Local casting agent: Priscilla John

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Jo Reynolds talks to Local casting agent Priscilla John.

How long have you lived in the area?

Since February 1987. I’d just bought a house in Cardross Street. Do you want to know what I paid for it? £103,000. That was a huge amount of money then. And it needed completely redoing. I took it apart. I remember immediately starting work on ‘A Fish Called Wanda’ and John Cleese asked me where I lived. When I said, Hammersmith, he paused and said: Is that in London? Many of my neighbours were born in their houses and some still had loos in the back garden. Mr and Mrs Dobbs lived opposite. He and his family were farriers and he still drove a horse and carriage for work and for the film business. The lovely Dorothy, a few doors down, once said to me, I’ve never been married dear; I’ve been taken down from the mantelpiece a few times, dusted off, but always put back. John Weller, aged 90, lived next door. He cycled every day to his allotment by the river. He lived to be well over 100. Elsie still lives on Cardross and all these wonderful individuals have been a great part of my life. I lived there until 2003 when I moved to Beauclerc Road and now I’ve just moved again around the corner. I’ve always stayed in Brackenbury because I love it.

Why?

The people. Over the years, I’ve come to regard so many locals as friends. They look after me. John and Lena Stenton are valued friends as well as brilliant butchers. Albert and Kiran at SiSi are good friends and always happy to sort out my electrics, plumbing, hoover repairs, everything. Neil at Pilates West, I love chatting to him about local this and that. And Tony and James at Galena Garage keep my car on the road. Three of my best friends live here. It’s great to live and work in an area where I’ve known people for so many years.

As a casting director, you’ve worked on films as varied as comedies such as ‘Mamma Mia!’ and ‘About A Boy’, and superhero epics such as ‘Captain America’ and ‘Thor 2’. How did you get into casting?

By default really. My father was a theatre director and worked for years at Thames Television. He set up the TV Regional Theatre Trainee Director Scheme in 1963. I have a couple of brothers and sisters who were actors, but I didn’t want to act myself. I did business studies at Chiswick Polytechnic, now ArtsEd (Bath Road). It was the sixties. My mates and I were determined to earn money and be independent. I was brought up in the theatre and saw people out of work and it didn’t appeal. My sister, Caroline John, was acting in the Royal Court Theatre where the casting director Gillian Diamond was looking for an assistant. I worked for her for a year until she fired me.

Why?

I must have annoyed her and was having far too much fun. But it seriously was the making of me. Granada Television employed me shortly after that. They were wonderful and gave me all the opportunities I ever wanted. And they pushed me. I really didn’t think about being a casting director. I was blissfully happy at Granada for 12 years and cast ‘Jewel In The Crown’. While I was in India I met David Lean. He asked me to cast ‘A Passage To India’ so I left Granada in 1984 and went freelance.

What does the job entail?

Being freelance, I wait for the next job to come in. I spend three evenings a week going to the theatre and drama schools, watch endless TV drama, and go to the movies. I’m always on the look out for new talent. I’ll turn projects down if I don’t like the script. I’m totally driven by the script. And the director. If Marvel offers me ‘Captain America’, it’s not Marvel who say, we must go to Priscilla John, it’s the director, Joe Johnston. I worked for him on ‘The Wolfman’ and he asked for me to work with him again. It’s a great feeling when directors show loyalty. I read the scripts and create a breakdown. It’s from here that I make lists for each character and check availabilities of actors who I feel would bring the characters to life. This all gets presented to the creative team and we begin the long and intensive casting period putting actors on tape and hoping not to lose anyone. I couldn’t do this job without the loyalty, hard work and humour of my amazing assistants. They’re the backbone of the operation and I am in awe of them for sticking with me for so long.

Why do American studios use British casting directors and not Americans?

Usually because the film is being made at Shepperton, Pinewood, Warner Brothers or Europe. If the film is being shot in the US then the studios might like to cast one or two leads from the UK. Our actors are so brilliant and the Americans love them. (Director) Gore Verbinski, who I worked for on a couple of the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movies, loves Brit actors and I’m lucky enough to often work with his US casting team. It works like that. The US and UK casting teams work together on American film and TV bringing the best actors to the screen.

Do actors lobby you all the time?

Not so much, but their agents do. I always try and meet as many actors as possible for a project. I will only turn people down if they’re way off brief, e.g, you cannot have a 30-year-old playing an 18-year-old college student. However that student could be either sex or any nationality and I constantly lobby the producers and writers to be more flexible with their brief to get a better balance.

What advice do you give novice actors?

It’s so tough because the competition is tremendous, but my advice would be to keep fit, physically and mentally. Keep those endorphins going and stay positive. Sign up to ‘Spotlight’ and keep an eye on what’s being cast.

Is theatre still considered home to the best acting?

Theatre is still the place where an actor has more opportunity to play great, juicy roles.

Is there an acting gene and if so, what are actors’ common traits?

I really feel for actors. They’re so exposed. They can be criticized, and even when they’re hailed as the next big thing, they can be rejected. You have to grow a thick skin. If there’s a gene, it’s probably the ability to grow a thick skin whilst still being able to inhabit the world of the most vulnerable soul.

Of all the actors you’ve met, who was the sexiest?

Patrick Swayze for sure. I worked with him for six months on ‘City Of Joy’ and danced with him often in the Pink Elephant nightclub in Calcutta.

The funniest?

Leigh Lawson, Twiggy’s husband. He has us all in stitches.

The scariest?

Michael Wincott.

The coolest?

Definitely Idris Elba. He’s fantastic.

Can you see star quality when it comes through the door?

Definitely.

Have you ever cast an unknown who became a star?

Chiwetel Ejiofor (star of ‘12 Years A Slave’). I got him his first film role, ‘Amistad’ for Steven Spielberg. He was in his second year at LAMDA and we ‘borrowed’ him. Drama schools don’t let casting directors in until graduation year. However, I wrote to Peter Jones at LAMDA and said, this is a really important piece of slave history, set in 1834, telling the story of the only black mutiny in the history of slavery. I got Sam Claflin the role as Hayley Atwell’s brother in ‘The Pillars of the Earth’ just out of the same drama school. He’s huge now in ‘The Hunger Games’. He and his wife, actress Laura Haddock, invited me to their wedding. That’s the pleasure.

When you watch a film you’ve cast, is it harder to engage with the characters because you know the actors?

I have to watch two or three times to actually see and enjoy the film. Sometimes the actors are great but the film is a disappointment. I was so lucky to work with Andrei Tarkovsky on his final film, ‘The Sacrifice’. I didn’t recognize the film as the script I’d read. He took us into a completely different world. He used to say about Susan Fleetwood, thank you for Susan; she is my queen.

Do you think acting is a wise career choice?

Yes, I do actually. You’ve got quite a good opportunity of earning a living – if you’re talented with plenty of patience to wait for that lucky break.

Who’s the greatest actor of all time?

Can’t answer that but, amongst many, I love Peggy Ashcroft, who is no longer with us, and Helen Mirren, who happily is.

Thank you, Priscilla. It’s been a real pleasure meeting you.
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