One in a Million

Filmmakers and casting directors on the search for non-actors (and the right fit) 

Ever since the workers left the Lumière Factory, “real people” have played an essential role in cinema. The notion of what constitutes nonprofessionals or non-actors can be a slippery one, but broadly speaking, the sociopolitical authenticity and unfiltered psychological realism presumed in such casting has been sought at least since Italian neorealism. (Or some fusion of the two: “People ask, where did you find these faces?” Fellini said to Roger Ebert in 1969. “None of them are professional actors; these faces come from my private dreams.”) Today, a tradition of utilizing non-actors is alive and well in films from the U.S. to Taiwan to Iran, but there remains something radical in featuring an untrained performer on screen. The non-actor problematizes the tidy binary between documentary and fiction we commonly accept, opening an ontological can of worms and causing us to question what we mean by realism and naturalism. While Pedro Costa, Tsai Ming-liang, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul have all spoken and written about employing non-actors, we invited several more filmmakers and casting directors to shed light on the practical and conceptual dimensions of the practice, and the how, where, and why of casting a non-actor for a role.

Closer Look: The series “The Non-Actor” runs November 24 to December 10 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Assistant Director Sompot Chidgasornpongse (Tropical Malady, Cemetery of Splendor)

I did the casting on many of [Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s] films myself. In Cemetery of Splendor [pictured], if not the two main actors, the rest of the cast was cast from Khon Kaen, Apichatpong’s hometown, where the movie was shot entirely. We want someone who looks like people we can find in everyday life.

But the most important aspect we looked for was spontaneity. And how natural they could be at improvising. During the casting session, we would throw random questions at them or come up with something unexpected. For example, we might ask the person, “How was your trip to the sea with Wimon last week? I heard she was still recovering from cancer?” Wimon’s story line was all made up. We just wanted to see how the person would react, and how he/she could follow along this made-up story in a believable way. Apichatpong says it’s like who can lie the best.

We recorded everything from when they introduced themselves to when they started “acting.” We wanted to see if they could stay the same. Usually people become more excited when they start improvising. The energy changes. We prefer people who can just be totally normal, to the point that we cannot tell if they’re telling the truth or lying.

Another thing we looked for was how [well] they matched each other. The film should look “together” as a whole. In Tropical Malady, it took us more than a year to find the soldier character.

Director Eliza Hittman (It Felt Like Love, Beach Rats) 

It Felt Like Love

I write about worlds I’m familiar with. For It Felt Like Love [pictured above], I brought in a huge group of kids from my high school, Edward R. Murrow [in Brooklyn], that were interested in performance of some kind, whether it be acting, dancing, or singing. In the audition, first I do an interview to feel out who they are, where they’re from, and find a connection. And then I do a cold read of a scene from the script. It’s never something overly dramatic.

The script for It Felt Like Love existed in a bare-bones form, and when I met the kids I folded things from their world into the script. With Giovanna Salimeni, whom I cast out of a dance studio in Carroll Gardens, I ended up sort of folding her dance group into the narrative. I think that’s something that a lot of directors I love do. For Badlands, Malick asked Sissy Spacek in the audition if she had any special skills and she said, “Yeah, I’m really good with a baton” or something like that, and that became an iconic moment with her in the beginning of Badlands.

Casting Director Ellen Lewis (Goodfellas, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Post)

Goodfellas

Most of the work I’ve done with non-actors has been with Martin Scorsese. For some of the casting in Goodfellas we had dinner one night at Rao’s—myself, Ray Liotta, Nick Pileggi, and Martin Scorsese. People who had heard about what we were doing came in and we met with them, to see who was interesting or who would fit in the film. They were people from that world. There were some very high-up mob guys that showed up, who obviously we couldn’t use [laughs], but it was still interesting to meet them and it helped the process. In Casino, as well, there is a huge amount of non-actors. I did a lot of casting in Las Vegas. Some of the people I cast had actually known the characters from the film. This only adds to the feeling of authenticity. In the end though, I would say you probably wouldn’t be able to tell who is an actor and who isn’t in the film, and that’s a good thing.

I’m looking for someone who looks right and fits the part first of all. Once I find someone who might work, I do a reading with them to see if they are self-conscious, or how natural they are. Actor or non-actor, it’s about if this person is believable.

Casting Director Kathleen Crawford (Under the Skin; I, Daniel Blake)

Under the Skin

The conversation at the start of casting Under the Skin [pictured above] was largely about being open. Open to actors, open to casting non-actors. It was just really to search everywhere for the people who could be right on screen next to this alien female character. To find people Jon [director Jonathan Glazer] was excited to put the camera on regardless of whether they were professional actors or not.

For the local men whom Scarlett Johansson’s lead character meets, we had a more specific brief in terms of accent and geography—people from places like Glasgow and Greenock. My company is based in Glasgow and we have cast extensively in Scotland for around 17 years, so we brought in a lot of professional actors as well as non-actors we had auditioned and cast in the past. And we used word of mouth and social media to let people know we were looking for people to perform in the film. In the end, there was a mix of pro-actors, those who had some other screen credits but had originally been “street” cast for other jobs, and new “street” cast people.

Director Ronald Bronstein (Frownland)

Frownland

I’ve always been attracted to outsized, incontinent, anally repulsive personalities—those rarified types who haven’t signed the same sort of social contract that destines the rest of us to a life of abject inhibition. I knew I wanted these large, unwieldy personalities in my work and I knew almost right away that a) I didn’t have the skill set as a writer to capture this on the page, trying to divide my own limp brain up into five or six distinct voices; and b) I thought it was a nitwit endeavor to even try to do so—if you’re committed to forgoing overt narrative exposition and just shaping a narrative around a composite of behaviorisms, slaving over every comma is just a fruitless, counterproductive fool’s errand.

I wasn’t pursuing naturalism [in Frownland, pictured above]. I was pursuing a kind of emotional wish fulfillment. I’m a self-conscious and inhibited person by nature, and I feel like I’m constantly keeping my anger in check simply because I don’t want to call attention to myself. As a result, I’ve always been envious of people who can’t govern themselves amicably, and empathetic of the difficulties it foments for them in life. The kind of person who can ruin a party. They laugh the loudest; they also cry the hardest, and these magnified states of being make them better conduits for conveying emotion on a 50-foot screen.


Chris Shields is a New York–based filmmaker and writer. He is a frequent contributor to Art & Antiques magazine and Screen Slate.