Dubai casting director Miranda Davidson on why talent trumps looks in her book, the surest ways to tank an audition, and why the local culture has yet to fully cultivate the power of media
There's a promotional mug on casting director Miranda Davidson's office desk emblazoned with her company's logo and the words 'Where dreams do come true'. It sounds a tad too clichéd until we meet the Afghani translator from Al Ain she got cast in a speaking role next to Brad Pitt in Netflix's War Machine, and the former Kenyan waitress she discovered at a Dubai café, who landed parts as an extra in the same film. If there's one impression you take away from a spirited chat with Miranda, it's that demographics are no bar for her when it comes to finding the next big star from the UAE.
The American expat started out working for talent management companies in New York and Los Angeles, before setting up her own casting company, Miranda Davidson Studios, in Dubai in 2009. She has since cast for every major Hollywood film to come to the UAE over the last decade, including Star Trek Beyond and Michael Bay's 6 Underground. "Everything except Star Wars," she clarifies, with a broad smile.
As someone who's been championing the growth of the local film industry for years now, she finds its positives easy to identify - such as how its "preemie" status offers aspiring actors great learning opportunities, and its transient nature means people can "incubate their careers here" before going on to more established markets. When international industry visitors comment on how things are done differently 'back home', she's quick to point out that it's just not possible to compare the local market with Hollywood's illustrious 100-year-old history.
Having said that though, her primary message is loud and clear: if we want to be on par with the global market, there's got to be a better way to cast than we've been seeing in the past.
The problem with the process
The challenges are many, says Miranda. "There's no motivation for talent to get better at their craft because they're often treated with little respect, for one. They're also not given the same financial incentives. In America, if you land a national commercial, you don't have to work for the rest of the year," she explains. "Here, you land a national commercial, and you're lucky if you can pay rent with that money. The UAE needs to recognise that their strength is within its human resources. Until we value that, we can't even begin to put forth a strong casting process."
Is her job as glamorous as it seems? "Heck, no," she laughs. "I'd say anyone who thinks moviemaking is glamorous has never made a movie." It's a point she believes cannot be underscored enough.
"Do you remember that scene from The Devil Wears Prada?" Miranda is referring to the epic monologue Meryl Streep's character (ironically, also named Miranda) delivers as she dresses down Anne Hathaway's character for scoffing at the fashion industry, when even the sweater the latter was wearing was, in truth, a representation of "millions of dollars and countless jobs".
"It's the same thing," the Miranda sitting across from me exclaims. "Acting is a career and filmmaking is a multi-billion-dollar business - but they're still treated as frivolous pursuits. In schools, they're taught as extra-curricular subjects. We want to give validity to doctors and engineers - and no one is saying those are not worthy professions - but the culture has not cultivated the power of media." Why not, she wants to know. "Filmmaking is the ancient art of storytelling on steroids. There will always be an industry for it."
'On your side'
To our left is a large glass cubicle. Miranda confirms that's where "the [casting] magic happens". So, what is she looking for when an acting hopeful walks in through her door? "Professionalism," she responds in a beat. "Someone who shows up on time, takes it with some amount of seriousness and isn't wasting my time. Also, bravery. Someone who's not afraid to come in and just be, which is so hard since we live in such a judgmental world. So, it's something I look for, but I understand it's also a tall order."
And how does one tank an audition? "Be rude. Be late. Be unprepared," she ticks off her fingers. According to her, one of the biggest misconceptions actors have about casting directors is that they're scary people who need to be impressed. Apparently, the perception couldn't be farther from the truth. "We're on your side," Miranda says in earnest. "We want you to get the job. It doesn't do me any good if you come into a casting room and are sub-par in your performance, so don't battle with me, because I'm your biggest cheerleader. I'm your advocate in the room."
Considering the massive emphasis the film industry is known to place on physical attributes, it's refreshing to hear Miranda say talent would trump looks in her book. "It really depends on what you define as looks," she says. "If I want to hire a mobster, I don't want a clean-shaven, 21-year-old model from Beverly Hills. You have to help us simulate the role. But also, look at Dustin Hoffman. He's not your stereotypical handsome guy. His breakthrough role was The Graduate. The story goes that his agent had to beg to get him the audition because they were looking for this strapping Ivy League kind of guy, and Dustin went in and played that role like only Dustin Hoffman could. He got the part - and it became the film that launched his career."
