Production: A Question of Casting

A good casting director can spot advertising stars in the street or the chip shop.

There are now more actors in the UK than bricklayers. So, given that we are awash with acting talent, how come it is still possible to spot the same actor in more than one ad?

In a recent Private View, the commercials director Jeff Stark pointed out that the woman in the Jaffa Cakes ad (the actress Martha Cope) had also starred in at least one other spot. "She has such a memorable face, I'm sure the punters will notice," he said.

At casting sessions, actors will fill out a form to say what other ads they've appeared in recently. Even if they don't, directors, creatives, producers and casting directors would all claim to double-check. Of course, desperate actors might forget to fill in a couple of previous jobs. Or not-so-vigilant creatives might miss a trick. Stark sheds some light: "It would be terribly easy to cast someone when everybody knows that they were in Coronation Street three years ago - everyone, that is, except you."

Unlike other screen roles, people in ads are often new to the commercial airwaves. Which isn't surprising. The money is good, but advertising is not the preferred career path for most aspiring actors.

"It is all very cattle-market - a la modelling castings - and 100 per cent about the right look for the product," the 24-year-old actress Antonina Lewis says. "I have had to do many ridiculous things: dance raunchily with thin air for a Tampax ad, and stand in a bikini and dance/feel up/kiss (they actually asked for tongues) an arrogant model for a clothes brand."

When an actor is just the ticket, it's an understandable temptation to use them again. Simon Veksner, a copywriter at DDB and a Cannes Grand-Prix winner, says there's a certain quality that stands out. "Sometimes you can watch someone and they can grow on you. But in an ad they won't have the chance - they will have to make an impression in a few seconds. Some have that kind of face that very quickly communicates something. People like that are quite rare."

Of course, to make sure the casting in an ad is spot-on, it helps to have one of the best casting directors in town. There are half-a-dozen or so names that always come up. Chris Hodgkiss, the creative director at Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, often looks for something a bit unusual in a casting. "Half of it is going to younger casting directors who think out of the box," he says.

One of the best reasons for using a casting director is that they know the big actors' agencies and some others besides. Although bigger budgets generally bring in better talent, experience helps to guarantee this, or perhaps unearth a cheaper treasure. "You need to trust agents and them to trust you," the casting director Belinda Northcliffe says. "You also need a good relationship with smaller agents - sometimes they have good actors who haven't been given a big chance."

Casting directors get out a lot. Agents and actors leave them with no shortage of tickets to shows. Then there are drama schools, sports halls and corner shops to be checked out. "A good casting director never stops looking," Mark Summers of Casting Un.Ltd, who has worked with Chris Cunningham, Tony Kaye and Joe Pytka, says. "If I'm in the chip shop, I'll be on the look-out for talent."

Claudie Leyton, who has worked with Frank Budgen, Chris Palmer and a host of top directors, is keen to keep on top of new comedy talent. "If someone's good, they get snapped up fast, which is frustrating if you find them. But you keep looking: smaller clubs, open mic sessions - you might go through four out of five turgid evenings and then find one gem."

As well as a talent scout, a casting director has to be a whiz organiser.

Summers recalls procuring 64 Russians in 24 hours. Amanda Tabak of Candid Casting says the time pressures on casting directors have increased. "Years ago, you had time to think about it creatively, but now, often you'll have just two days," she says.

Getting all parties on board with casting can prove tricky. Veksner believes that "quirky, almost cartoon-like" people make an ad memorable. But getting the client to accept suggestions might not always be plain sailing.

Third-party advice can help. Veksner's DDB colleague Thierry Albert recalls a spat between the creatives and the director over the casting of a recent Marmite ad. "Often, a creative director is the right man to listen to. He's not protecting his creative idea, and he's a fresh mind in the process."

So, which ads are revered for their casting? Albert cites Hamlet cigars.

Time and again, Guinness ads are in the frame, especially "surfer". But perhaps most notable are the Stella ads. "Every single Stella ad has incredible-looking faces," Veksner says.

Leyton street-cast for Stella's "doctor" with the director Ivan Zacharias.

She has travelled the world roping in people from cafes and bars to star in ads. Her credits include HP Sauce ads shot in Liverpool using a bunch of talented squaddies she met in a bar and some Scouse women on a hen night.

"Doctor" was street-cast on location in France. "You would think they'd spent hours in hair and make-up, with all the moustaches and beards," Leyton says. "But I plucked all those people from within 30 kilometres of where we were shooting."

FAMILIAR FACES IN ADS

Simon Lowe: Ads reel - Lipovitan, Tic-Tac, Eurostar, Post Office, Daz, BT

Martha Cope: Ads reel - Doritos, Utterly Butterly, Jaffa Cakes, Ready Brek, Aero

Cordelia Bugeja: Ads reel - Yakult, Carlsberg, Burger King, Wrigley's, BT

Georgie Glen: Ads reel - Yours magazine, Dyson, Specsavers, Vodafone, Lloyds TSB, Carte D'Or.

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