The Advice Casting Directors Gave Actors Early in Their Careers

Penelope Cruz. Photo credit: Denis Makarenko /

Insights that others have about actors can be encouraging, or they can sting a bit as well. But those keen perceptions take on a greater significance when coming from those who hold the keys to an actor’s career. Here are eight A-listers who shared with Vanity Fair the words that casting directors or talent agents told them early in their careers—words that really stuck with them.

Simu Liu – No “It” factor

“There’s a movie that I really badly wanted.” It was a long time ago, too. But I had a director tell me that I was missing an “It” factor. And I think that’s so much of the struggle of new actors as well, because I think you’re constantly in a place where you’re having to prove yourself. It’s like grasping at sand; it’s like the more you want to do it, the worse you come off. And so I tried to kind of take it in a constructive way, and it really just came down to letting go—letting go of the need to impress somebody, whether it’s an audition or being on set. It’s just, you know, being present and being authentic and true is more important than any of those other things. I’m truly grateful that I got that note because I do feel like I have that factor. And now I’m glad that I can finally show it to the world now.”

Idris Elba – Never lie

“A casting director told me one time, if you ever go into an audition or you’re about to meet a director, just never tell a lie, never tell a lie. Even if they ask you the most awkward question, tell the truth.”

Andrew Garfield – Not quite handsome enough

“When I was 18, 19, [my agent] saw me in school drama, and her name is Kate Bride in the UK. And she was one of those first people that said yes, I really believe in you. Just so simple. And then, you know, she had the privilege of telling me when I wouldn’t stop hounding her about why I wasn’t cast as Prince Caspian in “The Chronicles of Narnia”—why it wasn’t me—she had the privilege of telling me…’Because they don’t think you’re handsome enough, Andrew.’ I’m sorry for putting you through that, Kate. And I’m glad it was you who broke the news to me that Ben Barnes is just better looking, which is inarguable and a brilliant talent.”

Penélope Cruz – Too young

“So Katrina Bajorinas, who is still my agent today, I went to see her the first time when I was 15. She was casting people to represent them. And she sent me home three times because she said I was too young. So I had to constantly lie about my age when I started working because everyone was telling me I was too young, but I didn’t feel too young. After the third casting, she told me, okay, I’m gonna work with you, I’m gonna represent you, and I’m gonna start sending you to some castings. And she’s still my agent today in Spain.”

Benedict Cumberbatch – How others perceived him was an issue

“Joyce Nettles is a fantastic casting director, a lot of television, but a lot of theater as well. She was very honest, she went, ‘It’s not that I don’t believe you can do anything, but you have to start with what people perceive you as.’ I began [acting] to be anything but what people perceive me as; I want to escape. I knew the limitations of who I was; I knew myself quite well. I’m an only child that spent a lot of time in my head. By the time I got to be starting acting at school in the university, I wanted to sort of explore other heads, I guess.”

Nicole Kidman – Protect your spirit

“Jane Campion said to me very early on, ‘Protect your spirit.’ I didn’t quite understand it, and I now completely understand it. And I do pass it on to other actors. You know, you have to be protective of your talent because you can’t just expect it to always give, give, give. You have to be willing to nourish it, replenish it, take care of it, and not let people just access it without knowing it’s safe.”

Michaela Jaé Rodriguez – Change the world

“I will never forget this casting agent told me—so needed—she just told me to go change the world. And I didn’t know what that specifically meant at the time, ’cause I mean, changing the world can be very specific or vague. I remember telling her, I just wanna make people happy and I wanna make sure that they get the understanding of me as a person, but me as an actress and what I want to convey through the characters that I play. I cried, and she was crying with me, and she said, ‘Well, go change the world, it was so nice meeting you.’ And I walked out that door feeling so accomplished.”

Kristen Stewart – Someone who believed in her

“When I auditioned for “Panic Room,” I auditioned like eight times, and I just kept thinking, like, it’s okay, you don’t have to give me the job. Laray Mayfield was our casting director. And it wasn’t anything she said; it was just that she saw behind the sort of awkwardness. And she saw behind the weird pretenses that my 10-year-old self had put up and just vouched for me, and that felt cool. It was one of the first times anyone was ever like, ‘No, I can see something nobody else can.’ And I was like, ‘You, thank you!”

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