Get to Know the Casting Director: Jon Comerford with Associate Sara Dang

Get to Know the Casting Director: Jon Comerford with Associate Sara Dang

Jon Comerford won an Emmy this year for his casting work on the sixth and final season of Schitt’s Creek. The show itself collected a record-breaking nine Emmys at this year’s awards show and became the first comedy series to win the four main comedy acting categories in the same season. The feat was made even more impressive by the fact that the Pop TV show hadn’t received one Emmy before its final season. We spoke with Comerford and his associate Sara Dang about their experience casting such a record-breaking series, as well as what it’s like to be a part of their New Life Casting team. Keep reading for a window into the casting people, including their stories of where their careers began.

I always like to hear how people got into the profession of casting. When was the moment that you knew it was the career for you?

Comerford: I was in love with television from an early age, and I would spend hours every night watching it with my mom. It was our family thing to do growing up, and I became fascinated with TV. So I was an actor from the time I was about 17 until I was about 23, just trying to make a living. I remember being unemployed, and a friend of mine asked if I wanted to help work on some short films for the National Film Board of Canada. He figured that since I knew a lot of actors, I could help get them to be in the shorts. There were four shorts all together, and I cast Kathleen Robertson in one of them when she was just 13. And the head of CBC [Canadian Broadcasting Corporation] casting came when they were screened at the National Film Board. After the screening, she asked me if I had cast the four shorts. I replied, “I’m not sure, but I got all the actors for them.” Then she asked if I’d done it by myself, and I told her I had. She said, “Well, how would you like to come in on Monday morning to my office?” So I went that Monday morning, and she offered me a job as a casting assistant at CBC. And that was the moment I knew that casting is what I wanted to do.

What a way to break into the business! What about for you, Sara?

Dang: My story is a little different and starts when I was working as a receptionist at a salon while planning to go back to school. At the time, Jon was working with Lisa Parasyn, and they were looking for an assistant. Lisa asked me about the position twice, and I had turned her down both times. The third time she asked, though, for some reason I said yes without even thinking about it. I don’t know what changed my mind, but I came in for the interview and they hired me on the spot. I was shocked because I didn’t have any previous experience. And I’ll say that prior to working in casting, I was very timid and shy and didn’t want to go out of my comfort zone. This job actually made me the person I am today. Now I stand up for myself when things aren’t right, and Jon has played a big part in all of it. He’s shown a lot of trust and belief in me, as well as provided endless opportunities to grow my career. I will never forget the things he’s taught me along the way.

It’s inspiring to hear about the genuine care and mentorship that’s happening with your team.

Comerford: We are a team, which includes New Life Casting assistants Tannaz Keshavarz and Camille. Sara calls us a little family, and I agree. I also want to add that Sara is going to be a really great casting director. She started as my assistant and is now working as an associate, putting casting sessions together. There’s this amazing ability she has for names and for putting lists together of actors that would be right for certain parts. And I think it’s important to note that we’re always on the actor’s side. It’s the grandest job in the world to be able to work with actors to get the take that they’re happy with and that we’re happy with — that’s the one we use. 

Speaking of how your team is very pro-actor, are there any inspiring stories from casting Schitt’s Creek that you can share?

Comerford: Well, before booking the role of Alexis, Annie Murphy hadn’t worked for around two years. So the day she was cast was unbelievable because she had been about to give up and leave the business. And then I already knew Emily Hampshire, who plays Stevie, from casting her when she was 16 in a movie of the week called Every 9 Seconds. When she came in to audition for Stevie, she didn’t give a great first read for the role. After she finished the scene, Emily pulled the top part of her sweater over her head and ran out the door. I went and got her, and she came back to do the scene again. From there, it was such a slam dunk to cast her in the role. It was amazing finding the core cast members, but casting additional roles on a weekly basis was exciting in a different way. That all works in a very structured way like a puzzle, which was something we had to learn.

You learned it very well, according to your recent Emmy win for Outstanding Casting for a Comedy Series. How did it feel to win for the show’s sixth and final season?

Comerford: I mean, it was an unbelievable feeling to receive it after six years. Sara and I had won a CSA [Canadian Screen Award] for it, but to win an Emmy was … I still pinch myself. It was very exciting, and I think the first person I called was Sara because she’s been with me on the show for almost its entire run.

Dang: I joined toward the end of season one, and it’s been so fun to cast the characters because of how good the show is. We were always so excited to read the scripts when they’d arrive. But when I heard that Jon had won, I just couldn’t believe it. It was so unreal.

