A difficult task.
Not that actors are generally an unhappy bunch, but they do tend to be a bit on the sensitive side.
Unlike writers, who of course are massively robust and don’t crave attention or validation in any way, shape or form.
The thing I’ve learnt recently may be blindingly obvious to everyone else, but it’s something that’s only just been pointed out to me: when you first introduce a character and describe them physically, don’t be insulting.
Whereas it may be accurate and fitting to describe BOB (67) as short, fat and ugly; you’ve then got to hire someone to fill that role. Okay, so once again the rules are probably different for a multi-million pound feature; but here in the shallow end, where the money’s tight and you can’t afford huge fees, you have to be a bit more sensitive.
The last few films I’ve worked on have had a provisional cast in place before the script’s written, so I’ve known who will probably be playing what. What I’ve done in these circumstances is to find out the actor’s official age from IMDb (which can differ from their real age, sometimes by up to ten years) and knock a few years off.
The number of years deducted is on a sliding scale, if someone’s in their early twenties, then it’s one or two years; if they’re in their sixties then I’d deduct ten or more. It’s a simple thing to do, everyone likes to think they look younger than they are. Of course, for the smaller parts or if the actors haven’t been cast, then you can be a bit more honest.
After that it’s a question of finding a brief description. I tend to find two or three words which describe the character, rather than comment on physical features. Occasionally it’s important to note that someone’s beautiful or handsome or whatever; but I find it easier to say they’re ‘lively and quick-witted’ and let the reader fill in the details.
I think I’ve always described the main characters by personality rather than physical attributes, since in the movies nearly all women are beautiful and all men handsome; but I’ve been a bit lax with supporting characters – roles which can sometimes be even harder to fill.
I recently caught myself describing a character as chubby and balding – which may be accurate for the kind of look I wanted, but it’s not conducive to attracting a name to a low budget film.
On a final note, I’ve also learnt (ages ago, but I keep forgetting) to name all the characters. Even struggling beginners want to put the role on their CV and MAX sounds a lot better than GUARD #1.
In a low-budget world where money is not massaging people’s egos, it’s nicer for them to think they’re playing a proper role, even if it’s only one line. MAX is a small, but vital role; GUARD#1 is just a glorified extra.
There is a difference.
All this may sound pointless and unnecessary, and to a certain extent it is; but it doesn’t hurt. Anything which makes anyone else’s job easier (agent, producer, casting agent) without creating much extra work for you has got to be worth doing. It really doesn’t hurt to be nice in this world and keeping actors happy can only help the finished production.
So go on, spread the love.