I was so stoked to get to sit down with Marci. Her films inspired me to want to become an actor. Working with Steven Spielberg and John Hughes, she had a hand in casting some of my favorite movies of all time. Make sure to watch the audition tape for 'Elliot' in E.T. towards the end of the interview.
What first got you excited about the entertainment industry?
When I was just getting out of college, I knew I wanted to do something in the entertainment business. And I didn’t know whether it was in the music industry, film, television or theater. And my first job was working for a film company that did distribution. It was in the late 70’s and we distributed ‘Blaxploitation films’ . They weren’t my cup of tea in terms of the films we were doing. But I learned all about distribution and marketing. And I was in the foreign film department so we were selling them to countries like Abu Dhabi. From there I went to ICM as an assistant to a Talent Agent. I realized that I was still very fascinated with the business but unaware of which direction I was going. By working with this television agent, I met Casting Directors. I learned very quickly that I didn’t want to be an Agent, but I used that for schooling, like a university, because there was just so much to learn there. I stayed for about a year and a half, then I met a couple Casting Directors and started working for them.
Was it a difficult to make the transition from a ‘seller’ to a ‘buyer’?
Well, I realized from my days at ICM that I didn’t want to be a seller. I wanted to be a buyer. So it wasn’t difficult at all. I felt much more comfortable on that side. But the truth is, there is still so much selling involved in casting. Meaning, I have to sell my ideas to 25 people. The studio execs, the network execs, the immediate creative team. So there’s still a lot of selling going on from my perspective.
Your IMDb page is full of a some of the most iconic movies of all time. Movies that have literally defined generations. I wish I could have been in the room when you were casting RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, PRETTY IN PINK and ST. ELMOS FIRE. When you are handed a script, do you immediately know which movies will become classics?
I can tell when something is really special. Some projects that I have thought were really special also turn out to be box office flops, you never know. For instance, when I was working on E.T., which is something I did very early in my career with Mike Fenton, I knew that it was really special. I could just feel it. And it shot in Los Angeles so I would go to the set and sit there and talk to ‘E.T.’. They had many different versions of E.T., but one time his head was propped up next to me and I just sat there talking to him. I knew it was really, really something. Working on RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK and INDIANA JONES, I knew it was very rarefied air. I did this little independent film called THE SPITFIRE GRILL that won the Audience Award at Sundance. When I read the script, I just couldn’t put it down. Usually, I don’t have the attention span to read a full script in one sitting. But I was just blown away by this one. At the end of the day, it didn’t make huge money at all, but it meant a lot to me and I thought it was a beautiful film. Another film I cast that I thought was amazing but did not get the right attention was THE IRON GIANT - which is an incredible animated film. It was the first feature film that Brad Bird directed, and it was just fantastic.
I want to ask you about that. Is it a different process casting for animation than it is for live action?
It’s different in that so much of what acting is about can be in a look, or a glance, or an actor being quiet and letting the camera show the moment on his face. That doesn’t translate in voice-over acting and animation. It’s literally all the voice. So you have to think of someone and bring people into the room that have the ability to do it all vocally. I’ve seen actors get tripped up by this situation, because they are so used to using their bodies and their facial expressions. I’ve cast a few animated projects now, and I really have seen some of the actors approach it in a very uncomfortable manner until they learned how to do it.
Let’s say you are casting a live action film and you release a casting notice and get a thousand submissions. That’s a thousand faces to look at to decide who to bring in. But what about animated films? Clearly you have to go for some large names for the leads. But with the other roles, how would you even know who to bring in? It’s not like you have a page with a thousand voices in front of you.
Well, Casting Directors know tons and tons of actors. And those that do voice-overs have vocal reels and voice-over agents. Their agents send me those demos and you hear all the different voices they can do. We also bring them in to audition. You have to remember that an animated film takes years to make and the voices are recorded after. Most of the rough work is done on the film and then they add the voices. So we can even trade the voices out if it’s not working out for a particular character.
I need to ask a question about the film PRETTY IN PINK. I remember watching it as a kid and just being amazed by ‘Duckie’. He was the first character I had seen in a movie that felt like someone I could know in real life. Just so three dimensional. Did you guys always have Jon Cryer in mind for that? Was it a direct offer?
