“We’re using actors’ partners and kids as co-stars and camera operators”: This casting director has worked on more than 65 projects during Covid

“We’re using actors’ partners and kids as co-stars and camera operators”: This casting director has worked on more than 65 projects during Covid

When film and TV production froze during Covid, veteran casting director Shasta Lutz shut down her agency. As the city has slowly reopened, she’s had to learn how to cast commercials in an entirely new way, recruiting actors’ family members as co-stars and shooting in their homes instead of studios. Here’s what her job looks like now. 

As told to Liza Agrba

“I founded Jigsaw Casting in 1996 and worked for 25 years to build the company from the ground up. I’m a casting director for commercials—my job is to find the best actors for a given production while staying within the designated budget. An advertising agency or production company will hire me, and I’ll work closely with the director. They will give me their vision of a commercial, and it’s my job to find the talent. We probably average about 325 jobs a year, working with big brands like Facebook, Tim Hortons, and AT&T. I employ seven staff and a whole bunch of freelancers, so a lot of people rely on me to make a living.

“Things went downhill on March 16. We closed the casting office and started working from home. The next day, at about 8 p.m., I got an email: someone on the set of a commercial we had cast a couple of weeks before had a Covid-positive test result. We weren’t told who tested positive for privacy reasons, but I wondered it was one of our directors, because that person had been under the weather. We were told to self-isolate for 14 days. I was horrified. That’s when I realized that Covid was really here. The directors had shot an SNL episode with Daniel Craig just before coming back to Toronto for our shoot, so I kept checking fan sites to see if Daniel Craig had caught Covid. (He didn’t). Thankfully, the person recovered, but the next day, an acquaintance from another casting facility got a similar Public Health letter that said somebody there had tested positive. It became clear that shutting down was the right thing to do.

“Every day, jobs were getting cancelled or postponed. I was in the middle of a massive job for Kraft Philly, searching for their new cream cheese angel, and it literally had to be shut down in the middle of the process. I’ve never had to lay anyone off before, and I wasn’t sure how to best take care of my people. I ended up terminating all my staff, rather than just furloughing them, so they could get severance and EI. (We didn’t know about CERB yet). It was a total gut punch, and I couldn’t stop worrying about whether I’d have a business to come back to.

“There aren’t many commercial casting directors in the city, and we all have our own facilities to accommodate our huge work volumes—we normally see thousands of actors a week. As a result, the casting studio is big and expensive to run: we pay $15,000 a month for rent and maintenance, which covers a large waiting area, a kitchen, a meeting room, three studios and offices. During the second half of March and all of April, nothing was coming in. Fortunately we had a strong start to the year, but as the months went by, I was like, Oh my god—how am I going to pay my bills? Are we ever coming back? I was having serious night sweats. Couldn’t sleep at all. I kept having these Chicken Little moments in the middle of the night, where I thought, We’re done.

“It was crickets for pretty much all of March and April. I used my time to become the best housewife that I could be. My husband is a country boy who lives in Simcoe; we had separate addresses but usually cohabitated four nights a week. On March 30, I sold my house in Parkdale and moved in with him full-time. I’m a city girl, and here I am in this cottage with a wood burning stove and no furnace. I felt like I was totally cut off from my life. It was a difficult adjustment, since I feel like I’m defined by what I do. I never gardened before the pandemic, but I started gardening and cooking elaborate meals. I busied myself fluffing up his house and making it more girly. I was trying not to worry about the collapse of everything I’d worked so hard to build over the last 25 years, and especially about the well-being of my staff.

“At the end of April, we started getting some calls from clients to start casting for new commercials. But here’s the thing—suddenly actors became the talent and the location. We couldn’t have sets, since everyone was still advised to stay home, so we shot remotely in people’s houses. Actors’ partners became camera operators, and directors did their jobs via Zoom. We had to make do with what we had, and it was great to be doing something.

“Suddenly, we weren’t just casting actors—we were casting their homes, since they had to shoot it themselves on their iPhones. For one job, we put out a casting call and said, ‘Hey, we’re looking for couples for a Tim Hortons commercial.’ It was a summer campaign and they had to have a balcony in a condo. As we reviewed these folks’ audition tapes, we found that many of them were great actors, but had a crap balcony. We almost cast one couple, who were perfect for the shoot and had a great-looking balcony, until we realized their location was too noisy because it was right beside train tracks.

