A multitude of intertwined stories in the fictional city of Arcadia Heights form the lustrously diverse backbone of The Heights, the ABC soap opera which returns for a second season this month. A pertinent reflection of Australia’s flourishing gentrification that remixes Home and Away serialised theatrics with a keen eye for authentic social deliberation, Warren Clarke and Que Minh Luu’s spry drama series is a show that demands a lot of meticulous accuracy to work with today’s audiences. One of the hardest challenges with bringing it to life is its diverse cast; renowned casting director Annie Murtagh-Monks was the one tasked with assembling the many residents of Arcadia Heights, finding actors who not only looked the part, but also lent a genuine quality when it came to cultural backgrounds, ethnicities and physical ability.
No stranger to an complex casting call, Annie Murtagh-Monks has a storied history in casting for both Australian TV shows and films, her invisible yet undeniable fingerprints can be found in a number of classics movies including Rabbit Proof Fence, Japanese Story and Last Train to Freo. Like stunt work, the work of a casting director is often overlooked, one of the key production roles that isn’t rewarded at the Academy Awards or similar ceremonies – which is where the Casting Guild of Australia Awards step in. After scoring Best Casting in a TV Drama for her work on Season 2 of The Heights, I had the opportunity to talk with Annie about her career, the differences between casting for television and film and what lies ahead for her.
Alex Lines for Film Inquiry: How did you get into being a casting director?
Annie Murtagh-Monks: I graduated as an actor from NIDA (National Institute of Dramatic Art) and worked professionally for several years as an actor and acting coach. After getting married and moving to Perth, I played a lead role in a kids TV series for Barron Films and they asked if I would cast their next series. I agreed and it was successful – the show went onto to three seasons of 26 episodes each – so I was then asked to cast further projects. I loved it so I took myself off the market as an actor to focus on casting and coaching instead.
Congratulations on your recent Casting Guild of Australia reward for your work on The Heights (Best Casting in a TV Drama).
Annie Murtagh-Monks: Thank you!
Why do you feel that a number of high-profile award shows, including the Oscars, have chosen to not reward casting directors?
Annie Murtagh-Monks: Good question – which has baffled casting directors for many years. Slowly, this is changing as now casting directors are being recognised for their significant contribution in the UK at the BAFTAs and in Australia at the Casting Guild of Australia Awards. The CGA also lobbied the AACTAs to introduce a Best Casting Award, which they agreed to do two years ago. Hopefully, the Oscars will also realise this imbalance and introduce a casting award in the coming years.
When you need to find over 100 actors who are authentic with regards to cultural background, ethnicity and physical ability to fill the cast of The Heights, can you describe the process in doing so?
Annie Murtagh-Monks: In addition to contacting all relevant actors’ agents, I went out into the community to search. So, for instance, in searching to find someone to play our Vietnamese mother, Iris, I discovered there were no 50-year-old Vietnamese professional female actors in Australia. I knew my producers didn’t want to cast an actor from a different country, so I contacted the Vietnamese Consulate in WA, dropped off flyers to all the Vietnamese supermarkets and restaurants I could find, and posted to Vietnamese community and Facebook groups.
I received around 50 responses, each with a photo. Vietnamese women look incredibly young for their age so more than half looked far too young to be the mother of a university student. I auditioned the rest and finally found three who showed a natural aptitude for acting. I then gave some coaching to these and we discovered that Carina Hoang responded incredibly well to acting coaching, which we continued together for two months until principal filming started.
More than half of our lead recurring ensemble cast were playing their first professional acting role on the first season, of The Heights so with many new faces the series has a fresh and unique look.
When it came to the casting of The Heights, which was the most challenging role to find actors for?
Annie Murtagh-Monks: Our Persian Iranian refugee family was challenging to cast because I had to find two ensemble lead actors, plus their extended family including an uncle, aunty and cousins. I think perhaps as there have only been a limited number of roles for Persian actors in Australia to date, there is only a small pool of trained or skilled actors of this nationality. Fortunately, we were able to cast the entire family, and I was able to give coaching to the younger family members.
Is there a considerable difference between casting for film and for TV?
Annie Murtagh-Monks: No, I think the only difference is needing to be aware what the challenge will be for the actor. On a TV series, the actor may need to work over many weeks or months and so the stamina required is different to what’s required for an intense 5-week film shoot. The Heights 1 and 2 each filmed over 6 months.
Throughout your career, how have you chosen the projects to work on?
Annie Murtagh-Monks: Something I love about casting is that every day my work is different. No two productions are the same and no two days are the same. If I feel I can help a production by finding the best cast for it, I am very happy to work on it.
How has social media impacted your job?
Annie Murtagh-Monks: Social media is very useful when you are searching for non-actors for specific or unusual roles. Also, the internet and websites like Casting Networks have made our job as casting directors considerably easier. Another change is the ease with which actors can send us self-taped auditions from anywhere in the world – this has had a significant impact.
What is the biggest misconception you feel people have in regards to your profession?
Annie Murtagh-Monks: I think the American term ‘Casting Agent” sometimes gets used incorrectly here in Australia, and can cause confusion between the roles of a Casting Director and an Actors’ Agent. A Casting Director, like me, works for the production to find the best actors and is paid a consulting fee. An Actors’ Agent represents the actor and earns a commission from what they earn.
What projects have you got coming up?
Annie Murtagh-Monks: We’re waiting to hear if there will be a third season of The Heights. Season 2 goes to air this Thursday March 12 nationally on the ABC so fingers crossed it’s well received. All thirty episodes of Season 1 episodes are now available on Freeview.
Film Inquiry thanks Annie Murtagh-Monks for taking to time to talk with us.
The Heights Season 2 will screen on ABC TV + iview from March 12st.
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