No. We auditioned many, many, many people. He was not a well-known entity at that point so we went through the whole audition process. Robert Downey, Jr. got really close to getting this part. Jon Cryer truly is great in this part, and totally three dimensional. But you have to remember that it’s John Hughes’s writing. And John Hughes was a high school kid in a grown up’s body - so the writing was very real. If you like PRETTY IN PINK, you may love this podcast. Do you know of HERE’S THE THING? It’s Alec Baldwin’s podcast and he interviews tons of wonderful people. He interviewed Molly Ringwald and she talked about John Hughes a lot. How he changed her life and how he was back then. She said he was just this really sensitive guy who probably had PTSD from things that happened to him in high school and he was still hanging onto them as an adult. That’s how he wrote so raw. All of the BREAKFAST CLUB stuff was so raw and personal. It’s great writing which is why it still holds up to this day.
I talk a lot about the Casting Director superpower of incredible memory for names. Have you always had that?
Interesting question. Even as a kid I watched tons of television and movies. So I knew who people were before I started casting. But now with the advent of IMDb we don’t have to memorize as much as we used to. It literally had to be all in our head because there was no internet and no place to go to look it up. So my brain was actually sharper than it is now. Now I have to play a game of charades when I try to figure out somebody’s name. It’s like: “The guy… who was in the…thing…with the…girl…” you know! I have to act it out because I can’t remember anyone’s name anymore.
That makes sense. It’s like phone numbers. Now that you have cell phones, you can’t remember people’s actual digits.
Yeah, I don’t remember anything.
You are actively casting and are also the social media queen of Hollywood. In my opinion, you’re actually better than a lot of 14 year olds who grew up in this social age. Did you teach yourself??
It was something I went into kicking and screaming. In 2009, I had a friend who was really into it. She sat me down, set up my website, made me get on twitter and she made me start a Facebook page for my business. I also started doing vlogs. And it really changed the way I was living. I have two older brothers who are 7 – 10 years older than I am and I was just a child in the 60’s, but still very present in the 60’s. And back then it was all about privacy and ‘the man’. So it was a huge adjustment to suddenly be so open and revealing and public. Because Casting Directors have generally been very elusive and exclusive and don’t want to share. But I realize that the business model has changed with the advent of the internet and social media. And I had a lot of information to give and so I wanted to start giving of myself and giving all the things that I learned. I started teaching and coaching Actors. And on social media I feel like I’m an Actor’s advocate. I want to create great content and post great content that’s not necessarily about myself but interesting things that I find that are going to help actors.
I think your blogs are fantastic. I don’t yet know how to tweet so I haven’t been keeping up there.
Well, I’m actually going to start teaching a class with Ben Whitehair. We are putting together a social media class for someone like you or anyone that wants to jump into it and learn about social media in L.A. May 10, 17 and 24. Here’s a link if you want to join us: http://benwhitehair.com/socialmediaclass/
I’m in! Because I am so confused…
There’s a lot to learn and I’m constantly getting calls from my casting colleagues saying “I feel like I need to do this and I don’t really know how and can I take you to lunch and pick your brain?” But it’s not an hour long thing. I do this for a living. I’m a Social Media Consultant and I work with individuals and companies, and people that have books coming out to help them get their social media wings. It actually takes weeks, it doesn’t happen over lunch. There’s a lot to learn.
And it’s always changing and evolving. At one time Twitter is the must-use platform, then I hear it’s Snapchat, then something else. So it’s not something you can learn once and then walk away from.
Right. And you asked about how I learned it and if I was self taught? Well, I really immersed myself in it and read a lot. I did a lot of research.
And do you think social media is changing the landscape of casting?
This is the million-dollar question. It’s an ever evolving thing. And there are definitely some projects that will cast by how many followers you have. I don’t know of any studio films that are doing this at the moment but that could certainly change tomorrow. It definitely happens with web-series and some of the smaller indies. Some of these projects want to cast the Vine stars and YouTubers. But there’s a very small percentage of those people who have huge numbers that are actually trained actors. So it will only work if they can hold the screen and if they really know what they’re doing. And it just might be a stunt.
I hope that your social media training for actors or others in the business really takes off, because one of the things I hear from my friends who are Casting Directors, is that many Actors will bombard them with information on Facebook and Twitter in pretty inappropriate ways.
Yes, people need to learn that social media etiquette is very important. Twitter is not your own personal PR unit. So it doesn’t mean that you get on Twitter and start going through the list of all the Casting Directors and say “Marci Liroff, here’s my demo reel.” Then I look at the person’s tweets and they’ve done that to 25 people. I block them and report them for spam. Because that is spam in the social media world. You have no relationship with me, we’ve never spoken. You’re not even following me and you’re just blasting this stuff out. I’ve said this a lot: Social Media is like a dinner party, and you should have those basic manners. You wouldn’t walk into somebody’s house and yell “Here! Look at this!! Here’s my demo reel!!” It wouldn’t happen. So you have to go through the steps of forming an online relationship with that person and get in the conversation with them first.