Amongst other new projects, Comerford and Dang are casting the upcoming BET mini-series entitled The Porter. And knowing the New Life Casting team, it’s sure to be an enjoyable experience. “Because if it’s not fun, we’re doing something wrong,” Comerford noted. It’s a fitting work mantra for someone Dang likens to Ed O’Neill due to a physical resemblance and Comerford’s sense for comedy. “Sometimes Jon doesn’t mean to be funny, but he is a very funny person,” Dang shared. Comerford added that if a project were made about his associate, it would be a stand-up comedy piece that would star Ali Wong as Dang. “It would be called ‘What the Heck?’ because that’s her office line when things go wrong,” Comerford said with a laugh. The casting director and his team demonstrate that a fun approach to casting can lead to great things, demonstrated by his recent Outstanding Casting for a Comedy Series win for Schitt’s Creek

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Everything You Need to Know About the Casting of Danai Gurira in ‘The Fighting Shirley Chisholm’

Everything You Need to Know About the Casting of Danai Gurira in ‘The Fighting Shirley Chisholm’

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris has made American history as the first woman to hold that title, and one of the inspirations she listed while speaking at the 2020 Democratic National Convention included a name that’s recently come to the forefront in industry news: Shirley Chisholm was our nation’s first Black congresswoman, and an upcoming feature from Cherien Dabis will follow her historic presidential run. It’s been announced that Danai Gurira will play the titular role in The Fighting Shirley Chisholm, portraying the politician who broke a number of boundaries.

In 1972, Chisholm became the first woman to seek the Democratic Party’s nomination and the first person of color to run for the presidential nomination of a major American political party. “I am not the candidate of Black America, although I am Black and proud,” Chisholm stated when announcing her run. “I am not the candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am a woman, and I’m equally proud of that. I am not the candidate or any political bosses or fat cats or special interests … I am the candidate of the people of America.”

The onscreen depiction of such an impactful figure in our nation’s history requires careful casting. Uzo Aduba recently played Chisholm in the FX miniseries Mrs. America and won an Emmy for her performance as the political icon. And Viola Davis was originally set to star as Chisholm, as well as executive produce for Amazon The Fighting Shirley Chisholm. But the project was retooled, with Dabis taking over as director from the previously-slated Maggie Betts and Gurira picking up the mantle of portraying the boundary-breaking politician. 

Known for her work as Okoye in Black Panther and the Avengers series, Gurira is familiar with playing women who challenge the status quo. The New York Times critic Manohla Dargis points to the “blissful emancipatory moment” during a particular Black Panther scene where the female warrior throws her wig at a man before eliminating him as a threat, which also “serves as a rejoinder to the practice of ‘wigging.’” Gurira is also known for her role as Michonne in The Walking Dead, another powerful female character. “I’m a feminist, and I advocate women’s leadership, and I loved that shaking up society results in unabashed female leadership, at least in our show,” Gurira stated during an interview about the series. 

The statement further supports the casting choice of Gurira as the trailblazing politician, and the actor is an activist in her own life, as well. She founded the non-profit organization Love Our Girls, which works to raise awareness about the challenges that women face throughout the world and promote change. Gurira states on the nonprofit’s site that she holds a “hope to see them [women and girls] function on the same playing field as men.” We think that her upcoming role as Chisholm is a strong step in the right direction, and Vice President-elect Harris might just agree.  

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Everything You Need to Know About the Upcoming Shondaland Series “Bridgerton”

Everything You Need to Know About the Upcoming Shondaland Series “Bridgerton”

Netflix recently released the first teaser trailer for its upcoming period drama series Bridgerton, and renewed buzz about the Shondaland show quickly followed suit. It’s the first series to come out of Shonda Rhimes’ nine-figure, multi-year overall deal with the streaming giant. The Hollywood heavy hitter is amongst the show’s executive producers, and Chris Van Dusen acts as showrunner for the upcoming series based on Julia Quinn’s bestselling novels. 

Bridgerton centers on the eight siblings of the titular family as they all pursue true love in Regency London high society. The series follows the eldest sister, Daphne Bridgerton (Phoebe Dynevor), as she enters into the “competitive marriage market.” She’s hindered by criticism from the elusive author of a gossip newsletter known as Lady Whistledown, voiced by Julie Andrews, and enters into a mutually beneficial arrangement with the Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page) that helps them both navigate said marriage market. But when the two develop unexpected feelings for each other, they have to figure out the truth of their complicated relationship. 

Their story is not the only one covered by Lady Whistledown’s scandal sheet, and the teaser trailer begs for a Gossip Girl correlation to be made, with Andrews instead of Kristen Bell as the anonymous narrator and London socialites replacing Manhattan’s elite. The time period is of course a large differentiator, as the source material for Bridgerton takes place between 1813 and 1827. It was a time when members of London’s high society were predominantly white, and the upcoming period piece is a win for representation with its inclusive casting. Vogue may have said it best with, “[Bridgerton] will see black and mixed race actors playing lords and ladies alongside their white counterparts.” 

