Casting the Candidates: Conversations with a Casting Director
Amelia Powell

With the 2016 election primary in full swing, we decided to explore the task at hand for America — casting the candidates. To do so, we interviewed Artistic Associate & Casting Director for Arena Stage Amelia Powell for her insight into selecting the right actor for a role, and she offered us enormous insight into both the casting process and the way that we can apply the metrics we apply to performers to the “audition” of a presidential campaign. The following details what we learned from her.

At its simplest, a casting director consistently needs to find a good actor.

The job of a casting director is hardly a simple one. Casting directors assess the qualifications of diverse candidates based on innumerable factors and select one whose performance matches their vision and whose abilities are tailored to the particular demands of a role. However, at its simplest, a casting director consistently needs to find a good actor.

Auditions allow casting directors to assess the overall skill of an actor, as well as their ability to meet the needs of a given role. The goal of a performer during an audition is, by whatever means are most effective, to appeal to the individuals who select the actors for each part. In the primary, the candidates are our actors, staging elaborate performances in a nation-wide audition for the roles of Democratic Nominee and Republican Nominee for our play, The 2016 General Election. These performances inform the decision making process of the voter — the casting director, for our purposes — by showing each of us who approaches the role in the way that speaks to us.

Powell compared the challenging nuance of casting the candidates to that of casting any classic character: “It’s hard to pin down what it is we are looking for these “actors” to provide, because they each have a vastly disparate interpretation of a well-known role — the President of the U.S.A. The actors auditioning for it aren’t just trying to be the objective best, they are trying to show you their perspective on the role.” She noted that, for many voters, the qualities that a candidate prioritizes in their approach to the role are even more important to the casting decision than the specific choices they might make once cast.

Powell went on to express that a casting director often looks for a particular set of features in any actor’s performance, and that we see the same metrics at play in voters’ choices in this national audition:

Authenticity or Honesty

Regardless of whether an actor is speaking the truth or with any real emotional honesty, we find it is easier to connect with those performances that allow us to relate emotionally. These performances are often passionate and fiery, lacking composure to a sufficient degree that the emotionality in them appears real. Well-performed authenticity allows us to trust an actor’s intentions and actions and makes us feel comfortable and assured of their humanity, honesty, and integrity.

Leading with Argument (instead of Emotion)

An actor’s grounding in reality helps establish credibility. When a performance is rooted in logic, evidence, and facts, a casting director can see its stability and strength. An actor who leads with argument does not need to rely on sweeping statements and emotional draw, because the evidence for their legitimacy, trustworthiness, and reliability is plainly visible.

Raising the Stakes

A casting director wants to find someone who takes their role seriously. We want to see a performance that commands respect for the power and the value of the part. Enthusiasm and commitment to the potential impact of a performance move and inspire an audience, and as casting directors, we want to bring actors with that capacity to our stage.


In the words of Powell, “when you audition an actor, you want to know that if they book the gig, they will act in a similar manner as they did in auditions.” We want to trust that whatever features and choices we appreciated in the audition will also appear on stage, and our actor will not drop the ball when the moment comes to perform. As such, casting directors have reason to be wary if what an actor brings to the table wavers between rounds of auditions.

Versatility or Flexibility

On the other hand, as Powell puts it, “a casting director can confidently hire a Daniel Day-Lewis, for example, because we’ve seen him do so many vastly different roles, so we know that he is malleable.” When a performer seems to be a one-trick pony in auditions, a casting director may have their doubts about the actor’s ability to perform in a complex role with diverse demands.


Whatever choices an actor makes in a performance, commitment is crucial. When performing a complex role, an actor will inevitably be confronted with challenging, unclear acting choices. In these instances, they can do no worse than carrying out a choice without the confidence to convince the audience that it is well thought out, intentional, and absolutely correct. Voters seek the same self-assurance in a candidate, as we want to trust their choices.

Using these metrics, Powell broke down the performance of each candidate currently in the running, assessing where each candidate takes the lead.

