Spotlight: Martin Casting

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Melissa Martin often finds herself in the middle of nowhere. She's based in Studio City, Calif. (and on the web at, but the casting director has trekked through Midwestern farms, Buddhist temples and Indian reservations to find the quirky characters that flavor the reels of directors like Joe Public, Kinka Usher, Traktor, Sam Bayer and Joe Pytka. Ten years into her career, Martin has become something of an Everyman's casting queen, as the commercials business has been quite conveniently skewing her way. "I think the trend has been toward actors that look and behave as 'real people,' " she says. "What that usually translates to is people who aren't perfectly pretty - they're not models, they don't have great teeth and perfect noses. It's also not just about good actors, but actors who can act real. It takes a really good actor to do that, because they've got to know what they know and let it go and just be spontaneous. As a real-people casting director, I've got an eye for people who are very natural, or those who have some sort of skill, like cowboys in Idaho or ballerinas in Seattle. I don't do a lot of Procter & Gamble/Colgate happy-smiley people. I tend to do very edgy type of commercials and a lot of comedy."

Indeed, Martin has a long-standing relationship with the warped Traktor crew; she cast the bumbling men who "inconvenience" themselves with traumatic injuries in the recent Mike's Hard Lemonade campaign, via Cliff Freeman & Partners. She's also cast Ikea and Quizno's spots for the directing collective. "They have such a twisted sense of humor, and they're fearless when it comes to using real people or even actors that are really bad actors," she says.

The more nit-picky the director, the better, notes Martin. "Traktor e-mails all day long and sends picture references of what they want. 'How about finding a guy like this?' they'll say, and it's some guy they pulled out of a book. I absolutely love that." Other helmers she admires for their attention to detail are Dayton/Faris, for whom she cast the Macy Gray video "Sexual Revolution," and Epoch Films' Jeff Preiss. She placed the faces in Preiss' commercials for Cotton and Powerade. "He has, to me, the most filmic way of seeing into people, seeing who they really are," Martin says. "He won't hesitate to look at a thousand people to find one. Even an extra to him is important, even if it's just a body that's going to be in the background."

Martin herself is a former commercials actress who has appeared in spots for Nike and Motorola. "It's only made me better," she remarks of her s. "I think I unbetter as a casting director," she feels. "I understand actors and can speak to them to get them to act a certain way." So why did she abandon her own acting career? "I knew what my part was as an actor, but didn't know how they selected us. So I assisted a woman who was a real-people casting director, Pam Kaplan, and fell in love with the business side." That wasn't such a leap for Martin, whose eclectic college background featured a minor in music and a major in marine biology at Cal Poly/Pomona - her first job after college was lab technician. (She's done some whale studies, but no, she wasn't responsible for finding the orca in one of the Mike's Hard Lemonade spots.)

"I love information, yet I have this creative side," she explains. "I think it became a question of what sort of creative will pay the bills. Casting has become the perfect melding of business and creative. You've got to make decisions and be smart about things. It's literally the business of commercials."

Martin's analytical skills come in handy when she lands on unfamiliar soil with a slew of unusual talent to cast. "I get all the local papers, local event listings, the Yellow Pages, and then just hit the road with my camera." Her most taxing assignment to date was finding talent for Joe Pytka in the agricultural heartland of Petaluma, Calif., for the World Soccer Cup. "It was great casting - a hairdresser, a pig farmer, small-town people," she recalls. The quaint-seeming job was more something out of Mission Impossible, especially with Pytka's super-efficient schedule. "I sent this tape back of all these people, and the next thing I know, they call and say, 'OK, we're coming up!" So I met them at the little bitty airport, where they flew up in a private plane. Joe Pytka and his people come in and sit down at this cafeteria table in Santa Rosa, look at the pictures and watch my tape on this little monitor they brought, and decide who they want to cast and what they want to do. I was literally on my cell phone calling, 'Guess what? We're on our way to your pig farm and we're gonna shoot a commercial.' And while they'd be shooting the pig farmer, I'd be standing on this cow pie mound going, 'Hi, we're going to be at your hair salon in 20 minutes. Can you meet us on the corner?' It was guerrilla casting. They have to trust you, and my responsibility is also to take care of them, make sure they get the money they're supposed to get and make sure they're not abused." The personal payoff has been invaluable as well. "This business has afforded me the ability to open up my life and eyes," she says. "I wouldn't trade it for the world."

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