Bridgerton comes in the wake of Armando Iannucci’s recent adaptation of The Personal History of David Copperfield, which had its U.S. release this August. The film features a diverse cast led by Dev Patel in the titular role, a character most often portrayed by white actors in previous on-screen adaptations. The well-received iteration of Charles Dickens’ classic work demonstrates the importance and viability of inclusive casting within its genre. “In the U.K. in particular, we have this enormous industry of making period drama,” said Iannucci during an NPR interview. “And I think it’s important, if we are going to keep making these stories, that we draw from 100 percent of the amazing acting talent available to us.”

It may be no surprise that the upcoming period drama series is doing just that, coming from Shondaland. In the words of IndieWire, “Rhimes is no stranger to opening doors for actors of color, and this looks to be a fantastic way to highlight how actors of color can and should be in any genre.” When Netflix drops Bridgerton on December 25, keep an eye out for performances from names like Adjoa Andoh, Ruby Barker, and Golda Rosheuvel amongst others on its impressive cast list.

Acting Up: Radha Blank

Acting Up: Radha Blank

Welcome to ACTING UP, the place where we celebrate standout performances in TV, streaming and film. Other than spotlighting exceptional work from recent projects, this feature also shines a light on how certain actors got where they are today. Have a peek and then check out these notable performances to help hone your craft.

The Snapshot: Radha Blank plays a dejected NY playwright who transforms herself into rapper RadhaMUSPrime in the Netflix comedy, The Forty-Year-Old Version. (Premiered October 9th)

The Performer:  Radha Blank

The Film:  The Forty-Year-Old Version

The Performance: 

To say The Forty-Year-Old Version is about any one thing would be unfairly misleading. Sure, it’s about an almost 40-year-old woman (Radha Blank) who comically reinvents herself as a rapper. It’s also about lost potential, creative compromise, black storytelling and what happens when an artist discovers her true voice, later in life, due to a mix of unforeseen circumstances. 

That’s the crux of this inspired black-and-white, autobiographical film written, directed and starred in by Blank, who to date has been primarily a playwright and TV writer/producer. Never mind that Blank has exactly three acting credits to her name. Or that this is her directorial debut.

The Forty-Year-Old Version is Blank’s breakout in every way – worth mentioning because this intelligent film feels remarkably like the product of a seasoned auteur, not the work of a novice.

In one of the film’s first scenes, Radha is teaching acting to a bunch of high schooler kids who are well versed in her failures. To say she’s uninspired by the pursuit – with all her promise as a “Top 30 Under 30” playwright squandered years ago – is an understatement. That’s when one of her students does an impromptu rap performance in class one day and it seemingly lights a freestyle fire under Radha. Then the prose begins to flow – rhymes on all sorts of topics from AARP mail to bad knees to a white male she sees in the city with an excessively wide backside. 

To figure out how to best channel her new energy, Radha meets up with her agent/best friend Archie (Peter Kim), to float an idea.

Radha: Think about me doin’ hip hop.

Archie: Doing what to it? 

Radha: I want to make a mix tape. 

Archie: About a white man’s ass?

Radha: About the 40-year-old woman’s point of view.

Eventually Radha lands in a studio (apartment, really) of a beat-dropping DJ she finds on Instagram named D (Oswin Benjamin) to bring life to lyrics she describes as a commentary on the “white gaze’s eroticism of black pain.” That’s when we get to see what Radha’s made of.

After reluctantly stepping behind the mic, Radha unleashes RadhaMUSPrime (the character name she creates on a whim) and “Poverty Porn,” which showcases her true talent for the craft, winning over not just the previously skeptical D, but likely everyone watching this film.

It’s a cathartic moment for the character – and no doubt the actress – who’s been laboring over this project for years, never once veering from wanting to play the lead – because, well, it’s her. 

It’s a fun ride, maybe a few minutes longer than it should be, but one that contemplates everything from Radha’s self-discovery to an age-old question that’s haunted writers since the first “note” was born: How much vision can an artist compromise before they’re a sell out? 

Proud to report that as writer, director and especially, the film’s star, Blank balances all three remarkably well – all while delivering a performance that is raw, real and worthy of praise.  

The Career:

When you think of the story of how Radha Blank came to become the triple threat behind in The Forty-Year-Old Version (FYOV), other passionate New York-based auteurs who thrived outside the traditional “Hollywood system” come to mind a la Spike Lee, Woody Allen and Ed Burns.

