Valerie McCaffrey has worked both as an in-house casting director (for Universal Pictures and New Line Cinema) and as an independent casting director. A few of her many notable accomplishments include casting Edward Norton and Eddie Furlong in American History X, Ellen Page in Hard Candy, and Jeremy Renner in Neo Ned (which she also produced).
McCaffrey is also a filmmaker who’s directed features, television, shorts, videos and documentaries. Now, she’s bringing her most personal project to date in front of audiences—the short film Dirty Bomb, which she wrote, directed, produced, and of course, cast.
Set during World War II, Dirty Bomb follows the experiences of McCaffrey’s Armenian uncle, who fought on behalf of the U.S. just as many Jews in Nazi concentration camps were sabotaging the construction of the V-2 bomb they were being forced to build. Their clandestine act saved the lives of thousands of U.S. soldiers, though it meant the executions of the Jews who saved them.
“I had to make this movie,” McCaffrey told Casting Networks. “These Jewish prisoners risked their lives saving my uncle’s life, and contributed to the end of World War II. I grew up listening to my uncle’s stories of about the war and did months and months of research before I wrote the script. This was a very ambitious effort.”
McCaffrey took some time over a rare free weekend to speak to Casting Networks on topics ranging from her experience casting and directing Dirty Bomb to how technology has changed the way casting directors do business. She offered some thoughts and tips for actors on such topics as showcases and self-tapes, and what an actor should never do at an audition.
Tell me about the casting process for Dirty Bomb.
Ido Samuel (Fill the Void) was the first actor cast. I’d worked with him personally before and told him this story. He said he’d never heard of it. I said, “Then I’m going make it and you’re going star in it.” Robert Arce was someone I’d seen in a showcase and said to myself, “One day, I’m going cast him in something.” He’s so interesting and has such a period face. I did have auditions. I cast Hunter Dohan, who I manage, because I wanted someone who was young and naïve because all these U.S. soldiers were very young.
And the one role of the woman at the concentration camp?
I shot the concentration camp scenes in Fresno, so I had to find someone very thin out of Fresno. I was recommended Windy Hamilton who in real life is actually a deaf actress.
This is a short film, but your foray into directing began with a full-length feature in 1999 called Wish You Were Dead. How was that experience?
I loved it, but at the time, I was so focused on creating my own independent casting company that I took a break from directing. I always loved directing. Thirty years of being around all these great filmmakers and great actors, you can’t help but pick up some things. They always say write what you know, so with Dirty Bomb, it became this huge passion project. Now it’s segueing into something bigger, a full-length feature film. I already have the script for it.
Let’s pick your brain on the casting front. You mentioned you cast an actor in Dirty Bomb based off a showcase. Obviously, showcases work for you in terms of finding talent, right?
They do work, yes. Do I support the pay-to-play? No. But showcases, when handled properly, are opportunities for people like me to meet actors that I don’t have specific roles I’m casting for at the moment. It’s also a great opportunity for TV casting associates and casting directors to meet other actors other than the ones they already know. Television moves at such a fast pace. There’s so much more product out there now with all the new streaming platforms, so we’re always looking for new talent.
What type of actor benefits most from showcases?
Showcases are opportunities for young actors to be seen. For example, if they just graduated from drama school and don’t have a reel, navigating in the business can be hard. It’s an opportunity to go in there and perform. There are good actors at these showcases that casting directors get exposed to. I think it’s a good thing.
What if actors don’t have any acting credits on their resume, will you still see them?
I look at training. I look to see if they’ve done theater. Even if they have no film or TV credits to speak of, those two things can matter.
How has technology impacted your work as a casting director?
Well, for starters, I don’t get the big packages anymore when I’m casting. I used to sit on the floor with tons and tons of packages and look through all the pictures. Today, a lot of actors submit themselves, so it’s about going through each picture and each profile and picking the people that come up on your screen up until page 10. Technology is kind of limited in how far you can go in setting up your sessions because after page 10 of seeing 500 actors, you might just quit and have your session already. I encourage young actors to have all their media organized. Those that have their media and shots go up first.
What’s been a downside to that technology?
