Coping With COVID-19 Crisis: How ‘The Witcher’ Casting Director Turned Vanishing Work Into A Positive

Casting director Sophie Holland. Sophie Holland

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As British drama productions dropped like dominos earlier this month, The Witcher was one of the first to fall. Netflix moved quickly to shut down the production, putting a pause on the work of a big team at Arborfield Studios. One of those affected was casting director Sophie Holland, who was halfway through casting the fantasy drama’s second season.

Holland is an experienced operator, having worked on projects across film, television and theatre including Young Wallander, The Indian Detective and Thor: The Dark World. But nothing prepared her for losing all her work — including a production at London theatre the Young Vic — in a matter of days. “There have been instances where productions have gone down, but never where everybody is on hold for this amount of time,” she told Deadline.

Netflix’s original ambition was to suspend The Witcher for just two weeks, but with Britain in lockdown, filming has not resumed this week. Reflecting on the day Netflix decided to halt production, Holland said: “My assistant Faye Timby and I were halfway through filming season two of The Witcher and had the note from them that they were going to pause production. We had to make phone calls to people to say they’re not filming. I’m married to an actor and Faye lives with an actor, and it became clear early on that our working life was going to be put on hold. It was such a blow that we couldn’t figure out how we were going to get through it.”

The Witcher

But her and Timby did not wallow. Within hours of getting the news from Netflix, the pair thought up an unorthodox way to keep their casting cogs turning, using a commodity they suddenly had in abundance: time. They decided to open up an hour in their diaries every day to host general meetings with actors, using the online WeAudition platform. Together, they are speaking to up to six actors a day, allowing them to prospect new talent from around the world. For the actors, it gives them the chance to make an impression on a casting director they may not have previously had the chance to meet.

“We are literally having facetime with actors from all over the world — people that we wouldn’t normally have access to. It could just be a chat, they might want to do a piece, like a monologue, or they might just want to draw attention to some clips on their showreels,” she said. “There’s been some really interesting actors that I didn’t know about before that I’m meeting now. I can definitely see that our paths will cross again in the future. I can already think of roles that might match with people I’ve spoken to. It’s also given me a sense that the industry still goes on.”

Meetings are booked on a first-come, first-served basis, with Holland and Timby putting a call out on their Twitter profiles (@sophhollandcast and @fayetimby) ahead of the Internet chats taking place. Other casting directors have also participated in the initiative including Rob Kelly, who cast Sky’s Bulletproof, and Man With a Plan casting executive Geralyn Flood. Holland said there is no pressure on people to perform.

“This whole thing is a roller coaster, so I appreciate mental health is really important. All of a sudden, people are isolated and don’t know what’s ahead and sometimes it’s just a really nice way of having a chat and bringing each other up,” she added.

As for her own business, Holland is hopeful she can weather the shutdown — even if it means dipping into her savings. For now, the casting calls have given her a sense of purpose at a difficult time for the whole industry. “It’s giving me a reason to have a shower and get dressed,” she laughed.

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