Facing the Wrong Way: an interview with Kahleen Crawford

02 June 2014

An interview with the casting director of 'Jimmy's Hall', in cinemas now.

UK casting director Kahleen Crawford has worked with Ken Loach on all of his fictional features since 2004. More recently, her growing portfolio has included films such as Sunshine on Leith, For Those In Peril and Under the Skin, as well as long-running BBC Scotland soap opera River City.

I spoke with her about working with Loach, a formative incident concerning Earl Grey tea and dividing time between Glasgow and London. The following interview was originally commissioned by the Austrian film journal kolik.film, where it was translated and published in German (Issue 21, 2014).

Michael Pattison: One of your most recent credits as casting director was for ‘Under the Skin’. Its star, Scarlett Johansson, was already on board when you were approached to cast the film. How specific was your brief?

Kahleen Crawford: In a lot of ways, the brief was incredibly open. Jonathan [Glazer] is very collaborative, and we chatted about all the characters at length and threw ideas and references around. He was very open to our ideas, to people he’d never seen before, even to people who seemed a total departure from what was on the page. In the end we searched quite extensively to get just the right people in all the roles.

The film features an A-list star opposite a number of non-professionals. What challenges did this bring up?

In the end, very few! Scarlett is a team player and wasn’t at all fazed by working with people who hadn’t been onscreen before. It was central to the sense of her character versus the reality of the world that Jonathan wanted to portray, so she knew that was the way we were going to cast some parts, and was totally up for making that work. Jonathan had worked with non-professionals and inexperienced actors before, plus the crew were lovely, so all the performers (professional or new to it!) had great support on set.

How did you first come to work with Ken Loach?

Gillian Berrie, who is a terrific film producer I work with, set up a casting company in 2000 after she cast My Name is Joe (1998). She hired me in December 2000, which was my first casting assistant job. When Ken got in touch with her in 2003 about Ae Fond Kiss (2004), she explained she wasn’t casting anymore, and thrust a very green 23-year-old me at him! We met up and had a cuppa, but I didn’t at all expect him to give me the job. During the meeting he said, ‘So, when we’re working together…’ and I remember thinking, ‘Did Ken Loach just hire me…?’ Rebecca O’Brien [Loach’s producer] looked over at me and winked.

In what ways does Loach’s relationship to a casting director differ from other directors?

Ken and I are joined at the hip for the first few months of casting, which is a total gift. Apart from the aspect of building the cast from the very earliest auditions and meetings together, he’s great to spend time with socially!

We see a lot of people. So, we start with ten-minute “hello” chats with actors, and Ken is at all or nearly all of those sessions. Often, other directors ask you to pre-cast and then recall to a meeting with them, so that’s quite a difference. More and more as the jobs have gone on with me working for Ken, we find ourselves gravitating towards the same people during casting sessions, but we both still tend to be there together. We gee each other up when we get tired!

The other main difference would be that I stay on the job until the last day of shoot, and during the shoot itself, work from the unit base with Ken’s 2nd AD, Michael Queen. I cast everyone on the screen, so I do all our background in the later stages of casting wherever we are shooting, and then that carries on throughout the shoot itself. Last year, for Jimmy’s Hall, I spent five months living in Sligo [in Ireland].

I’m curious as to how John Bishop ended up in ‘Route Irish’ (2010).

Actually, Ken is a huge admirer of comic performers. But John Bishop wasn’t the John Bishop when we cast him! He was starting to do really well, but wasn’t so famous with a mainstream audience just at the point we cast him. By the time the film came out a year later, it was a different thing! John was terrific for [his character] Frankie—you needed a man whose spirit made a real impression. The audience had to understand [protagonists] Fergus and Rachel’s loss.

One of the most distinctive performances in Ken Loach’s more recent films has been Kierston Wareing’s in ‘It’s a Free World…’ (2007, above). How did you discover her?

The meeting came about after I spoke with Elaine Murphy, a London agent. The film’s story was rooted in London by this stage, and we’d done a lot of meetings with London-accented actresses, but felt we hadn’t really cracked the character. We decided to open the role up to Essex accents, so I put a breakdown out very late one day with a view to meetings the next morning. Elaine rang me pretty much immediately. She knew Kierston really well, I think through friends, and had been looking for opportunities for her. She really stuck her neck out to persuade me to meet her. Kierston is outstanding in the film.

Paul Brannigan, of ‘The Angels’ Share’ (2012), is another remarkable find...

Paul Laverty deserves the credit for that one! He met Paul Brannigan while he was doing research for the script of The Angels’ Share, and saw how special he is. Laverty mentioned Paul to me when I started casting and so we arranged to meet him. He stood us up the first few times, just because he couldn’t imagine doing a film audition and lost confidence just before the meeting each time, but eventually Laverty and I talked him into coming for a cuppa! Ken and I immediately knew what Laverty had been talking about—he’s such a presence, very articulate, and very much drew us in.

