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Saltburn’s Casting Director on how she street casts for commercials

D&AD’s Casting Jury President Kharmel Cochrane explains how to make the casting process more humane

Image from the Yellow Pencil-winning Me, My Autism & I by Havas London in partnership with Ambitious about Autism, Channel 4, and Vanish

Kharmel Cochrane cut her cast teeth as a Casting Director on Daniel Wolfe’s music video Time to Dance (2012) starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Callum Turner. She followed this up with award-winning films Lilting (2014) and Home (2016). Over the past 11 years, Cochrane has worked across film, television and commercials on projects that include The End of the F**king World, The Lighthouse and The Silent Twins, and has earned a reputation for championing inclusivity and diversity. Her most recent projects include John Wick: Chapter 4 (2023), Gran Turismo (2023) and Saltburn (2023). Here, 2024’s D&AD Casting Jury President explains the challenges the casting industry currently faces and what she’s personally doing to overcome them. 

What is happening in the industry right now that is exciting you?

It feels as though there is so much more creativity in casting right now. When I first started casting over 17 years ago now, it all felt more traditional. Often ads would focus around one hero and there certainly wasn't much diversity.  We would be asked to streetcast to find a performer who was really niche (I remember once casting a Paul Weiland Walker's ad where we had to try and find a yogi who could hold a packet of crisps whilst in a pretty wild yoga pose). Some of my favourite casting in ads has been working on Daniel Wolfe jobs where we often cast non-actors. I think it's a mix of using actors and non-traditional performers which can completely elevate a piece. It also allows you to champion diversity and allow access into an industry for those that might have not thought it was for them.  

How do you usually street cast for commercials?

There are so many different ways now and the presence of social media has allowed us to open up and scale globally. We often post briefs on our socials. Many of my friends find the specificity hilarious, particularly recently when we were looking for a female dry stone waller for a specific job for McVities, and we did actually find that person through Instagram. In the past we would have travelled around with a mix of research and it would have taken weeks. Good and bad, social media makes everything a lot more accessible, so there's kind of a two-pronged attack with street casting. You use social media and do some research but then you also physically go out and pound the streets.

Image from the Yellow Pencil-winning Native Sportscasters by We Believers New York for AB InBev and Corona Extra

What are the opportunities in the casting industry right now?

For so long, the exorbitant cost of travel and the short notice of what we do has been an inhibitor. I think it's always great to be in the room with actors but now Zoom callbacks can work. This allows people who don't live in London to have similar access to these jobs and not have travel costs restrict them. Or to have those working, studying or caring to have greater flexibility and a bit more agency. And that never really happened before. It’s allowing us to see a lot more people, but on the flipside of that, there is more admin involved in letting those know when they haven't got a part or the job has been closed. We’re just trying to adapt at the same pace that things are changing. 

What is a challenge the commercial casting industry currently faces?

Something that I come across often with diversity and inclusion is that a lot of ad agencies are really trying to do the right thing and trying to be progressive which is great. But sometimes in trying to push things forward, it's a puerile exercise to simply tick a box. If someone sends over a brief that says ‘open to people with disabilities’, I always push them and ask questions like: where’s the location? Is it wheelchair accessible? Have you got a BSL interpreter? A blanket statement is not enough because people have very specific requirements that need to be thought through in advance before the casting and before a callback. You have to make sure that you’re not just paying lip service to something that actually isn't possible.

How has inclusivity and diversity in the industry improved?

When I first started, there was pretty much no diversity. I remember getting scripts, and the way that they would speak about mixed-race people was horrific. I'd be on calls with people who would say things not realising that I was of dual heritage.  Nobody could actually see what I looked like; they would just form an opinion based on how I sounded.  Things are better, I think, and more representative. I think there's still room to grow, but it's progressing. My niece has got cerebral palsy and is in a wheelchair, and there are more people that look like her on screen now, which is wonderful.

Image from the Yellow Pencil-winning Teenage Dream by BBDO New York for Sandy Hook Promise

Is there something you’ve learned in your career that you’d like to share with others?

12 years ago, when I first started my own company, we would just whack people into the room, I mean there would be days when we’d see 150 people in one day for a music video. No real thought to how those actors would feel. I think going back to having more humanity and compassion and having an understanding that there should be no hierarchy is important. It shouldn’t be, ‘I need this so you jump’. I'd much rather have, ‘We need to achieve this and could you kindly help us’ — in a way that makes everyone feel good. Sadly, on commercials with quick turnarounds it isn't always possible, but I think a lot more explanation and transparency in the process helps.

What are you going to be looking for in D&AD Award-winning work?

It has to be imaginative and innovative in a way that pushes the craft of casting forward. If I watch something and go, ‘Oh, I know who that person is’, I guess I'm less excited. I want to see work that I'm jealous of. I want to see work where I really think, ‘Oh, I wish I'd done that. Why didn't I do that? Who cast it? And why wasn't it me?’

D&AD Awards 2024 is now open for entries. The Casting category celebrates the casting of actors, unrepresented talent, influencers and children for commercial design and advertising projects. Judges prioritise craft over idea in this category. Learn more about and enter the Casting category here.

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