The Casting Couch: Spotlight Interview with Risa Bramon Garcia

Risa Bramon Garcia
Risa Bramon Garcia – photo by Robert Merrill

You want to know all the gory details, don’t you?  Easy tiger, it’s not what you think it is.

I have a few friends in Casting and have witnessed the grueling hours they put in and the tremendous work the job entails.  After watching the invaluable documentary “Casting By”, my awareness to the taxing and thankless job that is casting was brought to the forefront and my admiration for Casting Directors snowballed.  Casting Directors are often underestimated and overlooked – a tragic reality evident in the fact that casting is the only main card to NOT get an Oscar nomination, even though it’s one of the single most important elements to filmmaking.

“More than 90% of directing a picture is the casting.” -Martin Scorsese (from the HBO Documentary “Casting By” by Tom Donahue)

The HBO documentary follows the journey of pioneer Casting Director Marion Dougherty, an extraordinary woman who helped carve out the careers of some of the most legendary actors; James Dean, Al Pacino, Danny Glover, and Jeff Bridges to name a few.  She was the ultimate risk taker and chose to believe in actors even when they didn’t believe in themselves.  This woman broke down barriers, trailblazing for other exceptional women in casting like Risa Bramon Garcia.

I found Risa on reading one of her many articles.  Risa has been in the business for over 30 years and her resume includes more than 65 feature films, some of which are my all-time favorites.  She’s a woman of many hats and not only casts but directs, writes, produces, coaches, and teaches.  Risa uses her knowledge, expertise, and experience to encourage and mentor actors; her contributions to are always bright, astute, and offer vital information for actors on how to thrive in the industry.  What really sets Risa apart from the rest is her unmistakable love for actors:

“I am committed to helping actors find your voice, your courage, your conviction, with ease and authenticity.  And to reconnect with the inspiration that led you to do what you do, what I consider to be the most courageous work there is…engaging as a genuine artist.  Doing it for it’s own sake, because artistry isn’t about getting a job, it’s about the joy you experience in bringing your unique music to the story.”

Here is a casting giant writing honest, all-important articles, shelling out priceless counsel…for free.  I had to know who this woman was, so I took a leap of faith and reached out to her.

I was lucky enough to get to know Risa on her casting couch.  What?  You said it wasn’t what I thought…?  She sat down with me, on a couch, in her office.  I had to get your attention somehow.

Can you talk about your journey from The Ensemble Studio Theater (in NY) to casting here in LA?

RBG:  The journey continues to happen.  I started in NY wanting to direct plays, and still am a Director first and foremost.  EST became my artistic home and everything I do now comes from my origins at that Theater – the people I met /relationships I made, and the work that I did there.  I was waiting tables and producing and directing at EST but after a while Billy Hopkins (who was my intern) and I realized we could potentially make money Casting, and better yet, maybe there was a way to do this and not wait tables.  We were lucky enough to get ‘Desperately Seeking Susan’ as our first job.  We were recommended and it was the right fit for us…but we would have really done just about anything I think at that point…except for porn.  That movie really taught us that we had a real skill for this and this was something we could do.  I will say that I wrestle with being labeled a ‘Casting Director’.  Casting is not something that defines me, I’ve always done a lot of different things, and it has remained something that I do to stay in the business and make a living; it’s not that I don’t like it and don’t do it well, but my initial and deepest commitment and passion is and will always be Directing, and that has remained the through line for which I approach everything.

In the HBO Documentary ‘Casting By’ Marion Dougherty said she “casts from the gut”, how do you cast?

RGB:  That way.  Everything I do is on instinct.  I believe that’s what it means to be an artist, and I do believe that when Casting Directors are at their best, they are artists, and any artist works from a gut level.  Yes you need to have the skills, training, and craft, but you need to always be working from your gut, and I think the best people in any profession are doing just that.  When I know it and I feel it, it’s right.

What do you think is the most important thing for a Casting Director?

RGB:  I think there are a number of things: I think you have to love actors and you have to understand actors, and when casting directors love and understand actors, it makes all the difference.

Are there any big No No’s when it comes to reaching out to you?

RGB:  I think assuming a relationship with me; I realize that I am accessible but assuming a relationship when there isn’t one is hard.  If we’re Facebook friends that doesn’t mean that I have to come to your show, or that I can look at your reel, or refer you to an agent, or bring you in on a casting…I don’t think people understand that I just can’t, and it’s difficult when people expect that from you.  When actual relationships are developed (through the work) then I can advocate for you.

What would your advice be to struggling actors on how to stay positive and navigate through the business?

RBG:  The most important thing is to love the work for its own sake and to find ways to do it; make your own work and constantly be in the work.  I also think it’s crucial to be in class.  I see what happens to actors when they’re not in the constant practice of it; there’s this myth, especially in this town that it’s just about getting the job and when you get the job everything will be fine, but what about when that job ends?  Actors are like athletes and you can’t expect to run a marathon and not DO the work.  You’re in a town that I like to call the Olympics of Acting and you have to be at your absolute best to win that gold, silver, or bronze medal.  The people that are fully committed, love the process of it, and who are doing the work without making excuses, are the people who are going to do better than the people who expect for it to happen magically.  You need to have all the elements in place which means having a terrific headshot that looks like you, having a reel (and if you don’t have good material, you should shoot it), it would be great if you had a wonderful agent who believed in you and submitted you, but if you’re depending only on those things, you’re depending on the externals.  You need to find a way to drive your own career, and work from the inside out, in a real and consistent way, because no one is going to do it for you.  Once you do that, everything changes and the business comes back around and finds you, I’ve seen it happen over and over again…it doesn’t mean it happens right away, but it will happen, and when it does it won’t be because of luck, it will be because you made your own luck.  Stay at it long enough and you’ll be one of the last ones standing.

For all things Risa: