Industry Pro: Director & Casting Director Risa Bramon Garcia
Multi-hyphenate Risa Bramon Garcia is perhaps best known as a casting director whose first film credit was for DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN and who went on to do WALL STREET, SOMETHING WILD, FATAL ATTRACTION, BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY, JFK, TRUE ROMANCE, JOY LUCK CLUB, FLIRTING WITH DISASTER, and NATURAL BORN KILLERS, among others. She is also a seasoned stage and screen director, a writer and producer, and a 2012 Backstage Reader’s Choice acting coach, audition technique teacher, and on-camera teacher. This fall, she’ll be launching a Studio for actors, writers, directors and other entertainment pros (more on that in a couple of months). Read on to find out how this ultra-creative professional has managed to excel in so many areas…
Current project or projects: I recently directed a movie called THE CON ARTIST in Toronto and cast a pilot, “Rewind,” for Syfy this spring. I also teach classes in auditioning and acting, and coach actors and directors privately. I’m casting a series starting later this fall.
Hometown: Montreal, Quebec, Canada
College & Degree: I have a Bachelor of Arts Honors in Theatre from York University in Toronto.
Did you have an internship while you were in school? In my final year I created my own independent studies program for credit that consisted of unpaid work at several theatres in Toronto
What was it that made you want to be a director? It goes way back to childhood when I directed the little plays that we all do in our basements. It seemed like the role that I always took on. Then, in high school, when a teacher who was supposed to direct the play backed out, I went to the principal and convinced him that I, along with some friends, could do it. It was ultimately a big success. That experience has a profound effect on me and I felt I’d found my tribe and my calling.
How did you get into the New York theatre scene? Through an American actor I worked with in Toronto (who insisted I head to NY if I wanted to really be in the theatre), I lived in a house in Weehawken, NJ, that also housed a Broadway musical director. He introduced me to the artistic director of the Ensemble Studio Theatre (E.S.T.). That began my career in the theatre. E.S.T. became my artistic home and my training ground. I made $75 a week as an assistant, and waited tables around town to support my theatre habit. For several years, I worked at then well-known music club, The Bottom Line downtown where the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed, The Ramones, Muddy Waters, and Devo performed.
How did you get into casting? While I was assisting E.S.T.’s artistic director, Curt Dempster, our intern, Billy Hopkins, and I started casting all the plays. A number of our more established colleagues saw the work and love what we were doing. Recognizing our knowledge of up-and-coming talent and our taste, producers, directors, and casting directors starting asking for our thoughts on their projects. When DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN came up, other casting directors turned the job down and recommended Billy and me to be the casting directors. (The money was pretty low but we were thrilled! And it was more money than we’d been making so…)
That was our first casting job and it kind of exploded after that. For starters, Vincent Canby mentioned us in the review of the movie, which was unheard of. We continued to work on both plays and movies, producing and directing theatre and casting films. We loved doing both, and one fed the other both financially and artistically. It was a perfect symbiotic relationship. Into the mid 80s, we got involved with Oliver Stone, and did WALL STREET first with him and several movies after that. That brought us to Los Angeles more often. We would come out for maybe three or four days to cast a movie and then we would run back to NY pretty quickly. Those were the days before video auditions, before the technology took over the process, so we had to be here in person.
There also came a point in my career where I had to choose between casting a movie and directing a play at one regional theatre or another. I started to turn the plays down. I don’t know that I would do it again, but movie casting had become very seductive; I was starting to think of myself as a potential film director, which was foreign to me because I was such a hard‑core theatre person. I’d had the privilege of working with unbelievable theatre talent. E.S.T. was a developmental theatre, so there were hundreds of plays being worked on simultaneously, and I was involved in all of it. I didn’t know then that it wasn’t usual to be working side-by-side with David Mamet, Horton Foote, Shel Silverstein, and Romulus Linney, and my generation of writers – John Shanley, Richard Greenberg, Chris Durang, Wendy Wasserstein and so on. I was helping them shape and craft their new plays; that was part of my work as a director and producer. It was not only learning how to tell a story and work with actors and stage a play; it was also developing the work, bringing a play from a very early stage to something that became a classic in some instances. So, that was pretty extraordinary. And it taught me everything.
When did you relocate to Los Angeles? I had worked at Lorimar TV for a while and met Tom Werner through my boss. Tom called me to say that he was doing a TV pilot, a blue collar family show with this comedian, Roseanne Barr, and he wondered if I knew anybody who could play her husband. I told him to check out John Goodman, who was doing a play in California at the time. Marcy (Carsey) and Tom fell in love with John, and then called and asked if I would be interested in casting the series. I told them I didn’t do television and I wasn’t going to move to L.A. They said I could do it from New York and only have to come to LA for a few days. So Billy and I jumped in and we cast the whole show in three weeks, mostly from our basement offices at Lincoln Centre.
