Welcome to the Spotlight. In this weekly series, we sit down with prominent casting directors, producers and talent to discuss the entertainment industry, as well as provide some insight and advice for actors in their quest for the limelight. In this interview, Elle Jones, Casting Director and CEO of Elle Jones Casting, tells us about her journey to becoming a successful Casting Director, and shares some crucial insight into working with talent with special needs and disabilities.
How did you become a casting professional? What’s the backstory here?
It is a nonlinear story for sure. I worked at Walt Disney World for ten years in Casting and Human Resources. I took a pause from the corporate world when we moved to New England, and both my children got involved in acting, and I became their full-time manager. They had worked in Florida, and then things really ramped up, and they were mainly doing background work on Happy Madison projects, a Showtime series, an ESPN series, and then things took off when my son got a speaking role on Moonrise Kingdom. Since he was now SAG eligible, I learned a lot quickly and loved the work.
Which casting calls or roles were the biggest challenges for you and why?
A very recent Casting Call required an actor with a disability who could take on the role’s physical demands, so had to be someone athletic that could act and have a specific disability. We found the actor thanks to the networking capabilities of my team as they have a lot of connections in the disabled theater, tv, and film community.
Three days before filming, the actor had to back out due to a family medical emergency, so we had to go back to square one and do it very quickly. We always have a backup plan. It is how we operate, and I believe my work in HR when a job offer goes out and is then declined by the potential hire has taught me to always have a Plan B.
How do you spend your free time?
I love to cook for my family and friends. I have an Italian cooking blog with my sisters that we started after losing our mom, she was known for cooking and dinner parties. Reading (right now a former colleague’s book – Make It, Don’t Fake It by Sabrina Horn), Trips to Italy, Walks in Central Park, going to MoMA, Yoga, Pilates, shopping vintage or for a rare find – put a lot of time into it. And – I’m a Lakers, Yankees, Patriots, Bruins fan, so I watch or attend games as much as I can, and I love exotic cars, so that is a hobby I’m really into and belong to a car club in Manhattan.
If you had to choose an actor to play you in a biopic, who would you choose?
Vera Farmiga would be my choice. She is an actor who gives a brilliant performance every time and seems to heighten the performance of anyone working with her. You can tell she is an ensemble actor–giving and someone who can read the room when she enters it. She seems to be a good listener and observer, and she is my favorite actor by far.
What’s your most exciting project right now?
A project in Long Island that is being shot outside entirely.
The beautiful scenery in the autumn on the water makes it very idyllic. It is a short with a Director from LA who is detail-focused and a pleasure to work with making this a great project where we also have our Director of Disability Services on set, so I believe this production is taking every step to accommodate, make things accessible and do it the right way.
What’s the most memorable audition that you’ve been a part of?
Hmmm – It was an on-the-spot audition that I had to do quite by accident.
I’m not one to enjoy being in front of the camera, and I was more than happy to be in holding that day, drinking coffee and chilling. Both my kids were background on Grown Ups, so I was in holding when the Key PA abruptly interrupted me and asked me if I could clap and cheer “like a mom at a basketball game” – apparently someone did not show up to do that, and they needed a mom type. I clapped well, I guess, and the next thing I know, I’m in hair and make-up, getting a beehive do and being brought to set. If you watch the opening scene, you can see me for a good part of it in the background cheering and clapping in this bright orange dress.
I went on to have background roles in almost all Happy Madison films that were done in the Boston area, including Grown Ups 2, in which, at that point, my daughter was a PA on set. I’ve made some great friendships from being background talent, so I know the camaraderie and fun that goes into it.
What are the typical mistakes actors make in the casting process?
Not being responsive is the biggest mistake, and not following the instructions before they get to set. If you have to bring your own wardrobe and it is asked that you bring specific colors, then bring those colors. We spend a lot of time going over notes so that the actors look their best when they are on set. We want them to work, so we prepare with them and make ourselves available for questions. The team has all been acting, so they are excellent guides, especially for beginning actors.
How can they improve their chances of getting cast?
For young actors, parents or guardians do not try to direct them when they are on camera. You’re only getting in the way. Trust your young actor that they can do this and, if they cannot, use it as a learning experience for the next time. The best way to get cast is such basic information, but it is often overlooked – be polite, know your place, listen to directions carefully and show up early so you are ready when you are supposed to be ready.
What should aspiring talent know before they apply to your casting calls?
They should respond with the information we request from them.
For instance – if we ask for an attached headshot and resume, please do not send your IMDb link or put your credits in the body of the emails. At this point – we know you cannot follow instructions and will pass on your submission. And -we will not consider you as we cannot pass your information along quickly to the client in the manner it was requested.
What would you suggest to other people who are seeking talent? What are the typical mistakes people make when searching for talent?
The main mistake is wanting non-union talent but expecting to see a lot of credits – it is not always the case, but I do tell clients this at the onset when they are looking for non-union so I very often suggest self-tapes or reels if available so they can see the acting skills and there are no last-minute surprises. This gives us the opportunity to see the actor too. I’ve been a producer, so I feel comfortable giving the client feedback. Also – we ask clients for as many details as possible to find the best talent.
What are the differences in searching for talent with disabilities and special needs?
Good question and thanks for asking it – a disability is physical or mental so have specific criteria when Casting for authenticity for a role. Special Needs may not be known to us in some cases unless the actor brings this to our attention. We work with each actor to come up with a roadmap and accommodations plan. We then work with the production on the accommodations and have a team member or two on set, ensuring seamless communications in place. Because three of the team members fall into the Disability or Special Needs category and because there are credentials that they bring to the table, they really understand the requirements and expectations for each project to get the best experience for all involved in it.
How do you notice the difference between aspiring talent who can “make it” and those who can’t?
It is so much more than having talent or opportunity – it is behaviors that set someone apart – it is undoubtedly resilience and enthusiasm along with punctuality, professionalism, tenacity even if you are a beginner – this is your job, so take it seriously and treat everyone on set with respect. Being receptive to feedback is another indicator that someone will make it.