With self-tape, an actor will do the scene twenty times and upload the takes they like. It’s created a bad habit because we find that when actors get on set, they can’t deliver in one or two takes anymore. You should be prepared for self-tape like you’re going into an audition. It is not a time to be learning your lines. By the time you do the self-tape, you should do three takes, and pick one or two to upload. Your self-tape should be done within 30 minutes, not an hour.
How do you deal with self-tapes as a casting director?
For me, I like viewing actors on self-tapes who I may not be familiar with. I get to see new talent. However, many actors wait until the last minute to submit their tapes. As I mentioned before, in television because of the fast pace, casting directors are already looking at the self-tapes that have come in first. They’re already giving out callbacks or producers sessions. I encourage actors that the minute they get their audition, work on it, and get it uploaded.
Can you imagine, as a casting director, getting 50 self-tapes at the last minute? It can be frustrating because I also have a deadline, and the director is waiting for me to submit my choices.
What does nobody do anymore that you wish they still did?
Nobody gives out 8 x 10s anymore. Wouldn’t it be interesting if you actually sent your 8 x 10 into a casting director with a nice note? The 8 x 10s that I get with a resume are so very few and far between, that I actually do look at them. I read the credits. And I have asked some of those people to come in and read something. It’s a great marketing tool because who sends them now? No one. Why not you?
Now you might get flooded with 8 x 10s with stapled resumes on the back.
It’s okay. I kind of miss it.
What are some things that an actor should never do at an audition?
Number one: Don’t read from your iPhone. Casting directors don’t like that. I’ve never met one who does. Number two: Don’t tell me that you couldn’t prepare for my audition because you had six other auditions to prepare for that day. What are you doing here then? Because you’re obviously not prepared, and you’re wasting your time and mine. Those are the two big ones.
How important is attitude in a casting session?
You should have the attitude in your head of—not in an arrogant way—that the job needs you more than you need the job. Actors should come in with a certain confidence about themselves and about their work. Casting directors can feel it when somebody comes across as too desperate. Likability is very important. We should like you. On that note, if you’re coming to see us in character, please let somebody know. Hugh Grant came in character as the villain for Hard Target and because he didn’t bother telling anyone, we all thought he was not a nice person.
How do you deal with the quandary of casting someone who is good for the role versus someone who is bankable and can secure financing?
It does become a catch-22, so you try to find a balance where you get both out of the actor—name value and somebody that’s right for the role. I don’t think I’ve ever cast a lead actor that didn’t hit on both counts. The challenge of casting is showing producers and directors that you know an actor’s body of work, and they must trust you when you say, “Listen, this choice is good for you.” Sometimes, a new filmmaker doesn’t have the trained eye and is more concerned about a celebrity’s Instagram followers instead of their acting abilities. I know a lot of casting directors who fight with that. We don’t care about Instagram followers, we care about your craft.
Did you ever have to fight for an actor to be cast in a project?
Yes. In American History X, I fought for Ethan Suplee as opposed to Jack Black for that role. Not that Jack Black was a bad actor. Not at all. He’s a great actor, and he did a great audition. I had two actors who were equally the same. In a situation like that, the next step is, okay, who physically fits more into this world? I thought Ethan Suplee was more menacing. The director agreed with me in the end.
How does your work as a casting director help you as a filmmaker?
I’ve seen so many actors throughout the years, and when you direct and re-direct them in the room, you develop a skill of being able to take them from one place to another. And because I also write screenplays, all those years of reading scripts, some from the top writers in Hollywood, you begin to see the difference between a good script and not-so-good script. Also, I am a lover of film and when I watch them, I watch shots. That’s how my brain works.
When you were directing Dirty Bomb, what was guiding you most?
When I was doing the short, it wasn’t about words or about looks. It was the moments in between that translate to the audience what they should be feeling, and then working with the actors to get to that point. Also, I love bringing the best technicians in the world to come play with me in my little world: the best costume designer, the best production designer, etc. It’s kind of like casting—getting the best person for every job and creating a team of amazing people that have the same passion as you. When all that happens, all of a sudden, the movie transforms into something beautiful.