‘The Witcher’ & ‘Wednesday’ Casting Director Sophie Holland Talks New Talent, Jenna Ortega & The “Schism” Brought About By The Self-Tape Controversy — Deadline Q&A
EXCLUSIVE: Sophie Holland has been among the UK’s busier casting directors in recent years. The London-based professional has worked on shows including The Witcher, Wednesday, You and The Continental, as well as upcoming movies such as Heads Of State with Priyanka Chopra and Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice sequel. Set up seven years ago, her company Sophie Holland Casting now has a headcount of five.
Amid broader industry upheaval and clamoring for change, casting has been through its own growing pains of late, as evidenced by the passionate response on Deadline to the self-tape issue.
At the heart of the self-tape debate is concern from actors about a lack of in-person auditions and the costs associated with self-taping. For their part, casting directors are dealing with a growing number of tapes and, until the recent strike action, a heavy volume of film and TV projects.
We spoke to Holland about the self-tape debate, some of her recent projects, actors to look out for, and plenty more.
DEADLINE: The self-tape debate has been a real flashpoint of late. What’s your take on where we’re at?
SOPHIE HOLLAND: It’s a very divisive topic, and it feels like the first time I can recall where there’s a schism between actors and casting directors, who are usually very close. It’s very sad. We need a new way forward that works for everybody. For years there were concerns about actors not being able to get in the room but things have evolved. Because of the pandemic and the need for self-taping, we have been able to see more people. Self-taping helped democratize the audition process in that it has allowed more of a level playing field with those who live in London where most auditions take place. Casting directors such as myself got very excited about the opportunity to see a broader and more diverse range of talent. But on the flip side, it seems that a void has developed where actors aren’t always hearing back due to volume and they miss being in the room and getting more feedback.
DEADLINE: Do you see any changes coming to the current norms?
SH: I don’t think the first round of auditions are going to be done differently. I think most casting directors appreciate that process. There is a lot more likelihood of doing second and third rounds in person, even if some are by zoom, which in America we need to do sometimes because of the large distances people have to travel.
DEADLINE: Costs associated with self-taping are a bone of contention. Are you aware of instances where actors have been asked to pay a fee to send in their self-tape?
SH: I’m not aware of that. I think there is often confusion over what is happening with that. My understanding is that certain casting directors who aren’t doing in-person auditions offer space, tech and facilities to actors at a price. That’s not the same as casting directors asking actors to pay a fee only to audition.
Also, there’s a misconception that these tapes need to be full of bells and whistles. That isn’t my understanding of how to do a self-tape. If we can see you and we can hear you, that’s what we need. Self-taping is designed to reduce the cost of travel and childcare, if that’s a factor for some actors. No one should be trying to profit from this.
DEADLINE: Is the schism you mentioned between actors and casting directors only down to self-taping or are there broader frustrations?
SH: It’s one part of it. Auditioning in a bubble is creating tension. There’s also frustration from actors over them not hearing back with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer either way. And there’s a lot more competition now for parts. There was a boom in content and opportunities after the pandemic.
DEADLINE: Are you aware of any conversations going on between different guilds to try to fix the issues?
SH: I know lots of people want to talk. I think everybody’s nervous. I’ve reached out to entertainment union Equity and they were keen to set something up. I’m also having a conversation with casting platform Spotlight about the issues.
DEADLINE: Is the self-tape problem the same in the UK as it is in the U.S.?
SH: I think it’s slightly different in the U.S. In the UK, Equity has a rule regarding self-tapes, that you have to allow at least four working days to be able to work on the tape. That gives actors time and space to turn material around.
DEADLINE: I have an entry level question about the casting process today. How involved are casting directors in the primary casting of big shows and movies? Are studios and showrunners still calling the shots on the main casting or are you central to that?
SH: I think back in the day studios and show-runners unilaterally making the casting decision was more of a thing. More and more, in my experience, no one’s attached when you kick off a project. On The Witcher, nobody was attached to that whatsoever when we kicked it off, and with Wednesday, there were global searches for that character. The producers will have profiles they’ll like, but we’ll be key to building the world.
DEADLINE: How is the strike impacting your work and have you seen a slow-down in the scripted space, something that has been widely noted in industry forums of late…
SH: The impact of the strike will certainly trickle down to us. Obviously, we can’t cast characters that don’t exist. But I have nothing but support for what the writers are asking for.
In terms of a slow-down, all I can say is that I started in TV, and I don’t know if it’s accidental, but I’m now working on more movies. When I started out it was almost entirely TV and now I’m probably 70/30 films. You’re probably Cassandra and have predicted it and I just didn’t know that that was the cause of the shift.
Even a year or two ago, a lot was getting greenlit. But even Wednesday took a while. I was surprised how long it took. You’re probably right that a bubble has burst, I just wasn’t necessarily aware of it. It’s slightly anxious-making.
DEADLINE: You have and I’m sure will continue to work on some of the most popular productions around. Can you mark our card for exciting young talent you’ve worked with recently?
