14 Sep 2015

Meet Moe Dunford

Charles Gant catches up with the Irish actor, a 2015 Shooting Star who is currently juggling work on a new movie with his recurring role in TV's Vikings

Moe Dunford © Vittorio Zunino Celotto-Getty Images for European Shooting Stars

By any measure, Irish actor Moe Dunford has enjoyed a pretty remarkable nine months. It began on his birthday last December, when he received the news that he’d been chosen as one of the ten Shooting Stars, having first been submitted for jury  consideration by the Irish Film Board. On February 6 this year, Patrick’s Day, in which he has the starring role, opened in Ireland, hot on the heels of premieres in his home town of Dungarvan and Dublin. That was also the day Dunford flew to Berlin for his participation in the Shooting Stars activities, culminating in receiving his award on stage at the Berlinale Palast from Natalie Portman.

In April, on the set of History Channel series Vikings, in which he plays Aethelwulf, he learned that he’d been nominated both as Rising Star and Best Actor at the Irish Film and Television Awards, for his performance in Patrick’s Day. A month later, he won the latter prize, beating Colin Farrell, Michael Fassbender and his good friend Jack Reynor – another of Ireland’s fast-rising talents. “I thought they were having me on, to be honest,” says the winningly cheerful and self-deprecating Dunford. “It was such a great night, and we were all on such a high, as the referendum result on gay marriage in Ireland had been announced the night before, when the whole country exploded. Patrick’s Day was my first movie. To be in that category was something very special.

”Whether as a consequence or not, three days after the awards ceremony, he received a message from John Butler, director and co-writer of The Stag, starring 2004 Shooting Star Andrew Scott. Butler’s new film, Handsome Devil, is a coming-of-age tale that brings two teachers into conflict after two 16-year-olds form an unlikely alliance. “John asked me to meet up to talk about the role of Mr Sherry, the English teacher, in the vein of Mr Keating from Dead Poets Society. I read it, and Andrew Scott came into my head! John said, ‘To be honest, I do have someone else in mind. I just wanted to meet you. What do you think of the other part: the rugby teacher, Pascal?"

Dunford’s head was full of Mr Sherry, and couldn’t see himself as Pascal, so they parted cordially. A month later, he suddenly had an epiphany that gave him access to the character, “this homophobic guy who’s trying to succeed via this talented rugby-playing boy who’s just joined the school”. Despite surmising that it was now too late, he messaged Butler, who immediately replied, “That’s the strangest thing ever. I was just about to email you to ask if you wanted to audition for the part.” Shortly after, he was handed the role.

The film, which does indeed co-star Andrew Scott as the other teacher, started shooting in August, and wraps in a few weeks. Dunford is currently dividing his time between it and the fourth season of Vikings, which has just cranked up for a 20-episode run, double the length of the previous seasons. It’s a far cry from a couple of years ago, when he went up for the lead role of Patrick’s Day, playing a man with mental illness who tries to escape the protective bond of his mother (Kerry Fox) when he surprisingly finds love with a troubled flight attendant (Catherine Walker). After several auditions, writer-director Terry McMahon told him he wanted him for the part, but it would be a battle to convince the financiers. “Understandably,” explains Dunford. “I wasn’t known.” Eventually, a united front by McMahon, seasoned producer Tim Palmer (Into the West) and casting director Rebecca Roper won the day.

Dunford was born in Cork in south-west Ireland, but largely grew up in Dungarvan, county Waterford, about 80km to the east. It was when his father started running a pub in Cork, when he was eight years old, that his movie education really began. His schoolteacher mother would take Moe (christened Maurice) and his brother up for the weekend, and while his parents were busy in the bar downstairs, “I would be watching movies upstairs on the cable channels, high on as much Lucozade and robbed bacon fries as I could find.” Adds Dunford, “I saw Leon. I saw Walkabout. Not the type of movie that an eight-, nine-year-old kid would be watching, but somehow we were glued to it. I even saw Showgirls. The less said about that the better, the psychological trauma it caused me.”

An English teacher at school, Mr Lake, first got young Moe interested in literature, although acting only followed when he auditioned for West Side Story, in the doomed hope of winning back an ex-girlfriend who had been cast as Maria. He was admitted to Dublin’s University College Cork, signing up for classes in English, music, history, psychology. “I was enrolled, but I never went,” says Dunford. “I didn’t show up to college at all. I stayed in a house with 10 or 11 of my friends from school, and I was drinking and partying at my house. I totally flunked.”

