This is who we were looking for:
Dan: a likable young man. Not an alpha male, but he isn't an outcast either. Has emotional weaknesses, but when he displays strength the audience cheers for him. Internal —there's a lot going on in his head, but it's often below the surface.
Jane: Puts on a mature front, but it hides her youthfulness and insecurity. Her unique experiences have in some ways made her develop faster than others, while in other ways have left her emotionally raw and vulnerable. A captivating woman —she draws you in.
I posted these listings on backstage.com, seeking actors in New York and LA, and got ready to wait. The results were instantaneous.
Backstage allows actors to easily submit headshots, resumes, and reels, which meant it didn’t take a lot of effort to “audition” for our movie, and the result was a deluge that didn't let up for weeks. And without a casting director, I was screening these submissions myself, meaning the pile fell directly on top of me. I was looking forward to taking each submission seriously and giving it the attention it deserved, but as 367 men submitted for Dan and 527 women submitted for Jane, I quickly realized that I was going to need to be a bit ruthless.
Some headshots were fairly easy to toss. A shocking number of actors submitted despite not remotely matching the descriptions (when you’re casting “not an alpha male” you can comfortably toss the guys who look like John Cena). Reels were tougher to weed through—it can be hard to separate the actor from the quality of the production and script, though when an actor has never performed for any camera better than a smartphone, it’s easy to rank him or her lower than someone who’s been on professional sets, simply by virtue of the ease and comfort that comes with experience.
And that just made it all the more bracing when after a dozen easy rejections, I’d run across someone with the magical combination of talent, charisma, experience, and the right look. I would almost trip over myself sending him or her a few pages from the script, asking them to put themselves on tape and upload to Vimeo.
These "callbacks" were even more thrilling, so much so that it became tough to separate the actual quality of the performance. There are few greater joys for a writer than seeing your words brought to life by a talented actor—and the thirty actors and actresses who put themselves on tape were all unquestionably talented. Then came the really tough question: were they actually right for this part?
Fortunately, at this stage I brought Cam and Dave into the discussion. A lot of it was based on potential chemistry—could we see these actors and actresses connecting with each other, and the audience? And then, as with so many important decisions in life, it came down to gut feelings and the ineffable. In my experience, if my gut doesn’t immediately say yes, I can comfortably pass. When my gut immediately says yes, it’s important to question that feeling, but it’s a really good sign. And there were a few cases where my gut, and Cam’s, and Dave’s, said, “Yup.”
We invited these actors—three men and three women in New York, and two women and one man in LA—to meet with me, plus Dave in New York and Cam in LA, and read opposite each other. And as my second year of grad school wrapped up and I headed back to Boston, this movie got a whole lot more real. I booked my travel to New York and LA, knowing that I was about to meet, in person, the two people who would become the characters who’d been living in my head for years. Check back next week to come on the road with me…