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Hi I'm Emily Maguire

I'm a UK career coach and business coach for individuals in the creative and entertainment industries and passionate about helping people achieve their career goals. I'm also a top voice on LinkedIn for the Film Industry and a podcast producer and host.

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Emily Maguire UK Career Coach and Business Coach for the arts, creative and entertainment industry

Empowerment and Collaboration: Insights from Casting Director Shakyra Dowling

In episode 7 of the Inside Entertainment Industry Podcast, I had the pleasure of speaking with casting director Shakyra Dowling. Passionate about empowering women and a fierce champion of emerging and diverse talent, Shakyra paints a picture of a typical casting director day and shares advice on gaining work experience for those considering casting as a career.

Empowerment and Collaboration: Insights from Shakyra Dowling

Shakyra Dowling, a casting director, shares her career journey and insights into the world of casting. She started as an actor and then transitioned into casting after a negative audition experience. She emphasises the importance of balance in understanding the script and the director's vision to find actors while also serving the producer's budget and goals.


Shakyra highlights the collaborative nature of casting and the need to find the right fit for each role. She advises aspiring casting directors to gain work experience in various areas of the industry and develop negotiation skills. She also encourages finding joy and balance in the work and taking time for oneself and personal well-being.

 


Introduction and Early Career Journey

 

Emily:

Hi Shakyra, thank you so much for joining me today.

 

Shakyra Dowling:

Thanks, it's lovely to be here.

 

Emily:

It's so lovely to have you, and you're going to share your career journey in the world of a casting director, but you also started out as an actor and producing theatre back in the 1990s, so you've been in this industry quite a while, haven't you? How did you get that inspiration to think I want to be an actor and then I want to become a casting director?

 

Shakyra Dowling:

To be honest, I had no idea what I wanted to do when I was younger. So I toyed with an art degree, dropped out of that, and then came to the UK and started auditioning for drama schools. It kind of just flowed from there, to be honest, and then, in terms of casting, I fell into it.


I had a theatre production company in the 1990s. It was innovative in its own way because we developed new female writers and had an all-female cast in everything we did. So we were quite lucky at the time; there was a bit more funding for that sort of thing than there is now.


Riverside Studios helped us along by giving us free space to rehearse and create, and we took a show to Edinburgh to the assembly rooms, which was actually funded by Riverside Studios at the time. I'd been casting my own shows the whole time. So I knew what I was already doing because I'd had that experience and then I came back from Edinburgh and I had very little money as most people do when they come back from Edinburgh. I got a job working for Kenwright in the West End and, you know, within that, they kind of just handed me some CVs one day, and they were casting a show and just said, can you know actors, have a look through these. And I assisted on that in a very odd, you know, runner sort of way, to be honest.

 

Emily:

So, it was a combined experience. Did you actually go to drama school?

 

Shakyra Dowling:

I did. So I've had that experience, which is great when I've got actors in the room because I know where they're coming from. I know the processes to get there and then get the job. I've auditioned, so I've been on that side of the camera, as it were. I think that's really instrumental in how I work with actors in the room. I know what to give them to, what they need in a way.


Emily:

Communicate and understand them a little bit better.

 

The Art of Casting


Shakyra Dowling:

Yeah, I love working with actors, I have to say. And being in the room is just the best experience. Now we have so many self-tapes, as I'm sure you all know, that we're only really doing callbacks or chemistry reads in the room, which is a sad thing in one way, but it does let us cast the net a bit wider than just the London area or just the UK, in fact.

 

Emily:

So, there are some positives and negatives regarding the self-tapes.

 

Shakyra Dowling:

There is, I think, a wider reach and more access to actors than ever. I think when I first started, people used to literally, you know, hand over Manila envelopes all the time, and Spotlight was still a book. Would you believe it? The internet was not widely used in that way. So, if you imagine you were an actor at that time, you wouldn't have as many opportunities unless you were in London. You know, you definitely didn't have the sort of European casting that you accessed through Spotlight or whatever platforms you're on.

 

It's definitely changed for the better. It's better for the actor as well. If you're going to meet a director and a casting director, you can access what they've done, what they've cast, and what their taste is in terms of the director's work. We had nothing in those days. We were going in blind as an actor.

 

Emily:

How did you transition from casting for others to starting your own company?

 

Shakyra Dowling:

To be honest, I had two children, so I had a bit of a break, as most people do, and I was still acting alongside all of this. Then, I think it was when my eldest daughter was just a month or two months old, and I had a cast for a major role in a big soap opera. I'd given my baby to a childminder, and I was very anxious about that. I travelled to Elstree; it's all costing money, and it's all anxiety over leaving your child. It was the worst audition I'd ever had in my life, really. I felt the casting director didn't give me much time or the space to breathe in that role. I left there quite upset and quite angry.