Before the year was up, he instead applied to the city’s Gaiety School of Acting, auditioning with a monologue from a Neil Simon play combined with Irish playwright John B Keane’s Sive. He was admitted, and went on to pick up representation from prominent Irish agency Lisa Richards on the back of his graduation showcase. Plays, and TV work followed, until Patrick’s Day came along in the summer of 2013 – an experience that has evidently made quite an impression on the actor. "As a filmmaker, Terry's an inspiration, because he's not afraid to be outspoken and tackle issues about Ireland's darker side," says Dunford, adding that he hopes to work with McMahon on another film project. Meanwhile, he acquired an agent and manager in Los Angeles, and has subsequently been out for casting meetings.

Still, Dunford had never experienced anything quite like Shooting Stars, which is arranged by organisers European Film Promotion to coincide with the annual get-together for the International Casting Directors Association. “The speed dating thing,” says the actor, referencing the frenetic session in which the attending casting directors meet all ten Shooting Stars in rapid succession, “it’s something I’d never witnessed in my entire life. I spent so many years as an actor trying to get seen by one particular casting director in Ireland, and you might meet them once in three years. And all of a sudden you have a premiere of your film, you're shipped over to Berlin, you're sitting in a seat and the casting director of Bond is walking up to you, five minutes later another casting director, and then you meet 30 casting directors in two hours. It was like: Bring on the party!"

The surreality of the occasion continued when he received the Shooting Star trophy from Natalie Portman – whose performance in Leon had made such an impact on Moe as a child. "The eight-year-old boy in me was laughing that night," says Dunford. "When we were all backstage, it was like being in a dreamlike state. I really took on board how giving Natalie was, how giving with her time to the ten of us. And it really hit me what she said. She said, you'd think it gets easier, but it never does."

Now back on the set of Vikings, Dunford admits that one thing that "has" become easier is the action component of his role. He remembers shooting the early episodes: "The horse master Tony Doyle put the fear of God into me. 'You're riding it like a camel! You like like a donkey! Riding a camel!' I learned on the job. I have to lead armies and charge and face Vikings head on. It's now my favourite part of the job, the action and the stunts. I can ride now, one-handed, no-handed, swinging a sword. Horse riding used to be just something I'd have on my CV in the hope that I'd get a gig."

17 Feb 2015

Confessions of a Shooting Stars Juror

The 2015 Shooting Stars award ceremony nearly didn’t happen for me, as what started as a brief trip to Colorado to visit the set of Quentin Tarantino’s new film The Hateful Eight turned into nearly week in the skiing town of Telluride as the production waited in vain for snowfall. As time passed, I recalled a previous visit to one of Quentin’s sets: a Café Einstein in central Berlin had been converted into Maxim’s Of Paris for a key scene in which former Shooting Star Daniel Brühl, as Nazi war hero Fredrik Zoller, brokered an important meeting with Germany’s head of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. It reminded me just how far these Shooting Stars go; I’ve seen a lot of Daniel lately, not just on screen in the acclaimed dramas Rush and A Most Wanted Man but in the flesh: two winters ago he was in London shooting Michael Winterbottom’s The Face Of And Angel, and last summer I ran into him in Cannes, where he presented the Prix De Jury.

Shooting Stars Press Photocall © Markus Nass
After a brief stopover in London to drop off my winter clothes – I didn’t think the rest of my Shooting Stars jury would see my muddy boots as a fashion statement – I sped to Gatwick Airport in a panicked cab, since all available trains were either cancelled or running late. I arrived with ten minutes to spare, and after landing at Schönefeld Airport I was whisked to the 25Hours Hotel in the old west of Berlin’s city centre, which would be the base for the next three days’ activities. My first encounter was with fellow juror Natalie Cheron, enjoying a quick cigarette en route to the Annual Meeting of the International Casting Directors Network. Natalie told me that all was going swimmingly, that our Shooting Stars were hitting it off and had already become a tight little unit.

I saw this myself when, an hour later, I arrived at the Press Photocall. I’d hoped to catch a few words with some of our chosen few, but everyone was flitting between rooms. The Ritz Carlton was in a state of flux, TV crews and photographers streaming in and out, but our Shooting Stars kept their heads and all had dressed for the occasion.
  Moe Dunford and Debbie McWilliams at the
Actors Industry Network © Markus Nass
From here, we went back to base and over to the Waldorf Astoria for Actors Industry Network. This was where the real work would be done; each actor staked an area and held court as Europe’s best-known casting agents table-hopped to speak to them. From the UK alone I saw major players such as Leo Davis, Dan Hubbard and Debbie McWilliams, who has cast every Bond film since For Your Eyes Only. From Prague, I bumped into Nancy Bishop – just these four might be enough to change one actor’s life forever.

