Shakyra Dowling founded her own successful theatre production company in the 1990s, and then went on to work for a well known producer, assisting in the casting of several West End shows, before moving to the film and TV industry as a Casting Director.
Can you tell us a bit about SPACESHIP, the film you cast that recently screened at the London Film Festival? How did you manage the casting of it around being a parent – and were any of the cast or other crew parents or carers?
‘Spaceship’ was great fun to cast because it was all about discovering unknown, talented kids on the edge of adulthood and this is an area in which I thrive.
Alex Taylor, the director, wanted to street-cast teens who looked like outsiders and it really paid off. Alexa Davies has been longlisted for ‘Evening Standard Best Actress’ Award and Lucian Charles Collier for ‘BIFA Best Newcomer Award’.
The crew was largely women as Heads Of Department, which was fantastic. As I’m pre-production things are different for me; I simply can’t imagine how hard it is for those women who need to be on set from early mornings to organize their childcare!
For me, getting through the first years of my children’s lives was difficult enough and I can largely set my own hours. Nowadays, as they are older (10 and 12) it’s a lot easier, although I do still have to work through school holidays, which can be tricky. Also, at this time of year, the odd phone call from school asking me to pick up my daughter when she is unwell can be very challenging, especially in the middle of a busy casting day!
How have caring responsibilities changed your work practices over time? Are you surprised by where you are now?
All I can say to new mums is ‘it gets easier!’ I have become more time efficient, organized to the point of near-perfection and a master at leaving the kids’ problems at home and not taking them into my work day. It’s amazing how much you can get done first thing in the morning before school drop off – kids’ breakfasts, finishing off homework, filling in forms for school trips, walking the dog, doing the washing and chatting through the girls’ playground problems – all before 9am.
One of my children has low-level special needs and I have to attend a lot of meetings with school/disabilities teams/therapists etc. This can be hugely challenging to organise.
It’s hard not to feel guilty when I’m running late because I’m finishing off a phone call or my casting is running over, but it does happen of course.
Has parenting affected any specific project you’ve worked on and if so in what way? In particular, working with other parents – either directors, producers or performers?
I always appreciate when actors or their agents let me know about their own childcare commitments; it makes it easier if production has the heads-up from the outset. This is at booking stage of course, as we don’t want anyone discriminating against parents!
I’ve worked on several projects in Scandinavia and, I must say, they are much more accommodating than in this country. They are open to travelling a partner, grandparent or nanny and putting them up, per diems etc. It would be great if budgets in the UK would allow for contingency like this.
What advice would you offer someone thinking about becoming a casting director and wanting to have a family life as well?
Assisting is a good way in as this is more of a ‘day job’ with regular hours, so when you have small children it’s easier to plan childcare.
As a Head of Department on a film or TV drama, we are expected to take Skype calls with the US at ungodly hours as well as go to the theatre, film screenings and festivals. This means that there isn’t a regular routine, it’s much more freelance and ad hoc hours.
I’m currently working on a Cuban film where the director is in the US, one of the producers is in Canada and the other in Cuba – so you can imagine that when we are trying to get a conference call at least one of us is in their dressing gown! The Canadian producer is female with a young baby – I’ve Skyped with her breast-feeding while we talk through an actor’s deal. Luckily we can laugh about it together as I’ve been in that position myself!
What good or bad attitudes have you encountered in the industry?
This is particular to TV commercial castings: Directors and Agency producers are often insensitive, asking questions that contravene the Equalities Act of Great Britain. I obviously do step in and say “it’s illegal to ask whether a woman is pregnant or about an actor’s age/religion/sexuality etc.,” but occasionally one slips through the net.
Do you ever involve your family in your work? How do they understand what you do at work all day?
I’ve had to take my 12 year old to work in the past. I used her as a ‘runner’ – getting her to tick actor’s names off as they come in to the casting – and made a few jokes about ‘child labour’. I managed to get away with it.
As I have daughters, I want them to be proud of what I’ve achieved, I can model how to have a successful career and run a household at the same time.
Things do come undone and the family has to take a back seat but I pick up the pieces and put the puzzle back together. It’s impossible to be superhuman all the time ☺