In this interview, Sabrina Safran, Director of Casting at Hearst Magazines (Cosmopolitan, Elle, Esquire, etc) shares some insight into her journey to becoming Director of Casting and Talent Development, as well as some tips for aspiring models and actors in the industry.
How did you become a casting professional? What’s the backstory here?
The funny thing is, my casting career began as a complete and total accident. By the summer after I graduated from college, I was absolutely beside myself about whether I’d pursue a career in television and media in my home city of New York or if I’d choose to venture 3,000 miles away to chase my dream of being an on-camera television host in Los Angeles. After endless job applications and a few interviews that didn’t pan out, I decided as a fresh 22-year-old to take a leap of faith and move to Los Angeles in September of 2014, without having a job lined up…or so I thought.
Two days before I was set to depart on my six-day road trip across the country, I received a phone call from a casting company I truthfully had forgotten that I had even applied to with an LA address listed that I didn’t have, but that ultimately ended up working in my favor and beginning my casting career two weeks after my arrival in LA.
For the three years that followed, I would go on to work in reality television casting for the company that gave me my start (special shout out to Popular Productions: Doron Ofir Casting), as well as a couple of others (shout outs to Mac Worldwide Inc. and 495 Productions). Throughout this time, I had become a “Jane of all Trades” – sourcing, producing, and filming talent auditions, as well as editing down casting tapes for pitches. I was regularly alternating between working on shows in Southern California and traveling to cast in several major cities across the US. While being based on the West Coast, I also managed to entertain my on-camera hosting dreams for an entertainment website by conducting celebrity interviews, covering red carpet events, and writing entertainment news stories on the side.
By the Fall of 2017, I decided to move back to the East Coast – without a job lined up for the second time. However, just two and a half months after I had come back, I managed to land a full-time position at BuzzFeed where I established processes and oversaw casting talent in their New York City location for an array of editorial and branded digital projects, as well as for two major co-branded events.
My tenure at BuzzFeed lasted just over two years before having the opportunity to take on my current role as the Director of Casting and Talent Development at Hearst Magazines. At Hearst, I work closely with our video leads on both the east and west coasts to source an array of unique, original, and authentic talent for some of our most popular brands such as our Clevver brands, Seventeen, Elle, Good Housekeeping, Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Sweet (on Snapchat), Harper’s BAZAAR, Cosmopolitan, Delish, Esquire, and more, while also working closely with our internal series development team. I additionally have oversight in developing our recurring brand talent rosters further and in working alongside brand leads and strategists to cultivate series and identify prospective talent.
Which casting calls or roles were the biggest challenges for you and why?
When I was first getting my feet wet in reality TV casting, I booked a travel gig as a creative production assistant where I had to find and cast people to participate in filming game show episodes on the spot everyday for a month. While I had a BLAST and it taught me so much about how television production works, it was that much more stressful when a talent would drop or would run late as casting was happening in real time alongside filming.
The whole production staying on schedule essentially depended on your ability to source larger than life folks to participate in the game show under tight deadlines, sign the corresponding participation paperwork, have other folks who may be in the background of shots sign release forms, etc. which can be incredibly stressful for anyone in that position, yet incredibly rewarding by the time you made it to the end of each shoot day! Additionally, other larger challenges I’d refer to when answering this question would be the two times I spearheaded casts for two major events while I was at BuzzFeed. However, I’m happy to report that both events were an incredible success when all was said and done! 🙂
How do you spend your free time?
I recently moved into a new apartment with my boyfriend so a lot of my free time as of late is spent shopping with him for decor and furniture, as well as going down Pinterest rabbit holes for DIY and home inspiration.