At the Tesiro-sponsored cocktail later that night it was clear that our Shooting Stars had bonded, which was proven at the following morning’s press presentation. Introducing the event, our fellow juror Eva Röse got things started by recalling how much her own experience as a Shooting Star in 2006 meant to her. “Of course, it was a great honour,” she said, “and I felt that my work was being recognised. I was now part of something bigger, and it was definitely a door opening for me. It helped me to expand my horizons. And it’s been interesting to me to see how the Shooting Stars programme has evolved from 2006 to this day. It started out as a spotlight, but now it’s a valuable stepping stone to help actors find their way internationally. So I’m really excited for these guys and I wish them all the best.”

Shooting Stars Press Presentation © Markus Nass
Interviewed onstage, the Shooting Stars proved comfortable in a room filled with cameras and recording devices. Denmark’s Joachim Fjelstrup offered us an insight into his research for the rock’n’roll biopic Itsi Bitsi, while Finland’s Emmi Parviainen (The Princess Of Egypt) gave us tips on being truthful in performance. Jannis Niewöhner (Sapphire Blue) informed us that genre films were just as much fun as dramas; Iceland’s Hera Hilmer (Life In A Fishbowl), talked about her experience on the major international TV shows such as Da Vinci’s Demons; and Ireland’s Moe Dunford (Patrick’s Day) spoke movingly of mental health issues in his native Dublin. Lithuania’s Aistė Diržiūtė unexpectedly revealed that her co-star in The Summer Of Sangaile was on old friend that she’d met online, enabling her to be extra comfortable in the role; Spain’s Natalia de Molina spoke emotionally about her Goya win for Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed; while Switzerland’s Sven Schelker (The Circle) assured us he would never swap the stage for the screen, or vice versa. The Netherlands’ Abbey Hoes (Nena) charmed everyone with her story about making her debut as “the winking girl” in a TV commercial, and the UK’s Maisie Williams (The Falling) amazed us all with the fact that, at 17, the Game Of thrones star already has a million Twitter followers.

In the afternoon there was a run-through of the ceremony at the Palast, at which, for a brief moment, my co-juror, producer Danijel Hocevar, and I were not deemed sufficiently stellar to play ourselves as the camera team blocked the show. Common sense soon prevailed, however, and Eva plus fellow juror Malgorzata Szumowska – whose very well-received new film The Body was to premiere in the Berlinale that same night, later winning her the Silver Bear for Best Director – made excellent MCs. The run-through went smoothly and we returned later for the real event, which went just as well until a technical hitch saw Moe Dunford’s face beamed onscreen just as Eva was paying tribute to Hera Hilmar. Without missing a beat, and with a wry joke, Eva calmly started again – a reminder of the star quality that first brought her here in 2006.

Shooting Stars on stage at the Berlinale Palast © Isa Foltin /Getty Images for European Shootings Stars
The appearance of Black Swan star Natalie Portman as this year’s patron sent visible shockwaves through our Shooting Stars, and she was a gracious host, handing out the distinctive silver trophies. Not only was this seen on TV3, these images soon went all around the room, gracing Twitter feeds and Facebook pages before the night was even over. From the Palast it was back to 25Hours Hotel and the Monkey Bar, where our Shooting Stars were finally able to let their hair down, partying long into the night in a city that certainly knows how to party. It had been an extraordinary few days for all of us, but although it marked the end of the road for me, for our Shooting Stars the journey is just beginning.

5 Feb 2015

Meet our sponsor

Tesiro has been a Berlinale partner since 2009 and has created the Shooting Stars award since then. So what drives this unusual intercontinental collaboration?

In 2015, you don’t have to be an expert on economics to know that the luxury goods industry is firing on all cylinders, or that China is one of the most dynamic markets in the world right now. Which is all good news for Tesiro, the high-end jewellery brand that is famous in its native China for its diamond and jade designs.

Carey Mulligan (Shooting Stars 2009) wearing TESIRO
Outside of China, you’d be forgiven for not realising just how big a brand Tesiro is. Founded by Mr Richard Shen in 1997 and headquartered in Nanjing, eastern China, Tesiro has now opened nearly 400 franchised stores in cities across the country – including, of course, Beijing and Shanghai. In 2006, Tesiro attracted significant investment from Eurostar Diamond Traders (EDT), the leading diamond-cutting trader from Antwerp, Belgium.

Tesiro began its partnership with the Berlinale in 2009, providing its signature Starlet jewellery to international stars attending the festival, including Ziyi Zhang, Uma Thurman, Andie MacDowell, Scarlett Johansson, Jessica Chastain and Shooting Stars such as Carey Mulligan, Andrea Riseborough and Alicia Vikander. In 2014, Tesiro expanded its association, becoming a principal partner in a three-year deal extending to 2016.

