ASK MARK: What do you do when you've made a horrible mistake in casting?
The column in which I ask award-winning writer-producer Mark O’Toole the questions that have always bugged me.
Adam Zwar: Dear Mark, I think I’ve made a mistake in casting. The lead actor just doesn’t get what we’re trying to do and contractually, we can’t fire him. What’s the best course of action?
Mark O’Toole: In a situation like this Adam, you’re an old gum tree, and the actor and his contract are a stiff wind. To survive you’re going to have to go with him, bend, sway, move with his rhythm and try to make the best of it you can. Neither flattery, nor begging or even threats of physical violence can make someone see something they can’t see, or get something they just don’t get. Then, there’s always the chance that the actor just doesn’t want to see the character the way you see it – and that’s a battle you’ll never win.
So, if you can’t change the actor, you may just have to change the character. We all do it to a degree once a show is cast, but in this case, you may need to go a little harder.
How can you reimagine and rewrite the character to fit within the confines of the actor’s interpretation while serving whatever role it was that character served in your show? Can you tweak the character enough to make it work, even it means passing some of that character’s story responsibilities and traits onto another character? Is it possible that you could even lean into the actor’s take on the character and use it your advantage, making it work ironically, or having other characters acknowledge what’s not quite right about it, turning odd performance choices into quirky character traits? It’s happened before that an actor has taken a role and completely turned the character and project on its head – Beverly Hills Cop was written as an action vehicle for Sylvester Stallone before being completely redrafted around Eddy Murphy, and Marlon Brando’s on-set reinterpretation of Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now is the stuff of legend.
Of course, there’s always the chance that actor is right, and it’s you, your fel
low writers, the director, the entire production team and everyone involved in the development and financing of the project who are wrong, in which case I can’t help you.
No matter which way you look at it, it’s a tough scenario, and one which may not end well.
To revisit my earlier analogy Adam, you’re the old gum tree and he and his contract are the stiff wind, and in all probability the best you can hope for is that when he blows you and your production over, you can take him down with you.