After originally being drawn to the world of theater, finding herself working in the television industry was a bit of a surprise for Susan Forrest. While being a theatre director was always her dream and what she went to school for, it was a meeting she had while working as a waitress that led her to into the world of casting. Forrest quickly found her niche there and founded her own casting company, Forrest & Forrest, with her sister Sharon. She has since had a hand in casting many of the TV series we know and love such as Mary Kills People, Saving Hope, Rookie Blue, Heartland, X Company and Orphan Black, as well as new series Burden of Truth and The Detail.
Forrest recently joined The TV Junkies as part of our Women Behind Canadian TV series to discuss some of the hardest parts she’s had to cast, as well as the role casting directors play when it comes to on screen diversity. She shares the biggest challenges she faces, especially because of the differences that exist between the Canadian TV industry and that of other countries around the world. Forrest also offers up advice to actors about what she is looking for when casting for series.
The TV Junkies: How did you get into this business and into casting specifically? Did you always know you wanted to work in television?
Susan Forrest: Since high school, I wanted to work as a director in the theatre. I graduated from university with a drama degree, specializing in directing. I worked for a few small theatre companies but for the most part, found myself assistant stage managing. After traveling abroad, I was waitressing at a restaurant near the Old Fire Hall, where I met a woman who I was serving, who suggested I apply for a job at Second City. During my interview, I was told by the woman who ran the Old Fire Hall that her friend and the SCTV casting director needed an assistant.
Later that day, I landed the job at Pamela Roberts Casting and was introduced to the world of casting. I did not even own a television. I had no idea what the job was, but it sounded like fun. It was a good fit though, as I knew the Toronto theatre scene well and it was a small acting community in the early 80s. I started going to the theatre 2-3 times a week. My education into the casting world was fast and furious.
Pamela closed her casting company a year later, so I contacted John Brunton to inquire about work in development. He asked me to cast for three HBO dramas. I had only been an assistant up until that point, but he gave me the job. He let me rent a room in his office for fifty dollars a month to start my casting company. That was 36 years ago. Oh and yes, I eventually I got a television.
TTVJ: How long did you work until you decided to go out on your own and form your own agency? What was that process like and was there any extra challenge since you were a woman?
SF: Most casting directors from the 80s and 90s came from the CBC, but we have only ever worked for ourselves as freelancers. Casting has always been dominated by women so there is no obstacle being female. I went to L.A. when I was 25 because producers in Toronto thought I looked too young to be taken seriously. Americans loved that I was young and before I knew it, I was on the ABC, NBC, MGM, Showtime and CBS list of approved casting directors in Canada. Canada became Hollywood North and I worked nonstop. My sister Sharon started working as my assistant and six years later she became my partner.
TTVJ: With diversity being such a huge topic of discussion, and there being such a demand for improvement on screen, what role does the casting director play in regards to diversity?
SF: All casting directors need to work very hard to audition and learn about all diverse actors in the industry. Even non-traditional routes need to be explored — dance, singing, stand up — as the demand is huge, and the pool is not yet large enough or experienced enough to meet the demand.