Casting is an art of its own. At the most fundamental level, casting directors are in charge of building a team. At the most sensitive level, casting directors hold the “keys to the city,” determining who gets put forward for a gig and who doesn’t. From running auditions to negotiating contracts, CDs are the people who bring the actors to the story and are often charged with presenting out-of-the-box options that could change a story’s essence.

If becoming a casting director is your dream, Backstage has you covered. It’s a tough, competitive field still rooted in an apprenticeship model, with a lot of sacrifice, grunt work, elbow grease, and caffeine required to make it. We’ve rounded up some essential insights into the wild and influential world of casting.

What does a casting director do?
Sometimes people think of casting directors as agents—they’re not. Agents represent actors and do business on the actor’s behalf. An agent is charged with getting actors gigs, and are paid a percentage of an actor’s compensation. A casting director, on the other hand, is charged with getting projects actors. CDs—who work as freelancers—are commissioned by a studio, network, or producers to do their work.

“Our job is to collaborate with producers, directors, and network and studios executives to cast the best talent for each role. We work to fulfill the creative vision of a team of artists. As casting directors, we get to help bring the vision of projects to life with our casting choices,” says Lisa London, CD on Disney’s “Hannah Montana” and “The Suite Life of Zack & Cody” and 2008’s “The House Bunny.”

What is the most common path to becoming a casting director?
There is no degree program or graduate school for becoming a casting director. Most CDs get their start through internships, apprenticeships, assistantships, fellowships, or mentorships. The best way to learn the ins and outs of casting is to do it—and to learn from those who have been doing it for a long time.

Internships and apprenticeships will teach you good habits for scouting, record-keeping, communication, audition protocols, and team-building. Many nonprofit regional theaters offer entry-level internships in their casting departments, which is a good way to get started. If a theater doesn’t offer an internship in casting, there is usually a position in a production or artistic department that directly engages with casting projects.

There are also, of course, high-profile casting offices in the big “actor cities” like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago that often offer internships where greenhorns can learn from master casters.

Why should I be a casting assistant first?
In the same way that a master craftsperson doesn’t become a master overnight, casting directors don’t become skilled until they’ve had a chance to learn through experience. When you enter the scene as an assistant, you have the opportunity to observe skilled CDs in action—what they look for, how they read résumés, how they work an audition room, and how they communicate with actors and their agents. Skilled observation and communication habits are paramount for a successful CD.

Also, assistantships allow a CD-in-training to start building up a network of actors and directors. It’s vital that CDs understand and appreciate the entertainment landscape—the more studios, producers, directors, actors, and other casting directors you know, the better you will be at your job. As Dan Pruksarnukul, former casting director at D.C.’s Arena Stage, says, “It’s about trying to develop genuine relationships.” The entertainment industry can feel tiny at times, and as an assistant, you will begin meeting the people who will sustain your work and support your success throughout your career.

How do I start with no résumé?
No résumé? No problem. Everyone has to start somewhere. And remember, there are no training programs for casting directors like there are for actors or directors. The key is getting in the door—and then climbing the ladder beyond the door.

Start by checking theaters and casting agencies for apprenticeships or assistantships in their casting department. At the entry level, a casting assistant’s duties will likely include administrative tasks like fielding phone calls, organizing headshots, posting audition materials, operating cameras, and publishing casting notices.

If a casting assistantship proves too difficult to secure cold, apply for positions in related departments, be they artistic or production. Usually, casting directors have some previous experience in the field, either as an actor, director, or arts manager. It helps CDs gain an appreciation for how scary and intimidating an audition can truly be for the actor and even the director. If you haven’t taken an acting class, do so. Learn what it’s like to be in an actor’s shoes. This awareness will allow you to handle casting operations with sensitivity and empathy.

Though the Casting Society of America doesn’t offer memberships to casting assistants, the professional advocacy organization does run a listserv for assistantship opportunities and a newly minted (and exclusive) semester-long training program at Syracuse University.

What kinds of people should I be networking with?
The short answer is everybody. That’s also the long answer. Casting directors have an enormous responsibility—not only are they charged with assembling an ensemble of actors to tell a story, they are also constructing a troupe of employees who need to work well together. And it doesn’t stop there! The actors whom CDs cast need to work well with the director and the crew, too—you’re building a work environment! As Pruksarnukul puts it, “You want to build a team, not just stars.” So, it helps to network and be present for lots of events—whether they’re launch parties, staged readings, nonunion plays, screenings, or showcases.

Here are some specific people you should be engaging with on a regular basis:

Producers are the folks who will solicit your services. If you establish yourself as a confident and reliable collaborator with a wealth of connections and resources, producers will be inclined to hire you to help make their investment a success.

Directors are the people you need to serve as a casting director. You need to know a director’s style—their habits, inclinations, temperament, and aesthetic. When you understand a director not only on an artistic level but personally, you’ll be better able to do your job.

And, of course, you want to get to know actors. But how?

Where do I look for actors I might want to cast?
An essential task for a successful CD is scouting the appropriate actors for a gig. Make a point to see work—particularly small plays or showcases. Look out for union readings, new play workshops, and even fringe nonunion work (many actors earn their union membership from a CD giving them a chance). Watching an actor onstage for two hours is more meaningful than watching an actor in a short audition; you get a better sense of how they handle the material, how they apply direction, and how good they can get. Build up a database of actors and their representation. The more actors you know, the more value you have as a CD.

How do I know if an actor is any good? How do I know when to take a chance?
Start by asking yourself these questions: What do you know about the actor? Are they prepared? Are they professional? How is their technique? What experience do they have? Are they engaging and working well with their scene partner? From there, start making assessments based on your gut feelings while also checking yourself for internal or unconscious bias. Do they seem like a nice person? Is this someone I can imagine getting along with the director? Does this actor have room to grow?

One of the most valuable insights a CD can have is an understanding of an actor’s latitude; this is why it’s crucial for CDs to be engaged community members. When a CD knows an actor and has seen them in a project—or multiple projects—they can tell the difference between a good and bad day. When a CD knows an actor’s work, they can tell a casting team, “I’ve seen this actor do better work” or “That’s as good as this actor’s going to get.” But when casting, Pruksarnukul also looks for three qualities that can’t be taught in any studio or conservatory: charisma, presence, and honesty. If an actor possesses these, they might be worth taking a chance on

What are good ways to keep track of actors?

It’s always important to cultivate healthy relationships with actors who make an impression. Likely, you will have actors audition for you who are exciting but not quite right for the role you’re casting. Don’t throw their résumé and headshot into the recycling bin; file it, flag it, and keep it close. Create a list of core actors of various types on whom you can rely. Stay in touch with them; watch their performances, put them on a mailing list. If they’re working strategically with a good agent, they will also put you on their mailing lists and keep you updated on their career moves. The more hefty your list, the better you’ll fare when a project comes across your desk.