That’s good advice. Now, besides doing the social media for your own company, and advocating for Actors, you’re also now doing the social media for the Casting Society of America. Is it difficult to manage multiple accounts?
You have to be very organized so you’re not suddenly tweeting something on the wrong account. Right now I’m just managing my stuff and the CSA, so that’s not difficult. It’s just a matter of finding content that makes sense for that account. As a Social Media Consultant, when I’m working with someone I like to teach them how to do it, rather than run their account. With the adage of “If you give a man a fish, he’ll eat for a day. If you teach a man to fish he’ll eat for a lifetime”. So I like to teach them, and then I will oversee what they are doing virtually and correct things that need to be adjusted. But for the CSA I am solely tweeting for them and running the Instagram account we have.
I see that you’ve also done some producing.
Yes. In most circumstances they are projects I am casting that have also asked for me to come on board as a Producer. Except for the one that I did recently called MYRNA, which was a pilot presentation I cast and also served as an Executive Producer on. They came to me several years ago when they tried to get it off the ground. This was way before TRANSPARENT (because MYRNA is trans-centric material) and we just couldn’t get the financing together. So we regrouped a few years later and created a crowd sourcing campaign and raised about $22,000.
I pick and choose the projects I want to get involved in as a Producer. It takes years to get something off the ground, so you have to be passionate about it in order to be involved for such a long time.
Do you have any tips for Actors who are creating their own material?
Absolutely. I think right now we’re in an age where there’s so much an actor can do to help promote themselves and create great content. But just because you have a camera doesn’t mean that you should use it! I say that because I see a lot of crap out there, and you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. You’ve already put a bad taste in my mouth by the stuff that you’ve shown me if it’s not well done. So if you’re going to create your own content, it has to be as good as everything else out there that I’m seeing. It has to be professionally shot and lit. The script has to be great. The acting has to be great. It’s got to look wonderful. It can’t look like a homemade project that your Dad shot. Unfortunately, I’m seeing a lot of that.
It’s like going out on an audition when you’re not ready to be seen.
Exactly. I teach a 3-night Audition Bootcamp class and I had a student who was offered by Funny or Die to produce a short for them. She wrote it / shot it / and edited it all over the weekend. When she was done she realized: “This is not good enough” and decided not to send it out. Which is really rare when someone completes a project. Most of the time people just throw it out there and they don’t think about the repercussions involved in that. She realized it was not up to par, and started over. She wanted to make sure it looked great and that it was the best it could possibly be because many times you have one shot. It’s like these producers that send me scripts because they want me to get involved and attach cast so they can get financing. And they send me these scripts that are full of typos, that don’t make any sense, I’m up to page 60 and nothing has happened yet, there’s no three act structure and it’s just not working. And they say ”oh yeah, we’re probably going to fix that” Well, I’m not going to read it again. You’ve already blown it. You want me to send this out to people? It’s a mess.
How can I find about your class schedule? What you’re teaching and when you’re teaching?
You can sign up for my newsletter on my website. Then when I’m teaching classes next, you’ll get an email. My classes are not ‘acting classes’. You should be in acting class. On my website I have a ‘resources page’ which is chock-full of information and has a list of wonderful classes in Los Angeles that I like. My class focuses on the business and auditioning. It’s called ‘Audition Bootcamp’. I assume that when you come to me, you know how to act. It’s really for working Actors that are constantly auditioning and have been on set many times. It’s not for someone that’s just starting out. I created it because I got frustrated seeing Actors coming in to audition for me that I knew were very well trained…but didn’t know how to audition. They didn’t know that game and they became completely undone by the process. Your job is not just being in front of the camera. Your job is auditioning. And getting your pictures done. And going to classes.
Can we talk about specific auditions? One time we discussed Henry Thomas’ audition for Elliot in E.T. and then I watched it on YouTube. It was everything you said it was. When you were casting E.T. and this kid came in, how did you know he was special?
Well I didn’t know he was special until he opened his mouth and said the first line. We were standing behind the camera. Spielberg, Kathy Kennedy, Frank Marshall and my boss Mike Fenton who was doing the scene with him, improving. As soon as he opened his mouth, you saw that laser focus of his just being so in the shoes of this kid. I have all my classes watch this audition because as an Actor, especially as an adult, what you really want to get back to is what you were like as a kid. When you were a little kid, before you had gotten into your teens and hit puberty, your ego hadn’t formed yet. As a kid you’ll do anything. You don’t care about looking foolish. You really don’t care yet. You have a tremendous imagination. He was given this improv to do and he completely got into it in a heartbeat. As soon as we saw his little lip start quivering, we were gone. We were just gone. We had found our Elliot.