Although famous in China for its patented, exclusive and award-winning Blue Flame diamond, Tesiro remains connected to its Chinese roots via its association with another precious jewel: jade. Mr Ma Chongren, respectfully called “King of Jade” in the jade industry, serves as chief expert of Tesiro’s Jade For Future Generations brand. Jade has been mined in China since 6000BC.

Richard Shen has postgraduate qualifications in business and business administration from Nanjing University, Macau University of Science and Technology and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. He has been the supervisor of graduate students at Nanjing University, and is the author of Organizational Intelligence: The Rise-and-Fall Secrets of 21st Century Enterprises. It’s hard to think of many western entrepreneurs that share similarly strong links to the world of academia and publishing.

Asked just how typical in China its partnership with the Berlinale and Shooting Stars is, Tesiro commented. “We have to admit that there haven’t been many Chinese fashion brands engaging in such high-profile events abroad yet. But with the acceleration in globalization, we believe there will be many more Chinese brands or joint ventures finding their way to going abroad and getting involved in high-profile projects, just as Tesiro has long been doing.”

2 Feb 2015

The casting veteran

A record 60 international casting directors are heading to Berlin this week for Shooting Stars. We talk to one of them: Britain’s Leo Davis.

Marwan Kenzari (Shooting Stars 2014) with Leo Davis
Leo Davis began her career in casting more than 30 years ago. Having worked in theatre in both Liverpool and London, she tried to persuade casting director Susie Figgis to take her on as an assistant. Figgis felt she didn’t need one at that time, but changed her mind when she landed Richard Attenborough’s epic Gandhi. “It was such a huge film,” says Davis, “there was no way she could do it on her own. I went in as her assistant, and stayed about ten years, I think. And then I branched out on my own.”

Davis has enjoyed a particularly close relationship with director Stephen Frears, working with him on ten feature films, including Dirty Pretty Things, The Queen and Philomena. As Frears tells it, the casting team were so determined for him to cast Chiwetel Ejiofor in Dirty Pretty Things that they remained deliberately vague about the actor’s age (he was only 25 when the film came out – significantly younger than Frears had envisaged for the role of a qualified doctor living illegally in London, with a wife and children back in Nigeria). The picture went on to earn huge acclaim, winning Best Film, Actor, Director and Screenplay at the British Independent Film Awards.

Davis has been attending the International Casting Directors Network in Berlin since its inception in 2005, an event that is programmed so that the attendees can meet and interact with the Shooting Stars each year. This year, a record 60 casting directors from all over the world will attend, including heads of casting from Hollywood studios Paramount and Warner Bros. Opportunities for the casting directors to meet the Shooting Stars have been expanded, with two separate networking sessions for the 2015 edition.

Although Davis explains that challenges remain with producers forever seeking star names not just in the lead role but also in several supporting parts, even for low-budget films, one positive is the growing international nature of casting. “Yes! That’s great news,” she says. “I would think Shooting Stars has had a huge deal of input into that.”

Tusse Lande, Leo Davis and Debbie McWilliams at the annual ICDN meeting
Davis, who served on the Shooting Stars jury in 2010, has personally cast several of the actors she’s met through attending the networking sessions in Berlin. For example, when director Stephen Knight (Locke) was looking for a young East European actress to appear in his London-set drama Hummingbird, Davis knew immediately who to cast. “He described this nun, and I thought, I’ve just got the perfect person, she’s unbelievably nun-like, she’s Polish, and we cast Agata Buzek (Shooting Star, 2010).” 

In upcoming film The Ones Below, directed by David Farr (co-writer of Hanna), Davis has cast Finnish actress Laura Birn, a 2013 Shooting Star. She has also cast Dutch 2006 Shooting Star Mimoun Oaissa in the Hanif Kureishi-scripted short Weddings and Beheadings. Earlier, Davis cast Danish 1999 Shooting Star Iben Hjejle in High Fidelity (2000), opposite John Cusack.

“They’re so exciting, the European actors,” says Davis. “They’re ambitious, they want to make it, and at the same time they’ve got great taste, so it’s a good combination. They’re not looking for the giant American TV series, or their heads aren’t into the massive American lead role. They want to do good work.”

Leo Davis with Shooting Star Mikkel Boe Følsgaard at the 2013 Casting Breakfast
As for the private sessions with the ICDN, Davis reveals that the discussions are important for sharing information and comparing challenges faced in different territories. “We’ll spend time discussing why, until quite recently, the French didn’t give casting directors credits. Well, we’ve always had credit [in the UK]. It’s different things, about issues like payment. If I go and see a Russian film, and I think an actor is superb, I can always go to the Russian casting director and say, is he [consistently] superb, have you seen him in the theatre, give me more information.

“It’s become a kind of help network. If I’m doing something in France, instead of casting it myself, I’ll always say at the beginning, ‘Why don’t we employ a French casting director? I know three or four!’ And you try and get them jobs as well because they know what they are talking about. Having said that, it’s a challenge, because producers rarely want to fork out more money for an additional casting director.”

