Nancy Bishop - a Prague-based casting director

My guest today is Nancy Bishop, an American-born woman who works as a casting director in Prague. Apart from this, she also teaches potential actors how to become more “castable,” has written a book on casting and also found the time to make a feature-length low-budget film called “Ex-patriates” about why expats find it so difficult to leave Prague. Nancy Bishop was born in New England and studied acting and theatre in Michigan before working in Chicago. She now resides in the Czech Republic. I began the interview by asking Nancy how she came to be in the Czech Republic:

“Well, I was interested in the play of Václav Havel and in Czech theatre and I was also just interested in what was behind the Iron Curtain. I had been brought up hearing about the “Evil Empire” and I thought that it was kind of fascinating when it all opened up and there were all these little countries tucked away there that nobody knew much about. So I never really intended to stay – I was just coming over. There was an English-language theatre company already established here, and I was invited to direct some plays and that involvement is what made me stay on.”

Was that in the early Nineties?

“I think the first time I came was 1993 – that was just for a visit and then I came again a year later when I was invited to direct a play. And then I continued to work in the theatre throughout the Nineties. After all that, I was frankly ready to leave, but then I discovered that the American and British film industries had started to come to Prague to film, so that is how I got involved in the film business.”

Your webpage says something about you having a dream about a bus traveling uphill and that that inspired you to leave the world of theatre for the world of film casting…

“[Laughter] That was a joke, but it was true! What happened was that I got very burned out doing the theatre because it was a lot of work for very little reward. It was very hard to find the talent for an English theatre here, and it was also very hard to raise the money for it. And in some cases it was also hard to get audiences. So at a certain point, I realized that it was not the best way for me to be spending my energy. And that is when I had this dream that I was carrying a bus up a hill on the top of my head. And then I kind of woke up and thought ‘You know, this is too much work!’ So that is why I stopped doing theatre – I was actually ready to leave the Czech Republic and go and do theatre elsewhere, but instead I found this opportunity to work on film even though I had never really considered myself to be a film person.”

The theatre that you were doing, presumably that was with English-speaking actors that were here in the Czech Republic. How many of those can there have been?

“It was a combination as we also worked with Czech actors who spoke English, depending on the project. We were also able to with the help of sponsorship bring actors over from other countries. It was very complicated and to be honest, to really make a theatre company last, you have to have local people coming to it. We needed Czechs to be coming, but they really weren’t that interested in seeing theatre in English. And who can blame them – why would they be?”

So you decided to get into the casting business at a time when there was a boom in international productions that were coming here. That was quite a shrewd move it seems…

“I wish I could say that it was a shrewd move, because I really just kind of fell into it because I knew the actors and knew the talent, so that is why it happened. I was asked to invite some actors to castings and then it just blossomed into a career.”

So what kind of films have you been involved in casting?

“Anything from super-large-budget films like Hellboy, Van Helsing and Bourne Identity, all the way through to smaller independent films. Right now, I am working on a very small independent film that requires Eastern European actors, which actually won’t even be shot here – it will be shot in Lithuania. So it is a huge range of work.”

So how exactly does a casting company work then for someone that doesn’t know anything about it? Do you have some sort of huge database of actors and faces, that sort of thing?

“I know the actors from living here for many years and developing those contacts. I also work with agencies that keep databases because it is constantly changing. And really a casting director’s job is not to represent actors, but to work with the agencies that represent them. There are a couple of agencies that have really good databases that I rely on, because I work freelance – I don’t have my own office hours and studio.”

Are you expanding into maybe doing advertising and Czech stuff as well?

“I don’t think it makes much sense for me to be doing Czech things because there are so many Czech casting directors already. And in the same way, when Czechs try to cast English stuff, they can’t really tell if the actors are acting well or not, because they can’t tell if the intonation is right. Even if they speak English quite well, they can’t hear if there is an accent – the same with me, I can understand Czech but I don’t have the same sense of the language that a native speaker would have.”

I also noticed from your webpage (Nancybishopcasting.com) that you have set up an acting workshop.

“Yeah, I have been teaching a lot and I am also going to be working with the Prague Film School to start a film acting programme because one of the things I have learned is that there are a lot of really good actors in the world who have absolutely no idea what to do in front of a camera. They are great on stage, but they don’t have any training – most of the film actors learn by doing. But there are very limited opportunities to get that kind of training – and I never got that training, having trained in the theatre – so I learned about film acting by working in casting and then I started to break it down into a system to start teaching it. So that has become a kind of second career. And I am also writing a book about what I have learned about casting and film acting.”

You mentioned Prague Film School. Is that the PCFE?

“It used to be called that, but it is now called PFS. It is a new school; it isn’t FAMU. It is only five years old, but they have done tremendously well. They have an international student body and the students seem to be very happy. And they were very open to starting an acting programme, so I was very pleased about that.”

Tell me a little more about your book.

“The book is specifically for actors who wish to develop a film career. Much of it is very specific stuff about how to work in front of a camera. But it also includes general information about the business of acting, marketing oneself and how the internet has changed casting and acting.”

What are your views on the Czech Republic apparent foot-dragging on tax-breaks for the film industry? Many people seem to be complaining that international productions are not coming here anymore.

“To be honest, I’ve heard different things, because I did hear from a pretty good source recently that it is going to be passed by the government this year. But of course, it was very upsetting because I did feel that the Czech Republic was almost purposely keeping itself back because we were not remaining competitive with other countries. Even Germany was beating us [in terms of competing for film productions to decide to film in a particular country] for a while. So there was really no incentive for productions to come here. And I did think that it was a rather bad business move on this country’s part and it was very detrimental to the thousands of people who work in film here as well as the city and country as a whole because it was attracting a lot of good publicity.”

Are we in a lull at the moment?

“It was terrible for a while, but it is getting a little bit better now. I am working on a television series now that is going to shoot two episodes here and George Lucas’ company is also going to be doing a film here. So things are getting a little bit better, but in general it is hard to say at this point because we are all suffering because of the recession. But I hope it will get better; it really was miserable for a couple of years.”

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