After originally being drawn to the world of theater, finding herself working in the television industry was a bit of a surprise for Susan Forrest. While being a theater director was always her dream and what she went to school for, it was a meeting she had while working as a waitress that led her to into the world of casting. Forrest quickly found her niche there and founded her own casting company, Forrest & Forrest, with her sister Sharon. She has since had a hand in casting so many of the TV series we know and love such as Mary Kills People, Saving Hope, Rookie Blue, Heartland, X Company and Orphan Black, as well as new series Burden of Truth and The Detail.
Forrest recently joined The TV Junkies as part of our Women Behind Canadian TVseries to discuss some of the hardest parts she’s had to cast, as well as the role casting directors play when it comes to on screen diversity. She shares the biggest challenges she faces, especially because of the differences that exist between the Canadian TV industry and that of other countries around the world. Finally, Forrest also offers up advice to actors about what she is looking for when casting for series.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The TV Junkies: How did you get into this business and into casting specifically? Did you always know you wanted to work in television?
Susan Forrest: Since high school, I wanted to work as a director in the theatre. I graduated from university with a drama degree, specializing in directing. I worked for a few small theatre companies but for the most part, found myself assistant stage managing. After traveling abroad, I was waitressing at a restaurant near the Old Fire Hall, where I met a woman who I was serving, who suggested I apply for a job at Second City. During my interview, I was told by the woman who ran the Old Fire Hall that her friend and the SCTV casting director needed an assistant.
Later that day, I landed the job at Pamela Roberts Casting and was introduced to the world of casting. I did not even own a television. I had no idea what the job was, but it sounded like fun. It was a good fit though, as I knew the Toronto theatre scene well and it was a small acting community in the early 80s. I started going to the theatre 2-3 times a week. My education into the casting world was fast and furious.
Pamela closed her casting company a year later, so I contacted John Brunton to inquire about work in development. He asked me to cast for three HBO dramas. I had only been an assistant up until that point, but he gave me the job. He let me rent a room in his office for fifty dollars a month to start my casting company. That was 36 years ago. Oh and yes, I eventually I got a television.
TTVJ: How long did you work until you decided to go out on your own and form your own agency? What was that process like and was there any extra challenge since you were a woman?
SF: Most casting directors from the 80s and 90s came from the CBC, but we have only ever worked for ourselves as freelancers. Casting has always been dominated by women so there is no obstacle being female. I went to L.A. when I was 25 because producers in Toronto thought I looked too young to be taken seriously. Americans loved that I was young and before I knew it, I was on the ABC, NBC, MGM, Showtime and CBS list of approved casting directors in Canada. Canada became Hollywood North and I worked nonstop. My sister Sharon started working as my assistant and six years later she became my partner.
TTVJ: With diversity being such a huge topic of discussion, and there being such a demand for improvement on screen, what role does the casting director play in regards to diversity?
SF: All casting directors need to work very hard to audition and learn about all diverse actors in the industry. Even non-traditional routes need to be explored — dance, singing, stand up — as the demand is huge, and the pool is not yet large enough or experienced enough to meet the demand. We need to open our doors and give diverse actors as many opportunities as possible. Diverse casting is critical and must be representative of the country’s demographic. There is huge pressure on casting 50 per cent of all roles as diverse.
TTVJ: What was the hardest part you have had to cast?
SF: The lead on Orphan Black. It required a skill and talent that was so unique. One actor to play Sarah/Alison/Cosima/Helena/Rachel. Tatiana [Maslany] exceeded all of our expectations. The female lead in X Company was also a challenge. Aurora had to be smart, beautiful, strong, fluent in French and German, but speak English without a trace of an accent. Evelyne Brochu was a gift.
TTVJ: What are some of your biggest challenges in casting?
SF: Broadcasters want their leads to have profile. If we are working with a limited budget, and we need the actor to be Canadian, there is a small talent pool to choose from. We are competing with U.S. shows which pay big dollars, and offer SAG contracts that are much more lucrative than ACTRA contracts, as the actors can make residuals if the show is successful. Thankfully, we work on shows with great female characters so actors are open to signing ACTRA contracts due to the material.
Most of our successful actors live in L.A., so doing a series in Toronto means a major upheaval in their life, which can also limit who I can attract to the show. Broadcasters often want a seven year option on an actor. That is a big commitment when you are mid-20s to mid 30s. It is the prime of young leading actor’s careers. Unlike the U.K., our broadcasters are restrictive in what the actor can do in their career. We ask for first priority over an actor’s time. We need the money, a strong character and script to backup that kind of request in order to attract a top player.
TTVJ: You’ve cast some of the biggest Canadian shows out there. Who were some of your most rewarding discoveries in recent memory?
SF: We don’t discover actors. Often when you see an actor in a breakout show, they have worked very hard to get there, and they were in our casting room many times before they landed a breakout role. Over the last 37 years, I have cast many actors that have gone on to do brilliant work, but I would never have claimed to have discovered them. I think agents should get that credit.
TTVJ: Once a show is cast as far as leads and supporting players, what role then do you serve week to week in finding guest stars, etc? How important is the relationship that you have to form with showrunners and have you noticed any difference working on shows led by women?
SF: Once the leads have been cast, we hold sessions for the guest star roles and day players every week. Often, if we have a strong creative relationship with the showrunner and producer, we can offer the role without having the actor audition. This is critical to me as a casting director and very liberating in my process. More often than not, we have to get approval from the broadcaster before we cast a role. We then negotiate the actor’s contract.
I love working with women. There is less ego involved, especially when casting a show with strong female characters. Women look for different qualities in a female role. That said, I have worked with wonderful male showrunners, but I think the men I love working with the best are very in touch with female side!
TTVJ: Is there something you wish actors knew when coming into the audition room?
SF: Actors should know that we want them to get the role. They are in our room because we believe in them. They should never try to give us want they think we want. They need to be honest and unique in their choices as true as they are to themselves. It takes a brave actor to get there.
TTVJ: Do you have any advice for others looking to break into casting?
SF: Getting into casting is tricky as there is no direct route. Go to the theatre, watch Canadian television. Audit acting classes. Have strong computer skills. Work in the industry, whether it be as a receptionist at a talent agency or an a TV show as a PA. We hire from word of mouth.
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Burden of Truth airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET on CBC. Read more from our Women Behind Canadian TV serieshere.
Editor in Chief Bridget Liszewski comes from a long line of TV Junkies who fostered her love of television from a very young age. She's channeled that passion into covering both US and Canadian television shows, and is thankful everyday for the invention of the DVR. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, she loves college football and is a fan of sports in general. Bridget is always up for talking TV and you can follow her on twitter at @BridgetOnTV.