SH: I had a really lovely opportunity recently with a very special — almost standalone — episode of season four of The Witcher, which is exploring a completely new group of people. We were able to find almost all new talent. We found a boy called Connor Crawford for The Continental, who had all of his scenes with Mel Gibson in the bunker of the hotel, and we were able to put him in this group of kids in The Witcher. He is very special. The whole group is very exciting in terms of talent: Christelle Elwin, Juliette Alexandra, Ben Radcliffe. You meet the characters in season three and then they come into their own in season four.
DEADLINE: So season four is about to get underway, right?
SH: We’re just about to start filming on season four with Liam Hemsworth and there will be a short gap then we go straight into season five.
DEADLINE: Were you surprised to hear that Henry Cavill was leaving?
SH: I probably won’t comment on that one. I’d love to, but I won’t. I really look forward to seeing what Liam brings. He has a big fan base. Season four will be a nice mix of new characters and returning faces.
DEADLINE: You also have a number of new faces in The Continental, such as Nhung Kate…
SH: She’s great. We discovered her in Vietnam. She’s outstanding. Jessica Allain is another absolutely kick-ass woman. I think the Wickian world of The Continental and the world of The Witcher allow us to showcase beauty that isn’t always afforded the proper space on screen, and to show diversity and people with different physical abilities. That’s what I love. Interesting faces and interesting people with interesting stories.
DEADLINE: With that in mind, have any audition tapes stood out to you recently?
SH: Sometimes I watch 50 a day. If you watch 100 tapes, maybe 10 will be very good, and two or three will be special. That’s what we’re looking for. That unicorn, that next star.
DEADLINE: Wednesday has been a big hit and Jenna Ortega has been catapulted to massive stardom from it. I read that early on she had some misgivings and had to be asked a couple of times to take it on, which is interesting considering how well she seems to have fit the role…
SH: I didn’t know that. That would be news to me, but I think she was absolutely right for the role and really exciting. It was the first time I’d ever worked with Tim Burton. The process was very kind and inclusive. Not every show is collaborative, but this was. I still don’t really know how it took hold so fast and became so big, but it’s such a fun show and one for all the family.
DEADLINE: It sounded like she really put herself through the ringer to capture the part…
SH: That’s what you want from your star, isn’t it? You want her to want to go the extra mile because you lead from the front. It’s called Wednesday. She’s the star. You want somebody who’s all in and invested. We did a co-cast with John Papsidera on Wednesday and he was the one who found Jenna and he handled the whole process beautifully.
DEADLINE: She has also talked about how she changed some of the script because she didn’t like how it portrayed her character. Is that a step too far from an actor in your mind, or fair enough?
SH: I don’t remember anything that wasn’t in the script being on screen, but I wasn’t on set and I hope she felt supported and able to make the character everything that felt right to her. You want it to be a journey.
DEADLINE: When will season two shoot and what can we expect from that?
SH: It’s still early doors and I’m still waiting on the script. We hope to roll at the end of the year. I think there’s some exciting and kooky characters coming up in season two.
DEADLINE: Sounds like you had a great time — so good in fact that you’ll be back working with Tim on Beetlejuice 2, which is underway in London…
SH: That’s right, but I can’t say much more about that at the moment…
DEADLINE: You worked on You season four but the fifth season is heading back to the U.S. so I guess you’ll be off that? Another of your series that seems to have cultivated a strong audience is Shadow and Bone on Netflix. Are you expecting a third season of that one?
SH: I was only on You for one season, that’s right. It was a great experience…as for Shadow And Bone, we’re really hoping for a third season. It seems to have a huge fan base. It’s a fresh, up-and-coming cast and the story is very faithful to the books, which is refreshing. It’s all about that first month’s performance on Netflix, I guess, so we’ll find out soon if it’s being recommissioned. It’s a tricky time, as you noted, so we’ll see.
DEADLINE: It is tricky. And many things are falling by the wayside. Were you surprised that Vampire Academy, which you worked on, got canned after one season, for example?
SH: Yes, I was. With so many shows on air, it feels like there isn’t always as much runway for them to find their feet. In my mind, Julie Plec has proven that when it comes to vampires, she deserves to be given a little time. Trust the process. I was a little shocked, because I think creatives deserve a bit of space to set things up in season one. They don’t have to be perfect. But it seems that that isn’t the case these days.
DEADLINE: You’ve also just worked on a Paramount Turkey drama series, which must have been a change of pace…
SH: Yes, that was a big departure from all the fantasy and sci-fi I’ve been doing. The Turkish Detective is the story of a half-Turkish, half-English guy who returns to Turkey to solve a mystery. We get to sample Istanbul and all its delights with the brilliant Ethan Kai in the lead. The series is half in Turkish, half in English.
DEADLINE: And next up you are switching gears to movies?
SH: Yes. I’ve done Amazon movie Heads Of State with Priyanka Chopra, and Beetlejuice 2, as well as a smaller UK movie.