Catching Up With Powerhouse Casting Director Rita Powers

This crazy Business of Show that we all know and love is a lot of things. But if there’s one thing we’re not short of, it’s people who lie right to your face. There’s acting in a role – pretending to be someone you’re not until the director says “cut,” and that’s one thing.

But then there’s the people in this business who just don’t seem to have the capacity for truth in them whatsoever. And I’m sure we’d all agree that that trait isn’t confined only to the people behind the scenes; there are also plenty of actors who seem to be genetically incapable of honesty, whether on camera or off. 

That’s why it’s so refreshing to talk with someone like Rita Powers. Appropriately enough, she’s a powerhouse of a casting director who has notched up over 30 years of dealing with actors like you and me. She’s also dealt with every other entity who has a stake in the world of film, commercial or television. And while she has a resume far too long to get into here, it includes The Place Beyond The Pines, I Origin, and Adam for starters.

Currently working on extras casting for an HBO project starring Mark Ruffalo, the long-time casting director and former talent manager is nothing if not truthful. She’s truthful in sharing her thoughts, she’s truthful in her infectious laugh, and she’s truthful when it comes to actors. It doesn’t seem like she’s capable of being otherwise. And with all the honesty she exudes, plus her 30 years of experience working with talent as a manager and casting director, and helping actors book roles, you could hardly do better than talking with Rita for some advice.  

Biggest issue with actors:

What I would say to actors is…look. Sometimes the actors just don’t even follow simple instructions. That takes you right out of the game. If you can’t follow simple instructions on how to get to the casting or how to get to an open call, how are you going to be on set? If you can’t follow simple instructions, how are you going to work? It’s a business. I come from the manager world. So you have to remember that it’s a business. You’re a commodity, but you’re also a business. I know it’s hard but if you don’t treat it like it’s a business you’ll never be successful. 

On being a professional – on camera as well as off:

Take it seriously. And keep your word. If you say you’re going to show up to a casting, show up. Because word spreads that you’re not reliable. People think that New York is like a big game, but it’s small. We all know each other, mostly all casting directors managers and agents know each other, so it’s a small world.

Actors, are you ready for your close-up? Really? 

To be quite honest, I’ve read talent – and the talent has the material ahead of time – and I will have more than 60 percent of the people reading off the copy without having memorized their lines. If you can’t memorize – I mean you can keep your paper, keep your sides for reference – but I find so many people with their faces buried in the sides not even looking at the camera. They could have been really good if they had prepared.

And if you those lines aren’t 100 percent locked down?

Another problem is when people don’t have the lines, they’ll go, ‘Oh I messed it up! Can I start over?’ No! You’re an actor! Use improv, fudge the lines. Use the same context, but don’t just stop. Especially in a callback situation. I mean in a regular audition, the client’s not usually there. But in a callback you should never do that. What you need is the intention. If the intention is there and you’re a good actor, you can get away with some improv. I’ve been in the room with directors, and they’ll tell me they’d rather have [improv] than have somebody saying ‘I messed up the lines, can I start over.’ And I’ve seen seasoned actors do this – it’s not just newbies. 

What’s the one thing an actor can do to ensure that he or she WON’T get cast?

Well, I’ll tell you a big mistake I see happening right now: I have an open call, I’m casting speaking parts for this HBO show, and this happens every time I have something big out: they contact me directly. People are calling me, they’re emailing me, they’re Facebooking me – they’re constantly bombarding me for like the last two weeks, I can’t get anything done because actors are trying to get in touch with me to get a role! Quite honestly, they’ll be the last person to get a role! So for instance on Sunday I’m at home, trying to enjoy the weekend with my family before I get going on this crazy job, and an actor calls me and says, ‘Oh, hi, I’m a SAG actor. Do you have a minute?’ And I’m like ‘I’m with my family, the only reason I picked up is because I don’t have all my crew’s numbers yet.’ He goes, ‘Oh. Well do me a favor: sit down at your computer and look up my YouTube channel.’ And I tell him, ‘Uh, no, that’s not going to happen.’ 

Remember, you don’t always know who you’re talking to, so be nice.

This happens all the time: I’m sitting at the table where they sign in and they don’t know who I am, and the actor walks in and they’re nasty to the girl at reception. That means you just blew it. If you’re going to be nasty to me or my people, that means you’re going to be nasty on set. It’s a reflection on me, on who I hire.

How about some advice in the era of the self-tape audition?

[Actors] make a lot of mistakes in their self-tapes. One thing is they shoot it on a very crowded background. You have to be the center. You should never shoot it with like a tapestry behind you. You just need a blank wall. [Otherwise] it takes the focus off of you. Sometimes when I see a self-tape like that I can’t even see the talent because they have so much other background. Anybody who’s looking, who’s going to be making decisions is going to move right past [you.] And be natural. Don’t overthink it. That’s a big thing. People overthink it so much. You have to just be simple. Just say the words. People will put too much thought into it and then they’ll send me like five different takes. Seriously? 

And what about when you do get the callback?

You know what I can tell you from my years of experience? The person who, when they walk in the room, and they KNOW they’ve got this, they generally get called back. They own the role. I can see it when they walk in the room even before they read. They just own it. They’re not up in their own head.  

What do you wish actors knew about you guys on the other side of the table?

It’s intimidating when you walk into a room to audition and you see the director and the casting director and sometimes the client. It’s an intimidating thing. But the thing the actors really have to realize is that we all want them to be good! If they’re good, then I’ve done my job. We’re all rooting for them! Then I  look good for my client.

And what’s your favorite thing about this business?

The best thing about my job is people tell me I make their dreams come true. We’re all in this together, is the way I look at it. It’s a team effort to get people work in this industry.   


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