 

I told a friend in the park with our children about this experience. She was like, you could do that, couldn't you? I was like, absolutely could do that so much better than that experience was. It was the birth of my thinking about being a casting director, and within a month or so, I had a friend ask me to cast their short film, filmmaker friend, and before you knew it, it kind of just rolled on from there. So, I felt like my career chose me in a way. It all felt right. All of a sudden, everything fell into place.

 

Emily:

A negative experience you turn into a positive, and does that affect you in terms of how you potentially work with people, parents that have young children as well?


Balancing Creativity and Business

 

Shakyra Dowling:

Absolutely. I know what that's like, and I think it's all more accepting these days anyway. I mean, most of my assistants have children. So even you know, I know when they have hospital appointments or doctor's appointments or have to take someone to school, we're very flexible in my office, we work really well together. I think that's key in a way. But I do think nowadays, there's a lot more understanding.


I do remember when I first started as a casting director, I was working with male producers, predominantly male directors at the time. I didn't even mention that I had children; you're expected to be on call, you know, at ten o'clock at night to take a call to LA or whatever. I just hid that away from the world in a way I kept my personal life completely out of it. Now I think, actually, it's part of who I am in it. It shapes what I do, and I, you know, similarly for my staff, I really want that to be positive. You're bringing something to the table, and what you bring is your life experience at the end of the day.

 

Emily:

We briefly discussed how it used to be regarding actors sending in their materials. Have there been any other changes within the industry since you started as a casting director to 2024?

 

Shakyra Dowling:

Using self-tapes is the biggest thing that's happened to all of us. It has really changed the industry quite drastically. As soon as they came up online, showreels were really useful and very helpful. Nowadays, it's just a touch of a button to let everyone know that that role or that film has been cast. Again, it gives actors a bit of control rather than not hearing back and wondering if anything was ever going to come from it.


But saying that also, the good thing about self-tape is we do remember people from their tapes for other jobs a lot easier because it's on a hard drive, it's there, it's a physical thing that can be looked over again. So I often say, we're casting, I don't know, a 70-year-old man and both of my staff will go, wow, we had some great ones in for that role on that job. Let's review those and get some of those guys to read for us.

 

Emily:

I love that some of the themes which are coming through are very much a sense of empowerment in terms of the people you work with and the actors.

 

Shakyra Dowling:

Absolutely, I think that's the most important thing. We're in a creative industry; you never know what tomorrow will bring. This is an exciting part of being a freelancer. But it's also quite anxiety-ridden. So I think the more we can get rid of that and give people the power to make them feel like they have some control over their career, the better.


The Collaborative Nature of Casting


Emily:

You've also worked on so many different projects. What's been some of the favourite projects that you've worked on so far?

 

Shakyra Dowling:

I get asked this all the time; honestly, it's always the project I'm working on at the time. I think this is the best, and then something else comes up, and this is the best. So, no, I don't really have any favourites. I fall in love with all the projects that I work on. I'm in a very lucky position now to choose to work on things or not work on things if I don't connect with the script and I don't think it's right for me to cast.

 

So, generally, I tend to be in love with whatever I'm working with. You'd be surprised how long it takes to get through a casting crew screening. And I would have been working perhaps a year before that on the project, a year before it even gets made. So, it can be two years of experience before I see it on a screen. And I'm still as proud as I was of that cast as a day when we signed all the CAN type thing.

 

Emily:

It's almost like it's your baby, and you watch it grow to that endpoint when it's on the screen.

 

Shakyra Dowling:

That's a good way of putting it, but I would say it's more like a family I've created, and then they've gone off and made a film. I've put this little family together, and then they go off and do amazing things. And yeah, that does make you feel proud.

 

Emily:

I really do love all these themes that are coming through, such as empowerment. What does it look like working as a casting director?

 

Shakyra Dowling:

Well, on a Monday morning, you can wake up to about 300 emails in my inbox, let alone my two assistants. The hard thing is that I have to weed out who my clients are who need an immediate response. Or a deal that we're doing with an agent, and they need to be on set next week. All of those are the most important emails.


This morning, I was doing two deals for actors who are shooting next week, which involves a lot of paperwork and a lot of negotiations. Then it's ideas lists for jobs that are currently casting or development casting is what we call when we're trying to attach a name to a script for them to finance that film or that TV show finally.


Those are the creative parts, you know, putting ideas together, or if it's a role that we put out on Spotlight again, I'm looking through. People's showreels, choosing who we want to tape, and then my assistants take over from there, requesting tapes, etc, and organizing job boxes.

 

A Day in the Life of a Casting Director


Emily:

What's the typical working day start, and how late could you finish?