From this success, the Carsey-Werner folks asked me to come to LA a few years later to create a show. I moved with my then-boyfriend (now husband), René Garcia, who had just become an executive at the newly-formed Hollywood Pictures, but neither of the jobs really worked out for us. I had been naive in thinking that the kind of work that I did at ES.T. would translate to creating a TV show; that it would be like, “Hey kids, let’s put on a show!” It was far more political than I realized. Around the same time Oliver Stone asked me and Billy to cast THE DOORS. I was now based in LA and the “Whisky” was just around the corner. I continued to go back and forth to New York, directing plays and casting movies, but now from my home base in Los Angeles. Being in LA was temporary I thought… I was as stunned being there as was everyone who knew me. I stayed 22 years and am still here.
In the late 90s, I directed 200 CIGARETTES, which I had worked on for seven years. It was a small, quirky movie, a slice of life, one night in the life of several characters. The cast was exploding as we were shooting. Ben Affleck won the Academy Award for co-writing GOOD WILL HUNTING. Christina Ricci was on every magazine cover. But this was a time when studios were just starting to develop smaller film companies. They didn’t really have a paradigm for releasing this kind of movie. So they opened it wide in theaters, and then decided to pull it and make their money from home video.
It was a financial success, although when the movie didn’t meet the opening expectations, my agents told me I was in ‘Hollywood jail.’ I didn’t know what that meant. “How long do I stay there? When do I get out?” They told me it was going to take some time; I needed to let the dust settle from this film. So, I was sort of sent to jail with my tooth brush and my pillow and, you know, my tin cup. And I was told to wait it out, which I started to do.
I did more film casting work and started getting involved in TV because then I was determined to become a television director and felt that would be the smart path to take, get me out of Hollywood Jail. I also started writing a feature and, as a Canadian, I looked to Canada where I could potentially work as a director. I started working on a feature with my husband and a partner of ours, Canadian actor, Robert Joy. And we’re still working on it years later. We love it. 2000 to 2010 were really about starting to figure out who I was as a writer and director, and to develop myself as a television director by casting television shows.
I directed some television. I did some work on the “Twilight Zone” for UPN, directed a few episodes and all the wraparounds with Forest Whitaker. I liked doing TV. I mainly cast with the hopes of directing, and there were lots of opportunities to potentially do that but nothing really took off in a big way. Most of the pilots that I cast went to series. Often, I was told it was because of the actors, because my casts were always great. I don’t know that casting TV is my wheelhouse, but I continued to do it with the hope of directing. And having series on the air as a casting director was also pretty cool. I also started teaching probably seven or so years ago. I was getting very frustrated with actors auditioning badly. And the teaching thing’s become quite successful. I really do love it.
A few years ago I got involved with a feature script, THE CON ARTIST, which I directed in Toronto. It was great to get back on my feet as a director. I want to do it more. I feel like I’ve graduated with my PhD in casting, and I’ve organically evolved as a teacher. But I feel as a director I’m still in college doing really good work, and craving some more time behind the camera. Directing, writing, and teaching are where my heart lies.
Now I’m going to ask you a bunch of sort of one‑off questions. What do you consider your big break or big breaks? It depends on what hat I’m wearing. As a casting director, I would say DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN was a huge break for me and Billy because it established us as film casting directors. As a theatre director, I would say two plays I directed around 1980, one written by Sam Shepard. Those plays introduced me to my peers as a theatre director and changed everything for me.
What’s the best career advice you ever got? One thing that jumps to mind is something Oliver Stone once said to me. He said, “You’re not really a director unless you write your own scripts, unless you create your own work. Otherwise, you’re just a gun for hire.” I argued that with him pretty tenaciously because I believed in developing work with writers from my work in the theatre, but I understand now more what he meant – that you have to have creative ownership of the work. It’s got to resonate for you in a personal way; it has to come from your soul.
Okay. I’m looking for a eureka moment, where you realized you did or did not want to do something or that you should do something differently, sort of a shift. I had to do a directing test for Paramount to prove that I could direct 200 CIGARETTES. I didn’t want to do it; I was afraid they would either not do the movie or do it without me. But I wanted it, so I agreed to shoot two scenes. I did it all in one night. When I walked onto the set that night and started shooting, though I was terrified, I knew these were the shoes that felt the most comfortable for me. This is where I was meant to be. And that is huge.
This is probably going to be a little bit challenging because you wear so many hats, describe a work day in your current position or the next assignment. As a casting director, especially doing a pilot for example, my workday starts as soon as I wake up, as early as 5:30 am. I open my computer in bed and see what’s come in from the night before, from other time zones. I work with casting people all over the world so while I’m sleeping, auditions come in from Australia and England, the east coast. Then I get my kids off to high school and head to my office, continuing the process online, and doing casting sessions, and more casting sessions, and processing a lot of the casting through technology. It goes on til I drop at midnight, computer on my lap in bed. It can be quite a grind.
