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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

*My interview with director/ casting director Risa Bramon Garcia

I first worked with Risa Bramon Garcia many years ago in New York at the Ensemble Studio Theater. The play was Bill Bozzone's "Rose Cottages," with Bill Cobbs, Grace Zabriskie and Bill Cwikowski.

Since then, Risa has served as the casting director on 65 films, including "Born on the Fourth of July," "Wall Street," "Speed," "Benny and Joon," "Fatal Attraction," "True Romance," "The Joy Luck Club," "How to Make an American Quilt," "JFK," "Heaven and Earth," "The Doors," "Flirting with Disaster," "At Close Range," "Natural Born Killers,"  "Masters of Sex," and many others. She has been teaching actors in workshops since 1989, she has produced numerous productions and has opened her L.A. acting studio "BGB: BramonGarciaBraun Studio." with teacher Steve Braun. Risa has also directed two films "200 Cigarettes" and "The Con Artist." 

This interview took place in a series of emails in mid September, 2012.

Corey: A day in the life of a casting director who is bringing actors in? What’s that like? 

Risa: It’s grueling, intense, non-stop, exhausting, stressful, sedentary, endless, eye-soring (computer), and sometimes exhilarating – when actors do great work!
Corey: Have actors ever shown up uninvited because they want you to see them? How do you handle the incessant drive of actors to be seen?

Risa: I honestly don’t know how I handle actors. I love the commitment, the passion, the drive. But I have a very hard time with neediness, child-like behavior, self-centeredness. I wish that actors would realize that while they MUST focus on their own experience, it’s NOT ABOUT THEM. In the work or in the industry.
Once an actor showed up for an audition uninvited and when I turned him away he took a dump on the doorstep. True.

Corey: What do you need from an actor?

Risa: I need hard work, commitment, relentless energy and enthusiasm, imagination, an eagerness to collaborate, heart, soul, and some fun. A sense of humor. And a healthy life in the world – friends, family, hobbies, sports, interests outside the work, these also feed the work.

Corey: When did you give your first actor workshop? What was that experience like?

Risa: I did my first workshop with Ensemble Studio Theater in LA in 1989, at the outdoor Will Geer Theatricum Botanicum, and it was glorious. I knew then that this was something I could do and would do again.

Corey: What are the inner enemies of the actor?

Risa: Self-doubt, self-obsession, being a victim and not taking responsibility, laziness, listening to the demons, needing validation from everyone, lack of trust, not really wanting it enough and not admitting that, lack of spirit and imagination, excuses…

Corey: Are there any things you recommend for an actor to do that are healthy for their mind and heart?

Risa: Do things for yourself. Keep yourself active, mind, body, spirit. This is for you as an actor. And as a human being. Live a full and active and passionate life.

First… Get off the computer…

Take a physical workshop like Alexander Technique, Tai Chi, Kickboxing, Pilates, Karate. Feel and know your body, strengthen it. You’ll feel better. You’ll look better.

Go to acting class. As a workout. (Don’t be a class rat, but find a class or 2 that suit you and work out!)

Do some teaching, coaching. Acting or otherwise. Find what you’re great at and share that. We are all teachers.

Write a script. A movie, a tv pilot, a play, a novel, a short story. Write something. Write every day.

Make a movie, a short, a web series. Find peers and put it together.

Direct something. Produce something.

Get together with colleagues and work on material. For fun. In your living rooms.

Be the “reader” for fellow actors as they prepare their auditions.

Be a reader for casting directors, theatre companies, whatever you can find.

Join a theatre company. Create a theatre company. Find your tribe.

Submit yourself through backstage, actors access… find a way to get the breakdowns. Ask your fellow actors how.

Talk to your agents and managers frankly about where you are. And even if you’re frustrated let them see your passion and commitment w/o complaining.

Take a class in improv, Shakespeare, singing, tap, circus arts -- something different for you.

Learn a new skill. An instrument, a sport, a creative endeavor. Knit, dance, make pottery, cook, write poetry, surf, take photographs… learn new technology…

Develop your voice. Do something to strengthen your voice; it’s one of your greatest instruments.

Take a spirituality or creativity course or go to a retreat. Raise your consciousness and spirituality.

Work with someone on your career plan. A mentor, life coach, teacher, friend. Make plans. Have an agenda. Stimulate your dreams.

Read. Everything. Acting books, novels, biographies, the newspaper.

Write a blog.


Be in nature and just be.

Do yoga, meditate… find the peace and centeredness.

Work on your acting. Every day.

Don’t wait for the phone to ring. Fill your life with things you love. Develop new passions. Expand. Your days will be full and your life will be richer. Your acting will soar. As will your career. And you’ll surprise yourself. Anything is possible.

Corey: What do you NOT want to see when an actor comes in the room? 

Risa: I don’t want to see fear, anger, and exhaustion. I don’t want excuses. I don’t want generality. I don’t want you to hide. I want you to show up, commit, bring yourself in a deep, personal and authentic way. I want you to get ‘off yourself’ and actively engage the other characters in the scene. I want to see high stakes – for the character and not you. I want to feel you living inside the character’s circumstances. I want you to take me on your adventure. I want it to be exuberant. And I want you to be prepared!

Corey: What blows you away in the casting room?

Risa: What blows me away is when an actor is fully invested in the work and not the job!

Corey: You started casting in the early 1980s. Since you began, how has the industry changed what the process of casting is? How have you changed what you do?

