Confessions of A Casting Mind
With over 70 films and television series under his belt and a number of projects in the works, including the highly anticipated Coming to America 2 and the second season of American Soul, George Pierre, head of Pierre Casting, is here to get Hollywood to acknowledge the highly skilled and often intuitive casting directors that the Southeast has to offer.
OZ: How did you get your start in casting?
GP: When I was a kid I wanted to be in front of the camera, but I didn’t have a background in acting or theater. I moved from Brooklyn to Atlanta to work for Home Depot. Soon after I had moved down here, I was laid off, so I decided to go back to school. I went to the Art Institute of Atlanta where I studied mass media and film production. A professor told me that Rainforest Films’ Will Packer and Rob Hardy were going to be talking at a Women in Film and Television of Atlanta event. I met a great woman, producer Dianne Ashford. I asked if she was looking for interns and the rest is history from there.
I started off as an extras casting director and I quickly learned that was not what I wanted to do. Being an extras casting director is extremely challenging and difficult. I caught the bug and I wanted to do casting.
When you were learning the ropes, what were the takeaways that you've carried on into your success as a casting director?
In 2007 I was the casting assistant running the camera for Motives 2. I saw how the audition sessions were being held, noting the questions they would ask of the actors and how the director just kind of switched it up a little bit. So, I incorporate that now to this day in how I hold sessions. I give the actor the opportunity to showcase what they're capable of doing; sometimes when they walk into the room, they get nervous. Then there are times when they walk into the room and you know they're just not going to be right for the role. Some have it, some don't. What I've learned and held on to is that when an actor walks in, and they start talking and you can tell they're nervous, just let them finish, give them an opportunity and then say, "Let's try it this way. Just relax, don't make it a character. Just deliver the lines."
I had to learn through the school of hard knocks. I had to learn on my own and even to this day, as a casting director I'm still learning. You never stop learning. Just when you think you have it all down pat, something else comes up.
The very first time I did a casting job, I burned out quickly. That was the first mistake I made, and I promised I'd never do that again. I worked on a CNN spot and I held sessions from 9:00 in the morning to 9:00 at night. I wanted to prove that I was the right guy for the job because they were kind of on the fence about wanting to hire me. I did three CNN spots, and I was exhausted. I did it for so many hours that week, I kept going and going and after that, I realized that's not the right way to do it. So now when I schedule sessions, I schedule them in short time frames. Actors are repeating the same thing over and over, you want to stay alert and on-point.
"I want to be the Southeast's number one casting director."
What were the challenges and obstacles that you faced when you started casting on your own?
The biggest challenge was getting people to take a chance on me and believing that I could actually find talent. You quickly had to learn that you're only as good as the last project that you've done. I didn't have time to get a swollen head. Even if I did, I wouldn't. I want to be the Southeast's number one casting director.
THE PRODUCERS SESSION
How do you obtain a script and projects?
It goes back to what I said before, you're only as good as the last project you've done, so word of mouth is a beautiful thing. I work with the same producers a lot, and they, in turn, talk to other producers who bring me on board. They believe that if it ain't broke, they don't try to fix it, so they continue to hire me because they love what I bring.
What is your casting process when you get a new project?
Of course, I read the script first. Then I breakdown the script and create sides for auditions. As far as the lead roles go, I think of options and create a visual of those leads for the producers and director. I narrow the actors who auditioned for the role down to the top three or four choices and start checking the actor’s availability. After we get approval from the network or studio on the talent they selected, we make the offers to the agents with a deal memo.
How do you decide which talent you want to present when auditioning so many actors per role? Are your choices ever rejected?
Sure. It's happened. The producers and directors will want to get a person for a role and [sometimes], in my opinion, the person is not right for the role. You have to have respect that, as we're co-workers, but their opinions trump; it's what they want, not what I want.
There are times when they get what they want and later regret that decision, and at least they have the decency to admit it…we're here to guide them. Sometimes they listen and sometimes they don't.
Here's the crazy thing, we got an email from one of our producers the other day, she said, "George, you are making this difficult for us because all of these options are great." I only send off five options, so you can imagine if we saw 200 people, whether it be self-tape, live or combined, only five people are being selected…those five people have to be the cream of the crop.
The selection of talent is a funny thing. There have been times when I had what I thought in my mind were great selections and the producers said they wanted to see more options. I hold more sessions and send them more options and what do they do? They go with the very first options we sent them. You have to balance it out. You have to know how to work with the producers you're working with.
I definitely like to think outside of the box. If a breakdown of a role doesn't give a specific gender or race for a character, I like to switch it up a bit. It’s taking into consideration things like “How can I bring the best talent for this role to life? What can I do as a casting director to choose the best actor?”