Casting remains the art of the possible: finding actors that are inspired choices for the role, while working within the star-driven constraints of the film’s financiers. For that reason, working with Stephen Frears on his 1993 Irish film The Snapper endures as a cherished memory for Davis.

“In an ideal world, you’d like to cast a film with a whole pile of unknown people, so that the audience goes to the cinema with no baggage, they’ve never seen them before. And it’s only happened one time in my entire life, which was doing The Snapper. I was allowed to cast perfectly, because there were barely any Irish names [known internationally] at that time that could be cast.”

This preference for fresh faces means that US producers have tended not to come calling for Davis’ services. “I don’t think I ever get Hollywood films,” she chuckles. “They think I’m a pain in the arse. Because you’re saying things like, ‘Let’s cast it properly.’ The job’s gone immediately once you say that. They only want to hear about Bradley Cooper.”

26 Jan 2015

Meet Charles Collier: the London talent agent offering a bridge between Europe and Hollywood

"Crossing the Atlantic" a discussion forum at Shooting Stars 2012 with Angharad Wood ( Tavistock / Wood), Mechthild Holter (Players), Lina Todd ( Casting Director / Moderator), Theresa Peters ( UTA) , Sheila Wenzel ( Innovative Artists)

Charles Collier is a founding partner of Tavistock Wood, the London talent agency that, since its inception in 2004, has always looked beyond UK shores for a significant chunk of its artist roster, including former Shooting Stars Daniel Brühl, Benno Furmann, Iben Hjejle, Bjorn Hlynur Haraldsson, Nina Hoss, Mélanie Laurent, Riccardo Scamarcio, Alicia Vikander and Johanna Wokalek. Representing more than 40 actors from Continental Europe – drawn from Germany, France, Italy, Romania, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, Ukraine, Austria, Poland and Spain – Collier and his partner Angharad Wood have long been at the vanguard of the growing internationalisation of talent agency. Collier speaks to us ahead of his annual visit to the Berlinale, where this year he will meet and give advice to the 2015 selection of Shooting Stars.

Charles, how did Tavistock Wood come to represent so many Continental European clients?

When Angharad and I set up this business over ten years ago, all of the London market faced in one direction, which is to Los Angeles, where it appeared all the money was coming from. And to a large extent that was absolutely true. But we thought the question was: where’s the talent coming from? We had always been most at home in the environment of European cinema and European filmmaking as a matter of personal taste. That was a first love for us. And so, as is best in business, you follow your instinct, you follow your passions.

Was London the right place for such an agency?

London can offer the best of both worlds: we are entirely in tune with the artistic approach and sensibility of the European way of film which is very much a community of souls, but at the same time we are very comfortable with the commercial approach of the US entertainment industry which is profit-driven.

When it comes to really developing acting talent from the ground up, London is the very best place in the world. This comes from the unique infrastructure that has developed in London for actors to develop professionally, taking seed in the drama schools and the theatre. Add to this the sheer volume of production in London and the geographical and linguistic centrality of London as the bridge between North America and Europe. But most importantly London is the sophisticated global hub at the very centre of the cultural universe, and all the best productions come here to cast and connect with the most interesting talent.
In London, the casting directors really hold the keys to the kingdom. They are hugely authoritative and influential. The US producers and studios know that it makes sense to have a UK casting director. The best US material is always being cast out of London.

How has it been collaborating with local agents? Are they ever sceptical of the need for their artists to have a London agent?

We have great relationships with local agents. The local agents know we are going to understand each other and be most sensitive to nurturing the roots of an actor’s craft, whilst knowing they can trust us to be professionally aggressive in developing an English language career.
Local agents know that London can cover all English language projects, and the results show this is fact. For example, just to consider our agency Tavistock Wood. All of our clients who come to English as their second language secured their breakout lead roles in the English language through London and with London-only representation (outside the mother country), often in US-financed projects.
And every single client that came to us with a mother agent from their home territory still has such an agent. We consider that to be vital. We don’t want them to turn their back on their home territory. It would be madness.

Yes, because with the growing international focus of Hollywood, it can be a factor – studios look for actors that can boost the audience in their home country.

It’s both a commercial help to be strong in your home market, as well as artistically. These people are good for a reason, and suddenly severing your roots can be a very damaging process.

Over the ten years or so of Tavistock Wood, has the landscape changed for your clients working internationally?

