Charlie Pheby, Head of Casting at October Films
Charlie Pheby, Head of Casting at October Films joined the Production team in 2015 bringing 13 years of TV experience with him, having worked on diverse briefs across all major unscripted genres. Charlie is responsible for casting strategies on both sides of the Atlantic, and leading in-house teams to deliver dynamic casting, robust storytelling and collaborations with the best emerging and established talent. He strives to ensure his cast members continue to represent all parts of British and American society as exists today by fully integrating diversity casting into the casting process from day one.
'The lifeblood of unscripted television is delivering compelling contributors; while we are always looking for break-out talent to feature on current and new developments, at the same time you want authentic people who ideally haven’t been seen on screen before.'
Good casting takes planning, communication, and most importantly respect for those you are selecting. Before you build a casting call or pick up a camera, you need to really consider your programme’s brief and most importantly who you want to see on screen. Build your ideal cast on paper or a mood board - be realistic and steer clear of stereotypes. Ask yourself; where do they live? What is their temperament? What do they do? What is their ethnicity? What is their sexual orientation? Do they identify as disabled? What is their faith? Regionality? Social class? Ages and genders? And of course, what is their USP? You should be able to imagine their backstory playing out and know how they will react in a scene. This is also a great way to consider how the group will interact and what story may emerge. Once you have built and fleshed out your fictional cast members, you need to deconstruct them and analyse each layer. You will find yourself imagining where Jane Doe works, where she lives, and what she gets up to in her spare time.
This information helps build a bespoke formula for your targeted outreach. Depending on the show this will consist of cold-calling, emails and street casting in areas you feel work for your demographics. A clear message is essential - contributors must understand what they are getting themselves into from the start, or there will be issues on location. Social media is a great tool to find and talk with people, especially if you are casting from overseas. By using simple hashtags that relate to your demographics you can see a glimpse into people worlds and connect on the app. You can even change the GPS on your casting call, to reach people in a specific precinct, from Birmingham Bullring to Yellowstone Park.
The lifeblood of unscripted television is delivering compelling contributors; while we are always looking for break-out talent to feature on current and new developments, at the same time you want authentic people who ideally haven’t been seen on screen before. This means they will be inexperienced and may need some hand-holding. You must be patient and guide them through; contributors should feel comfortable in front of the camera as you want them to reveal real elements of themselves willingly and honestly - they are opening up their lives to you, and without them you don’t have a show. A caster is never off the clock, always looking for fresh talent; I spend more time searching on Instagram than I would like to admit and carry casting cards with me at all times - you never know where and when you will find great people and stories.
'The biggest mistake people make when casting for diversity is treating it as an added extra, not understanding the impact it has on the viewing audience and its ability to enrich a programme.'
The importance of representation in mainstream media is visible in many aspects of society today. The biggest mistake people make when casting for diversity is treating it as an added extra, not understanding the impact it has on the viewing audience and its ability to enrich a programme. Casters are normally very outgoing and inquisitive, they want to know what’s happening in their contributors’ lives, but often worry they will ask or say the wrong thing when it comes to cultural or disability questions. Don’t be afraid, just be respectful as you would to any contributor. Allow them to tell you their story and make it clear they can stop at any time. It’s important to respect everyone is different and may have different needs, whether that’s a single parent concerned about child care or a disabled person needing additional access requirements. Casters should be adaptable and mindful of skills that many take for granted; in the new world of Skype interviews, not everyone is computer literate.
I was very fortunate to work on an epic survival show called Mygrations for National Geographic USA. The programme featured 20 people re-creating the annual journey of a herd of over one million wildebeests on a 200-mile trek across the Serengeti. We knew the show was very special and wanted the cast to reflect that. I wanted to feature BAME, disabled, first peoples, Latino and Hispanic people to represent all parts of American society – which we did. Reggie, a double amputee from Philadelphia didn’t want to be defined by his disability on the series but still wanted to represent and educate the audience about the challenges faced by disabled people. Another, 64 year-old Native Hawaiian Pohaku wanted to share his customs with The Hadza (an indigenous ethnic group in north-central Tanzania) and the audience. This just goes to prove there's a lot of great talent out there, we just need to find them!
'It’s not a box-ticking exercise, a diverse cast will enrich your programmes and maximises the reach of your audience.'
As storytellers, we need to see the importance of on and off-screen diversity. It’s not a box-ticking exercise, a diverse cast will enrich your programmes and maximises the reach of your audience. I’m a big fan of Incidental Representation; there isn’t a format out there that can’t be inclusive, and it’s our job to make sure all projects are. Peoples’ differences will always deliver unique perspectives and storylines, however diversity needs to be integrated into projects' casting systems from day one. A good contributor has the power to make people laugh, cringe, educate, inform, reflect, and challenge as well as entertain. They bring communities together, introduce new ideas, generate conversations and plant seeds into the public consciousness, which may not have happened if that contributor hadn’t appeared. We need to move away from stereotypes and feature a range of diverse identities, lifestyles and communities in natural everyday scenarios as well as amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
What we see on TV speaks volumes about what is important in a society. We all know the old saying “it’s just TV”, but fair and equal representation is critical for building a healthy multicultural society and reflect the diversity of all of the viewing public.
Charlie's 5 Top Tips on Diversity Casting:
1) Don’t consider diversity casting as a box-ticking exercise, a diverse cast will enrich your programme and maximises the reach of the audience.
2) Build your ideal cast on paper at the start so you know what you are looking for. You should be able to imagine their backstory in your mind’s eye and know how they will react in a scene. Be realistic and steer clear of stereotypes. Ask yourself; where do they live? What do they do? What is their ethnicity? What is their sexual orientation? Do they identify as disabled? What is their faith? Regionality? Social class? Ages and genders? Once you have built and fleshed out your fictional cast members, you need to deconstruct them and analyse each layer to work out your target areas and formula.
3) Make sure you deliver what the network has asked for, but don’t be afraid to put your own stamp on the project by offering up people outside the brief. You know the format and have done the research, this puts you in the perfect position to offer up authentic cast members the network may not have considered.
4) Emails and social media are great tools but don’t rely solely on them. Some people are not computer literate so pick up the phone or head out to the streets. People respond better when it feels personal.
5) Remember, most people have no idea what is involved to make television. Your contributors may need some hand holding and you have a duty of care to them. They need to be respected; consider their physical and emotional welfare and treat them with dignity.