Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Casting Director Mark Bennett's "Thoughts on Compassion"

The prominent casting director Mark Bennett, whose recent credits include Kathryn Bigelow's stunning Hurt Locker, and Niki Caro's upcoming The Vintner's Luck, was kind enough to share his thoughts on compassion with us. I've known Mark for years, and have always found him to be smart and passionate, but I wasn't prepared for what he had to say about compassion. His thoughts truly echo my own, and it's no surprise that his work is of such consistently stunning quality given the genuine depth of his compassion. Thanks, too, to Monique Gabriela Curnen (full disclosure, an Authentic client) who Mark talks about in the piece.
Mark Bennett

Recently, an actress ca
me in to read for me for a film that I was casting. She was one of the many in LA who are talented but are still struggling - and it was a big role. She was visibly nervous, and said so.

"Why?" I said. "We're all in this together."

She looked at me like I was speaking another language.

And in a way, I probably was. The movie business is rough, and we're told so often that it's a bloodsport that we start to believe it. I see it happen to actors: the first time I meet them, they're usually happy to be there, excited to be able to practice their craft. A few
years later, some of the ones who haven't yet "made it" (and who are concerned with that sort of thing) start to feel jaded and bitter. They resent the process; they have a lot to say about other actors, always negative; they're bitchy in the waiting room and mean to the assistants. They are angry - and you can feel it in their work. They resent having been denied every role they've ever auditioned for, even the bad ones, mainly because they thought that that part could have led to a better part, which eventually would have led them…where? At what point would they have finally been happy?

When actors ask for advice on plotting their careers, the question I usually ask them is not, Whose career do you want?, but rather, whose life do you want? Will it really make you happy to get in that magazine? To make that much more money? No one lies on their death bed wishing that they had made more money.

I've been as guilty of this as anyone. For years, I chased imaginary carrots in front of my nose, trying to push to the head of the pack, and resenting those ahead of me. The problem with life is that there is always someone ahead of you - someone with more money, or more influence. Stubborn as I am, it took me years to learn this. I had bought the lie that society tries to sell us, that the world is defined by lack, and that the more that other people get, the less there will be for you.

Meanwhile, my life got incredibly small. I felt lonely a lot. In the words of Billy Wilder, "If you don't go to other people's funerals, they won't go to yours."

Now, I am a logical person; I am a big fan of whatever works. And I've come to discover that, more than anything, schadenfreude (rooting for other people to fail) is bad not just because it's bad for your karma but because it doesn't work. I see it with actors at auditions. The actors who book the jobs are the ones who are open, interested, who are happy to be there. It's the bitter or resentful ones that stink up the room, that get the bad reputations. Who wants to hire an actor who has a chip on their shoulder, who is ful
l of resentment? Ironically, it's that same grim resolution to succeed that keeps them from succeeding.

We all come into this world innocent, full of hope. As long as babies' basic needs are met, they are happy. That's why young children are such good actors - they have come not to impress or to achieve, but to play. Then that innocence gets drilled out of us and we spend years trying to get it back; as Sainte-Beuve said, "There exists in most men a poet who died young, whom the man survived." But we still all have the desire to tap into our innate creativity, to experience that moment of transcendence in which we are
most creative, and most generous. William Blake called this mysterious power the Imagination, and he said it was God.

So if you accept that we all start from that same place of innocence, then it is impossible not to feel compassion for others - and eventually, for yourself. Now, whenever I hear about a movie star throwing a tantrum on set, or a director dressing down some poor p.a., I think, Wow. They must be one frightened little child, to feel like they have to fight so hard to prove their own importance. And then I say a little prayer for them.

Now when I say a "prayer", I'm not referring to working within any
organized religion or belief system. By prayer, I mean just good wishes, a happy little thought. Whenever actors are anxious about an audition, I tell them, "Say a little prayer, first for yourself and then for everybody else in the room - even the other actors. You'll feel generous and less resentful, and then your work will get better." And it does. I see it all the time.

I like to refer to my friend Monique Curnen. I first met Monique years ago, when she was an actress just starting out in New York. What always distinguished Monique, even more than her talent, was her generosity. She always showed up happy to be there, and eager to be of service. Because
of this, people rooted for her, and she steadily built up her resume. Two years ago, I was delighted to receive a call from Monique, in which she told me she had to cancel our plans because she'd booked a role in a film.

The film? The Dark Knight.

Right after that, she booked a lead on a TV show, and has been working steadily ever since. Throughout it all, she has remained a really nice person, even since moving to LA (which is no mean feat).

She's going to have a very long career.

Like I said, I am a logical person: I practice compassion because it works. Simple as that.
Do you hear that, actors? Mark casts major movies, and he's telling you that compassion works. Not just in theory--in real, live practice!

Wow, Mark. Thanks so much. I'm sitting here trying to think of something to add, and I can't think of anything.



  1. Thanks so much for article, already I feel more at peace:)
    Monique Carmona

  2. very inspiring. we all could use and give a little compassion, thanks!

  3. Love love it! All true! -Lauren Pritchard

  4. Hi, could someone tell me how you ended up at this site? Thanks!


  5. A lovely thought - we are all in this together. - Jen Bascom

  6. What a wonderful way to start my afternoon...thank you for brightening my day with this heart-warming (and refreshingly honest!) piece.

  7. this is a fantastic article! the best thing about it is the realization that the word schadenfreude is in ANOTHER LANGUAGE!!! let's make sure that we follow this advice so that we NEVER have a word that means "rooting for other people to fail" in our own lexicon.

  8. Hi, could someone tell me how you ended up at this site? Thanks!

    I just googled images "Mark Bennett casting director" My daughter, Courtney Baxter http://www.imdb.me/courtneybaxter , has a callback with him in NYC for an HBO pilot he is casting. He did not have any photos on IMDBPro, so we were curious. It was a nice treat to find such an inspiring and completely honest article. Thanks for posting it!

  9. I read about how aspiring actors begin to resent other successful actors because they are rejected by every role...I feel that in order to be an successful actor you got to be as humble as a homeless man. I would be sooo happy if I am casted for an extra & I would be so happy if I made 15 dollars for only having my nails shown in a Sally hansen commercial...sometimes aspiring actors are too rediculously narcists...i believe beautiful narcism should be displayed in a press interview- never in the middle of the night when it emotionally distresses a persons life. One of leo-dicaprio first acting roles was when he had to act as a mentally challenged child and that is how most successfull and respected actors begin.
    - ali xoxo @princesshotmess (twitter)

  10. Dear Mark, this was a very nice piece and very relevant! I was checking out the internet to get a bit more info on you as I felt led to take your class in Wilmette Il along with my daughter Trinity. We were in LA for awhile as Trinity was scouted here in Chicago on an audition and I used to dabble in the Chicago market..graduated from Second City many years ago.I have to totally agree with you on the acting biz and showbiz thing..it can be brutal,beyond competitive and to say the least a really soul searching process. I love your attitude and am so delighted we will get to work with you in the next few days! I am a writer as well and I appreciate when people take time and energy to share from the heart and reach out to help others!