Welcome back to our interview series featuring some of the fantastic women in the Vancouver, BC film and TV industry. I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Candice Elzinga (Casting Director) and Martina Smyth (Associate Casting Director) in their downtown Vancouver office.
These women are veterans of the business with an impressive array of experience. From overseeing Canadian casting for Amazon’s breakout hit “The Man in the High Castle” to CW’s “The 100”, Hallmark’s “When Calls the Heart”, and now the highly anticipated “BatWoman” for the CW, Candice and Martina are women who display not only consummate professionalism, but a true passion for the entertainment industry and a joy in their careers. May I present to you, Candice Elzinga and Martina Smyth!
Thank you so much for sitting down with me today! Let’s start at the beginning. Where are you both originally from?
Martina: I was born in Saskatchewan and grew up in Alberta and BC and graduated high school in Tsawwassen. I did my BA at UBC majoring in Theatre and English Lit, and then did a post-grad year at Drama Studio in London, UK.
Candice: I was born in Lethbridge, Alberta and I was there until I went to UofA where I did my BFA in acting.
How did you transition from acting into casting and why did you make that change?
Candice: My first experience in casting was working as an assistant right out of theater school.
At the time, the drama secretary had a friend who was a casting director and was looking for someone to help in their office. I knew the casting director and she had actually cast me in a few things and I thought well, this would be a really cool thing to do until I start my play.
After that job finished, I went into mostly doing theater as an actor, and I had a thought. I was in Calgary and the casting director was in Edmonton, and I had access to a theater during the day and I said why don’t I set up “go-sees” so that this casting director could meet Calgary people because there weren’t really agents back then. I was a member of equity and ACTRA, and I had both the lists, so I just thought it would be good for her to know the Calgary acting community.
Then “Legends of the Fall” came into Calgary and they needed someone to assist in casting. Stuart Aikins was doing the Canadian Casting, Bette Chadwick was doing the Alberta casting, and no one lived in Calgary, so I was sort of the person that could call the actor directly. I was going off the list of who Stuart or Bette wanted to see and I was calling them to give them a time and saying, “you can pick up your sides at the theater or you can go to my apartment and I’ll leave them in a Safeway bag on the door”. I bought myself a fax machine, that was my big purchase that year.
Wow, so much has changed! So how did you come out to Vancouver?
Candice: I came out here in ’95 to help Bette as her associate and work on “The Outer Limits”. One show lead to another which lead to another. Vancouver was booming.
And how did you two end up working together?
Martina: Originally I wanted to be an actor. When I returned to Vancouver after doing some theater in London, I realized this was a film town and I was a fish out of water, and I needed to figure out how someone gets into the film industry. So, I did a bit of research and I figured that if I got myself a job as a casting assistant, I would find out how people get the acting jobs and who gets the parts and why. That was a burning question.
I wrote to Carol Kelsay and she set me up with Stuart Aikins and I worked as an assistant with him part- time for a while. I soon realized there is so much more that goes on than I even knew about. My interest in casting grew and I approached Bette Chadwick to see if she was looking for anyone full-time, and Candice was working with her at the time. Bette and Candice probably had one of the busier Casting offices doing three series, so I was delighted to dig in and start working with them, and never really looked back.
What was the casting process like back then?
Candice: Submissions would come through and we didn’t even have our own fax machine because we were in a trailer at the Bridge, and so when it was really rainy in the winter someone’s job a couple of times a day was to run across the lot, go up the stairs, passed the executive wing, pick up the faxes that had come in of submission and we’d sort them. All the agents had books they would regularly come to our casting office to maintain, and then you would look at the names that were suggested and you would cross reference with the agent books and you would design your sessions. Everything was very hands on.
Martina: Yes, very hands on and I think the phone became a part of my body, just on the phone constantly.
Candice: We built really strong relationships with agents back then because we’d have 5 lines going and you would have people on hold and agents would be pushing their clients and one would be responding about negotiating a deal. Now we are so accustomed to doing deals in writing and email, and everything was verbal and taking notes and moving sessions around was all done by calling people one by one by one. You were always on the phone.
So, does it feel like less of a personal process now?
Candice: It does for me in terms of agents, I’m still someone who when I want an answer, I pick up the phone. But I spend so much of my time in the room with actors because I feel like I really want to meet and get to know the person, so I know who will be going to set. Especially when you are working on shows where the producer and director, due to shorter prep times, are getting casting done by tape, you don’t necessarily have in-person sessions with a producer or director because they are off trying to find locations and I want to get a feel for the person, see them in different roles, see how the respond to direction. Even if an actor comes in and I really love their take on a character, if I haven’t met them before I might just want to throw a curve ball of a direction just to see how the can modulate and change, and are they open to changing because that’s so important to be malleable and open. So, I don’t have as much time with the agents, but I still spend a lot of time in the room.
I’m curious, with so much of the production that happens in Canada being from US productions and casting done on tape, what is the process like for say, a pilot? There is some buzz around town that Canadian actors have less of a chance to book a series regular because they are Canadian talent and not based out of Los Angeles. Is that something that you find to be true?
