Casting director Nancy Bishop on Prague, her new book and how Eastern European actors are different
Nancy Bishop is an award-winning casting director who has worked on some of the largest Hollywood productions over the past 25 years. Although now living in London, she spent most of her career in Prague. She has recently written a new book titled: “Auditioning for Film and Television: A Post #MeToo Guide”, which provides tips for actors on how to navigate the casting process. I caught up with Nancy recently and began by asking how she ended up in Prague.
“I was lured to Prague back in the 1990s, because I was a huge admirer of Vaclav Havel and I was working on his plays in Chicago back then.
“In 1989, one of the petitions that was going around in the Chicago theatre community was saying ‘Get Vaclav Havel out of prison’. I signed it and then he became president! It was this crazy, glorious time when many people from the West were coming to Prague. I made some connections there and then a friend said that they need someone to direct a play in Prague and asked me if I want to come and do it. So I ended up coming to Prague as a theatre director. The 1990s were a glorious time when the wall had come down.
“Anyway, I came to Prague and ended up becoming the theatre director at a company and that was exactly the time when all of these film productions started coming to the country, because they realised that Prague was a beautiful location, that it was cheap and that they had very skilled film crews. They started shooting stuff and, because I knew the actors, they would just call me and ask if I knew any actors who speak English. And I would say: ‘Yes I do’. So that is how I got into casting. It was quite by accident.”
Is it true that English speakers could get small roles in big Hollywood productions despite not being actors?
“Yes, there were non-actors who got a chance just because they had the right accent and that still happens sometimes. You have amateurs who can play roles.
"At that time it was also harder to find Czech actors who also spoke English. Now there is a very high level of English fluency in Prague, but back then there wasn’t. It was very hard to find older people who spoke English fluently. Sometimes, the Czech accent would work, or the actors would end up getting dubbed.
"One of the first things that I worked on was this big science fiction series ‘Dune’ and the Czech accent kind of worked there, because the actors were supposed to be from other planets (laughs), so pretty much any accent would work in that scenario.
"It was also an exciting time for myself. I never would have gotten into casting otherwise. I had to learn everything about film, because I came out of theatre. I did know how to direct actors and get a performance out of them. However, I had to learn all of the film stuff just by doing it.”
Is there any actor who you are particularly proud of having casted for a role?
“The answer that immediately comes to mind is Maria Bakalova, because she really made a huge indent into the cultural, entertainment and even political scene as the daughter of [Sasha Baron Cohen’s character] Borat in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm.
“It’s an outstanding performance. She was nominated for an Oscar for it. However, on top of it being an excellent performance, she was right out of drama school, she also had that famous iconic scene with Rudy Giuliani where some people thought that it even may have helped turn the election.
“Anyway, she is the person that comes to mind. I found her in Bulgaria and interviewed her graduating class.”
Are there any differences that you have noticed between actors from Central and Eastern Europe and American actors?
“Well, I would say that if you are a jobbing actor in Los Angeles you are used to going to lots of auditions and, if you have a good agent and a good track record going, you could be going to several auditions per week. That wouldn’t necessarily be the case in Central and Eastern Europe. You might be working in the theatre for example and you might not be as well ‘oiled’ let’s say in auditioning. Those are the kinds of things that there might be difference in.
“Also, and it depends on the project of course, there can be differences in the style of casting. In America we have lots of these glossy shows, network shows such as the ones you get on ABC, where everybody has to be perfect looking. That would be less the case in Europe in general and certainly in the Eastern European countries. They are more attentive to the story there and to what people would probably actually look like in the given setting - real, grounded people rather than just perfect looking people with perfect teeth, hair and all that.”
If we move from actors to the Czech Republic itself. Why is it such an attractive location for film shoots?
“I think that it is because we have beautiful and historic locations that were unspoiled by World War II, so it is all very authentic. Furthermore, you have a lot of production companies now that really know what they are doing, because they have been doing it for a long time.
"It should also be said that the Czech Republic is not the only country in this respect. Certainly, its neighbours are doing it as well, whether it be Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, or Romania.
"The joke is that things are increasingly less filmed in Hollywood itself. If you live in Los Angeles and are shooting something, the chances are that you are going to be leaving Hollywood.”
It sounds like you made your career in Prague. What made you move to London more recently?
“Well, just because I lived in Prague for so many years. I am a Czech citizen now. I always loved Prague. However, I did feel that I had more or less done everything that I could do there and London really is the hub of acting. I would even argue that it is a hub worldwide.
"I think that the best actors are in London and it is a very vibrant place to be in if you do what I do. I go to the theatre here almost every night. It is a great place for actors and it’s also the first port of call. If American films are coming over to shoot in Europe, they are definitely going to be casting from London.