As a proud native New Yorker, Blank’s unconventional career path to post-40-year-old success started as a playwright where her resume is anything but blank. Amongst these plays are the solo show HappyFlowerNail, Casket Sharp, nannyland and SEED, which won her a Helen Merrill Playwriting Award (amongst others) and much needed heat for her TV writing/producing career. 

Eventually, this led to gigs on shows such as She’s Gotta Have It on Netflix (2017-2019), The Get Down (2016) and an episode of Fox’s Empire (2015). But it wasn’t until she was accepted into the 2017 Sundance Directors and Screenwriters Labs in her 40s thanks to her original (FOYV) screenplay, when she had “the chance to really experiment in the filmmaking space.”

Blank’s hard work culminated when she won the 2020 Sundance Institute Vanguard Award and Sundance Film Festival U.S. Dramatic Directing Award, before ultimately earning a slew of strong critic reviews, Certified Fresh status on Rotten Tomatoes and a release date on Netflix.

And side note: If you had any doubt of the biographical elements of the film, know that Radha Blank performs as emcee RadhaMUSPrime where she’s brought her brand of hip-hop to sold-out shows worldwide. So, if you liked the movie, maybe you can catch a live performance in person.

When people start doing that again.


Gregg Rosenzweig has been a writer, creative director and managing editor for various entertainment clients, ad agencies and digital media companies over the past 20 years. He is also a partner in the talent management/production company, The Rosenzweig Group.

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Roundup of the Experts’ Predictions for Best Actor and Best Actress Nominees

Roundup of the Experts’ Predictions for Best Actor and Best Actress Nominees

With roughly five months until the Oscars, the buzz surrounding which actors are frontrunners for the various categories has already begun. Gold Derby recently hosted a virtual debate between industry experts from Variety, Deadline, and IndieWire to talk through their predictions for this year’s Best Actor and Best Actress nominees. Keep reading for a roundup of some of the top names that made their lists, as well as the pros’ personal favorites.

Best Actress 

Many names were mentioned when the industry experts started debating who they thought would receive an Oscar nod this year. Variety’s Clayton Davis gave his clear top three frontrunners, which included Vanessa Kirby for Pieces of a Woman, Viola Davis for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Frances McDormand for Nomadland. McDormand’s chances of winning at the 2021 Oscars were debated, though, after her recent win in the category for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. “I think [that] logically she would not become the frontrunner,” noted Variety’s Tim Gray. “But on the other hand, she’s Frances McDormand. I mean, she’s revered in a way that most other actors aren’t.” 

Best Actor 

Amongst many performances in this category, Chadwick Boseman in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Anthony Hopkins in The Father, Steven Yeun in Minari, and Kingsley Ben-Adir in One Night in Miami received a lot of attention from the experts. “He’s the Vanessa Kirby of the Best Actor race,” asserted IndieWire’s Anne Thompson about Ben-Adir. “He’s a discovery.” And Davis pointed to Boseman as the significant challenger to Hopkins in the category. “I think we’ve all been waiting for who could rival Anthony Hopkins because his performance [in The Father] is so fantastic,” Davis opined.

Favorite Performances

When Gold Derby’s Tom O’Neil asked the pros who they were personally rooting for, even if they thought the actors were longshots for being nominated, a number of female actors were mentioned. Davis named Jessie Buckley for her work in I’m Thinking of Ending Things, as well as Julia Garner’s performance in The Assistant. And in a moment of agreement, Thompson and Hammond both noted the work of Rachel Brosnahan in I’m Your Woman and Elisabeth Moss in The Invisible Man. Cary Mulligan’s performance in Promising Young Woman and Anya Taylor-Joy’s turn as the titular character in Autumn de Wilde’s recent adaptation of Emma were also listed.  

 During the industry experts’ discourse, Hammond commented on the unique nature of this year’s Best Actress category, with veteran thespians competing against newer faces. “[There’s] no question about it,” the Deadline industry expert stated. “This is going to be a race like we haven’t seen in a while.” It seems fitting for what is going to be an unprecedented Academy Awards due to the changes caused by the pandemic. The delayed date of the awards show, which will now air on April 25, is just one example. But regardless of when they take place or how they’re altered by COVID-19, the upcoming 2021 Oscars represent our industry’s dedication to celebrating the best work in film. And on March 15 when Oscar nominations are announced, you can see how the experts faired in predicting who will be competing in the categories of Best Actor and Best Actress.