In L.A., you drive around a lot. Recently, I did a show with some wonderful producers who are in Santa Monica and like to do auditions at their office. I had to pack up the camera equipment, the whole deal, and schlep it across town every day. Then back to the office and often to another destination the same day. In LA traffic. That’s common. There’s not a lot of time on the phone anymore, but processing the amount of material coming at me electronically – self tapes, tapes from other cities, e‑mails from agents and managers and producers and the studio – is all-consuming and takes hours. When I’m doing a pilot, I’m in the office until 11:00 and still have work to do when I get home.
Worst job or worst day in the entertainment industry. I was recently fired, and it was done very badly. I was blindsided. Maybe I should’ve seen it coming, and at this stage in my life and career I would think I’d know better. I had been working really hard, but I was on a bus without one driver, you know, careening. It was very difficult, and as hard as the work is sometimes, it shouldn’t be that awful. I wasn’t being political in a really smart way. But I was so astonished by how badly people behaved, people I knew and trusted and thought would behave better. I realized later that I was the first casualty of a losing battle. Not my fault but it still stings. This business can be nasty.
Let’s do the best job or best day in the entertainment industry. I would say directing 200 CIGARETTES was probably in many ways the best job I had. It was tough and there were serious challenges. There were some really demanding days, but overall it was great. But the best day that comes to mind was the day in 1985 in NY when DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN opened. I was in the middle of a move, from my loft in Soho to an apartment I had bought on 44th Street, my first home purchase. I was sitting outside the Ensemble Studio Theatre (E.S.T.) on an old couch, waiting for a ride, and somebody walked over and congratulated me on the review in the New York Times. I said, “What review?” They said, “The DESPERATELY SEEKING SUSAN review. You were mentioned and it’s pretty great.” I was handed the newspaper. I remember sitting there on the street on that old thrown-out couch and I just felt like everything and anything was possible.
What’s the best thing about what you do? Being able to create something, going on a journey with other talent, collaborating. Whether it’s to sit with a writer and talk about a new piece, or work with an actor, to help something evolve from an idea to something that’s truthful and personal and connected and alive. I’ve seen it in auditions. I’ve seen it on set in performances. I’ve seen it on stage. I’ve seen it in the writing of a scene. I’ve seen it when I’ve written myself, prose or script. It’s the reason why I keep coming back to this and why I don’t give up. It’s that pure bursting force of something that you’ve created with somebody else, or something that you’ve helped facilitate. It could be from putting an actor in a role to giving a note on a script to crafting a performance. It’s all the same experience for me. It’s about creating something. And doing it in collaboration with fellow artists.
What’s the worst thing about your current job or worst thing about what you do? Being blamed for things that aren’t my fault or being asked to do something that’s impossible. Since I generally believe anything’s possible, I take on most all challenges and try to make a genie come out of a bottle. And sometimes I just can’t. People expect a lot. I expect a lot. There’re bound to be disappointments and you’ve got to let it go. Not easy for me.
What advice would you give someone just starting out, whether it’s in entertainment in general or on the same path as you? My first piece of advice: Jane Fonda said this in so many words: If you don’t wake up absolutely knowing that you love it and go to bed knowing that you love it, then do something else. It’s way too hard and it’s hard forever, so you’ve got to love it; it’s got to be something that you can’t live without. I agree. If that’s the case, keep remembering how much you love it and what you love about it and what it is that inspires you and feeds you, because that’s going to be the core of your survival. Find a way to express your artistry as often as you can. Write it, create it; don’t wait for someone to tell you that you are good. Don’t wait for anyone to give you an opportunity. If you’re waiting for the phone to ring or waiting to be identified as talented or worthy or right for the job, it’s very likely not going to happen. Make your luck.
My other piece of advice is to make sure that your life is full outside of the work. Actors become better actors when they become parents. Writers become better writers when they get into a relationship. It’s important to make sure that you’re always busy and doing other things besides the work. The work will feed your outside life and your outside life will feed the work. As a side note, find a community of like-minded artists. It’ll always save you when you’re feeling disenfranchised, disconnected, isolated, unvalued. If you can’t find that community, create it.
So, last question. What’s your next move or your next five moves? I have a few things that I’m planning to do. One is to continue teaching because I love it. Another is to pay more attention to my directing; it’s what I love most. And I’m writing two books. One is called “Hollywood Jail.” It’s my “Eat Pray Love,” but not nearly as holy or romantic. The other book is an actor’s book, on acting and auditioning. It’s anecdotal as well. Each chapter will emerge from a story of a casting or directing experience, miracle or debacle, but a moment that will then turn into a how‑to chapter. I’m real excited about both books. And I’m launching a Studio in the fall, along with a colleague, Steve Braun, where artists can work out, grow, create and find a community. This is a big deal for us and we’re so excited about it.
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