Martina: For a pilot, honestly, they really are looking everywhere.
Candice: Production is really looking for the person who will embody that character.
Martina: Yes, and often they want to find someone new and fresh for pilots.
Candice: And once the show goes to series and it shoots in Vancouver, we want to look for every role here. And that’s very important that we make sure we are presenting the best Canadian options for the role. It will ultimately be the director, producer, studio, and network that will approve the final cast, but it’s wonderful if it’s say, a large recurring role that’s really prominent and we find someone who wasn’t necessarily on their radar. Maybe it’s an up and coming Canadian actor coming out of theater school or film school and just starting to book, and things are taking off for this person.
Martina: It’s really exciting when that happens!
Candice: And it’s a good feeling.
Martina: Our job is to find the very best people for the roles, and I think that Candice and I are both very visual when we read a script. So, it might be a US show and ultimately cast with a US star, but we are always thinking about who we see in that role from the pool of Canadian talent.
Have #MeToo and the diversity initiatives that are really prominent now changed the way you look at casting?
Candice: I like to think that we have been very inclusive.
Martina: I think that we are, and have always tended to be, but I do think there is a larger appetite to see more of that from producers and shows.
Candice: I think what’s wonderful about Vancouver especially now, is we are such a multicultural city. Years ago, we had fewer options for diversity just because the acting pool isn’t as large as it is now, but now with all of the training schools that are here and people moving here because they know there is a lot of opportunity, every time we put out a breakdown I’m amazed because there are more new faces.
Martina: Also, it does feel like we are seeing more female directors in episodic television now. A lot more then even five years ago.
Candice: Yes. It’s great. We are in very exciting times with the streaming services and amazing stories that are being told with so many platforms now. It’s a very exciting time to be in storytelling and in casting. It allows us to paint and populate a lot of different worlds.
For someone who is interested in going into casting, is becoming an assistant the best route?
Candice: Working as an assistant is definitely a great way to see a day in the life.
Martina: I would say it’s the only way because there is no school for casting and you can really only learn it by being in it and because a lot people don’t know what it is and how much is involved. It’s not just deciding who to bring in for auditions and auditioning them, but deal-making and contracts and crawling on the floor with toddlers sometimes all in the same hour! And reviewing self-tapes and deciding which ones go forward.
Candice: Never a dull moment. Every day is different. And you never know what it’s going to be.
Martina: Sometimes a curve ball happens, like production says, “we just got a new schedule, can you check everyone’s availability because they have to work tomorrow?”
Candice: Or the network has thrown out the script you are currently casting, and those roles will not exist, and it’s happened where we find out in the middle of a session. Especially in episodic television. Stories evolve, and plots can change.
I think that’s a big thing that many actors don’t understand, the behind the scenes process of what a production is all about. While actors are of course an incredibly important piece of the puzzle, we are a small part of a larger machine. So, when something like that happens and we might see the episode and the role we auditioned for is gone, it’s not because we sucked in the audition or whatever “actor mind crap” we all go through. There is a whole other world of things that are happening.
Candice: Yes, that’s true. And we really want actors to succeed in the room and always get the best performance from the actor. When we set them up for an audition it’s because we saw something in their picture or resume or something that their agent said, and we want them to succeed.
Martina: Also, the more people we know, the better we are at our job. And we would love our world to be as big as it can be. It makes us better casting directors.
I have to say that after spending so many years in LA, I feel very lucky to have the opportunities that we as Vancouver actors have up here.
Martina: Vancouver actors are really lucky to be in such a dynamic atmosphere and it’s still a relatively small pool.
Candice: There are some wonderful, wonderful opportunities for actors in Vancouver. We don’t know how long it’s going to last. It’s all tied to so many things like the dollar, but if you are an actor with a dream of wanting to work in the film industry, get some training under your belt because training is really important.
Now on a personal level, do you have any specific goals?
Candice: I think the reality is that I really do love my job, and I love what I do, and I think I’m always on a search for balance so that I can enjoy things. When it gets intense, for example if you are working on a show with a really difficult search and it doesn’t feel like you are ever going to find “the one”, I just want to be able to balance the demands of the industry which moves very quickly, with just making sure that I can keep balance in my personal life and fill my vessel. So, balance is my goal and what I’m striving for.
On that note, a big part of what Ms. In The Biz is about is living a “purpose-filled, passionate life” and a key to that is in fact balance, since this business can be crazy-making. Is there anything in particular that you do to help with that that might be outside of the industry that you do to fill up the spiritual well?
Martina: For me it has to be weekends walking my dog out on the trails. It’s the antithesis of what’s going on in here, so that fills my well. And cooking. I love cooking and lately I’m into vegan Indian. It’s my new thing.
Candice: For me, I garden, and I find that extraordinarily therapeutic. Planting, weeding, seeing things grow. I just think that nature is beautiful. That is one of my therapeutic activities.