It is always in a casting director's interests to hone a talent's acting chops, but Miranda's approach to empowering her actors involves strongly encouraging them to diversify - into producing and writing as well. "In this day and age, it's really tough to just be an actor," she says, honestly. Not just in terms of eking out a living, but due to its real-world cultural implications too.
"I wrote a short movie with some young girls recently only to realise I didn't put any male characters in it," she explains. "All of a sudden, it dawned on me: I wrote from my perspective. So, if we predominantly have white men writing, directing and producing scripts, well, they're going to churn out 'white men' stories. It's true there are some who will go out of their way to tell somebody else's story, but it will still be told from their own perspective. Why are we waiting for someone else to write our own narrative?" she asks.
"They said movies with women and people of colour wouldn't sell, yet look what 12 Years A Slave and Hidden Figures did. It's just not true that only white men can sell at the box office. There's a whole world out there of people that want to hear the dark skin narrative, the fat guy narrative, the nerdy girl narrative. I think that talent, instead of being a victim of circumstance, needs to empower themselves by creating their own narratives and writing their own stories. Don't just sit around waiting for the phone to ring!"
One imagines that should be a call directed more towards scriptwriters, since not everyone is able to harness the power of the pen, but Miranda begs to differ. "You can still predominantly be an actor, but also sidebar as a scriptwriter," she believes, telling of how Sylvester Stallone - who was not a 'looker' and who talked 'funny' - wrote Rocky and refused to sell it unless they put him in it. The rest, as we know, is history.
"Go for the low-hanging fruit," she encourages. "If you need to put food on the table, do the commercials or the role you don't want to do, while you're cultivating that other side. But don't be a pawn in somebody else's narrative."
While the road to success is no red carpet, the continuing evolution of so many digital platforms today means it's also the best time to be an actor, according to Miranda, who will be speaking on the subject at ON.DXB, the region's first film, game, video and music festival, this weekend. "Steven Spielberg said it when the industry was shifting: more movies are getting made now than ever in history. So, now's the time."
Favourite film you've cast for to date.
A director you'd really like to work with.
Paul Haggis. He wrote and directed Crash. I would give my right ?arm to work on a ?project with him.
One thing you tell every aspiring actor.
Pet peeve during auditions.
Diva mentality. Check it at the door.
Greatest dream, professionally.
To get some sleep. I'm kidding! It's to help people without accessibility share in some of the joy of what we do.
LIVING THE DREAM
After 30 years of working behind the scenes in TV and film production, Dubai-based Keith Dallison has been exploring life in front of the camera of late. His latest outing was in the Yash Raj production, War, and he has also managed to get "a small part" in the Michael Bay-directed action thriller 6 Underground. "It was like watching a Formula One team in action," he says, commenting on what it was like to be on the set of Netflix's biggest budget film at the time. He'd love to see more film schools in the UAE that teach students the "artistic side" of the craft - something that he finds "oddly thin on the ground". It's not for lack of a rich culture either, because the poetry, the music - it's all there, he observes. "I'd love to see more local people acting in local films telling local stories. But till there's more education, they won't be able to make it as fantastic as it can be."
Abdul Wahab Abdul Hameed
Hired initially as a translator due to his ability to speak five languages, Al Ain-born Abdul Wahab couldn't believe his luck when he was cast in a speaking role next to Brad Pitt for the 2016 satirical film War Machine. The scene even made it to the worldwide trailer. "From childhood, we've only ever seen all these big actors on big screens and posters. Brad Pitt has been one of my favourite actors ever since I saw him in Troy. To work with him was a dream. I spent long hours shooting with him in Ras Al Khaimah and he never acted like a superstar. He was extremely friendly and made me feel like I'd known him for years. There were times I'd get frazzled because I couldn't get a take right, but he was always quick to encourage me to try again. I hope to be a full-time actor and would love to see acting schools become more accessible to people of all backgrounds."
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