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Acting Up: Anya Taylor-Joy

Acting Up: Anya Taylor-Joy

Welcome to ACTING UP, the place where we celebrate standout performances in TV, streaming, and film. Other than spotlighting exceptional work from recent projects, this feature also shines a light on how certain actors got where they are today. Have a peek and then check out these notable performances to help hone your craft.

The Snapshot: Anya Taylor-Joy plays an orphaned chess prodigy with big dreams (and a few demons) looking to master a man’s game in the Netflix limited series The Queen’s Gambit. (Premiere date: October 23rd)

The Performer: Anya Taylor-Joy

The Series: The Queen’s Gambit

The Performance: 

Let’s get one thing out of the way from the get-go: You do not need to love chess to love The Queen’s Gambit. But it should be said that if you do, you’ll appreciate this series on a level I couldn’t even begin to grasp (I was more of a Checkers/Connect Four player in my day).

At the center of the story is Elizabeth “Beth” Harmon, who we first meet as a little girl (Isla Johnston) in late ’50s America, and who ends up at an orphanage when her mother dies in a car accident. Upon being sent out of the classroom one day to clap a few chalkboard erasers, she discovers the custodian Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp) playing a game alone in the basement: 


Her curiosity leads to questions, and those answers lead to books given to her by the janitor. Soon, and with the help of the mind-altering tranquilizers the orphanage gives to children to calm their temperaments, Beth starts playing chess games in her head (and on the ceiling at night), envisioning all the right moves like a beautiful mind trying to unearth all the patterns at age 9.

At this point, we meet the older version of Beth (played by Anya Taylor-Joy), a 15-year-old teenager still at the orphanage winning basement battles with Mr. Shaibel —  before he invites a local chess club over to witness Beth’s incredible ability, where she beats them all firsthand. 

There’s obviously so much more that happens in this series (which I won’t spoil here), but Taylor-Joy’s performance is one to be marveled at. Not because she plays the character “big.” It’s actually quite the opposite, with Taylor-Joy capturing Beth’s discomfort around people in non-verbal ways with an understated brilliance. Taylor-Joy’s performance is also to be marveled at given the addiction problems her character deals with, which seem quietly controlled at first, before they’re not. Taylor-Joy nails Beth’s caterpillar-to-butterfly transformation — from girl to woman, from novice to expert, from recreational user to addict —  as her global prominence as a chess player unfolds.

For many of the same reasons The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel became a hit — brilliant writing to go with dazzling set, production, and costume design — The Queen’s Gambit is a beautiful 1950s-60s period-drama journey well worth taking. And Taylor-Joy’s Beth Harmon is at the center of it all. 


The Career:

If you’re wondering how a 24-year-old American-Argentinian-British actress originally from Miami, Florida ended up portraying Beth Harmon’s complete character arc (starting at age 15), it’s a story of smart casting (by industry vet Ellen Lewis) and Taylor-Joy’s instant buy-in based on her love for the book the series is based on, The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis.

In fact, in the show’s production notes, Taylor-Joy reveals that she “fell in love with Beth immediately and there was a really strong kinship. Even though I knew nothing about chess whatsoever, I understood her really well and I cared about her.” 

As for where you’ve seen the talented Taylor-Joy, she landed on the scene as the star of A24’s The Witch (2015), where she won rave reviews after its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. The horror film, for which Taylor-Joy won a Breakthrough Actor Award at The Gotham Awards, is about a family of Pilgrim settlers in the 1630s New England who encounter, well, a witch. 

Then came a couple of notable lead roles in films as the title character in Morgan (2016) and M. Night Shyamalan’s horror-thriller Split (2016), where she played the kidnapped victim of a man with 23 split personalities. After surviving those roles, Taylor-Joy went on to star in series of note such as The Dark Crystal (2019) and fifth season of the gangster epic Peaky Blinders (2019) before doing another notable film, reprising her role as Casey Cooke in Shyamalan’s Glass (2019). In this year of all years (2020), Taylor-Joy has starred in two feature films as well – playing a mutant in The New Mutants in addition to the lead in the latest Jane Austen adaptation of Emma.

None of the previous roles, however, are destined to be celebrated as much as her latest in The Queen’s Gambit, which will likely see some awards action come 2021 as it’s currently trending up on Rotten Tomatoes, critics’ lists, and your Facebook feeds in between political posts. 

As for what’s next for the talented actress, she’s currently shooting The Northman, Robert Eggers’ Viking revenge saga set in Iceland at the turn of the 10th century with Nicole Kidman.

In the chess game of life, it seems clear the star of The Queen’s Gambit is making her move. 




Gregg Rosenzweig has been a writer, creative director and managing editor for various entertainment clients, ad agencies and digital media companies over the past 20 years. He is also a partner in the talent management/production company, The Rosenzweig Group.