I always leave something in my pocket. I've learned from an awesome casting director in L.A. who said, "Don't tip your hand. Don't show them everything." You have to have some people on reserve. What you present is the strongest talent, but if producers want to see more, it's within their rights. What we're not going to do is keep sending more and more because they can’t make up their minds, I've had that happen. As a casting director, you can't be afraid to voice your opinion.
THE SCREEN TEST
When producers want to hire the actor, how do you negotiate the amount to pay the actor?
It all goes back to the relationship you have with the agents. If you're a solid individual, they'll trust you. The actors, they just want to work. Usually, the money is a perk; for them it's that credit. It's being on camera. It’s getting that feeling of, "I've got another role under my belt."
"I'll go back to the producers and say, '
Hey, look, this is what this actor has done.
Can we go above scale?'"
I'm a fair person and I'll go to the producers and tell them an actor should get more money because this actor’s résumé merits that. Fair is fair. The negotiation process sometimes goes well, sometimes it doesn't. Often times, producers tell me, "We can only offer you scale" and I've had agents say, "Have you seen this actor’s résumé?" My thing is, if you negotiate with me correctly, I'll go back to the producers and say, "Hey, look, this is what this actor has done. Can we go above scale?" Nine times out of ten, the producers will say, “okay,” because they realize that there is awesome talent here, and they deserve their just due. They deserve their pay.
Where did you learn to negotiate contracts for deal memos?
Ha! Every time I had to purchase a car, whether old or new.
With all of the auditions you have held is there an actor you've discovered, whom you are most proud of?
I've got to say Kendrick Cross. He used to live in Columbia, South Carolina, and he would drive to Atlanta all of the time to audition. He finally made the move to Georgia, but there was something missing. He was asking, "When am I going to get my break? I keep auditioning and auditioning." He was landing roles but was desperate to know when was that big one going to happen. I'm proud to say he is now a series regular on Ambitions. It’s a cool show and he gets to kiss Robin Givens and Essence Atkins. He's a lucky guy.
Have you ever been let go on a project?
Yes. I’ve been fired before. I got fired as an extras casting director on Ride Along 2. This was where I learned quickly to stay in one lane; don't try to do too much that you can't handle. I was doing both extras and principal casting and found out quickly that wasn't working for me. But it was a blessing that I got fired as the extras casting director. I will never do that again and haven't done it since.
Are there any heartbreaking moments of your casting career?
Absolutely, I have gotten emails where producers tell me they’ve cut a role, so I would have to take the role away from that actor. I hate those emails. That is the worst part of casting. I had to do that to a child actor. I tried everything in my power to convince the producers to keep him and they told me they just didn’t need the role.
Then there was Star. We did three seasons. When I found out that there wasn't going to be a season four it was heartbreaking because that was one of my favorite projects to work on. It was hard on me.
What is the proudest moment of your casting career?
When I joined the Casting Society of America (CSA).
Do you think casting directors receive the credit and recognition that they deserve?
I'm still trying to figure that out. It's funny, the actors will come in, and they’ll audition. We do the legwork as the casting department and then when they give their award speeches, they thank their agent, producer, the director, the studio, the writer, and God. They thank everybody else but not the casting director who submitted them for the role and who have the mindset to think, "I know this actor is going to be great for this role."
When a project is being shot in Georgia, why do you think principal roles are being cast in Los Angeles but not locally in Atlanta?
I believe many subscribe to this myth that L.A. and New York are where the real talent is. I've done casting sessions in L.A. and I've seen audition tapes from New York, and to me, I don't see the difference. Atlanta’s actors are equally as great: talent is talent and location has little to do with it. But I think we're turning the table around because when we shot Ambitions, many guest stars and three of the series regulars came straight from Georgia. That's a beautiful thing. Change can happen. You have to want it. You have to have that mindset. Nobody's going to hand it to you. Nobody handed this to me. I had to kick the door down to producers and say, "Hey! Here I am." You're either going to accept me or you're not. And over 70 projects later, thankfully, I’m going strong.
What would you like to see in the future for casting directors?
Casting will always be needed. I think the casting directors that are here in the Southeast are slowly turning the tables around and showing producers of what we're capable of doing. One day a casting director said to me, "Don't get complacent. Don't feel we only have to be the Southeast casting directors. Don't feel we have to be just the local casting directors, because we're not." Georgia can cast entire TV shows. Georgia can cast a whole movie, just give us that opportunity. We'll show you how we can do it, and it's been done. Georgia has actors that are equally as talented as the actors in L.A. or New York.
What keeps you in Atlanta?
I love Atlanta. There's no other place like it. Now, will I go to L.A. to cast a show? Of course, I will, it’s work, but I'm not moving to L.A. any time soon. I'm not leaving the Peach State. With all the film and TV projects that shoot here, there’s no need for me to leave Georgia to cast amazing talent.