Yes. It’s much better. So much better, and that’s because, it’s a cliché this, the old nation state boundaries are washed away by mechanisms of new distribution. Audiences now expect to see dramas that have a global face, and we can make that happen now. It’s very easy to think of Netflix doing a ten-part drama, set in Germany, in the English language, with German actors. It used to be everyone made product for their own little country, looking inward. And now, the Holy Grail of drama, and the Scandinavians have been fabulously successful at this, is to think: how can we make this an international phenomenon, how can we reach the outside world? There’s much more co-production in television. The new age of television scripted drama is a marvellous thing for European actors.

When did you first became aware of Shooting Stars?

I’ve known about it since the first time I attended the Berlin Film Festival, which was the year we set up the business. It is excellent in providing profile. It puts the spotlight and attention on to you, and it’s a wonderful accolade. The brilliance of it is that it’s tied into the market, rather than just tied into what some agents and some casting directors might see. For just a brief moment, producers, sales agents, distributors, they will also be aware, that’s what makes it so different and so important. Berlin brings focus to that in a way that nowhere else could.

How do you go about choosing new clients to represent?

It’s pretty simple: we need to find people that we like and admire and respect and believe have got the professional approach to have a successful career. And we need to see the work that backs that up, and tells us what they are as an artist so we can really understand them, and what it is that’s unique about them, and what they can bring to this particular community. That’s the easy bit. The difficult bit is the luck of whether you end up together. There’s a huge amount of agents. Sadly, you can’t always get there first.

I like people to have actually worked it out, and gone: Ah! Which agency is it that has time and time again so successfully crossed to and fro between the international market, whilst also making sure that the home career stays strong, and who has got the sensitivity and the intelligence to really do that well? That said, why should any artist be so keyed into the way the business works? Often, they’re not. So then it’s a question of: do your paths cross?

Well, how do they cross?

With Eva Green, mutual friends introduced us, thinking we might get on and like each other, and they made a good judgement about that. With Daniel Bruhl, it was Daniel’s German agent who knew us, and recommended he meet with us, and it’s been a fabulous relationship for ten years. Daniel’s amazingly brilliant German agents, they are great friends. It has been and continues to be such a strong and successful relationship. And then Alicia, she’s extremely focused and intelligent and aware, and she had found out who we were and came and found us. I can remember as clear as day the first time that we met.

In Germany, France and Italy, those countries have very strong local film production where actors can thrive very happily. When signing an artist, you need to be sure that they really desire to work internationally?

Sure, absolutely. And the fact is, Hollywood doesn’t recognise European pay quotes. If you’re a big star in Italy, and you’re earning €350,000 on a little Italian comedy, don’t be surprised if a Hollywood studio turns around and offers you $70,000, and you’re basically being asked to work on an 80% discount. It’s up to you to decide: do you want an international career? It is an international market, and you thrive by having a life everywhere.

And what about taking representation in the US? When is the right time to do that?

Almost every decent US project casts in London and the UK agents cover the US in any event. An LA agent becomes necessary only if the artist intends to make LA their home base. That said, wherever an artist is based, a US agent can bring a great dynamic if they come to the team at the right time and where the volume of business requires it. But there needs to be a great body of work in Europe first. Something that really stands out. Arriving in LA empty-handed and appointing a second-rate US agent is not a good idea.

16 Jan 2015

Top Hollywood studio casting director set to join Shooting Stars

Since the creation of the International Casting Directors Network in 2004, casting directors from all around the world have been holding their annual get-together in Berlin, a key component of the Shooting Stars activity at the Berlinale. Of course, it’s a big trip from Los Angeles, and these professionals lead busy lives, so it’s a sign of the ever-increasing international nature of casting that, this year, Lora Kennedy, executive vice-president of casting at Warner Bros, will make the trip for her first time.

“A lot of my casting director friends in London have been telling me about the event,” says Kennedy. “And à propos the reason to go to Shooting Stars, we’ve had to really broaden our base of international actors, we can’t just look at American film actors. We’ve got to go to other countries, we’ve got to go to other mediums, we’ve got to go to the internet, we’ve got to go to rappers, we’ve got to go to television, we’ve got to go to music, everything. It’s all over the place now.

“I think everybody’s looking to broaden their market. Everybody’s looking to see how you can get a bigger audience, globally. The international market is what is driving all the studios.”

For Kennedy, the development is entirely felicitous, since the changing nature of the film industry globally allows her to push for a broader mix of actors at Warner Bros. “I love European actors. I love Alicia Vikander, and Elizabeth Debicki. Daniel Bruhl, we’ve loved forever, but finally he’s coming into his own. We’ve been having our eye on him for years, even before Good Bye Lenin!” (Vikander and Bruhl are former Shooting Stars.)

“We usually include all the Europeans, especially the British, right along with our American actors. We don’t really separate them out. Everybody’s kind of lapped in there: Mads Mikkelsen, and Ben Mendelsohn from Australia, Javier Bardem or Jai Courtney or whoever it is. It’s all one big happy list now.”