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The Moment Before: Make Your Pre-Beats Pop

The Moment Before: Make Your Pre-Beats Pop

If you’ve ever taken an acting class, you may have been instructed to “have a moment before.” But what does that really look like? Also called a pre-beat, a moment before is exactly what it sounds like: the moment that precedes the start of the scene. While it can be text-based, the actor often has to fill in the gaps with their own imagination.

Why is it important?

A strong pre-beat can make or break an audition. Those first thirty seconds are so crucial to hooking a casting director — you don’t want to spend them warming up into the scene. A pre-beat acts as an emotional springboard. Even if you’re working with a reader, it is likely you won’t have someone giving you the emotional stimulus to support an organic reaction. So you have to find that stimulus yourself. 

It’s not just auditions, either. Any time you enter a scene, you need to know where you’re coming from, what just happened, and how it affected you. Get specific about why you’re entering a scene, and what you’re fighting for. You want to be walking into a scene with a perspective. Life doesn’t suddenly start when you walk into a new room. 

Where do you start?

If you’re struggling to craft a moment before, it might be helpful to write it out. Sit down and really imagine, beat by beat, where your character is coming from. Journal it if that helps. Really dig into the sensory imagery. Break down how it makes your character feel. If your character is coming from somewhere where there were other people, what is the last thing that was said to you?

If the text doesn’t provide these details, feel free to make them up. You can make an educated guess based on your knowledge of the script and the character. If you’re struggling, go back to the scene that is about to happen. What is your objective in that scene? What are your character’s expectations coming into the scene? What is the arc of the scene? Trace these clues back to the beginning of the scene to see where your character needs to start, and craft a pre-beat that will set you up for that. Remember, it’s about making the strongest choice, not getting mired down in details. 

As with any actor homework, the audience won’t see the prep work. Eventually you will find a way to condense your work into emotional shorthand. A pre-beat is a tool for you. It is to make sure you start any given scene from a place that is specific, active and grounded. Don’t stress out over getting it “right.” Choose something that works for you.

What makes a pre-beat “strong?”

To summarize, a strong pre-beat is one that is specific, grounded, emotionally charged, and gives the actor both a clear idea of where they are coming from and a clear set of expectations coming into the scene. A strong pre-beat sets you up to fight for your objective. Find what works for you and set yourself up for success!

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Meet Claudia Maree Mailer, Actress and Creator of the DieRy Monologue Challenge

Meet Claudia Maree Mailer, Actress and Creator of the DieRy Monologue Challenge

Actress Claudia Maree Mailer wasn’t about to let the pandemic get in the way of the release of her indie thriller DieRy, which marks the 26-year-old’s first lead role in a film.

DieRy, shot before the pandemic, sees Mailer playing a young woman whose diary is stolen, and the obsessive thief begins sending her letters and killing people around her. The film’s producers, Mailer Tuchman Media, had planned to do a festival run with DieRy first, but when the pandemic all but eliminated that option, they released it via iTunes/AppleTV, Google Play, Amazon Prime, and Vimeo beginning August 25. The decision was made after noticing a surge in the VOD market as people across the world were quarantined with limited options for entertainment. A captive audience looking to consume new content seemed like the best way to get the maximum amount of eyeballs on a little indie. 

But Mailer took it a step further. Inspired by watching actors post self-tapes and monologues on social media during the pandemic while the industry shut down, she created the DieRy Monologue Challenge to coincide with the VOD release date.  

The instructions were simple. Pre-order the movie, receive three monologues from the film, and upload them to Instagram. Ten winners would be picked to receive a virtual one-one-session with the film’s director, Jennifer Gelfer, who was also one of the DieRy’s producers. All proceeds from the pre-order benefitted The Actor’s Fund, which works to assist performing arts and entertainment professionals. (Casting Networks promoted the DieRy Monologue Challenge on its social media channels.)

The one-on-one sessions with Gelfer had the potential to be career breaks for the winners. Gelfer also happens to be the executive director of Mailer Tuchman Media, which is different from most other production companies. It uses its own roster of actors, directors, producers, and screenwriters. Mailer, who was at one time Gelfer’s assistant, had risen through the ranks to become part of MTM’s actor roster, having had supporting roles in MTM’s The Second Sun and the upcoming Inside Me. She has since wed MTM’s creative director, John Buffalo Mailer, son of legendary author Norman Mailer, who also wrote DieRy’s screenplay and had a supporting role in it. 

“MTM is all about discovering new talent, and I felt we could take this social community of actors flexing their muscles with self-tapes and pair them with Jen, who is always on the lookout for new faces for upcoming projects,” said the actress. “I know that if this were any other studio movie, I never would have been cast as the lead in DieRy because I wasn’t a recognizable name. With the monologue challenge, I wanted an opportunity to pay it forward, so others could have that same opportunity.”

