Next Wave Q&A

Sarah Raoufpur: Casting Associate, Disney Animation

Sarah Raoufpur is a Casting Associate at Walt Disney Animation Studios (WDAS). She grew up in San Diego and went on to attend the University of Washington in Seattle to study psychology and cinema. Sarah worked as a development intern at Storyline Entertainment before moving into casting, starting with Carmen Cuba Casting and eventually Disney Animation, where she helped cast the upcoming animated feature Moana, due out next month.

Sarah lives in Los Angeles.

Perhaps tell me a little bit about your background. How you came to this profession?

I’m from San Diego. I went to college at the University of Washington and my intention was to go there and study psychology and eventually become a marriage family therapist. Two years into the psych program, I realized that I didn’t want a career in psychology, although I loved what I was learning and use it in some form or another everyday. But the idea of going to grad school and studying to become a therapist or a psychologist didn’t appeal to me anymore. I felt like something was missing in my life. I wanted a creatively stimulating career. I had always loved film and realized that I wanted to work in the film industry.

It was actually my friend Estevan who suggested that I might be good at casting. So much of casting is psychological. You are imagining people as other people and it’s a creative role within filmmaking. Although while I did plenty of research – reading articles, trying to look up people – opportunities in the casting industry felt so far away in Seattle. So I double-majored in Psychology and Cinema Studies, graduated early in March 2013, and moved to LA to try to work in the film industry.

Once there, I contacted as many people as I could, via email and phone, accessed all the breakdown and job lists including the United Talent Agency job list and applied to every internship and assistant position I could find. After completing two internships back-to-back in development, I got an interview for a casting internship at Carmen Cuba Casting. I was really nervous because I felt like this was my big break. Either I was going to get this internship and the door would open for me or not. Casting seemed like a very closed-door thing – but thankfully I got the internship!

What was your first casting internship like?

My time at Carmen Cuba was incredible. I learned so much! I was exposed to the kinds of shows that I actually watched and loved. They were casting The Knick for Cinemax and Looking for HBO, and had just finished Behind the Candelabra, (which Carmen won an Emmy for casting). I worked with a great group of women who were very supportive of me and were happy to teach me. My tasks included checking in actors, setting up the audition room, and reading plenty of scripts. There I learned how to “break-down scripts” and most importantly I learned how a casting office operated. I don’t think a lot of people know about the casting process. It’s kind of mysterious and a lot of it is confidential, but to see what the audition process is like and what the creative conversations are like was exhilarating.

What are the ideal attributes to be a good casting director and it has been said that being a woman helps, is that true?

Well it’s curious you say that. I believe casting is the one of the only female-dominated professions within the film industry. However I don’t know if I would assign “gender” to casting. I would say practically speaking that the skills most helpful in casting are being collaborative, creative, and patient (haha). Also having a great memory, an endless Rolodex of films, shows, and actors in your brain, and “taste”, which is in essence what you are hired for. In regards to being collaborative, you need to accommodate the wants and needs of different people. You are juggling creative requests from the directors, writers, and producers. It’s also imperative to have a sound business mind AND a creative mind. You have to have both of them to be successful, especially for those that have their own companies, that aren’t working for a studio. You have to be good at running your own business.

Can you explain the typical casting process?

Depending on which directors you are working with, working within a studio structure or on an independent project, the casting process can begin in many ways. For example, it can begin with a meeting with the director, producer, and writer. You can discuss concepts, lead characters, and who the director envisions for the film. Sometimes projects have actors attached and we build the cast from there. We try to offer various casting choices to the director including the “on the nose”, left-of-center or total wild card choices. Sometimes we like to think outside the box. We like to present new and different ideas that may not have been previously considered and that is really fun. That is where we get to flex our creative muscles. Once we have those discussions, we determine which roles we “offer” and which we audition. Sometimes we need to audition every single role, like if we are casting a musical. When we have auditions, we usually see a lot of people per role. When we were looking for the lead for Moana (out November 23), we did a worldwide search. All in all we saw over 400 girls over the course of about a year. Crazy.

What about diversity? Is this something that you think of?

Yes, I care very much about diversity. I think it’s really important to be inclusive and authentic with the roles we cast. Our company definitely values diversity when it comes to casting our roles. If you think of it, Casting can have a huge impact. It affects who get jobs, who is seen and essentially how we perceive the world. I think there is a big responsibility in casting. Remarkably when your films are seen by millions of people.

How has technology and digital and social media changed the profession in recent years?

I think we are expected to have more technical skills. Part of my job is editing, I do a lot of editing, putting together demo reels, packaging actors for when we review them with the directors. It was a bonus that I came into the job with editing experience. I was an assistant editor for a documentary film in Seattle. I first learned how to edit taking a film class in high school. I think for older generations, it’s harder because they didn’t “grow up” with it. They didn’t learn it at a young age, say in high school and college. I don’t think the access to these programs existed. My boss (Jamie Sparer Roberts) likes to remind me that there was a time when casting happened without computers, haha. Technology is evolving so rapidly. There is a strong push to learn and adapt. Recently we have been exploring the world of YouTube and digital media, and it’s really remarkable because I’m new to that. There were a couple people I followed before, like comedians or random funny people. Now people are becoming stars in their own right. I think it’s really cool, and ultimately there’s more venues for people to get noticed and be seen and for us to see more people, and I think it’s a good thing.

Which casting directors have influenced your work? Who inspires you?

Jamie Sparer Roberts (Casting Director, Walt Disney Animation Studios). She’s been my boss for almost three years, and my mentor since my first day as a casting assistant at WDAS. She has taught me so much. She really has a passion for casting and everything I know about casting for animated features is because of her mentorship and expertise. I mean she cast Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen and Zootopia!! . Also Wittney Horton, she was my supervisor when I was an intern at Carmen Cuba. Now she is a casting director and has since started her own company with Yesi Ramirez, Ramirez/Horton Casting. She took a real interest in me and went above and beyond to make sure that I would succeed. She was the one that introduced me to Jamie and the rest is history.

Another is Allison Jones, she inspires me A LOT, particularly in taste. She cast many of my favorite films and TV shows including the Apatow films, Arrested Development, The Office, Parks and Rec, Veep. She pretty much discovered James Franco and Seth Rogen when she was doing Freaks and Geeks… I could go on but I will stop.

I am very also inspired by Jill Soloway. I’m a huge fan of hers and everything that she touches. I think women uplifting other women is imperative and I think there needs to be more of that within the industry and in our society.

Can you offer advice for anyone interested in a career in casting?

I am very fortunate to work full time for a studio, but so much of casting is freelance and many people struggle with the lack of job stability. Many casting professionals look for a new job every 3 months. Knowing and accepting that job instability exists and the willingness to be constantly on the lookout for your next project is important. You have to be super on it, perseverant, and build a network. Casting is really an amazing industry to be a part of, especially if you love filmmaking, actors, and you really value the casting process. But it has to be your calling!