With the help of technology, one alumna brought her Hollywood career home to Chicago
By Kate Silver
The chemistry between actors in a movie or TV show is one of the keys to a successful production. But long before those actors even meet, a great deal of work goes into choosing who will or won’t be saying the lines the audience ultimately hears. That falls to casting directors like Brittani Ward (CDM ’10), who works the most Hollywood of jobs right here in Chicago.
Years before Zoom became synonymous with remote work, Ward, who is founder and principal of Brittani Ward Casting, was doing her job from the Midwest. Contrary to popular belief, casting doesn’t have to happen in an audition room with directors and producers scouring through dozens of headshots and hearing auditions in rapid-fire succession. These days, actors frequently try out for roles by submitting prerecorded videos known as “self-tapes.” Self-tapes make it possible for casting directors and actors to live anywhere.
That fact, says Ward, has been especially helpful as production work resumes following the pause during the pandemic. “COVID is not going away, but the show must go on,” she says.
In fact, business is booming. Ward just wrapped up multiple projects, one of which was a 15-week gig as casting director for a horror movie that is currently in production in Los Angeles for release on a major streaming platform next year. This was the first feature film she cast during the pandemic, and her role was to select the best actors for 27 speaking roles. It was an enormous undertaking.
“I considered 400 actors for the lead role,” she says. “That’s out of 2,500 submissions I went through.” She whittled those 400 down to 60, whose self-tapes she shared with the director and production executives. From there, she selected four finalists and then cast the lead from among them. The director wouldn’t meet this actor until the first day on the set. Add into this process Ward’s commitment to diversity when it comes to race, age, gender, sexual orientation, body size and shape “so the cast we’re ending up with reflects the world that we live in better,” and it’s clear that casting directors play a large role in filling the mirror filmmakers hold up to reality.
Where the magic happens
Ward’s home office and studio are located less than two miles from DePaul, which is where she got her initial taste of casting. Ward, who grew up in Crystal Lake, Ill., wanted to be a screenwriter. She completed two years at the University of Iowa and then decided to transfer because she craved a big-city environment. She chose DePaul after happening upon an article about the school’s new digital cinema program in the College of Computing and Digital Media.
She knew immediately she chose right. First, she appreciated the diversity of the student body of DePaul. “Diversity and inclusion are a huge part of my life, and that was a major selling point for me,” she says. And her creativity was set afire by the classes themselves. Because the program was so new, she felt as though she and her classmates played a role in helping to build it, along with their professors, many of whom she collaborates with today.
She was also excited to have some crossover classes with The Theatre School, and she invited theatre students to act in her digital cinema projects. After a few such projects, it didn’t take long for her to become known as “the casting girl.”
Fellow students, teachers and even a few indie producers around town asked for her help in casting, and she started to see it as a viable career option. Upon graduating, she did a three-month internship with Paskal Rudnicke Casting in Chicago. Then, she did what most people who want to break into the movies do: she moved to Los Angeles.
In California, Ward quickly became part of her own Hollywood story. While living in L.A. with a roommate from DePaul, she got a job as a waitress at Federal Bar in North Hollywood. One day, she found herself serving casting director Amber Horn.
“She was super-friendly and asked me, ‘What do you want to do for a living?’ And I was so new to Los Angeles, I didn’t know better than to rattle off my whole resume,” laughs Ward. On the spot, Horn offered her an internship with the agency, Aufiero/Horn Casting, which she co-owns with Danielle Aufiero. Over time, her employers promoted her to casting associate, which entailed working with casting directors and handling tasks such as evaluating pitches from agents, requesting auditions from actors, directing in-person auditions and offering notes to actors who submitted self-tapes. At the time, she also started doing work for casting director Barbara Fiorentino and her then-associate, Katrina Wandel George, who shared a physical office space with Aufiero/Horn. She worked on projects such as MTV’s “Awkward,” “The 100” on the CW, and Lifetime’s “Un-Real.”
In 2014, with more experience under her belt, Ward went off on her own and became a casting director, working directly with agents and actors, as well as directors and producers. She chose the casts for movies such as “American Wrestler: The Wizard” (Jon Voight, William Fichtner), “Running Wild” (Sharon Stone, Tommy Flanagan), “The Other” (Cary Elwes, Drea de Matteo), “Pray for Rain” (Jane Seymour), “Dirt” (Kevin Dillon, DeRon Horton) and “The Ride” (Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges and Sasha Alexander).
Ward learned in her work that there’s no exact formula in finding the right actor. What she looks for in one role might be completely different for another part. What is critical to every cast is finding actors who are authentic and adaptable. “The best actors are the best listeners. They are so confident in their command of the material that they are free to listen to the other character as if it’s the first time they’re hearing the other lines, every time, and reacting organically so that each take stays fresh and real,” she says.
In 2016, Ward’s mind started drifting back to home. She and her high school sweetheart, Ryan, were planning to get married and start a family, and they wanted to be near their own families for support. By then, her job had become more and more digital. She was doing associate work for Laray Mayfield, who agreed to allow Ward to work on several projects from Chicago, and Fiorentino, Aufiero and Horn—Ward’s cherished mentors and “casting family”—also referred her for several projects. She’d built a big enough network in Los Angeles that she could continue getting work remotely and fly back as needed.
A streaming new golden age
Today, Ward believes there is no better time to be in entertainment, thanks to the growth in streaming platforms and their voracious need for content. “I don’t know if there’s ever before been so many opportunities for on-camera actors—and for me, too,” she says.
Chicago itself is in the midst of an entertainment boom. Ward ticks off television series currently casting and shooting in the city: “Chicago Med,” “Chicago Fire” and “Chicago P.D.”; “Paper Girls” and “Lightyears” (Amazon); sci-fi reboot “4400” (The CW); “61st Street” (AMC); “The Big Leap” (Fox); “Power Book IV: Force” (Starz); “Somebody Somewhere” (HBO); and a high-profile project known only by its code name, “Ripple Effect.” “Those are the ones off the top of my head,” says Ward.
This TV production renaissance gave Ward an idea for diversifying her career. Two years ago, she opened her own actor training studio, Accomplished on Camera. After evaluating actors for so many years, she realized she had a lot of knowledge she could offer. Remote casting can seem like a mysterious process to actors, who often receive no feedback on the tapes they send in and can see no response on a casting director’s face. They don’t know how many times their tape was watched. “With that immediacy gone, actors can get a little more in their heads about what they’re putting out,” says Ward. “So my goal with the studio was to demystify the casting process and provide some industry perspective.”
She offers group classes, as well as one-on-one coaching, and helps students create tapes to submit for auditions. “Even before the pandemic, I saw tens of thousands of self-tapes. I know exactly what I’m looking for when I’m casting, so I know what the casting directors are looking for in the requests they send out,” she says. (Ward adds that she keeps her acting and coaching businesses separate to avoid any conflicts of interest.)
While many of her career dreams are already in motion, Ward isn’t settled. She still has her sights set on screenwriting, and she wrote an award-winning feature film script that she plans to direct and produce in the spring. She loves the idea of one day teaching at her alma mater. She knows there’s important work to do in diversifying casts for movies and television. Just over a decade into her career, Ward is buzzing with excitement about the possibilities. Whatever happens, she says, casting will always be a part of it.
“I intend to cast for the rest of my life,” says Ward.