Finding Faces for the Silver Screen
U.S. casting director Lana Veenker returns to Vienna in February to share some of the secrets of breaking into the movies
Defining success can be vague, especially in the film industry. Is it fame or creative satisfaction? Is it income, reputation or recognition? For casting directors, it’s not usually about the limelight. Most are invisible, and prefer it that way.
Then there’s Lana Veenker. When Veenker is out, she is surrounded by actors, following at her heels like a pack of puppies, wide-eyed and worshipful. Her keen judgment of actors and the ability to inspire them in the moment have been the keys to the success of her company, Cast Iron Studios. As a psychologist, this is fascinating to watch; judging character, measuring or assessing personality, this is what we do. We look at how people function in everyday life. Only recently has it occurred to me that this is also what Veenker does; only for a casting director, it’s the roles in front of a camera. Then again, maybe the fascination runs in the family. Veenker is my older sister.
Consultant to the stars
Sitting down for a glass of wine on a warm summer evening in the Mississippi district of Portland, Oregon – our hometown – is not necessarily as relaxing and intimate as it might be. If actors discover Veenker’s location, most can’t resist saying "hello". Some actors stroll up to the table, some parade to the table. Each reaction is different. A soft-spoken actress asks if she can send a headshot. The next bold actor talks incessantly about a new project, barely wasting a minute of her attention to breathe. Patiently Veenker listens; she knows they need her of course. As a casting director, she holds the keys to their future.
Since its founding in 1999, Cast Iron Studios has become one of the most successful location casting companies in the United States.
"Last year, while casting two TV series simultaneously, we also cast a major studio film, a TV pilot, countless commercials for brands like Facebook, Nike, Ford and Intel, and many other small projects," Veenker said. As a member of the International Casting Directors Network, Veenker participates in European Film Promotion’s yearly Shooting Stars programme, which celebrates Europe’s top up-and-coming actors each February during the Berlinale. Along the way, she offers seminars and lectures around Europe: London, Prague, Paris, and once again, Vienna, where she will present a lecture and Q&A at Webster University on 12 February.
On her last visit to Vienna in 2011, Bennogasse in the 8th District was Veenker’s stage, and this time the camera was aimed at her. She worked with a group of about 15 actors at the Sonovista Studio (IfiF Production) on a mild September afternoon. After assessing their career goals, she dove into a discussion on marketing and branding; a topic that American actors are familiar with (the keyword in "show business" is business, after all), but that makes some European actors – used to a more subtle approach – squirm.
Like it or not, she told them, being an actor means being a small business owner: Actors spend much more of their time on marketing, product development (i.e. training) and interviewing than they ever spend acting.
"People are often more likely to be helpful to someone on the street who simply asks the time, than to someone begging for money," she tells them. "Similarly, when actors come into the audition room oozing desperation and neediness, it makes everyone uncomfortable and less likely to want to hire them. Actors need to learn how to come in, own the room, and convey a sense of self-confidence. They need to think: ‘These are my five minutes, I deserve to be here and now I’m going to wow them.’"
Teaching actors how to "wow"
As casting director, Veenker is the first one who has to be "wowed" at the audition. And for good reason: she has placed actors in roles opposite top Hollywood actors like Morgan Freeman, Jennifer Aniston, Harrison Ford, Viggo Mortensen, and Charlize Theron. Her list of credits is long, including the blockbuster film Twilight, Gone, starring Amanda Seyfried, Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, 64 episodes of the hit TV series, Leverage, starring Timothy Hutton and Grimm, now in its second season. She has collaborated with directors Robert Benton, Dean Devlin, Tim Robbins, Heitor Dhalia and many others.
"George Clooney doesn’t need my help. It’s so much more exciting to hire an actor on his first big film, or help an unknown actress land a role that launches her career."
Veenker has a soft spot for newcomers, those outside the mainstream. Probably because that’s how she began. After training as an actor, she travelled through Europe, South America, India and the Caribbean in her 20s, eventually, landing a job with Jeremy Zimmerman in London as a casting assistant. In England, she was living in an apartment "the size of a broom closet" and was recycling her teabags. But Veenker sensed she had found her calling: she had a special talent for making international connections and pulling the best out of the actor during an audition. For actors with careers in the making, a casting director’s tips on how to get in and get the job can be career-changing. "I tell actors: Stay in your power; be upbeat and positive. Be the kind of person we would want to hang out with on set for 14 hours a day."
Lana Veenker talks the talk, but also walks it, a model of her own advice. She invests countless hours in convincing politicians to increase tax incentives for film production.
"The film industry is an employer, not only for actors, but also taxi drivers, security guards, waitresses, hotel receptionists and many others who benefit when films are produced."
But mostly, Veenker is fun to be around and, like Scheherazade, she can entertain for hours with stories of her travel adventures, latest rock-climbing feat, motorcycle trip, or flying lessons. She simply is the person she wants to spend time with.
Krista Rothschild is a clinical and health psychologist practicing in Vienna.
Lecture and Q&A with U.S. Casting Director Lana Veenker
12 Feb., 16:00 – 17:00
Conference Center (3rd Floor)
22., Berchtoldgasse 1
For a review of this lecture at Webster University Vienna, visit the Webster Today blog entry, dated 15 Feb.