"It has been a real privilege and honour to reside here and to get to know the talent in London. While I started my career as basically a locals casting director, just casting whatever roles they needed in Prague, I am now casting all of the roles, so that is very exciting and interesting for me.”
I imagine it must have been stressful to work in the film business at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, when many films had to cease production?
“I think that the good thing about casting is that you can do it while you are not shooting. At the beginning of the pandemic everything stopped. As you remember, there were no Covid tests, we didn’t know much about it and productions just stopped. However, the auditioning process didn’t have to stop, because we had video technology. We could therefore continue to prepare and edit films. You could do post- or pre-production. The other thing about video auditioning for actors is that there is now a way to turn off the camera so that they don’t have to see themselves. I think that this was quite off-putting for some of the actors that they had to see themselves while they were auditioning.”
If we move on to your new book which has recently been published. I had an opportunity to read through it and it feels very practical. Especially the second chapter which provides 12 strategies for the actor of how to go through the casting process. Are these strategies your invention? And could you tell us a bit about them?
“Yes, I guess they are my invention. I had just been thrown into casting myself when I started, so I also had to learn, with the actors. I had to learn about on camera work, because I had come from a theatre background and so did many of the actors I was working with. There really was a dearth of training and on camera work.
"Then there were also the auditioning process. It was after I had been doing this for a while that I realised that a lot of actors, good and professional ones too, were really struggling with auditioning. What happened is that I started teaching classes on it and when I was doing this, I had to break auditioning down for the pupils. I think that’s how I came up with the strategies.”
Can you tell us a few of those strategies? What do you think are very important things that an actor has to keep in mind, especially when going into a casting?
“Some of the things that I emphasise in the book are not really mine at all. A lot of them are the basic Stanislavski steps of acting. [Konstantin] Stanislavski of course being the famous Russian director who really modernised acting. All actors refer to him today, he is so deeply embedded within our training.
"I think that sometimes when actors go into an audition they lose sight of the basics of acting, because they are thinking that their objective is to impress the casting production, whether it be the director, the casting director, or whoever they are in front of. They forget that their objective needs to become the objective of the character [they are auditioning for]. Stanislavsky talked a lot about these objectives.
"Then there are also the basic facts of the scene – who are you, where are you, who are you talking to and what do you want. Some of what I remind actors of in those 12 strategies are these basic Stanislavski steps, so those I didn’t make up. But they are important, because sometimes actors lose sight of those basic things.”
I noticed that Donald Sutherland has reviewed you book. He says that it is a terrific guide for young actors and that he read it from cover to cover. Are there any memorable stories that you experienced while working with famous Hollywood actors? Are they, for example, different to other actors in how they prepare for castings?
“Donald was so sweet to read my book. He actually did read the whole thing and he wrote that. I really appreciated that. No, of course I don’t audition these big actors they just get cast, so I wouldn’t know.
“I worked on Mission Impossible and Tom Cruise of course didn’t audition. He had the role. In fact, he owns the franchise, so he was my boss. I have worked with a lot of the big Hollywood actors, but not in that sense. I haven’t auditioned them.”
Ok, well then tell me what kind of bosses they are.
“Well, for example, Tom Cruise was a very detached boss from my experience. I didn’t interact much directly with him. However, he did have the final word on approving our choices. I did bring an actor to him and he really was super friendly and really nice to him the other actors. But it wasn’t like he was literally over my shoulder all the time.
“I am casting celebrities a lot now, but at that level you are usually dealing with their agents and not directly with them, so usually my relationship with a star is all good and set. I’ll just go to lunch and say hi to them.
“I did get to know Donald [Sutherland] a bit when he was in Prague and, like I said, it was really nice of him to take the time and read my book.”
As a final question I wanted to ask you about your own film. You are a casting director but you actually directed a film yourself is that right?
“Oh yes. Rex-patriates. It was a film about American expatriates in Prague in the 1990s and it is on YouTube if you want to see it. I am in it playing a comical version of myself. There are also some Czech stars in it, for example Karel Roden. It’s just a fun little cult classic, nothing to take very seriously. It’s not one of the great movies of the world, but it did have a following in the 1990s. It was played on Czech Television and at the Karlovy Vary [International Film Festival]. It was also on played on the Czech Airlines flight from New York to Prague. In any case, you can watch it on YouTube. It’s called ‘Rex-patriates’.
Nancy Bishop’s book is available both online on platforms such as Amazon, as well as in bookstores across Europe and the United Kingdom. In North America it is scheduled to come out in June.