SPOTLIGHT: Jesse Griffiths

After over a decade working as an actor in film, tv and theatre, Jesse switched his focus to casting. He opened Jesse Griffiths Casting (JGC) with the goal of combining his passion for the arts with his knowledge of local talent. His focus is, and will always be, to push for more inclusion and diversity in the casting process. He devotes part of his time to the development of the next generation of artists and has taught at Ryerson University, Sheridan College, Actra Toronto, he leads a monthly workshop for Toronto's BIPOC community and is a mentor for the Canadian Film Centre’s Actors Conservatory. Jesse is a graduate of Ryerson Theatre School with a BFA in Theatre Performance.

Jesse, thank you so much for sitting with us for this Spotlight Interview, and welcome to the Judge Panel for the inaugural season of the Crystalline Film Festival! Before we dive in, let’s address the elephant in the room: the pandemic. How has the Coronavirus impacted casting? What have you been doing to keep sane?

First of all, thanks so much for asking me to be a part of your inaugural season! While the pandemic has negatively impacted many industries, it has been rather inspiring to see the film and tv sectors flourishing. Early into the pandemic our community rallied together and production was able to resume with relatively little disruption. This is thanks in large part to the tireless efforts and flexibility of our producers, actors, agents, politicians and crew who were able to adapt quickly to a new way of working. A safe way of auditioning and shooting that allowed us to come together. I would say the biggest change from a casting perspective was the shift to entirely virtual auditions. There has been much debate over the pros and cons of zoom auditions, but from a casting perspective, it did allow us to perform a very necessary service at a crucial time in our industry.

To keep sane, I knew that having a routine was very important for me, both mentally and physically. At home workouts, long walks, good food and maintaining connection with my friends and family. I also got a puppy which was probably the single greatest thing I could have done. A constant source of love and a motivation to step away from the computer and get some fresh air. Now with restrictions lifting, I am back into some more organized sports like hockey, softball, golf and volleyball.

As two performers wearing our Producer and Festival Director hats, we definitely understand the appeal of working both on- and off-camera. What drew you to casting after a decade-long career as an actor?

That’s a great question. Working with casting directors Jason Knight, John Buchan and most recently Stephanie Gorin, I saw that there was an artistry to casting that I hadn’t fully appreciated before. I saw the collaboration, the excitement, the problem-solving required. I love actors. I love working with actors. I love how great actors can enhance an already great script. I think I realized that by choosing a new path, I wasn’t “giving up” on acting, but more importantly, I was using my skills in a different way. I discovered that I could have a greater impact and be more satisfied artistically behind the camera.

Talk to us about Jesse Griffiths Casting (JGC). What propelled you to start your own casting company? And how did it feel when you cast your first project as an independent casting director?

While I was working with Stephanie Gorin, I had the opportunity to cast a few projects on my own, working mainly on the evenings and weekends. Overtime, more opportunities started to come my way and I was finding it difficult to find the balance. After lots of deliberation, and with the support of Stephanie and many others, I decided to give it a shot and branch out on my own. It has now been over three years and I have zero regrets.

As artists, we often have our heads in the clouds, wishing we could fly before we could crawl. What would you say is the biggest difference going from working with other casting directors and casting as Jesse Griffiths Casting? What is the best lesson you brought with you when starting your company?

Working with extremely experienced casting directors, there is a wealth of knowledge at your disposal. There is no formal training to be a casting director, you learn on the job and it’s impossible to have the answer for every scenario that can come up. There is also a shift in responsibility, if something goes wrong or is overlooked it is no one else's concern but my own. That is equally exciting and terrifying.

I can’t name just one! So let’s try two:

1. Treat everyone with respect, especially actors. You are nothing without them and your relationships.

2. If you don’t know something, ask.

Now, let’s talk about your casting process. We know you cast all kinds of film projects - short- and feature-length films, commercials, television, music videos, and video games; what sorts of criteria do you consider when deciding if a job is the right fit for you? Do you prefer grand-scale breakdowns with huge casts, or smaller productions with powerful messages?

If I can be honest, in the early days of JGC I was saying yes to absolutely everything that came my way. I think that’s what you have to do when you are trying to grow something. By doing that, I got to work with a lot of people on a variety of projects in a relatively short amount of time. Now, I might be a bit more selective with the projects that come my way, but the size of the cast or budget seldom comes into play. If a project excites me, I will always find a way to make it work.

We all know this business comes rife with rejection - what’s one thing you wish you could say to all of the actors who don’t get the job?

Do your best and let the rest go.

Jesse, we know and love that your priority is more inclusion and diversity when it comes to casting, and that you’re committed to Do[ing] Better. Please do us and our readers the honour of discussing the numerous ventures you’ve begun as a means to help our BIPOC community, and to give back to equity-seeking groups.

I realized early on, that there is a great deal of responsibility that comes with the job of being a casting director. While I don’t get the ultimate say in who gets cast, I do have influence over who I decide to audition. We are experiencing a huge movement towards equality in storytelling and thus, a demand for more actors from equity-seeking groups. I started my monthly workshops as a means to not only allow me to connect with and be exposed to new talent, but also for other performers to connect with and learn from each other in a safe space. JGC offers these free workshops once a month. We have had panels, town-hall style discussions and workshops on a variety of topics.

As a company and festival founded by a woman and a Latinx man, both part of the LGBTQIA+ community, we appreciate all of your hard work to pass the mic to marginalized performers. What are some words of advice you can leave with us, and our readers, so that we, as a society, may take larger steps toward effecting greater change when it comes to diversity and inclusivity?

I think we need to acknowledge that change is happening, but there is so much more work to be done. The responsibility doesn’t rest with just casting or production but our industry as a whole. Change, big change, the change we are so desperate for takes time, patience but also passionate, artistic and motivated leadership.

Jesse, thank you for your honesty and vulnerability. We know, too, that you teach at many reputable institutions in the Greater Toronto Area, including the illustrious Canadian Film Centre’s Actors Conservatory. What is your favourite part about teaching? Is there anything that your students have taught you?

Acting is a muscle and you need to work at it or else it atrophies. A lot of my job consists of emails, schedules, excel spreadsheets and self-tapes. But collaborating with actors in the room is my workout. It’s important to acknowledge that every actor is unique and what works for one will not work for another. Clarity in thought and direction is vital but also allow yourself to be surprised, that’s usually when the best stuff happens.

The Crystalline Film Festival is so lucky to have you on its jury panel this season! Can you please take a moment and share with our attendees what you’re most interested to score with each film? How easy or difficult will it be to judge the submissions? Do you consider yourself the Simon Cowell of the panel?

I have never been on a jury before so I have no idea what to expect! I’m very excited to be exposed to new talent and be entertained along the way. Art is subjective, so the idea of saying one film is better than another will be tricky. I want to thank everyone for taking the leap and creating something. I absolutely do NOT consider myself the Simon Cowell of the panel. Let’s say he and I have very different approaches

With many years of expertise under your belt, it’s clear that you make an excellent addition as a judge! We definitely know why we chose you, but we just have to know: What made you choose us?

I love supporting new initiatives and connecting with the community.

Well, Jesse, thank you so much for taking the time for this interview, and for letting us get to know you a little bit better. We are beyond thrilled to welcome you to the team, and cannot wait to share our festival with you!

Thanks so much for the invitation! The popcorn is popping and I’m really excited to see what’s in store!

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