True story. We had found another young Actor for that role before this. And we had the choices for the boys who were going to be his friends and his brother. We put them all together at the writer’s house to play a game of Dungeons and Dragons, to see how they would get along. It became clear very quickly that nobody liked this little kid that we’d cast as Elliot.
You know how sometimes when you play a game your true colors come out? So we realized we had to completely start over. Steven Spielberg was friendly with a Director who had just worked with Henry on a film, Jack Fisk. He was from this little town in Texas, and when we were told about him, we flew him in. And that’s how it happened.
Do a lot of people ask you about the casting process for these great movies?
Sure. Of course. When Drew Barrymore came in for the audition, it was really just to talk to me. She was only about 5 years old at the time. She sat in the chair across from me, pulled her dress up over her head and sat there talking to me through her dress. I finally got her to put her dress back down, and I wanted to get to know her a bit. So instead of asking questions that are just yes or no, I wanted to ask her questions that would really prompt her to talk. I asked her to tell me what her bedroom looked like. She said “Oh, it’s just a mess right now. It’s full of equipment from my band. There’s just musical equipment all over the place.” I said “What are you talking about?” She replied “Oh, I have a band. I’m the lead singer.” Turns out she totally made this story up. None of that was true. But she just had this wild imagination and was spectacular.
Do you still love casting as much now as you did when you started?
I do and I don’t. It depends what I’m working on. Quite honestly it depends on the people that I’m working with. The internet has changed things so much for the good and bad, in that things move with lightning speed. You can have access to everything at your fingertips - which is amazing. It used to be, that if an Agent wanted to send me a demo on an Actor, they’d get a messenger and I might get it the next day. Maybe. And then it would get stuck in the mailroom for a while. Now, they’re on the phone with me and it comes into my inbox in a second. So that’s incredible. The double edge sword of it is that the creative team (the network, the executives) expect me to pull off a miracle in a very condensed period of time. It used to be that we would have time to cast something. And now when they want to do a search, it’s not just a search in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York…it’s a global search. So we’re having to review thousands of submissions. Which, on one hand, is great that everyone has a chance to submit…but it’s very, very, very time consuming due to the sheer volume. Back in the early days, I would hate to release a Breakdown because I was the Assistant and I would get a stack of mail that was so high. Now everything comes digitally and it’s here in a nanosecond. Not only do the Agents and Managers submit through Breakdown Services, but then they double submit to me on my email. So I have to go through thousands of submissions on Breakdown and then thousands of submissions in my email with links on each Actor that I have to go through as well. It’s extremely time consuming.
Do you have a traditional casting office? With an Associate and an Assistant?
Yes. I don’t keep an office when I’m not casting something. But when I’m on a project, they give me an office, an Assistant and an Associate. On television, they generally will pay for one or the other. They won’t pay for both. Television is where you NEED both. You actually need more staff. They tend to short change us all the time. It’s really unfortunate.
A while ago, I was at the Arclight Theater in Sherman Oaks, and lo and behold, I saw your photograph on the wall. That was really cool! You were up there with these huge Producers and Directors. It was pretty sweet.
That campaign was for the 10 year anniversary of the Arclight being in existence and they wanted people to talk about what going out to the Arclight Theater means to them. I inquired about participating and they said they would love to have me do it! The photoshoot was really fun, the photographer was really great, and to see it up on the wall was really something. I took my 93 year old Mother to see that and she started crying.
I felt proud of you as well. Whenever you have a friend being honored for something, I think you can’t help but feel a part of it.
Did you see the short The Academy did on me about creativity?
Well, I am now a member of The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Casting Directors used to be Members-At-Large, but we now have our own Branch, which is a very big deal. I saw this series they were doing called CREATIVE SPARK. They did one on my friend Betsy Heimann who is a Costume Designer. We had just gotten our Branch, and I thought I would pitch to them that it was the perfect time to do one on a Casting Director, as we wanted some awareness. They agreed, and I suggested the three Governors of our Branch. But they replied that they would be interested in doing one on me. And because I’m more comfortable doing on-camera stuff than many CDs, I said “Sure, I’d love to”. There’s a short version that explains the E.T. story and they run that at the Academy before the films.