulative impact on your career. You're building relationships at every festival. Your name is getting out there with every submission and every screening. You're building your brand as a filmmaker or writer or actor (or casting director!) and as long as you stay focused on enjoying the process more than anticipating any sort of immediate rewards, you'll have fun and get a lot more out of every festival than you might have ever anticipated!

Bonnie Gillespie is an author, producer, and casting director. Her books include Casting Qs: A Collection of Casting Director Interviews, Self-Management for Actors: Getting Down to (Show) Business, and Acting Qs: Conversations with Working Actors. Bonnie specializes in casting SAG indie feature films and regularly produces the Cricket Feet Casting Actors Showcase. She is co-founder and co-host of Hollywood Happy Hour. Her weekly column, The Actors Voice, is available at www.showfax.com. Bonnie Gillespie has been named a Top Film Casting Director in Back Stage West's "Best of Los Angeles" Issue; was interviewed on BBC Breakfast, on UTV-Ireland's Gerry Kelly Goes to Hollywood, and for the E! gossip column The Answer B!tch; and hosted Inside Casting and The Reel Deal for Virtual Channel Network--the Breakdown Services and The Hollywood Reporter's website for industry insiders. For more information, please visit www.cricketfeet.com.

Posted by bonnie at March 25, 2009 12:08 AM


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