Now, she said, all ten winners are part of MTM’s exclusive acting group and will have access to be part of future MTM table reads for developing projects, and getting first crack at being looked at for possible film roles.

As for Mailer, her career path started back in New Zealand, where she grew up. She came to the United States at 18 by way of a talent competition called World Championship of Performing Arts, and from there, enrolled in New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts. During her second year, she did an internship at Michael Mailer Films. When she graduated from acting school in 2015, Michael Mailer asked her if she’d like to be his assistant on the feature film he was about to direct, Blind, starring Alec Baldwin, Demi Moore, and Dylan McDermott. 

That’s where she first met Gelfer, a producer on the film, and her future husband, Michael Mailer’s younger brother John Buffalo Mailer, who had written Blind’s screenplay. Over the next two years, these individuals continued to work together on subsequent film projects, all in various capacities both in front and behind the camera. When John Buffalo Mailer began writing the screenplay for DieRy, MTM was officially formed. Meanwhile, a professional relationship between Claudia (then Peters) and John Buffalo Mailer eventually became personal when the two began dating in 2016.

While DieRy was being written, Claudia was already getting invested in the screenplay as she watched her then-boyfriend work on it. When she finally read the script, she knew she had to play the lead. But she also knew that she had to convince Gelfer, who would be directing the film, that she could handle a role that required her to be in just about every shot, playing scenes that were often emotionally draining or physically demanding. 

“I had to work harder for it because Jen wasn’t just going to give it to me,” she said.  “I had to show her I could do it, and I respect her for that. I auditioned, I table read, I did private coaching. I worked my ass off to earn this role.”

In 2018, two months before production began on DieRy, Claudia and John Buffalo Mailer married. And while intertwining personal and professional lives does not work for all couples, this pair doesn’t know any different. “We met on a film set!” she chimes. “I love working with him. He is an absolute gem, and we are two peas in a pod. It’s so seamless, and I feel like we make a great team.”

Whether it was the hard work she poured into her role, the comfort factor of collaborating with people she was close to, or both, Claudia Mailer’s performance in DieRy attracted attention from talent representatives. She has since signed with Key Talent Management.  

Does she think COVID has impacted her career in any way? 

“I don’t know because, in my eyes, my career is just starting, which is so weird having it happen in the middle of a pandemic,” she said. “I didn’t have representation before, and now I do, so I feel I’m about to take my step into the world. If this is the time, then this is the time. What’s for us won’t pass us, even in a pandemic.”

Casting Director Faith Hibbs-Clark Shares Her Acting Method Based on the Science of Deception Detection

Casting Director Faith Hibbs-Clark Shares Her Acting Method Based on the Science of Deception Detection

During our recent interview with Faith Hibbs-Clark, the casting director mentioned how her background as a deception detection expert played a role in her casting. She even came up with an acting technique called the Communication Method for Actors based on the science behind her former profession. Hibbs-Clark said that through auditioning actors, she saw a need for a science-based approach that helped them deliver consistently strong performances, rather than leaving it up to chance. Keep reading for Hibbs-Clark’s overview of the Communication Method for Actors and how it works. 

Faith, it’s great to talk with you again, and I’m so curious to hear more about this method. Can you start with an overview of how it works? 

The Communication Method for Actors comes from the point of view that all acting is communication and that all acting is a lie. When an actor performs lines, they are essentially telling a lie because they’re not that person and not experiencing those things. So how do we make their audition believable? We use the science of psychology and the art of communication to evoke feelings in the person watching the performance. It is an outside-in approach that focuses on how the actor is perceived and allows them to specifically craft their performances. Instead of hoping for a happy accident and having that magical moment in an audition where everything clicks, actors can use a science-based technique that offers consistency in their work. 

That is such a fascinating way to apply science to acting. And how does adopting certain body language affect an actor’s emotions? 

So the science of nonverbal communication is based on the fact that the human brain is hard-wired to behave in certain ways when we feel certain emotions. And each and every one of us knows how to interpret those messages. For example, if you come home and see your significant other sitting across the room with folded arms and a scowl on their face, you would probably think that they were angry with you. Their brain would be sending signals to their body to display mannerisms that reflect their emotions, and your brain would be reading and interpreting those mannerisms. But if you reverse-engineer the process and take on the physical manifestation of the reaction that the body has when it feels a certain emotion, you can actually trick the brain into thinking you’re experiencing that emotion. So if you fold your arms and furrow your brow, your brain will eventually accept the message that you’re angry. And then it will release chemicals to make your body actually feel angry.

