Casting for re-enactments

A mime walks into a Chicago garage on St. Valentine’s day and pretends to shoot five people. This sounds like the start of a bad joke, but it’s actually the start of an even worse documentary on the life of mobster Al Capone. This is admittedly an overblown example of miscasting, but it does reinforce what we’ve said before about making your re-enactments as effective, and more importantly, as believable, as possible.

OK, when we said he doesn't have to look precisely like Al Capone...

OK, when we said he doesn’t have to look precisely like Al Capone…

Casting is much more than just finding a body to recite a series of pre-determined lines and go through a set of pre-determined motions. Just about any idiot can do that, but unless your video is a profile of various idiots you’ll have to put a bit more thought into it. Research is essential to make the re-enactment as believable as possible, and that is especially true when deciding who will appear in the re-enactment.

Find out as much as possible about the people involved in the scene you’re recreating. If this is a historical re-enactment about a Romanian king from 1573, you may be limited to portraits or other artwork, or even a single piece of artwork, to get an idea of what he looked like. The down side is that you have to hope the artist who painted that portrait was both competent and sympathetic enough to produce an accurate portrayal of the king. The upsides are more evident. First, if the artist botched the job hideously, the picture would probably have been destroyed (along with his career and the longterm relationship between his head and the rest of his body). Second, even if the painting was more caricature than character piece, no one who knew the real king firsthand is still alive to point out the discrepancies. Finally, if you cast the part with someone who looks exactly like that single portrait, everyone will think you’re a genius because that’s the only representation they have ever seen of him anyway.

Integrity is vital, but there are times when you have to accept that if accuracy is impossible, an honest attempt is the best you can hope for.

If you’re doing a re-enactment that involves people of more recent vintage, you’ll have to do a bit more legwork. Find images of them from as many sources as possible, from as many periods of their life as possible. The internet provides a wealth of resources for this, but don’t overlook other sources like libraries. It may be possible for you to track down hard-to-find books that have just the images you need to get a good idea of what the real people behind your re-enactment looked like. Then you can move on to the hard part: finding other real people who look like the originals.

Yes, OK, it's about Edith Piaf, and she was unconventional, but....

Yes, OK, it’s about Edith Piaf, and she was unconventional, but….

You can, if you like, spend your days like Madame Butterfly spent hers, staring out over the vast ocean waiting for the ship carrying the person of your dreams. But since that didn’t turn out so well…. No, it’s time to call for backup in the form of your friendly neighborhood casting company.

Even the most accommodating casting company will want somewhere to start. The basic characteristics of the person you require are vital. You may have the budget to get the services of Samuel L. Jackson, but he won’t do you much good if you need someone to play Louisa May Alcott. Clearly, Mr. Jackson is far too tall for the role. Height, weight, gender, and age are all important if you want to do a believable re-enactment. This last one may seem to be a no-brainer, but we have seen some re-enactments in which actors were portraying people at specific stages of life, but the actors were clearly nowhere near that age range.

Ruling out actors who are far too old to play the part believably may seem cutthroat, but its absolutely necessary (unless they can age backwards like Benjamin Button). If the actor is too young, you’ve got options. Solving this problem may be as easy as finding a good makeup artist. A background in theatrical makeup is a real plus in these cases, but not a requirement. Makeup artists whose sole focus has been making ungrateful clients look their best may relish the chance to intentionally make someone look their worst for a change, by aging them with crows feet, laugh lines, and a few splotches of brown eyeshadow that mimic age spots. You may not get the transformation that David Bowie underwent in The Hunger,  but you’ll be far closer to getting a believable re-enactment.

This again is where research for photos can help. Even if you can’t get a picture of that person from the exact period involved in the re-enactment, pictures from both before and after can help. It’s a little like using age-progression software, except you have to use your mind rather than a computer. Did the person look more gaunt in later pictures than earlier ones? What about changes in the hairline or hair color? Was a slight stoop in the earlier picture far more pronounced in the later one? Figure out how much time elapsed between the available pictures, and where on that timeline the re-enactment takes place, and you’ll be closer to figuring out how your actor should look. Obviously it will help to place them in period-appropriate clothing and hairstyles as well.

Finally, see how much you can find out about how the real people portrayed in your re-enactment spoke. The generic and unremarkable accent generally associated with the Midwest will be very remarkable if it comes out of the mouth of someone who, in the re-enactment, is from the deep South. So will that Southern accent if it comes from an actor portraying Mao Tse-Tung. Ni hao, y’all.

The real trick is to dig into the history of the character you’re trying to portray. Perhaps the re-enactment takes place in Chicago, but the person portrayed grew up in France and had only recently arrived in the U.S. when the event in question took place. So, a French accent would be in order. Of course if that person was the mime we started with, we needn’t worry about the accent. At least one problem was avoided there.

At Hencar we take the time to do thorough research to help you find just the right person, with just the right look and sound, to make your re-enactments believable and as accurate as possible. Letting us focus on the details will allow you to enjoy the masterpiece that is the big picture you’ve dreamed about.