However, there’s no point dodging the fact that the international market for film is overwhelmingly in one particular language. “The movies are in English,” says Kennedy. “You don’t want to erase what’s natural and organic about [foreign actors], but if you can’t be understood, it’s going to be hard to translate into that next market. If Spanish were the big international language, and I were an American actor, I would learn Spanish.

“If you speak English with a very heavy accent, then you’ll be relegated to roles where the accent would then make sense. You wouldn’t be able to play a housewife from middle America on welfare trying to raise her kids. You’d have to rewrite it.”

Kennedy got into casting by chance, right after university, having been asked to drive a friend’s wife to work following a car accident. “She worked for a very big producer in television on the old MGM lot. I would drive her to work every day. One day, we stopped by her friend who was in a casting office, and they ended up asking me if I wanted to intern. Two weeks later they hired me as an assistant.

“I didn’t know that job existed. There weren’t that many people casting – not like today. There were only three networks when I started, and there was no way we were doing as many movies as we do today.”

Kennedy worked on 1980s TV shows including The A Team, and was then hired as assistant to film casting director Wally Nicita. “She had just done The Big Chill,” says Kennedy, “and I learned from her. Because she was so respected, I did my time as an assistant, then an associate, and I segued into doing my own casting at the age of 26. She really was the foundation of me learning what I had to learn.”

Kennedy has held her post at Warners since 1999, helping to oversee casting across the studio slate, as well as personally casting films for directors Ben Affleck, Zack Snyder, the Wachowskis and others. She is answerable to studio chiefs who may have their own ideas about star roles, although Warners is a studio that’s  rightly earned a reputation for being filmmaker-friendly. Actors may care to pay attention to the one area that raises a red flag for studio bosses.

Explains Kennedy, “Mostly it’s interjecting if somebody has not done well by us in terms of us commitment or attitude. That’s the one thing that drives everybody in this town now: is somebody nice and are they great to work with? My guys, they put their foot down if somebody has proven not to be a team player. I think they really like to see the overview of how the movie is going to look, and the leads, but mostly they hire filmmakers who they trust to make their best movie and defer to them.”

12 Dec 2014

Meet the 2015 Shooting Stars

Jury members Charles Gant (2014) and Damon Wise (2015) share their jury experiences and discuss this year’s new Shooting Stars