For the actors auditioning for Democratic Nominee in The 2016 General Election:

Hillary Clinton: has established herself as the actor who leads with argument but she seems not to be perceived as authentic

Hillary Clinton, Democratic Nominee

Leading with Argument

Clinton’s background and substantial experience provide a strong basis for an approach to the role based in fact, political history, policy, and logic. She is committed to no-nonsense discussion and content over the play to emotionality. She performs with tone and gesture that clarify and support her content, and she grows frustrated when the conversation veers away from argument. She bases her candidacy in argument, which illustrates her ability to approach the role with a commitment to practicality, making things happen, and working in a compelling way with real world content. For the role we are casting, this ability can make or break an actor.


The unfortunate thing about leading with argument is that an audience may be bored by it without an additional emotionality in the performance. As Powell puts it, “one can fake passion or emotion, and one can be authentically contained. However, we are emotional, passionate animals, and we assume that for someone to be “real,” they have to be “like us.” And most of us relate to crying, yelling, passionately defending our beliefs, etc more than we can relate to making a contained political address driven by argument.”
Audiences, in other words, want to be moved and entertained, and even the most compelling, coherent, powerful argument may not be able to evoke that response. Regardless of the truth and authenticity in Clinton’s commitment to content and composure, her precision and containment seem to leave her audience unconvinced by her performance of authenticity.

Bernie Sanders: excels in terms of authenticity and raising the stakes but falls behind in flexibility

Bernie Sanders, Democratic Nominee


The fact that everyone calls him “Bernie” is enough to make it clear that people trust Sanders and find his demeanor authentic and relatable. He utilizes his “costume” and demeanor to communicate a dedication to honesty and a commitment to enacting his values. His unkempt hair, for instance, signals that he genuinely prioritizes the issues over his appearance. His “grandpa-esque demeanor” and his use of such phrases as “let me explain something to you,” or “let me tell you what so-and-so is doing,” communicate camaraderie with the public, adding emphasis to his ‘for the people’ political agenda.

Raising the Stakes

Sanders performs with passionate enthusiasm around the issues that matter to him, raising his voice, speeding up his speech, and gesturing when addressing issues of wealth inequality. He raises the stakes through both his physical and verbal emphasis, constantly and consistently emphasizing that the economic issues confronting America are urgent matters life and death situation.


Sanders falls somewhat short when it comes to flexibility. While his performance of honesty and commitment appeal to many, the consistency of his performance throughout his career might be considered one-note. As such, casting him in the complex and diversified role from his current position as Senator a riskier move.

On to the actors auditioning for Republican Nominee in The 2016 General Election:

Donald Trump: has mastered the performance of authenticity and confidence but lacks consistency

Donald Trump, Republican Nominee


Regardless of the existence of any truth to his speech, his irreverence, defiance of traditional political norms, and matter-of-fact tone of voice signal that he “tells it like it is,” “says what he feels,” and “means what he says.” People relate to him because he is willing to dismiss the artifice of politics and shamelessly express his emotions and ideas. This approach appeals to people’s desire for politics to be authentic and honest, and their frustration with the inaccessibility of the traditional political performance.


Trump behaves shamelessly every time we see him, dashing all established norms of politics and using the contrast to the ordinary to carry him forward. He dismisses any unreliability of his content and his over-the-top behavior by committing absolutely to his performance choices, to such a degree that many voters don’t think to question the actions at all.


Trump’s greatest weakness, meanwhile, is his inconsistency. As Powell put it, “Sometimes he yells and screams. Sometimes he makes faces. Sometimes he breaks it down and gets really simple… Trump doesn’t even say the same lines in each performance, so to speak.” As such, were he cast as the Republican Nominee, we cannot know what choices he would make, because his choices vary each time we see him perform. In selecting him for his authenticity, a casting director must also be prepared to have an actor whose choices for the role will be subject to his moods and whims.