Brannigan also appears in ‘Under the Skin’ and ‘Sunshine on Leith’. It must be very exciting to sense you’ve really discovered a new talent.

He’s such a hard worker. I’m so proud of him. We cast him in a long-running TV series for BBC Scotland [River City] we cast too!

This ongoing sense of discovery… Do you find yourself on the lookout for new and interesting faces in between jobs? Is ‘casting’ something you can switch off from?

I never switch off! In particular, I find it really hard to watch any TV programmes, films, adverts, music videos etc. without focusing on the cast and casting. And out and about, I most definitely get distracted looking at folk in the street and restaurants. I’m the person at football games facing the wrong way!

You were the casting director for ‘Oranges and Sunshine’, directed by Ken Loach’s son Jim. Does securing a job with one director through your work with another bring any kind of pressure?

I don’t think so… but now you’ve said that… should I be worrying about that? There’s enough pressure! Jimmy is fab. He has a wicked sense of humour and is incredibly talented.

You’ve cast a number of films with Kate Dickie, a dependable and versatile performer.

Kate is a wonderful actor, and I will never tire of casting her. Danny (Jackson), Caroline (Stewart) and I are always thrilled when she accepts a role. Most recently she was in For Those in Peril (2013), which Danny and I cast, and it’s a beautiful performance.

Looking at your filmography, you see a small number of collaborators reappear: as well as Paul Brannigan and Kate Dickie (right), there’s Jamie Bell and George Mackay, and directors like David Mackenzie. It’s like you’re at the centre of a number of overlapping families.

That’s a nice way to put it! I hadn’t thought of it like that.

How early did you begin to think about becoming a casting director – is it something you consciously pursued for years?

Not at all. I was obsessed with people-watching and watching performances onscreen, but I didn’t really understand what casting was. When I graduated I decided I’d like to work with actors, and thought maybe I should try and be an agent, but when I called an agent (Maryam Hunwick, now of Hunwick Hughes) to apply for the of job her assistant, she took time to chat to me and she suggested I should get into casting instead. That was in 2000. She put me in touch with Gillian (Berrie), who hired me to work at her casting company. I started the next day, and it went from there.

What’s the story behind the ‘Earl Grey tea’ incident?

Ah, the tea! True story. People love it because they can relate to it whatever job they do. I was working with a company in London who did live business television. I made some great friends and colleagues there, some who I still have, but it was a very high-pressure environment. High stress is often the case in our industry, but it wasn’t dealt with very well there. We were working 14+ hours a day and taking home a couple of hundred pounds a week. In London. You can imagine…

Anyway, the breaking point was this conversation over the decaffeinated Earl Grey tea. I think now we refer to that as a ‘first world problem’! The runner on shift before me hadn’t managed to restock it, and I came in over an hour before my shift started, which was expected of us, and my production manager started shouting at us both about how outrageous it was and how I was part of this failure, that there was no decaf Earl Grey.

I’d heard it all by that point, and a day or so later I handed my notice in. I said I was homesick, but now, having more confidence, I’d say, ‘This isn’t fair, you aren’t managing your staff well, and you’re not paying them fairly.’ I’d feel able to tell the truth now. But I wish my production manager well. I expect she had it just as tough as me. She worked very hard.

You were born and grew up in Glasgow, and have moved back and forth between there and London. Do you feel the UK film industry is too London-centric?

Well, my company [Kahleen Crawford Casting] is based in Scotland, where the office and the company’s other casting directors are, but I’ve just moved to London for personal reasons. We have also never let our base restrict where we work. We’ve been given opportunities to work on projects worldwide, but we’re also invigorated when we see great productions coming to Scotland, and we need more of that!

With studios in Northern Ireland, and Pinewood announcing its Wales studios, things have changed, and are changing, from it being so London-centric. But Scotland has been left exposed recently. Both the Welsh and Northern Irish public sectors have worked with key individuals in the industry to deliver projects that are creating business and creative opportunities in their countries. We have crew depth, locations, skills, local expertise in Scotland, and it’s being tapped by visiting productions, but the money isn’t rolling back into Scotland in the way it should.

There are some key organisations like Film City Glasgow that are working hard on that, and The Independent Producers Scotland group was founded as a reaction to the state of the industry. Big successes like Sunshine on Leith (2013) and Filth (2013) have given the illusion of a Scottish industry that is thriving, but the truth is that the money is either private or through lottery funding from Creative Scotland. Independent Producers Scotland is lobbying to show what investment would generate in terms of real returns. We need the Scottish government to provide direct funding to the screen industries. The UK industry has traditionally been London-centric, but there's no need for that to continue to be the case.