 

Shakyra Dowling:

This morning, my first text arrived at 8:15 a.m., and that was from a producer. Actually, there were three producers on a group WhatsApp; the latest was at 9.30 pm or 10 pm at night. But that's not everyone you're working with; there are those who are early and late.

 

If you've got a call with LA, it tends to be late, 7:30 pm or 8 pm at night. So, it varies depending on the project and who you're working with. If you're working with Europe, it's very nice because they finish earlier than us. So, it really does depend on who I'm working with.

 

Emily:

And do you find that sometimes you could work seven days a week?

 

Shakyra Dowling:

Absolutely. When it comes to crunch time, there's always a week in every project, which is the week when everyone is biting their nails because you've got, you know, the costume department going. Have we got sizes for these people? It's like they're not even locked yet. No, their contracts are not locked. Every single department is kind of on edge. That's the sort of frantic week, and that's when you can work quite long hours, and definitely on weekends.

 

Career Advice for Newcomers

 

Emily:

So, what advice do you have for those who are looking to enter the industry and become casting directors, and how to get some experience?

 

Shakyra Dowling:

Well, work experience is always good. I may sometimes take on work experience and internships. A lot of casting directors do have interns from time to time. Even agents have internships, and actually, that's useful. That really does shape the business experience side of things. Casting is 50 % creative and 50 % business. Deal-making and understanding contracts are quite business-related. Creatively talking to the director, understanding their vision and putting the exciting people before them to see their vision appear in real life.


It is really good to understand the business side from everyone's perspective: from the producer's perspective, from an agent's perspective, and the casting side. The practical experience is learning the backend of Spotlight and all the other casting platforms and understanding what goes into putting a breakdown out.

 

Choosing people you want, seeing who gets chosen, understanding why they got chosen, watching loads of showreels. Finding your taste as a casting director is quite key. I don't cast in the same way as any other casting director. They have their taste, and I have mine. I'm sure there are many crossovers, which is why people win BAFTAs, but it's finding your way of spotting talent. I'm not sure if you can learn that, to be honest.


If you're watching a program or if you want to come into casting, You're watching a TV program, finding why that person was cast and what you like about them, what you see in them, and then looking at other roles they've been cast as to understand why they are such a superstar. What was it that made everyone stand up and go? My God, she's amazing. he's amazing. My favourite thing is casting 16-year-olds. They have very little experience, if any, unless they were a child actor. They haven't been to drama school or been shaped by that, and you can really spot talent and see that spark, and you know when someone will be amazing.

 

Emily:

A sort of raw talent about them?

 

Shakyra Dowling:

Yes, yes, there's something. The first time we saw Florence Pugh was in a very small film called The Falling, a very low-budget independent film, and she was in a secondary role, but I think the whole industry went, who is that girl? Who is that girl? The casting director found that girl, who is now an A-list actress in Hollywood.

 

Emily:

Do you think it's beneficial to get some on-set experience, maybe as a runner, to learn the ins and outs of film production as well?

 

Shakyra Dowling:

It's not necessary. It will always help. Any experience will help. But to be honest, production is quite different from casting. I know a few of my assistants did have some work experience. I think one of them was a third Wardrobe person, for example, just ironing clothes and stuff. That didn't give her direct experience, but I think just understanding how big this machine is that makes a film takes an army.


Negotiation Skills

 

Emily:

So, what would you say is one of the most challenging aspects of your job, and how do you handle that challenge?

 

Shakyra Dowling:

The main challenge is understanding the script. So, read lots of scripts and understand the director's vision for that role, that script, that story. Yet still serve the producer, who has whatever limited budget they have and still has to hit the key points of being able to sell this film. So you've got two masters in a way, and it's finding the person who works for everyone for your lead role.

 

It's managing expectations, I think; it's very collaborative. It's not one person's decision who gets cast. It really isn't, and then for those extra roles, you're creating the world that that film is in. I always say to actors, when you're going for those day player roles, it's not about how good you are; it's about whether you fit with the rest of the jigsaw puzzle. So, for example, if it were a shopkeeper, I would see five actors probably of different ages, ethnicities, and types because that shopkeeper could be anyone. It's just what fits in my jigsaw puzzle at the end of the day.

 

Emily:

It's somebody who helps bring that vision that you've got in your mind to life.

 

Shakyra Dowling:

Yeah, somebody who brings the world to the screen. So, an audience understands exactly where you are and what's happening.

 

Emily:

When you look back over your career, have you received any advice from people that has stayed with you and is still useful?

 

Shakyra Dowling:

At the beginning of my career, I asked for a lot of advice and didn't always get it. I think it was more of a closed shop, casting at the time. It was a small community, and it was quite hard to break. It was hard to go anywhere if you didn't work for those top five casting directors as an assistant and then an associate.