Otherwise, I love trying new restaurants and exploring local coffee shops, cooking and experimenting with new recipes at home (in case you haven’t noticed by now, I’m a HUGE foodie), spending time with loved ones, and going to the gym whenever I can (I’m not even going to pretend like I go everyday, though I hope to get back into a more regular schedule post-holiday season). You may also catch me watching a reality show or two (anyone else just as obsessed with the 90 Day Fiancé franchise as I am?!) I also hope in the upcoming months to begin taking dance classes again for fun since that’s a hobby I used to do for many years.
If you had to choose an actor to play you in a biopic, who would you choose?
I love this question but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t have to pick my brain too hard (or the brains of my friends and family) to come to a final consensus. That said, “we’d” choose Mina El Hammani to portray me in a biopic. I’ve recently become familiar with her as an actress and in some of the interviews I’ve seen her do, she seems to be incredibly down-to-earth, genuine, and personable.
What’s your most exciting project right now?
I’m currently casting a new host for Hearst’s popular food brand Delish, which has been a blast – not just as a casting director, but as a foodie as well!
What’s the most memorable audition that you’ve been a part of?
This is such a tough one to answer! I feel like I’ve seen and heard everything in terms of auditions. While it’s hard for me to narrow down one specific example, I’ll generally answer with any auditions for dating shows I’ve conducted or have been a part of while I worked in reality television to be some of the most memorable!
What are the typical mistakes actors make in the casting process?
Since most of my experience is within unscripted/reality casting, from that perspective I’d share the following tips based on mistakes I’ve seen talent make:
– Be intentional about what it is you’re applying for. We want to cast folks who genuinely fit the mold or criteria of what it is we’re looking for for these kinds of projects.
– If you’ve moved into the casting process for a project, please be sure to follow the instructions we give you every step of the way and as hard as it can be, please be patient with the process.
– If doing a virtual audition, please make sure you test your WiFi connection, camera, volume, etc. ahead of time and that you’re in a place that’s quiet and well-lit before getting on a call with us. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had these kinds of auditions fall through because talent wasn’t prepared.
How can they improve their chances of getting cast?
When it comes to unscripted/reality casting, own whoever it is that you truly are. Think about who you are in your group of friends – what are your most dominant personality traits? How would you define yourself? We are looking for people who are interesting to watch, are engaging, and don’t care about how other people view their personalities, whether it be for better or for worse. Sharing your authentic self with us and being an open book will make you memorable.
What should aspiring talent know before they apply to your casting calls?
Don’t try to be someone you’re not throughout the casting process or someone you think we want to see. It’s transparent to us whenever someone tries too hard. Also, being able to roll with the punches is essential when going through the casting process. Sometimes timelines get pushed, additional materials will be requested, etc. Take the process one day at a time and be flexible.
What would you suggest to other people who are seeking talent? What are the typical mistakes people make when searching for talent?
For folks who don’t normally cast for a living or who don’t have to do it often, I would say that keeping an open mind is key, not just when it comes to the kinds of talent you consider, but with the process of how to execute each individual casting. Posting a casting call and expecting an influx of talent submissions to come into your inbox isn’t always going to happen and it isn’t always the “end all be all” in finding those stand-out personalities who can really define the success of a project.
For projects in the unscripted/reality realm, thinking outside of the box is absolutely necessary with sourcing – whether it be going down rabbit holes looking for folks through different social media platforms, reaching out to specific online groups/blogs, word of mouth, etc. I would also say that someone casting a project should not be afraid to share feedback with talent as they move through the casting process. Whether it be providing additional direction to talent in their auditions or requesting additional materials that you feel could help them stand out, don’t be afraid to let them know.
What do you think any casting professional needs in order to succeed?
Don’t be difficult to work with. The world of production is actually very small and casting, even smaller. Be kind, be collaborative, and put your best foot forward with the quality of work you execute.
How do you notice the difference between aspiring talent who can “make it” and those who can’t?
This to me is project dependent. While a casting director can get an initial sense of whether or not a person is right for a particular project, sometimes it’s truly through the audition process that we’re able to get a better sense of who’ll “make it” into the cast and who won’t.