The name Des Hamilton may not be familiar, but you will probably be familiar with his work. He is the casting director behind some of the most memorable films and TV productions since founding his agency twenty years ago, including gems like This is England. When we spoke, Hamilton and his team were preparing to fly to Los Angeles for awards season, and have since won the ARTIOS award for Best Casting Director from The Casting Directors of America, for their work in Jojo Rabbit.
Hamilton was also behind the casting of The Windemere Children, recently aired on the BBC, the true story of a group of children, survivors of the Holocaust, who were relocated to the Lake District in England. And Hamilton has been with Top Boy, now on Netflix, from its inception. He is known for discovering and developing new talent, surely a talent in itself, and one that is increasingly being recognised by the industry; the agency was also nominated for a BAFTA this year.
Trisha D’Hoker: So how does a casting director work?
Des Hamilton: We are hired to populate a film with its cast. So if I’m fortunate enough to be offered the job, I read the script, then talk to the talent agents about which clients they have available within the remit of the character. Then the talent agents bring in their clients, I do some auditions, some improvisations. I show these to the directors and producers, they make selects, narrow it down, then they make their choices.
On occasion, we’ve been known as a company that does a lot of street casting, and very keen to find new talent. That’s always been part of the remit, and that’s the aspect of the job we find most enjoyable, having been afforded the opportunity to discover and develop talent.
TDH: You have a history for hitting the mark with kids, and young people in general.
DH: It’s a combination of that thing where I think if you step forward, that gets acknowledged. If you’re out there, working late at night, early in the morning, you get your reward. It’s a cliché, but we put the hours in.
TDH: What do those hours look like?
DH: You’re out there before school, you’re at the schools, the ones that will let you in, every club. You’re going to fucking Judo clubs on Sunday morning, or you’re driving hours out of London to go to some under-twelve badminton tournament and trying to be totally inclusive of everybody. But that’s the gig. I could leave here just now and drive to the north of England and go to the call and one kid shows up who might not be right for the part. You’ve got to take it on the chin, you can’t complain.
TDH: I have just seen Jojo Rabbit and really enjoyed it.
DH: People are really enjoying it, aren’t they?
TDH: Did Taika Waititi approach you himself? He’s quite a character, as are most Kiwis!
DH: They’re solid aren’t they? You know he’s kind of up there with any director in terms of ability that I’ve worked with, but god, he’s such a great guy, a genuinely solid human being. The guy would come in here, straight off the plane from LA, jet-lagged, and if he could grab twenty minutes before the first casting, he’d have a quick nap. Then a kid would come in and he’d bounce up and he’d make that kid feel like he was only kid he was seeing that day.
He’s got something going on within himself, a lovely awareness, lovely sense of people. You know if I woke up and knew he was coming in that day, I’d be happy, energised.
I’d seen Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and I kind of liked him already, from afar; I knew nothing about him, but like you say, I thought, Kiwi bloke, they’re always good value. So I got a call saying he wanted to jump on a skype with me that night, and I was taking my kid to football training. But I’d read Jojo Rabbit, and really wanted to do this. So I ended up in fucking Wagamama’s or something skyping with him while he’s in LA. And I’m like, “I really want to cast this, do you think I should…” and he, I think he got bored with me and just said, “ok, do you want to cast this? Then let’s crack on, I’ll see you in London in a few weeks”. So then my colleagues and I went out hunting for Jojo and Yorki. (Roman Griffin Davis, Archie Yates.)
TDH: The Windemere Children is another production you’ve recently worked on. It was very powerful.
DH: That was a big search, very extensive – eastern Europe, all over the UK. The whole team worked very hard on it. We were never here. Two of us would be in Manchester, two in Belfast, somebody in Czech Republic. Without sounding too righteous, it was very important with this search to get it right. And when I saw the footage of the survivors, I felt, more than with any other film I’ve worked on, I felt a responsibility. I felt a bit panicky about it, thinking I can’t get this fucking wrong.
Of all the things I do, you know my mum and my family will say, have you met this one or that one, and it just doesn’t really matter – they’re good at their jobs, actors, but meeting these guys… We met four of them when we went to a screening recently and got to shake their hands… such beautiful people, real heroes.
TDH: Can you tell me a bit about Top Boy, and finding the talent for that, going on the estates?
DH: It’s made out to be a thing, but I was raised on estates, for me, it’s going home. It’s where the best fish and chips and the best take-away food is. So it wasn’t a slog at all for me to go in there.
TDH: But how do you approach it as somebody going to procure talent?
DH: Charge in. There’s nothing scientific. I go in and there’ll be a group of kids and I’ll say, “How are you doing? This is going to sound fucking weird, I’m a casting director.” But these days, especially in Hackney and East London, because of Top Boy, people are aware that you can be walking down the street and some lunatic can give you a flyer or a card. It’s usually me, or one of my colleagues! Or other casting agents.
When I started 20 years ago there was a lot of skepticism about it, especially a man my age approaching a young girl and saying I’m a casting director. And at the time, I’d be defensive about it and say that I’ve got a girlfriend, and I’m a professional. But you know, as the internet has advanced, now they can go away and google me right away.
