The Curious Business of Casting

04/03/2015 14:40 GMT | Updated 03/05/2015 10:59 BST

The Oscars fever has died down and so now our leading actors go back to the grindstone, joining the ranks of the profession working on stage and screen. Who gets what roles, and how?

In this series, I'm explaining what goes on in actors' agencies. In my first post (read it here if you missed it), I described how some lucky and talented actors reach the heights of stardom with the help of an equally talented agent. Today, I'll share some of my observations about the curious business of casting.

RSC or EastEnders?

An actor's success is all about the casting, you might think. Surely an actor needs the right role, at the right time, to be launched to super-stardom? Or perhaps not. Sometimes, the "kid gloves" approach which I described last week was evidently in play. But often (from my perspective as an assistant), it seemed as though the agent's role in casting can be much like throwing mud at a wall and seeing what sticks.

I found that one of the most enjoyable and interesting tasks of an agent's assistant is to submit the selections in response to a casting call, mainly because the agent's suggestions often baffled me, but also because I enjoy seeing the very earliest stages of a production. A casting agent sends round a call, let's say it's for an episode of EastEnders, detailing a few upcoming roles and a brief description of age, personality, and plotline for the character. The agent makes suggestions from their client list, and some of these actors might make it to a meeting for the role.

While the golden boys and girls who are set for super-stardom (the "courier kids", as I described in my previous post) are handled with kid-gloves and tend to avoid doing the rounds of daytime TV, the main client list (the bog-standard "Royal Mail" actors) seemed to have their names bandied about on the casting lists with a surprising lack of discernment. Age is the first thing to go, particularly with female actors. Anyone under the age of 28 or so is put forward to play children; ages 28 to 45 are mothers; and 45 to 110 is granny territory. The diversity of casting suggestions could be understood as a compliment to an actor's talent, as being able to play against type is surely a great skill. Ultimately, however, acting is a job and actors (as well as agents) need to earn money, so taking a gamble on a role is worth usually worth it.

Former popstars, matinée idols, new clients with little professional experience - most were put forward for soap opera roles, which provide regular salary, exposure to millions of viewers and the possibility of becoming a household name. But still the calls would come, actors phoning in to see if anything had come up at the RSC, or the National Theatre - a few weeks' work for a few hundred pounds, with a few thousand people in the audience if you're lucky - as that is what many actors live for and dream of, but few can afford to pursue throughout their careers. A good agent will balance the workload, including commercial and voiceover work, ensuring a variety of jobs and a steady income. I am no longer quite so baffled when I take my seat at the theatre, read the programme, and see that eighty percent of the cast's cumulative experience is with Holby City.

The delicate artistry of casting lies for the most part with the casting agent, who in turn works with a director. For the jobbing actor, however, the game of chance is a risk worth taking.

There is more to being agent than securing work, however, and in my next post I will have a closer look at the relationship between actors and their agents.