Damon Wise
 Charles Gant: So, Damon, congratulations on your Shooting Stars choices for 2015. My first observation is: four men and six women! Did that to some degree reflect the gender balance of all the submitted candidates you were choosing between? My second observation is: it's nice that you selected a lot of different countries to the ones we picked a year ago. Only the UK, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands are common to the 2014 and 2015 choices. So you have six fresh countries that didn't feature last time.
Damon Wise: Thanks! I have to admit, some of the responsibilities hadn't really dawned on me until we sat down to debate the choices. As the only native English-speaker on the jury I was obviously very much aware of the potential for bias not only towards the UK candidate but also the Scandinavian nominees. Other than that, though, I hadn't really thought of some of the other issues – it was only after I'd chosen my final ten than I thought to ask whether there had to be a particular gender mix (the long list featured 11 men and 14 women). At the end of the process, we did look at the geographical spread, but really just out of curiosity. It didn’t impact on our discussions and choices. That was also the point at which we realised that certain countries weren't represented, or perhaps weren't the heavyweights we were expecting from the outset. We didn’t at all pay attention to which countries were chosen last time. Was that something that you were ever conscious of when you made your selections for 2014?
Charles: I think our submitted candidates last year were pretty evenly mixed regarding gender, and that maybe reflected in our final choice of five men and five women as Shooting Stars. I do recall that we had a really passionate debate about the last spot in the line-up, but it was a choice between three male candidates. We didn't look at the home countries of the previous year's Shooting Stars, either, and paid absolutely no attention to it. I think we were aware that some of the candidates came from countries with more thriving film cultures, and so, understandably, had maybe been given more opportunities to shine. But ultimately as jury members we chose the ten best and most deserving Shooting Stars, and that's all you can do. How did you find the debate about the qualities of the candidates, in terms of both brilliant acting ability, but also that sometimes hard-to-define "star quality"?
Eva Röse
Damon: For me, personally, the hardest part was being objective about the actor – by that I mean judging the performance and not the film. I know that seems obvious, but that can be harder than it sounds, especially for a journalist who is used to assessing a film in its entirety, and I would tell any future nominee that a good showreel is a vital part of the selection process – if a film is dealing with a dark or serious subject matter, that quite often determines how much (or little) we get to see of an actor's range. As for "star quality", that wasn't something we really debated – I think we were all agreed that we were looking for actors with impact, people who could hold our attention as well as our gaze. A lot of this came down to instinct – I realised very early on that an actor's charisma onscreen could sometimes outweigh their CV.
Charles: The five-person jury always mixes a critic, a producer, a filmmaker, a casting director and an actor (typically a former Shooting Star), and I was interested in the different perspectives these people brought. We came from all over Europe, and were a mix of men and women, which I believe is always the case. Last time, I would say that our director and casting director were especially invested in the subtleties of performance. For me, also, the clue is in the title, and we are celebrating future film stars showcasing talent to make an impact internationally. Anyway, I want to hear more about this year's Shooting Stars! Maisie Williams I know from Carol Morley's The Falling, and Sven Schelker from Swiss gay docudrama The Circle. So let's start with those two.
Damon: I was slightly concerned about voter etiquette when it came to the UK – should we be allowed to vote for our home territory? (We did all have one.) In Maisie's case there was also Carol Morley's film (The Falling), which tells a very specifically British story, one that's very much about a certain time and place. I decided to abstain from comment and just see what happened. Not only did the jury love the film, a couple were also huge Game Of Thrones fans (she plays the tomboyish Arya Stark), and so Maisie sailed through unanimously. And Sven? Sven is a very good case for spending time on a showreel. His performance in The Circle is very moving, but his charming showreel made us all smile – it gave us an insight into his personality as well as clearer idea of his abilities.
Malgorzata Szumowska
Charles: We had a very strong showing from Scandinavia last year, with Shooting Stars from Sweden, Norway and Denmark, and even our Italian Shooting Star, Miriam Karlkvist, is half-Swedish. Tell me about your selections from Denmark, Finland and Iceland.
Damon: As I was expecting, the Scandinavian nominees were all of a very high standard. The first film I sat down to watch was Itsi Bitsi, which set the bar quite high – it's the true story of Eik Skaløe, a beatnik poet and activist who introduced Denmark to psychedelic rock. Not only is it Joachim Fjelstrup's first leading role, it's his first film full stop – and he's just magnetic. Emmi Parviainen, from Finland, captivated us too, with a performance as a single mother in The Princess Of Egypt that's as heartfelt and real as any that the Dardennes brothers have ever captured. Hera Hilmar, who plays a very different kind of single mother in Life In A Fishbowl, delivered a showreel that not only showcased her rather scary versatility but revealed her terrific command of English too.
Charles: I look forward to discovering these films. I just realised that I have seen quite a few of Hera Hilmar's performances. She has a memorable supporting part in current UK festive comedy Get Santa, with Jim Broadbent and Rafe Spall. She was in Brit indie flick We Are The Freaks, Joe Wright's Anna Karenina and Bill Condon's The Fifth Estate. She has talent representation in the UK, so I am now wondering if she studied there, or is (or was) based in London. Let's continue our sweep through Northern Europe. Tell me about your choices from Germany, Lithuania and the Netherlands.
Danijel Hočevar
Damon: To start with Lithuania, Aistė Diržiūtė's performance in The Summer Of Sangaile – which, incidentally has been selected for the first day of next year's Sundance Film Festival – is a good example of what I was talking about earlier. I was so engrossed in the story I had to keep reminding myself to keep my eyes on Aistė, as she plays a significant supporting character who drives the story but isn't necessarily the focus. Aistė has a very easy and disarming charm, as does Abbey Hoes from the Netherlands, who stars in Nena. Both these actors are very young – 23 and 20 respectively – but they possess maturity and deceptively rich emotional depths that really ground their characters in reality. Jannis Niewöhner, from Germany, is possibly our most 'classic' Shooting Star – good-looking, intense, romantic. He really is quite a package.
Nathalie Cheron
Charles: Thanks Damon. And finally, what should I look forward to from our Irish and Spanish Shooting Stars?
Damon: On the surface, Ireland’s Moe Dunford would appear to tick some of the same boxes as Jannis – his showreel contains scenes from the TV show Vikings that prove he has a seriously commanding presence, like a missing Hemsworth or Worthington brother. His film Patrick’s Day, however, in which he plays a young Dublin man with mental-health problems, persuaded us that Moe has more in him than action and fantasy roles. Spain’s Natalia De Molina, meanwhile, is probably the most ‘classic’ Shooting star among the girls: she’s very feminine, with a wicked smile and great comic timing. Her film Living Is Easy With Eyes Closed – incidentally, Spain’s foreign-language Oscar hopeful next year – in which she stars alongside Pedro Almodóvar regular Javier Cámara, was the last film I watched, and it was a nice way to sign off. It’s a gentle, bittersweet road movie that left me feeling a lot less anxious about the future than some of the more hard-hitting titles we saw!