What It Really Takes to Be a Casting Director in Fashion
Thanks to social media and reality TV shows like America’s Next Top Model, we’ve gotten a decent (if occasionally exaggerated) glimpse of what it’s like to work as a fashion model over the years. But when it comes to the people responsible for models’ careers, we’re much less informed. After all, it’s the so-called “glamorous” jobs that we tend to hear about most in fashion, rather than the myriad behind-the-scenes roles.
But as industry obsessives, we believe there should be no stone left unturned, and we are often most fascinated by those fashion hustles we hear the least about. The more we—and you—know about the industry, the better, we believe, especially if a career in fashion is the goal.
Working as a casting director may seem straightforward at first—they select models for campaigns, editorials, shows, etc.—but there’s a lot more to it than one would guess. After attending a casting at Wilhelmina Models with a colleague of mine, I became acutely aware of this and wanted to learn more.
More than just an eye for beauty or the next big thing, it seems, a caster needs excellent people skills, the sharpest memory, and a gift for organization. Serious passion for the job, and a willingness to juggle numerous gigs at once, also appears to be crucial. But to get the real nitty gritty on casting I deferred to the experts: Ben Sealey, the founder and owner of Cast Partner, whose clients include Levi’s, H&M, and Elle; Jym Benzing, the in-house casting director for Banana Republic as well as the bookings editor for Self; and Eric Cano, the founder and owner of Cano Castings, whose clients include Lively, JackThreads, and Kith.
Scroll down to learn what it’s really like (and what it takes) to be a casting director…
Who What Wear: How would you describe your job to someone outside of the fashion industry?
Jym Benzing: When someone outside of fashion asks me what I do, I usually open the nearest magazine and point to an ad or editorial with models and say, “You see these people? I find them.” I then explain that when a company wants to advertise, they come to me. Along with their creative and marketing teams, we discuss everything from concept to budget, to how the images will be used and where they will be seen. I then search for talent, working as a liaison between the company and the models. You need a keen eye and to know that you are not looking for someone according to your personal taste. I’m trying to find the right talent for the company or the shoot. You need to be able to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and understand their needs.
Ben Sealey: We’re engaged by photographers, directors, brands, and creative agencies to find and place people in advertising, editorial, and special projects, like short films. We street cast, use social media, and access to model agencies to do this. It’s now become a worldwide search for many projects, as it's become simpler to locate people [online]; there are great agencies everywhere, and travel is not a big deal. It’s about finding the right person in both look and vibe.
WWW: What does an average day entail for you?
Eric Cano: I wish I could say it was castings, go/sees, and photo shoots all the time, but my average day consists of A LOT of email work with clients or prospective clients. This doesn’t just include the decision-makers at fashion brands but also photographers, art directors, stylists, and of course, agents at all of the modeling agencies. I'd say I do go/sees about two to three times a week, which is an industry term for when modeling agencies set up appointments for their talent to meet with casting and booking directors, photographers, stylists, etc. They are more informal than a proper casting.
JB: Each day is different. Some days I am in castings all day, which means seeing talent, putting talent on video, having them photographed, and seeing if they fit the samples. Other days I am in back-to-back meetings with clients. Sometimes I’m at my desk all day pouring over model submissions and negotiating with agents regarding rates, dates, and usages. For shoot days I’m on set all day, basically as a glorified babysitter, to ensure that the client and talent are on the same page and everything happens the way I have contracted it.
During fashion week, I could be in fittings one hour, backstage at another show the next, frantically trying to track down missing models, then dashing off to a photo shoot, and then back in castings followed by multiple events. What I do like about this career is that it is always something different. New talent. New ideas. New people. New locations.
WWW: What are the best parts of working as a casting director?
JB: My favorite part is that by doing my job, someone else will have a job! I get people work, and I love working with so many amazing and talented people in a collaborative environment—I’m a “people person” and I meet so many wonderful people on a day-to-day basis. I also enjoy that each job and client is different and that it doesn’t get boring.
BS: It's a great creative job, with an element of business involved, too. It's extremely fast-paced and the needs are always changing. We’re always meeting new people—models and talent come from all across the world and have so many different stories. I’m always learning something new.
