Vilniaus film office

Casting director D. Survilaitė: “If I invite actors to castings, it means I believe in them”

Dalia Survilaitė is a casting director who has been working in the film industry for almost 20 years. During this period, she contributed to numerous projects of Lithuanian and foreign directors: TV series “Strange Things”, “Chernobyl”, “War and Peace”, “Blood Sex and Royalty”, films “The Summer of Sangailė”, “The Miracle”, “The 9th Step”, etc.

According to D. Survilaitė, during all these years, she got the chance not only to observe emerging young talents or develop unique intuition but also to experience some funny oddities. A conversation about the deconstruction of myths surrounding the casting procedure and most memorable projects – in the interview below. 

Let’s agree that the profession of casting director is quite exceptional and there are few of its representatives in Lithuania. How did you end up in this field?

I started working as a casting assistant at the Lithuanian Film Studio in 2005. At first, I contributed to the selection process as an assistant, then as a casting director. I have been casting actors for various roles for almost 20 years, although one could say that I got into this field quite accidentally. 

Can you tell us what it’s like to be a casting director? How does the casting process start?

To my mind, everything starts when you receive the script. After many years in this field, I already know most of the professional actors working in Lithuania, so when I read the script, I immediately imagine which of them could be suitable for one or another role. If I invite actors to the casting, it means that I already believe they could fulfil the role well.

Most auditionees are asked to act out a real scene from the movie script. Although sometimes I receive questions about how to play a certain role, I am slowly learning to stop giving advice and leave an actor enough freedom to interpret the scene according to his/her understanding. 

In my practice, there have been cases when the directors liked the actor’s interpretation so much that they used the scene in the film. It is not uncommon for actors to discover, through their experience and talent, something that becomes extremely unique and beautiful on the set, which the screenwriter could not foresee. 

I like to make actors feel comfortable – casting is already stressful, so if I can, I share the script as early as possible – so there’s time to prepare properly. One of the worst things is when an actor doesn’t know the script and starts getting nervous about it. Of course, there are actors who, thanks to their talent and charisma, are able to improvise and get the role they want, even if they forget the words.

What do you look for when casting actors? What qualities do they need to have?

When casting actors, I like to talk to them – ask questions about their experiences, films they’ve acted in, and directors they’ve worked with. Good English skills are also useful for actors – it gives them wider opportunities to be noticed by foreign directors.

However, this is not an exact science. To a certain extent, we are guided by intuition.

“Chernobyl” series | Credits: HBO Sister Pictures, Sky Television

“Chernobyl” series | Credits: HBO Sister Pictures, Sky Television

Do you cast only professional actors or amateurs as well?

Sometimes we also audition non-professional actors. We all can play at least one character – ourselves. Professional actors can put on different masks and roles, but sometimes directors want a real person. Even though most amateur actors do not get a main role, they play themselves and act in their own circumstances. 

How much freedom do you have in your choices? Do the directors of the films/TV series also take part in auditions?

The director’s involvement varies from case to case. Some directors like to participate in the entire process, they contribute strongly to the selection of actors themselves, while others leave most of the tasks to the casting directors. However, most of the time, directors are somewhere “in the middle” – they give advice and pay attention to certain details.

You have worked on many projects for Lithuanian and foreign directors. Which one was the most memorable and why?

I really like to contribute to Lithuanian films, because then we select actors from the smallest to the main roles. I’m interested in discovering new actors, and it’s also fun when professionals surprise you by showing their new side.

Perhaps my most beloved project is the film “The Summer of Sanagailė” (director Alantė Kavaitė). I was looking for actors in the Lithuanian Academy of Music and Theatre, so it was very interesting to discover young, emerging talents. I also liked working with directors Eglė Vertelytė and Irma Pužauskaitė. The actress Angelina Daukaitė, who played in the latter director’s film “The 9th Step”, had just started acting at that time. To see how an actor develops and grows, especially with a good mentor, is extremely interesting. I love feeling the joy of discovery.

In general, I like all movie genres, maybe only costume dramas attract me less – usually, the characters acting here are classic, static, and do not allow me to be a little bit frolicsome. I like to play with the archetypes prevailing in the cinema and overcome them.

Which role was the most difficult to find an actor for?

I remember once we were looking for someone for an American film about prisoners of war. An actor with broad shoulders and a boxer’s build needed to find a violin-playing double. I searched for a very long time and photographed many Vilnius musicians, but it was very difficult to find a violinist with such a body structure (laughs).

I would guess that in all these years, more than one unexpected or funny situation has happened.

I remember that when we were looking for actors for the series “Stranger Things” we could not give out almost any details of the script, the filming location and other aspects. We invited a lot of Lithuanian actors, but some of them raised their eyebrows – we needed to gain their trust in advance. Then an important role went to the actor Vaidotas Martinaitis, who dived into the adventure I proposed with courage, preparation and good humour.

There was also a case when one of the actors did not remember a word from his scene during the audition. It was his first casting, so he was very stressed. We had to say our goodbyes that time, but we met at other castings later on and he did quite well. You can overcome anything with experience.

Thank you.