Has the fact that you’re Scottish held you back professionally in any way, or has it enabled you to stand out?

I honestly don’t think about it. I just need to remember not to talk so quickly to non-Scottish clients.

What about female actors, female roles? What’s your perspective on the opportunities currently available to female performers in the UK?

We need more roles written for female performers, there’s no doubt about it. It doesn’t just increase the opportunities for female performers to make a living—films and television programmes influence the people who watch them. They affect how we all think, how we see ourselves, how we see each other. To not have women adequately represented within those stories has far-reaching consequences.

I’m working on several films right now that I think are telling very engaging and relevant stories from the point of view of women. The writers are terrific too, so I hope—I mean I think this will be the case—that male and female audiences from different walks of life, races, socio-economic backgrounds and so on, will find something to identify with.

You’re based in London but Kahleen Crawford Casting operates out of Glasgow. Does this pose any particular difficulties?

Yes, two offices to pay for! No, I’ve only just moved, so I’m not sure yet. As I said, it was for personal reasons, but Danny and Caroline have been really supportive. I’m looking forward to my move bringing lots of exciting new things to the dynamic of the company.

You worked on ‘Weekend’ (2011) and ‘The Comedian’ (2012, above), two great examples of low-budget drama with a small but very distinctive cast.

Both the films required a degree of compromise in the casting process, and right now I’m working with [Weekend director] Andrew Haigh without that compromise, and hope to do the same with [The Comedian director] Tom Shkolnik down the line too. Basically I had to do a lot ‘remotely’, and couldn’t always be in the casting sessions. That wasn’t ideal. However, we got there, and we all made the process work as best as possible with the financial constraints.

Both Tom and Andrew are so creative that we were able to attract the actors to the projects despite the low fees. Contracts were done under a PACT/Equity agreement, so people were paid within a recognised structure, and the provisions within that union agreement for low and very low budget films are invaluable to producers. But you’re often still relying on the material and the team to attract people to collaborate with you.

One exciting thing about low budget films—actually, both of those were ultra low!—is that you don’t need to depend upon cast to help raise finance. We therefore have a much larger pool to draw from, and for Weekend we met a lot of people who were totally new to us, which we loved. For The Comedian, we were similarly able to cast without worrying about finance. There was a loose structure in place but no script for that project, and one day during the process, Tom asked me which actors I really enjoyed working with, or had loved having met in the past, or had seen them in something and always wanted to cast them. That sort of thing. Then we just got those actors in to meet him, and a number of them we cast. That was an enjoyable freedom.

You’ve worked on a number of television series as well as films. What are the biggest differences between casting for a film and casting for a TV production?

The main difference that immediately comes to mind is that TV tends to be ready, mostly financed, and it’s happening. You get a script, a budget, a schedule, and you go. With film, casting directors are often involved in attaching cast to help raise finance. You can be on something for a couple of years while that process happens.

How far in advance are you usually approached before a production begins?

It varies wildly. One film we did in three weeks! Others it’s more like 2-3 years overall by the time you take development casting into consideration. If the project is ready to go, and there aren’t massive searches, then something like two months might be usual for us. We’re also usually on [multiple] projects at once, so there’s lots of juggling things. With Ken Loach, I tend to be part-time for a couple of months and then full-time for around four or five months.

Is there a single most formative experience in your years as a casting director? Have you made any mistakes that have positively affected your decision-making thereafter?

I can’t think of one particular formative experience, although I can think of lots of mistakes! There are a couple of things that I’ve learned from experience—in life and at work—which I try to remember at work because I’ve seen what happens when people get involved in situations around them. One is not to get too vocal around the politics of a job. A bad attitude spreads quickly, and I try and stay away from that. When it comes from the top, it permeates every department. And the other thing is to try not to get into a flap. Flapping doesn’t get anyone anywhere. I think it’s so important not to let the client see you flap. They have so much to worry about already, so generally I try and take the problem, assure them we’ll come up with a solution, and go away and figure it out. I always remind myself we’ll get there.

What’s your perfect cast – are there any productions (TV or film, past or present) on which you wish you were credited as casting director?

You know, I haven’t thought about this for a while, so my thought is quite an old one. I remember seeing this film and really, truly thinking, ‘Wow.’ It was City of God (2002). The casting is immense.

Do you have a favourite personal achievement as a casting director?

Making a living! No, in all honesty, it’s not a specific project, it’s working with Danny and Caroline. Dan has been with me for more than six years and Caz for more than five, and it was terrifying taking them on at first. I didn’t know if I could pay the wages. We’ve always wanted them to be full-time, and we’ve managed that for, I think, three years straight now. Seeing how well they are doing, how great their casting is, basically just building the company with them… Look at me, getting all sentimental.