Arts & Entertainment

Casting Actors

Martin Scorsese

Lesson time 10:08 min

Martin explains the significance of casting and offers his wisdom on how to interact with your potential actors, both individually and as part of a group. He also shares which performances he uses as models and what he looks for in an actor.

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Topics include: Casting Is 85-90% of the Picture • Working With Actors Who Know What You’re Going For • Seek Out Non-Actors for Authenticity • Actors Inhabiting Their Roles


At first, I was the casting director. So I did-- we put a few ads in Backstage newspaper, I think it was. And we found Harvey Keitel. In 1965 he came to an "audition," quote unquote, at NYU, which was actually just myself and a friend and a couple of other people for some of my short films. But primarily, you, at that time, just grabbed your friends and your parents and put them in because they're going to have to do it for you. It's your parents. And if they're around and if they're available to do it and that isn't so complicated, they've got to do it. So from that basically home movie, and Mean Streets is like a home movie in a sense, not literally, but-- well, in some cases, yes. But at some points it is. But primarily a lot of the people in the frame, and even to the extent of Robert De Niro who grew up in that area so he knew many of the people making the film about, and shot in the hallways of where we grew up and people around us, it was kind of a community effort, so to speak. Since then, I was able to work on a couple of films, two or three films, a very, very key casting process with Cis Corman, who did Raging Bull, King of Comedy, and Last Temptation of Christ originally. But in the late '80s began to work with the same casting director, Ellen Lewis. And Ellen kind of-- well, of course, we discussed the project. She reads what I'm going after. And she usually knows exactly what I want. For Goodfellas, for example, we were taken up to Rao's Restaurant, and in one night we cast about five roles just from the people in the restaurant. So we've been doing that ever since for that kind of picture, for that kind of film. But she gives me a range of choices. And I respond to them, make decisions. The reason we work together is I could tell that the people she brings to me, I connect with for the most part. So we kind of have the same taste in a way. And I always say that casting is 85% to 90% of the picture for me. So all of you are just starting out, I want to repeat, again, insist on what you want. And you don't settle for close enough or second best. And don't imagine there's a shortcut. It's meeting the people, spending time with them, talking with them, then putting them together with the other actors. That's a key thing. And see how the other actors respond. It's somewhat different, I think, than I could imagine a studio system, where in the case of certain key films, filmmakers had to work with certain actors because of contractual issues. And very often they didn't get along with each other. But that was the contract, and they had to do it. Here that may not be the case. I don't say you have to become friends. But you have to be-- here's the key thing with casting, and this is why casting directors are so important. He or she has to know that with the actors primarily, you want to work with the actors, y...

About the Instructor

Martin Scorsese drew his first storyboard when he was eight. Today he’s a legendary director whose films from Mean Streets to The Wolf of Wall Street have shaped movie history. In his first-ever online film class, the Oscar winner teaches his approach, from storytelling to editing to working with actors. He deconstructs films and breaks down his craft, changing how you make and watch movies.

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Martin Scorsese

In 30 lessons, learn the art of film from the director of Goodfellas, The Departed, and Taxi Driver.

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