EC: I think my favorite part is having a very strong influence over the talent that’s selected for a project. I get a lot of gratification from seeing a finished product (whether it be a magazine editorial, a look book, a campaign, or a show/presentation) when I know that I had a great deal to do with it. It’s also nice to help a brand shape their front-facing identity. It's great to be able to work with really creative and talented people—I love meeting new people all the time and hearing their “story.”
WWW: What are some of the downsides or awkward aspects of being a casting director?
BS: I love my job, and I don't really feel any there are downsides that aren’t just part of every professional's life now (always needing to be available via mobile, long work hours, etc.) But it’s always hard when models take not getting selected for a project personally. It’s never about not being "good enough.”
EC: It’s not a downside for me personally, but casting can be a very long and intensive process. You have to deal with and try to manage a lot of personalities. Creatives can be fickle and indecisive a lot of the time, so I always have to make sure I’m prepared for that on the job. Negotiating rates for talent is not something everyone feels comfortable doing, but that is certainly a large part of the job. Scouting can be an awkward part of the job, too, from time to time—I'm always trying to find or discover new talent on my own, and it can be a little awkward approaching a stranger about modeling. Even if they are flattered, most people are always a little hesitant. There are some casting directors that really excel or specialize in this though.
JB: Awkward is having the budget conversation with a client. For example, when the client can’t afford the talent they wish for, or their shoot brief could never be achieved based on their budget. The downside is the egos you have to deal with. For the most part, it’s all great—but there are times you come across some horrible and needy personalities. There are agents who just blatantly lie, on a regular basis, there are 11 p.m. phone calls that interfere with your personal life, etc. [But] you want to make the client happy and fulfill their concept, and you want to make the agents and talent happy, so you need to know how to walk that tightrope, being on both sides at once.
WWW: Do you think there are certain personality characteristics a person needs to have for this job?
JB: A sense of humor, just for survival. Organizational skills—you are scheduling hundreds of models at times, relaying shoot info, reading contracts, handling budgets and travel data, editing photos and video, emailing countless people regarding a wide variety of things, etc. Things change on a dime: shoots get moved, models drop out, concepts shift, weather intervenes—[keeping] everything organized [helps you] roll with the punches. Be patient and kind—know that every person you work with is just that, a person. Be respectful—know the person you meet on the way up, you will need on the way down. Don’t let your ego get in the way. In this business, we all rely on one another.
BS: You must be a very good listener who’s able to really grasp what is meant in what are often vague conversations. I think being genuinely interested and curious about people; having a good eye, of course; and being organized and calm under pressure!
EC: I think the really great casting directors are people who are able to recognize trends before they become popular—early adopters, if you will. They see a hole in the market and try to fill it, pushing their clients and the industry to move in that direction. And perhaps more important than having the “eye” for it, a casting director MUST be organized and detail-oriented.
WWW: What advice would you give to young people hoping to pursue this career?
JB: Be prepared and ready for when opportunity knocks. Intern and assist people! Assist casting directors and learn every side of the business (the usages, the breakdowns, the top players, etc.). Be social and know people! You should know the editors of the magazines, the photographers, the stylists, the agents, the ad people, the models, etc. Read the mastheads of the magazine. Read the gutter—know the teams on each shoot. Look at Models.com and see what the models are doing. Watch fashion shows and see what the designers are doing and which models are making a splash. Go to the parties and network. Network responsibility—don’t be pushy, don’t overstep, don’t make it about you, don’t talk badly about anyone, etc. Casting directors are hired based on their relationships (who they know), and if people are willing to work with them. If you are not someone who is generally on time, learn to be on time. Make sure you’re doing this for the right reasons and not just to socialize with models.
BS: Read every magazine, and learn each photographer and stylist’s approach, as well as every model’s name. See every movie and go to every exhibition or show that you can. You need to understand what is happening now. You also have to get your foot in the door, so whether it’s taking an internship or assistant position in the general field, it’s all about making the right connections and showing your value. There is nothing more attractive than a really serious work ethic, which will get you noticed quicker than anything else.
Acne Studios Loma Leather Ankle Boots ($600)
Would you ever consider a career as a model caster? Let us know in the comments!