 

Nowadays, there's obviously the NFTS course, the Shaheen heads up, which is brilliant. Those people get a lot of opportunities to meet casting directors to assist with those. People are more open. One of my assistants was a second AD, an assistant director on television shows. Her skill set really matched mine and what I look for in an assistant. I'm super organised; I use databases, spreadsheets, and a lot of them. So I guess it's more of an open shop than it was before. There are hundreds of casting directors now. Back in the 90s, there were all of 25, maybe.

 

People have their own niche in a way. So I often do European co-productions, lots of independent cinema, art house films, and other casting directors you'll find will have their niche. It's because work brings work, you know, you get recommended by your clients to people who do similar work. For example, I've done many Swedish noir films, mainly because I've worked really well on one, and then someone's passed my name on to somebody else, and I love that genre anyway.


So yes, you'll find most casting directors have their niche. I know some casting directors who are just doing street casting, mainly on commercials. Everyone's got their thing and where they sit in the industry. Not that there isn't crossover because there's lots of crossover. But it's interesting to look out for that if you were coming into the industry to research casting directors.

 

Emily:

Are there any professional bodies for casting directors that people should look at?

 

Shakyra Dowling:

Yes, it's hard to join without experience, of course. I'm part of the Casting Society of America, the Casting Directors Association in the UK, and the CDG in the UK. All of these are very good and very helpful. They can give advice on Equity or SAG or help you understand those new contracts with Netflix, etc. They're key to keeping our industry standards up, and there are always jobs for assistants, which is useful, I think, if you are looking for work.


Finding Joy and Balance in the Work

 

Emily:

We touched upon the advice that you got, but have you personally learned any wisdom that you think could be of use to our listeners?

 

Shakyra Dowling:

I've learned negotiation skills along the way, and I'm unsure if you can learn that without experience. You know you learn from your mistakes. I'd say yeah, negotiation skills are really key. also, have fun. That's the main thing. I mean, I love what I do. I feel totally privileged to have the career I have. I really enjoy every aspect of it. I love working with directors. I love film. I think that's the thing. Whichever part of the industry you go into, fall in love with it. It makes things so much more fun, easier, and so much more enjoyable. There's a lot of pressure, especially in those last weeks before something starts shooting. To be honest, there's a lot of pressure on everyone, and I think we all need to breathe.

 

Emily:

Do you have any tips on how to find that timeout and that balance?

 

Shakyra Dowling:

I should take those tips myself, to be honest. I used to do yoga all the time. I've somehow dropped out of that. I walk the dog, I put on a podcast, funnily enough, and I walk the dog every morning, and that's my time on my own. I live very close to Alexandra Palace. So there are lots of nice walks and lots of green and lots of great views of London. That clears my head and starts my day really well. I mean, this weekend I was gardening all weekend, and I find that's really part of my meditation in a way, and I think everyone will find their own. Whatever really gives you that joy and puts you into that space where you're not thinking about anything else.

 

Emily:

I think that's a nice note to finish on, as well, in terms of finding that balance and inner peace.

 

Shakyra Dowling:

Absolutely, yes. Don't sacrifice your own life for anything.

 

Emily:

Thank you so much. Those 30 minutes provided so much insight, and I think our listeners have a lot to absorb, consider, and think about in the world of casting.

 

Shakyra Dowling:

Thank you. Thanks for having me.


Short Biography:


Shakyra is a fierce champion of emerging and diverse talent. Past projects have included nominations at the BAFTAs, BIFAs, Berlinale, Sundance, and TIFF. Working across film, television, and commercials, Shakyra has been nominated for several casting awards, including the Artios Casting Society of America Awards.


Recent casting includes the Swedish biopic Hammerskjold directed by Per Fly (Bogen) with Mikael Persbrandt in the lead role, BFI backed The Occupant,  Hugo Keijzer’s directorial debut, with Ella Balinska and Nathalie Biancheri’s Wolf with George MacKay, Lily Rose-Depp and Paddy Considine.

 

Shakyra is currently working on Peter Greenaway's Lucca Mortis with Dustin Hoffman and Helen Hunt and Desperate Journey, directed by Annabel Jankel (Tell it to the Bees) and starring Til Schweiger, Steven Berkoff, and Sienna Guillory.

 

Shakyra cast Sasha Nathwani's Last Swim, starring Narges Rashidi and ‘Screen International Star of Tomorrow 2022’ Solly McLeod, premiered at Berlinale 2024, winning a Crystal Bear.


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Want to know more about Shakyra Dowling?

You can find out more about Shakyra on her website.

 

Or, view Shakyra's film credits on IMDB.


IG: @shakyradowlingcasting

Twitter: @shakyradowling

 

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