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Photo Courtesy of Denise Chamian.

‘Atlas’ Casting Director Denise Chamian Reflects on the Casting Industry of Yesteryear, Working on a Mix of Projects

In the casting world, they don’t come much bigger than Denise Chamian. In a career that has spanned nearly four decades, she has done it all.

Chamian’s worked with Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton, Gore Verbinski, Tony Scott, Michael Bay, Denzel Washington, Guillermo del Toro, William Friedkin and Baz Luhrmann. She also stocked Top Gun: Maverick with a stunning array of young talent to surround star Tom Cruise.

Chamian is, in short, a living legend, and she’s still going hard at it. Just last month, the Jennifer Lopez-led Atlas dropped on Netflix, and she has several more projects in production. She spoke to us from her office in Los Angeles. 

How did you get started in casting?

I started out working for a small theatrical agency. I was there for a couple of years, and then they wanted to promote me to an agent. I knew that that was not what I wanted to do, so, since my contact was mostly with casting directors on the other side, I got a job working in casting.

It was that simple?

It was simple back then. It was many years ago, it was all about who you knew. If you knew somebody and somebody recommended you, you interviewed for the job and you got it. It was a very, very small community.

At what point did it click for you? Because all of the casting directors I’ve spoken to over the past year say there is a moment when they realized they love this.

I think almost right away because I loved the production aspect of it at the time. Most casting directors, except for a very few —maybe Lynn Stalmaster— had his own offices, but the rest of us, we were all on the lot.

It was a very romantic kind of thing. You could visit the set, and the actors would pick up sides or a script from your office, so I knew almost immediately that it was better suited to my personality. I didn’t quite know what talent I had at that time. You know, that was TBD.

Things have changed a lot, with so much of it online now.

Yes, though we’re still in our office here. I like self tapes. I think I get to see an actor’s natural instincts for the material.

When we’re doing a search, or if it’s for a lead, then for certain actors, I will see them in my office. But we don’t have the bandwidth anymore to see hundreds of actors per week in our office for one and two-line parts or co-star parts. We can also spread a wider net. We can give more actors opportunities by seeing them from a self tape or a zoom.

One of the things I like about your filmography is you do a lot of big films, but there’s also some smaller stuff. You mix it up a lot. Is there a method to that?

No, not really. It’s like being an actor, you know? We get typecast.

It’s kind of what comes my way. Then based on that, if I like it, I do it, and if I don’t, I don’t. But I also have a lot of repeat business, so no matter what that director or producer is doing, I’ve pretty much agreed to do it.

We like to mix in smaller films here and there, especially now, since the strike, and work has been a little more scarce. Also, what’s getting made is different. The lower budget films that you have to attach actors to, which I haven’t done in about 20 years, we are doing that on projects that we like. We can do those at the same time that we’re doing big movies.

What about a big movie where you get to bring in a load of fresh talent like Top Gun: Maverick?

Well, that’s the most fun. You have total freedom to see whoever you want because you’re putting together an ensemble. It’s weaving together different types and colors and this and that to make one beautiful thing. It’s a fun puzzle that you put together. 

What makes a movie or a project more or less challenging than others?

Look, I think the beauty of what we all do in this business is, everything is different. Every script is different, even if the role is the same 35-year-old leading man, the dialog is different.

I always start from scratch. I always make a new list. I don’t use old lists because you’re shaping it to what that particular script is, or how this person speaks.

It can all be challenging, it just depends on how in sync you are with the director, which is why I like to work with the same people over and over again. We understand each other, I know what that person likes and wants, and we have a history of actors that we know together. I try to work from a place where my opinion matters.

One of the things that I have found talking to casting directors is that it feels like there is a rising recognition of casting’s importance. Do you see that change happening?

I think more people understand what we do now, and as younger producers and directors come to the forefront, they understand what we do. It used to be that a lot of directors liked to take credit for casting everybody and not give the casting director credit for finding those people and bringing them to that person. They might have the final say, but those people didn’t magically appear in front of everybody.

I think it is getting better. There’s just more awareness. I think we talk about it more because we have more visibility, and with understanding comes recognition.

What piece of advice or wisdom would you give to an actor coming in to audition for you?

Just to be as prepared as possible. Be off-book. Have an idea about what you want to do with the character, and if you don’t know, you should ask and get guidance before you read. But I think preparation is the most important thing. And leaving your ego at the door.

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