A trailblazing casting director tells us how she got her start
We spoke to Sue Odell about her forty-year career and how the industry has evolved over that time
Sue Odell’s natural eye for diverse talent, passion for supporting actors and instinct for street casting have made her a trailblazer in the casting industry. D&AD Awards 2022’s top-ranking casting director, she was also awarded a Graphite Pencil in 2022 for casting the Black Pencil-winning campaign Hopeline19, which was a free phone service for people to leave messages for frontline workers in the NHS during the pandemic.
Here, Odell tells us how her career kicked off after a chance encounter at a dinner party and how she finds inspiration working on cause-led campaigns she believes in.
Making contacts everywhere
I didn’t know casting was a job when I started out. I had gone to art school, and I was a graphic designer and worked in magazines and TV for quite a few years, and my first job was on a daily news programme. One day, my next-door neighbour, who was a photographer's assistant, invited me over for dinner and I met the photographer she worked with, Iain McKell. He liked my energy and asked me to put on an exhibition of his work in his studio in London.
I left that night and thought of an idea and I came back about a week later and I said, “We're going to go to lots of comedy clubs and events and photograph people I know, like (English actors) Dawn French, Jennifer Saunders, Robbie Coltrane and Adrian Edmondson.” We had people come in and be photographed ‘live’ in his studio and served drinks and it had a ripple effect, we got some press and it was a positive thing for both Ian and me.
Developing creative relationships
After the success of that shoot Ian and I started working together and I took his portfolio into some advertising agencies, which led to us getting a Smirnoff campaign. I cast a girl I found in Camden Market, and the whole project through street casting. I did all the location hunting, I did all the props, the whole production, everything.
I worked with Ian for four years and we got absolutely loads of work. I didn't know that there was a word for what I was doing, ‘the casting director’, and it just evolved. From there, I then printed out a little card with a couple of pieces of work on them and I sent them out to lots of photographers and the first person to ring me up was the British photographer Lord Snowdon.
I had worked on an anti-drugs campaign which featured hands and he wanted to cast a Cartier campaign with a variety of hands. I found all kinds of people to model for the campaign, including these African twins with beautiful long fingernails, a very old man, and even a baby we shot holding a ring.
Routes into the industry today
A common start these days is to begin as a casting assistant or work in an acting agency. It's really good to see both sides of the work. It’s also good to work on smaller productions. Obviously everyone wants to work in Hollywood, but if you are working on small things happening at the Edinburgh Festival or on the Camden Fringe and then making your own productions and films and meeting people, you’re learning the nuts and bolts of the profession.
At the beginning it's a lot of writing to people and being really positive and most importantly keeping an eye out for talent and then writing individual, personal letters and emails. I got one the other day that was addressed to another casting director — and it's just got to be a bit more personal than that. Do a bit of research, you have to flatter people a bit without going over the top. You just never stop keeping an eye out for interesting people; you have to go out and keep your camera with you all the time to ask people if you can take pictures of them. Assisting someone can also be a good learning experience for people in the beginning.
Meet the actors
My biggest tip is to get out and meet people and meet actors. Go to live theatre. It doesn't have to cost lots of money; if you're under 25, you can get into the Young Vic, the Almeida and the National Theatre for a fiver. Go to these amazing theatres and don't think you have to just go to the West End, you will discover people in every type of venue. Pub theatres also have amazing productions going on every night of the week. That's how you're going to start in the business.
D&AD’s Foot in the Door series asks creatives to share their unique route into building a creative career. Read more interviews with the likes of a director they call the ‘King of the Super Bowl’ and a copywriter who transitioned from music to advertising, here.