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Arts & Entertainment

Martin Scorsese on Casting the Right Actors

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 4 min read

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Martin Scorsese Teaches Filmmaking

I always say that casting is 85 to 90 percent of the picture for me. So, all of you just starting out ... insist on what you want, and ...don’t settle for close enough or second best.” —Martin Scorsese

Martin Scorsese is one of the most widely acclaimed and influential directors in American cinema. The director of classic features including Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Gangs of New York, and The Irishman. Martin is closely associated with the New Hollywood school of filmmaking, as well as his collaborations with certain actors, most notably Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio. For Martin, getting the right actors in the right roles is paramount.

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Why Is Casting Important?

Over his long career, Martin has worked with some of the best actors in Hollywood, but he’s also known for occasionally working with people who have little or no acting experience. For Martin, what matters most is achieving the level of naturalness that he looks for in film.

4 Tips for Casting a Film

  1. Find a casting director you connect with. Martin’s experience with casting actors goes back to his days at NYU. There he met Harvey Keitel, one of his earliest and most frequent collaborators, when Keitel came to audition for one of Martin’s short films. Martin worked early in his career with the casting director Cis Corman, and since the 1990s he has developed a close working relationship with Ellen Lewis. He works well with Lewis because he knows he will connect with the actors she brings to him, since they have similar taste.
  2. Make sure your actors are onboard for your film. According to Martin, you must meet your potential actors, spend time with them, and put them together in order to really understand if they’ll work—both as an ensemble and in their individual roles. It is key that you are all agreeing to make the same film, so make sure to accurately impart to your casting director and actors the character of the movie you intend to make.
  3. Know what kind of actors (or non-actors) you’re looking for. When casting, Martin looks for actors whose performances don’t feel like acting. Martin is always aspiring toward a mixture of nonfiction and fiction, a combination of magic and talent, to produce a film. He has a better chance of attaining this if the actors come from a culture or lifestyle similar to that of their characters. When Martin first began making films, he had no choice but to work with non-actors, so continuing to do so remains natural for him. He has learned over the years that mixing non-actors with professional actors can help the professionals lose any artificiality they may be exhibiting in their roles.
  4. Don’t compromise on casting. Martin often says casting is 85 to 90 percent of the picture. This is why as a fledgling director it’s so important to insist on what you want. Don’t settle for close enough or second best. There is no shortcut, so don’t behave as if there is one.
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How to Cast the Right Actors According to Martin Scorsese

You know you’ve found a talented actor when the way he or she inhabits the character brings you confidence as a director and lends authenticity to the film. A great actor will inspire a sense of awe in the viewer and bring beauty and power to a role.

Once you’re ready to begin casting your film, you’ll want to make sure you’ve got a process in place to make sure you bring out the best in the actors you’ll be auditioning. Practicing your audition beforehand is critical.

  • Before you begin casting, study classic films to figure out what sort of acting style is right for your project. Get acquainted with the naturalistic style of American actors like James Stewart, Cary Grant, John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and Maureen O’Hara. Then compare their performances to the English acting style of Alec Guinness, Laurence Olivier, and James Mason
  • Martin said that he works best with actors who are familiar with the lifestyles and experiences of his characters. Begin researching where to find actors in the area where you live. Connect with local theater groups and begin making relationships in your local film community.
  • Make a list of qualities that define each major character in your film and the character traits the actor will need to embody in order to make the film come to life. Do you know there’s going to be a feisty protagonist or a down-on-his-luck supporting actor?
  • Once you have this list for each major character, find monologues for actors to use to audition. Either pull from your rough script or, if you’re not that far along yet, use existing monologues. If your short film is dramatic and unhappy, try looking for a monologue from a tragedy. If it’s upbeat and light, pull a humorous monologue from a comedy you enjoy.

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Want to Learn More About Filmmaking?

Whether you’re a budding director, screenwriter, or filmmaker, navigating the movie business requires plenty of practice and a healthy dose of patience. No one knows this better than legendary director Martin Scorsese, whose films have shaped movie history. In Martin Scorsese’s MasterClass on filmmaking, the Oscar winner deconstructs films and breaks down his craft, from storytelling to editing to working with actors.

Want to become a better filmmaker? The MasterClass Annual Membership provides exclusive video lessons from master filmmakers, including Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Jodie Foster, Werner Herzog, Spike Lee, and more.

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