And the first thing I always say as well when I approach kids, or young boys or young girls is, "go and speak to your mum and dad." I try to make it as non-threatening as possible. I basically say go have a look at me, my intentions are sincere. My intention is to give them an opportunity.
TDH: You must watch people a lot.
DH: I always have. I came from a rough part of Glasgow. I was schooled there in the 1970s and most of my friends went into construction and I dreaded the thought of it. I really didn’t want to work like my brothers or father or uncles, who all worked in construction. I had no aptitude for it, physically or mentally, but I didn’t know how to articulate something else. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but it wasn’t that.
It took a long time to get into this. I dallied around various things.
TDH: In film?
DH: The next street over from my street, where I grew up, had a massive cinema. And as a local kid, you had certain privileges … So I was watching films from the age of seven or eight, some of them totally inappropriate, but I just went to watch cinema. It was a beautiful place, I loved everything about the cinema, the old cinema. There used to be an ashtray in the arm of the chairs.
TDH: I remember that too. I also remember not knowing what I wanted to do when I was a kid, but knowing it was elsewhere.
DH: Exactly. I didn’t know what I wanted either but I knew I enjoyed the cinema, I knew I enjoyed galleries, and I was very bookish, so out of that, it sort of pushes your imagination.
I’ve always wanted to write, and to this day I think about writing a lot, but as it stands I’m casting and I’m enjoying it. I have a great team of fairly like-minded people, who despise me. And that’s good for my spiritual growth. So I feel very fortunate to be doing this now.
TDH: How did you get into casting?
DH: I have no idea. I play a lot of football and there would be some directors there and they would bring me into some castings for commercials (Hamilton used to model). So I might grab a few, and then when I was on set, things just kind of developed.
When I was very young I had wanted to act, but on my first day of drama school I had my one and only total revelation: oh fuck, I don’t want to be an actor.
TDH: That was probably a gift, noticing that on day one.
DH: It was a gift. I thought I don’t want this, I’m no good at it. And I’m not being humble or sweet, I had zero abilities as an actor and I knew it.
TDH: But that’s not the only way into the business so it might have opened things up for you, with regards to other things you could do?
DH: It opened me up to going to the theatre and being open to people’s alternative lifestyles. I saw artistically that it was so good for you.
TDH: It’s the first step in a way, just thinking differently.
DH: Exactly, allowing myself to think differently was really important.
TDH: So what’s changed since you began your agency twenty years ago?
DH: The internet. When I started I’d put a project out to agents on a Friday and on the following Tuesday I’d go into whatever office I was working out of, and there’d be a stack of mail up to my knee (from the floor). It would go past my knees, and it would be full of envelopes with photographs and CVs. And that would take a day to go through them. Then you’d have to call the agent and book them in. Then they’d come in. There’d be all this coming and going, and now so much can get done on the spot. Like everything else, it’s instant information. We were on a call last night, talking about actors – twenty years ago we’d have had to have that call four times. Things can get sorted as you speak, financials, availability, whatever.
Also what’s definitely changed is … I come from a multi-cultural area in Glasgow, so I’ve been blessed with being kind of colour-blind. And even though it’s still so fucking far to go, there is definite progress whereby characters aren’t described as ‘ we open up on 40 white… that ‘white’ would be the second qualification. That doesn’t happen anymore. And there’s no reason in terms of authenticity, except for the obvious ones, if it’s biographical. Like The Windemere Children.
TDH: But there are also more stories being told, that maybe has changed too.
DH: Yes and that’s why I’ve always been proud to be part of the Top Boy journey, because the talent we’ve seen come through has been incredible.
TDH: Have you been involved from the beginning, the first series?
DH: Yes, from the start. And we begin on the fourth series in two weeks’ time. I’ve read it and it’s superb, it’ll be exciting. I love it, it’s got a wonderful fanbase. It’s got a family element to it, we all get on.
TDH: And now you’ve been nominated for Jojo Rabbit.
DH: We’ve been nominated for Jojo, yes, and it’s exciting and flattering, but it’ll be a fucking nightmare for my friends and family if I am afforded the opportunity to go on a stage with a microphone. But yes, we’re going to LA tomorrow morning. I’m all set, I’ve got a suit – 160 quid from Marks and Spencer!
TDH: You mentioned you will be working there as well, is casting in the U.S. different from here?
DH: I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently because I’ve been doing more there. Usually every day I’m telling people, ”Don’t act.” That’s the last thing I say before we do a take. ”Trust the dialogue, trust yourself, make it as natural as possible. Change the dialogue, change the scene if you have to, so long as we get to the destination.” Then I follow up with, ”If we’re flicking through the TV channels, and we see you just now and you’re talking, we should think it’s a documentary, we shouldn’t think it’s a TV drama.” And then we do the scene.
And I don’t know if that will fly in America. I think they like to see, maybe they’re more emotive, they want it more expressive. But I’m very keen to work in America – all my favourite TV dramas, Succession, Sopranos, are made there, they’re just so fucking great at it – and I’m keen to adjust to what they’re after. It’ll be a push for me, a new challenge. And we’re always up for that, that’s what we’re guided by – responding to the challenge, being up for it and having a go.