Ted Cruz: has a bit of everything — consistency, leading with argument, and confidence, but the combination leaves him lacking in his performance of authenticity

Ted Cruz, Republican Nominee


Cruz is very rarely overcome with emotion. He speaks slowly and clearly. He regularly repeats the same lines and pairs reliable sets of gestures — specifically speaking upwards as if to God. As Powell puts it, “even those who dislike his performance would probably admit that if you cast Ted Cruz, you know what you’re getting.”

Leading with Argument

Cruz’s consistent no-nonsense persona and his repetition of operative words both demonstrate that he is committed to objectives based in content. It is clear he relies on this performance method, as when his “scene partner”, as Powell puts it, leads the discussion away from content-based performance, he can’t always regain control.


Cruz performs confidence quite effectively. He uses the ease in his voice, his slow pace of speaking, and his slight smirk to indicate that he is unfazed by his competition.


Although, as Powell puts, “confidence in an actor can beget the confidence of the casting director,” Cruz’s case seems to be one where confidence and consistency arouse suspicion instead. To many voters, his confidence paired with his reliability make his performance looks too much like acting, and in Powell’s words, “the absolute worst thing you can do as an actor is to be caught acting!”

John Kasich: also leads with argument but lacks versatility and has failed to raise the stakes, so in all the drama of this election, his performance has paled next to those of his competitors

Leading with Argument

Kasich comes at this role with the tried and true approach, bringing to the table his background, logic, and political experience. He has the capacity to play the part quite effectively in a traditional rendition of this play, and he commits to that performance knowing that it is tried and true among casting directors.


Unfortunately for Kasich, we do not appear to be casting a traditional rendition of this play. Kasich has not let his reliable approach to the role become swept up into the dramatics occurring between other actors performing their scenes. As a result of his unwillingness to participate in this new rendition, he has not captured the heightened attention and buzz that has surrounded this round of auditions. This has left him out of the spotlight, if not necessarily out of the running.

Raising the Stakes

Kasich’s commitment to his performance as the reasonable and mature candidate has backfired. Instead of appearing reasonable and mature, he appears emotionally removed in comparison to his passionate and wild competition. When an actor seems removed and unemotional, the casting director can doubt that he or she truly understands the gravity of the given circumstances.

… And what could have been:

Marco Rubio: the wild card

Marco Rubio, Republican Nominee

Rubio took a really interesting approach to the role. He displayed certain strengths that aren’t necessarily on the standard list of qualities we’re looking for, but can actually play a big role as wild cards. Sometimes in an audition setting, an unusual or surprising approach to the character can be a pleasant surprise that makes the casting director notice you and remember you. Unfortunately, as we now know, this didn’t work out for Rubio’s audition. Nonetheless, his approach to the role is worth exploring here.


First of all, he pitched himself to us as the “non-traditional casting” choice: the Latino. This is a legitimate tactic; the argument for diversifying the historically homogenous cast of The 2016 General Election (2008 being the exception) is a compelling one. Though he was not the only Latino up for the role — Cruz is also Latino — Rubio took particular ownership of this identity. He signaled its importance by using the Spanish language and by making culturally specific jokes in his audition, and by surrounding himself with Latino aides and a Latina wife.

…and Young

Rubio also played up his youthful energy, signaling his ability to bring strength, prosperousness, and a good future. This was also another interesting choice, given that Cruz is also about his age. However, while those wild card factors may be smart choices, Rubio fell behind the other candidates in terms of authenticity, confidence, raising the stakes, and leading with argument. Even when taking a new approach and presenting some other qualities to the casting director, actors still have to showcase their traditional acting skill set. Rubio didn’t do that.
At the end of the day, as the voter, it is our role to assess these performances and analyze what they show us about each candidate’s ability to represent our values and meet the diverse skill set required for the role of each nominee. Not only that, but they must be able to perform in The 2016 General Election, and the stakes for that performance, and for America, are quite high.


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