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Graciously Aggressive

An interview with renowned casting director Joseph Middleton about the Oscars, Hollywood, and film in the time of COVID.

Over the last year, we published many articles about how COVID-19 affected businesses all over the world. I think everybody needs to accept that the film industry is one of the largest and most influential industries in the world. As an “insider”, how could you summarise 2020 from Hollywood’s perspective?

One of the most shocking aspects was how quickly everything changed. 2020 was a reckoning of how the “Old Hollywood” or “Classic Hollywood” system no longer works. It also showed how the new, more flexible, more adaptive streaming services could be successful.

One pleasant surprise was how quickly the classic Hollywood studios transitioned. With closed theatres, the classic studios went toward streaming. Warner Brothers distributed via HBO, while Paramount created Paramount Plus. All the studios ended up selling to different networks, like Hulu and Amazon. So, theatres—the main highway for distribution—were closed because of COVID, so studios found lots of smaller streets and avenues to ensure their products got to the public.

How has this pandemic changed the people in your industry?

I think it reminded them that there is more to life than work. When it gets down to it, we are a social society, and this is a very connections-based industry. When you have one friend in the industry, you have 5 friends. If you have 5 friends, you have 25 friends. Those people are going to speak about you based upon how you treat them, and after a while, you might actually start believing the narrative of what is said about you. For a while, at least, that narrative disappeared, and everybody was reduced to what is really important: health, family, and friends.

What kind of industry changes do you expect after we leave the virus behind?

Our industry forgets quickly once vaccines come. I am already feeling the changes here in LA with how people are behaving post-vaccination. “Normal life” has snapped back quickly, and we are forgetting, maybe in record time, that the rest of the world is not vaccinated. So, we feel like we are back, but we aren’t yet, because we need the rest of the world back with us.

As far as the changes imposed by COVID, such as all the Zoom calls and meetings, those will be replaced quickly. Offices probably won’t be fully back until next year. Some people are going into the office for a few hours a day, a few days a week, but we won’t see the traditional, bustling offices until 2022.

As we can see from the outside, casting became increasingly important over the last decade. Do you agree with this analysis?

Casting is and has always been important. The audience connects to the story through the human beings they are watching. I think everything starts with the writer. They are the beginning, the birth of the creative process. But then things transition to producers, directors, and casting directors. Even if the script is mediocre, any of those three professionals doing an excellent job can elevate the final product to unforeseen heights.

In Decision Magazine, we analyse the business and HR markets from the perspective of personality. In business in general, the need for people to be themselves—without any masks or the need to pretend to be someone they are not—has become the single most important factor for success. What is the situation in the film industry?

I think it’s incredibly important. I can share a personal example. When I was first starting out, I had a contact who was also starting out at the same time as me. He made me feel so inadequate because he knew every actor, their name, their experience, and the projects they were working on. He was like an encyclopaedia, and I felt so inferior because I struggled to be the type of person who could keep track of everybody. Three years later, this person’s career had stalled, while mine had taken off. I realised that my own personality features were pushing me forward in the industry, and I was not valuing them adequately. Instead, I wasted time wishing that I could be like someone else, and had I actually been like that other person, my career would have stalled as well.

What is more important during casting: personality, so a person’s character, or their acting skillset?

As a casting director, there are things I am always looking for. When I read a script, I have an image of the character that I am imagining, and the script guides that. Let’s say that I am thinking of casting someone who is a 50-year-old, overweight smoker from Istanbul. In walks a 38-year-old athletic American; what that actor does next is incredibly important. If they are talented, they can change what I had in mind for the character. If I am doing my job correctly, I have to be open-minded enough to let that person, their personality, and their acting abilities change my point of view.

So, acting ability is part of the total package. I will say that it is the cream that rises to the top. You can get pretty far on personality. You can get really far based on how you treat others. You can also get really far based on connections. But for longevity in this industry, you need to have the acting skills. That said, acting skills are not just innate; they can be improved over time, people can really hone their craft.

How has COVID-19 affected the casting process?

Before COVID, in the middle of casting, you only have a certain number of hours in the day. When there are rooms full of actors reading, you have to create a safe space for people to come in and do their best work. Actors are a different lot. They are people. When they come in to read for me, they have their own unique process where they interpret a character, and they have likely spent so, so much time preparing. On my end, I am looking for the person that is best for that part. So, it is part of my job to spend time getting what I need from that person. They may come in with nerves, they may be having a bad day, but I need to work with them to get past that; I need to spend a little time with them to really bring out their best. This means that my day can become full quite quickly.

Now, everybody around the world is self-taping. Because of that, my geographical net is much wider. I recently worked on Locked Down, starring Anne Hathaway and Chiwetel Ejiofor. During that film, because of self-taping, I was able to cast actors from all around the world—German, Swedish, Danish, and English actors—that I probably would not have even interacted with before the pandemic. I hired all these people based on self-taping; none of them came to my office.

The downside of this process is that there are actors who need more attention in order to have their best performance. That is always time well spent. These actors are suffering the most during COVID. From my side, so much of my work is based on instinctive, guttural impulse. There are so many intangibles that are hard to gauge in front of a computer for 5 hours.

As one of the most well-known and established people in your profession: what can you recommend to businesspeople so that they can reach their goals in 2021?

If I were ever to write a book, I would title it Graciously Aggressive because there are too many people out there that just sit back. You cannot wait for people to come to you. You cannot wait for things to come to you. But there is a fine line between being aggressive and being a stalker. Everything has to be done with a touch of graciousness.

Everybody has a job to do. Everybody has a dream that they want to come true. We all need to figure out how those things can happen. Everyone, every day, should sit down, make a plan. If you make contact, who knows what can happen. I might love an actor, but because there are so many things going on in one day, people get lost in the shuffle. There is nothing wrong with somebody reaching out and reminding me, just saying hello. When things are so fast-paced, it can help to remind me of their talents. On the other hand, if they are calling me too many times per week or month, it can be extremely off-putting.

One last question: the Oscars are approaching. From the films nominated or made in 2020, can you define any trends that are a direct result of COVID-19?

I really can’t: the nominated films are really the best films of this year. Good storytelling will survive all pandemics. It is an essential piece of human culture.


You can read more about Mr Middleton on his IMDB page.