“And of course, we couldn’t have cast members who were outside each other’s bubbles, so we had to cast actors’ partners, roommates, and families. We included these new bubbling and location requirements in the breakdown sent out to talent agents. And let me tell you: acting families are few and far between. Agents had to start keeping a roster of who was living with whom so we could accommodate these requests. Maybe the kid was an actor, and we’d be like, ‘Hey, what’s Dad doing?’ Well, Dad might work at a bank, and he’d never delivered lines. But we’d just massage his performance, do 40 takes, and boom, we’ve got ourselves a commercial. We got lucky for that Tim Hortons job—we found a union actor with a suitable balcony, and the actor’s partner, who normally works in finance, was an absolute natural. He was such a good sport about everything, especially given that in the commercial, the partner appeared to be on a Zoom call in a formal shirt and underwear.

“Over the rest of the spring, we expanded our casting pool to people’s 10-person Covid bubbles so actors could be in close contact. My favourite line became, ‘No experience, no problem.’ One of the biggest jobs I shot this year was a campaign for Desjardins called ‘Send a Solo.’ The idea was an uplifting campaign where professional musicians would perform for their neighbours while physical distancing. So we had to find 100 musicians to create an original piece of music, perform it for neighbours on their balcony, videotape the performance, and then narrow down the submissions. It was complex, because not only did we have to find the musicians, but we had to assess their balconies, make sure the neighbours came out, and walk them through uploading the video. It ended up being a beautiful campaign, and was well worth the work.

“In one shoot for an insurance company called Belairdirect, we cast a family, but the kids were too shy, so we had to troubleshoot. The crux of the campaign was this one shot in a car, so we put in a piece of plexiglass, hired two actors who weren’t in the same bubble, and erase the plexiglass in post-production.

“All of these jobs required flexibility, and thankfully, every client I worked with was incredibly understanding and receptive. When clients would say, ‘I’m looking for parents aged 30 to 40, a boy aged three and a girl aged eight,’ I’m like, ‘What if they have three kids? What if there are two girls? How about twins? Can we be as open as possible?’

“Meanwhile the initial auditions are all happening via submitted self-tapes. My cameraperson was looking at an audition tape someone filmed in front of their shower curtain, and said ‘Man, that video looks like a Dexter kill room.’ One actor working on a self-tape wrote in to say that despite his best efforts, the only part of his home that had a neutral background—the bathroom—was so dank, dark, and spooky that it looked like a ‘snuff film room.’ Listen, people have to work within their spaces. So if you’ve got a 400-square-foot condo, you might have to use your bathroom. People do their best, but sometimes it’s like, ‘We said close-up—what are you doing 15 feet from the camera? Why would you shoot your sweat stains? Why is only your hand in focus?’ Despite all those challenges, we’ve been very successful. Since the beginning of the pandemic, I’ve cast 67 projects and have been able to rehire most of my staff.

“Most recall auditions, which are the second round before casting, are held over Zoom. It has been an adjustment—and not just for the actors. We’ve seen so many child meltdowns in the background, kids fighting, dogs barking. And the names…Zoom’s default setting for screen names is your first initial followed by your last name. My name is Shasta Lutz, so on my very first Zoom call, my name came up as ‘SLutz.’ Another time, we were waiting for an actor to sign into a virtual waiting room, and he signed on as ‘SugarDickDaddy.’ Guess he forgot to change it. We laughed it off. Listen, we’re all humans trying to figure this Zoom thing out.

“In-person casting is ideal for actors. You’ve got a professionally lit studio, and you can have face-to-face time. We’ve had four in-person recalls at the casting studio, and we’ve gone through major adjustments to keep the space safe. The entire studio is blocked off with directional arrows and designated spots for people to stand. The crew wear masks at all times. Every item gets sanitized after people touch it, and we have people touch as few things as possible—we’re even asking actors to bring their own pens to fill out forms, and using digital forms wherever we can. There’s sanitizer everywhere, and everything smells like cleaning chemicals, which is weird. We also have a Covid coordinator who takes temperature checks when people arrive, directs them where to sit, where to stand, tells them to put and keep their masks on, and so on. And the timing is really strictly scheduled. We make sure everyone knows not to come early, and we space people out so we can keep our distance. Everyone is taking it really seriously.

“If we want this $2 billion film industry to continue, we all have to do our part. This new chapter is defined by everybody playing their role and adhering to strict measures for the future of our health and this economy. We have to be mindful. So when a director whines that he’s too hot in his mask during an eight-hour recall, I just say, ‘Suck it up. We’re working.’ This is not the new normal—it’s the new abnormal.”