Wow. The power of the human brain is so incredible. How does that all factor into your technique? 

Instead of pretending to feel something or trying to conjure up emotion, it allows the actor to in essence hack their brain to make it actually feel something. They then get this chemical cocktail that makes their entire being feel the emotion they’ve chosen. The technique also gives your brain a constructive plan, which helps it function under the pressure of an audition without going into survival mode. Actors may forget their lines or start shaking or sweating as nervous physiological reactions to fear in an audition. The idea is that having a carefully-crafted plan for your brain to focus on is very helpful for your performance. I create formulas for actors that are based on certain communication and scientific principles. One example of a formula that can be utilized in an audition is based on how the brain receives visual and vocal information. They’re processed in different parts of the brain, and sound is actually received one-tenth of a second slower than sight. So the formula plays on that dynamic to ensure that the receiver of the actor’s performance is best able to take it in.

Hibbs-Clark has introduced names like Emma Stone to her method and often uses it to coach A-listers when they’re filming in the Albuquerque production hub where the casting director is located. Those interested in learning more about the Communication Method for Actors or trying out a virtual class can check out its website. But the casting director reminds us that the science behind her method isn’t limited to actors. “The practical application in our real, everyday lives is that if we take on the physical manifestations of something positive, such as happiness, it will send that message back to our brains,” Hibbs-Clark noted. “No matter how awful your life may be, you can actually trick your brain into feeling happiness. And I think that’s a super important lesson for all of us, regardless of our acting ambitions.” So whether you are a thespian or someone just trying to get through 2020, the Communication Method for Actors and the science behind it might be of interest to you. 

This interview has been edited and condensed. 

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Performance Review: ‘Embattled’

Performance Review: ‘Embattled’

If you’re a fan of either family or sports dramas, Embattled might be the film for you. Making his English-language film debut, Nick Sarkisov directs from a script penned by American History X writer David McKenna that centers on father and son MMA fighters. Stephen Dorff plays the former, a character called Cash, who is a world champion fighter with 37 wins to his name and only one loss. His 18-year-old son Jett (Darren Mann) is an up-and-comer with just three fights under his belt. The relationship between the two is complicated because of Cash’s abusive nature as a father, and their tension eventually leads to a widely-publicized match between father and son. We won’t give away the ending, but keep reading for a review of how Dorff and Mann did in their complex leading roles.  

Stephen Dorff 

Many may know the industry veteran from his role as Deacon Frost in Blade, meaning that the actor is no stranger to playing villains. It’s a good thing, because Cash is certainly not a hero in Embattled. At different points in the film and through flashbacks, we see him hit his ex-wife, choke his current wife, and slap around a young Jett. These acts of violence against those physically weaker than him may make us dislike Cash, but Dorff creates a more complex character than just a one-note “bad guy.” We find out that Cash is also the victim of an abusive father, and the actor’s nuanced portrayal of the role allows us to see a person locked in a cycle of abuse. Dorff delivers a complex, layered performance as a man who throws out homophobic slurs at an alarming rate, has a list of rules for how to get away with drinking and driving, and who owns a t-shirt that reads, “I f–k on the first date.” We are not meant to like Cash, but Dorff finds the humanity in an incredibly lost character. 

Darren Mann 

You may know the relative newcomer from his recurring role as Luke Chalfant on the Kiernan Shipka-led Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. And if Mann’s performance in Embattled is any indication, you’ll be seeing a lot more of the budding star moving forward. Many actors have a hard time playing characters younger than themselves, but Mann is believable as a high school senior while also bringing depth to the role. Jett is getting pulled in all different directions as he tries to balance school with supporting his mom and helping parent his younger brother Quinn, who has Williams Syndrome. At the same time, Cash is exposing Jett to the party lifestyle of the rich and famous, as well as coaching him in the ring. It’s a lot for a high schooler to handle, but Mann believably navigates Jett through all the hurdles and family dysfunction he faces. The actor radiates a certain goodness in the role that is displayed whenever he’s caring for Quinn. Jett has essentially become the father figure in their relationship, and Mann’s performance is a brilliant foil to Dorff’s Cash. The thespian’s grounded and emotionally available work is one you will remember long after the credits roll. 

The film also includes names like Elizabeth Reaser and Donald Faison. And keep an eye out for Colin McKenna, who is the real-life son of the film’s writer and was born with the same genetic condition as his character Quinn. The actor delivers a strong performance, and the casting choice demonstrates inclusivity and authenticity in casting characters with disabilities. You can see all the listed performances and more on November 20 when Embattled releases in theaters and on demand.

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