Risa: It’s changed a great deal since I started back in the 80s. It used to be a really autonomous filmmaker’s experience. A director/filmmaker would have a vision and casting would purely honor that. At least somewhat purely. Over time the marketing of films, TV shows, and plays has become a bigger focus; marketing departments have started to become more significant in the casting strategies of films and shows. 

In addition, with technology, there are more and more executives watching auditions, weighing in, so the process has lost its autocracy and become, frankly, a free for all. Everyone has an opinion about casting, music and wardrobe. Everyone’s an expert. It’s diluted the kind of creativity that we had even 10 years ago.
And technology has changed the way everyone watches auditions. Mostly they’re viewed on one’s computer screen, or iPad, or smartphone. It’s less personal, but it will ultimately allow for more of the actor’s control in self-taping and getting to play in the room with casting directors. 

Corey: This fall you and Steve Braun are opening your own acting studio in Los Angeles "BGB-BramonGarciaBraun Studio," what’s your vision?

Risa: Our vision is that: We're committed to exploring the work of an actor in a unique way. We're providing a community of classes where actors will be challenged and supported in ways they’ve likely not experienced before. Where they can do the work that matters. To them and to us – Steve and myself. Where the exploration is purely about being truthful, authentic, specific, tuned, courageous, free, and alive. We're passionate and extremely excited about this work, and we can't wait to share it. We invite actors to be a part of this profound, personal, transformational (life and career changing), joyous work.
We’re starting with acting fundamentals, auditioning the right way, on-camera classes, teen classes, workshops, events, and more… Very exciting.

And Corey, come teach with us when you’re in LA! It’s just right.

Corey: You are coming to Memphis, TN to give your Master workshop. The state of Tennessee is not giving tax breaks to outside film production companies; as a result, the actors in Memphis are in a no man’s land. My goal in bringing you to Memphis is for these actors to have access to an experience that they would not otherwise have. What is your goal for these actors?

Risa: My goals for the Memphis actors are to a) do the work in a real and powerful way, b) to get a sense of what’s necessary in order to be able to compete in any marketplace, c) to figure out how to self-tape successfully, d) and to inspire them to create, to generate their own content! And also to play – this is supposed to be fun!

Corey: Are there any casting directors who have inspired you?

Risa: Gretchen Rennell (Flashdance, The Cotton Club, Reds) and Juliet Taylor (Woody Allen movies) have inspired me. And the great Marion Dougherty. They both worked for Marion.
(see links below on the Casting By movie about Marion.)

Corey: All casting directors are not alike. Do you agree or disagree? 

Risa: All casting directors are alike in that they want great actors to show up and do great work. They all do advocate for the actor, some more enthusiastically than others, but they/we all want actors to be great. We’re all very different in styles and approaches. It’s funny – people seem to think that we’d all be the same. But we’re as different as directors, writers, composers… are from each other. Check out the new documentary: CASTING BY. It’s coming out on HBO soon and here’s the trailer/website. It sheds new light into the casting director.

Corey: When an actor wants to take class, what criteria should they use in selecting a teacher?

Risa: Your teacher must inspire you. And challenge you without bullying. Your teacher must be about your truthfulness. Your teacher must be about you, not him or her. Your teacher must take you someplace where you feel free, alive, and honest in your work, and the focus is on the work, not the career.

Elia Kazan said it well:

“A good teacher never lies, and a good teacher never tells you what you should be or do. A good teacher tells you what you’ve done, what worked, and leads you toward the full realization of a character written and waiting for full expansion. The gifts do not come from a teacher or a prayer or a regime: the gifts are within you. Always have been, always will be. The hazardous and tricky process is teasing them out, finding comfort in having them exposed, keeping them ready for use. There is magnificence in every artist. I believe this. I do not say this to flatter, and I do not say to this to many people, but when you find an artist–and there are many and of many degrees–you husband the artist and the talent within. You walk with them. You lead them to a place they can furnish with their gifts. A good teacher does not supply these gifts, but he can and should walk the artist toward the place where they are wanted, needed, and can be used. Fewer things are more gratifying than the deliverance of an artist to a consummation his gifts deserve.”

Corey: When an actor from Memphis (or anywhere) moves to L.A. to build a career, what must they do to set themselves up right?

Risa: This is a big question. Classes – audit a lot of them to find the right fit, theatre theatre theatre, find a community of like-minded artists, patience, a life outside of the work, and enough money to find some comfort in the time it’s going to take.

Corey: How does an amateur become a pro?

Risa: Keep training, doing theatre, creating, all the time. Serious about the work, working harder and with more commitment and energy than anyone else. Still finding the ease, joy and love of it.

Corey: If an actor moves to L.A, can they take your class? How should they contact you? Is there anything else you want to add?
Risa: They should come to LA and take my classes. I’m starting a Studio right now. 

The BramonGarciaBraun Studio-BGB. Email me, check out our website: 

Come on over; we’re doing amazing work.

Corey: What words come to mind for each of these director’s with whom you've worked?

Oliver Stone – opinionated, brilliant, tormented, bully, challenging, respectful (in terms of the creative process), aggressive, passionate, daring, bullheaded, driven.

Jonathan Demme – complicated, sensitive, dark, odd, unconventional, musical, peculiar, egocentric, alternative, intelligent.

Tony Scott – (this makes me sad), driven, tortured, testosterone, sweet, craggy, funny, lovable.

Corey: Risa, you are always so generous. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me in this setting, and for coming to Memphis. I know it is out of your way. You’re awesome!

Risa: My great pleasure. I’m excited to come back to Memphis. Thanks for having me back.