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Horror Film Casting Director Kelly Wagner Puts Her Neck on the Line

In show business, the first impression can sometimes be the last impression. The deciding factor in giving an unknown (or even an experienced actor whose opportunities have been limited) a chance to read for a part is often based on first impressions. In the world of horror films, Kelly Wagner is the one to know. Wagner has come to specialize in casting horror films, including big hits like The Grudge and Hostel, and she agreed to let PsychoPEDIA in on a few inside tips for aspiring actors to consider before they step into her office:

How did you end up specializing in horror film casting?
I was a horror freak growing up. A Nightmare on Elm Street was one of our favorite movies when I was 10, 11, 12. I used to sneak out of bed in the middle of the night and go into the TV room and turn on A Nightmare on Elm Street because I loved Freddy Kreuger. I didn't necessarily seek out horror films but The Grudge was the first and it became such a hit that we kept getting calls for horror films. Then I started to realize I'm getting to cast these films that I loved when I was younger. So that led me to meeting Eli Roth, which led to even more, taking the Hostel route, doing those kinds of films. I did realize when I was doing these horror movies that I loved them and I felt really comfortable with them. I tend to like the supernatural horror movies but I also enjoy the slashers.

What makes you good at casting?
Everyone has a sick fascination with wanting to be in one at one point in their life. When I say everyone, I mean the actors and actresses around town. Horror movies are filled with young ingénues that get killed. It's fun to put those kinds of things together. Actually, rarely when I'm casting a horror movie, when we do auditions we rarely do the screaming. People think, "Oh, I'm going to scream. I can scream for you. I can be in horror movies. Listen to how well I can scream." People always say that to me. "I'm a great screamer. You should put me in one of your horror movies." The fact is, I don't think on any of them did we ever do the horror scenes. It was always the other scenes, the acting scenes. Then we figured if they could act the part, the elements on set and that are put in front of you will naturally make it a horrific situation. So we never scream at auditions.

How does an actor get a foot in your door?
That's very difficult. I'll be honest, through their agents and managers. It's a submission process. So it's usually off of a phone pitch or sometimes off of a look, depending on the role.

What do you look for when they enter the room?
I definitely like to cast based on the essence of someone versus an over-performance. So I'm definitely sensitive to who they are as a person and that plays into my decisions on how far they'll go on the auditions, for me. I am more of a talk to them, get to know them, do the scene kind of person versus them just coming in and doing the scene and leaving. It's important that you have the essence of a character with you innately and that it's not just about a performance.

So you're almost casting the person, not the actor.
Right, I do that a lot.

Give us an insider tip on what you look for in an audition?
It's important that you let the film team lead the room. When people come in and try and lead the room, it becomes uncomfortable for the film team, for the casting director, for the director. It's important that the actor be able to let someone else lead the room because that shows how you're going to be on set. You have to be adjustable because anyone can make a choice. Let's face it, you get sent sides. You look at your sides and you think, "Oh, there's 10 different ways I can take this character." The fact of the matter is that you're probably not going to hear ahead of time which direction, so you have to make a choice, stick with it and carry it out. More importantly, if it happens to be the wrong choice, it's not your fault. Hear the correct way and be able to make the adjustment. That's the most important because I've seen people book parts and then in rehearsals or on set, a filmmaker or director has decided to make a change to the character and the actor isn't able to make that change because they're so stuck in the way they were doing it that they inevitably get fired.

What never to do at the audition?
Stop themselves. You should always go through with your scene. What I can't stand is when people come in and they mess up a line and they break character. "Wait, I messed up that line. Sorry, let's go back again." No, show us that you can continue. Show us that you are the character and you're not here just reading our lines. A person in real life may think, "Oh, when I see so and so, I'm going to say X, Y and Z" but then when they see them and they don't say it, you don't get to go back. You don't get to go, "Oh wait, rewind that sentence." So I want to see that they're quick on their feet. It’s important with any acting, but the biggest mistake you can make and the best way to impress is to be able to come in and go with the character and not worry about the specific lines.

What irritates the casting directors?
You should never stop yourself because a lot of people stop themselves and you're not in the mood to have someone stop themselves 10 times in a row. It's also not necessarily appropriate to ask if you can do it again. Let us decide if you're going to do it again. People get annoyed by that because honestly, a lot of it, when you walk in that door, we know if you're going to work or not visually. So when someone comes in and they ask you can they do it again and again and again, and you're thinking, "I'm not going to be able to use this girl because of X, Y and Z anyway but now I have to sit through her doing it 10 times…" And it's never personal. It's hard to not take it personally because there's a lot of rejection but it's not personal.

How can someone impress you?
Back to what I was just saying, being able to make a choice and then being able to be broken of it. Being malleable to what we're looking for. Being able to do things in a different light and not being stuck in one direction. A lot of people come in with their idea and we let them do their read. Then we say, "Okay, let's have you think about it from this perspective instead." And they're not able to show that change. That's immediately where they're going to get cut. You need to be able to take direction. That's the simplest way of putting it.

~Fred Topel




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