This post was written by Aaron Schoonover.
I recently read about the idea of Shadow Careers–a concept I hadn’t heard before, but is quite common, especially within creative fields. It got me thinking about my own journey within this industry and how it’s so common for creative folks to wear so many hats.
Shadow Careers are essentially: working in a career or position that relates to what you want, but not actually pursuing your ultimate goal or dream.
This idea resonated with me. When starting out in the industry it’s a necessity to be able to wear many hats to get your projects off the ground. If you want to do Z, you often need to do X and Y first to get there. When it comes to directing, for instance, there are several paths you can take, moving to the director chair via the route of an editor, AD, showrunner assistant, or DP.
A path you don’t see very often however is casting. But casting is multifaceted in nature; there are elements of producing, directing, and working with actors.
I’ve worked in casting for the last ten years, and it wasn’t until going freelance into principal casting in 2019, and then being in the middle of a pandemic, that my brain rewired and I was able to step out of a corporate haze and ask myself “Wait, what do I want?”
In 2021, I found myself at a high point within casting- freelance and so much happier, working in the industry—with incredible people on amazing projects— everything feels so right. But still, there was an itch inside that I hadn’t been able to scratch. Was there more I should be doing?
It was a common feeling. Throughout my life, I’ve always felt a bit underutilized. I always put it off to my age or my experience. “Once I’m older/once I get that promotion/once I have that person in my corner.” Patiently waiting for the right time, right place, right person.
Like many other people, I felt a flip switch inside me coming out of the pandemic. I am capable of so much more. I want to cast for movies and TV shows, yes. But I want to direct and produce movies. I want to write movies (at this point I had three features and tons of shorts written, just idly waiting for “something”).
Why am I not doing all of these things if it’s what I want?
Catherine Curtin in 'Rabbit Hole'
Cut to 2022. I had decided to write and direct my first short film. A queer coming-of-age story about a recent high school grad entering cautiously into adulthood, balancing “coming out” of his shell with an erratic home life and an unhinged QAnon mother.
I wanted to channel a Sean Baker neorealism approach to filming Rabbit Hole. I planned to film in Akron, Ohio where I knew I could have access to all free locations. In addition, I planned to fully use local actors, and real people where I could. This is where my background in casting came in handy.
Working in casting has been extremely beneficial to my transition into directing. For years I had been part of countless production meetings, paying close attention to the process and the working styles of high-level directors. My other coworkers used to dread commuting to these meetings. If you were working on a series it usually meant three meetings for each episode—a concept meeting, a production meeting, and casting meeting. Sometimes the meetings could go on for hours, but I loved sitting there listening to the departments talk about minute details like how to rig steam for a shower or which fake baby was a best match to an actor.
Then of course, the main perk of a casting background is the knowledge that comes from directly working with actors; knowing how to communicate, direct simply, and efficiently to get the right take for an audition. It easily translated into directing: What buzzword, small adjustment, or trick will get me the performance I envision?
I needed to be very realistic with the search for our leads. Knowing I would be pulling from Ohio talent and on a low budget, I focused on essences. Who feels most like these characters, has the innate qualities I need to tell the story? I felt confident that if I did find someone with little-to-no film experience who matched the essence of the characters, I would work with them to get the performance I was envisioning.
I reached out to my alma mater Kent State to Zoom with a handful of the musical theater majors. Young MT performers often haven’t mastered the fundamental differences of acting for camera (should be a required course), but was still confident I would find natural talent.
I immediately knew I found my lead Blake when I Zoomed with freshman Nate Frison. He embodied Blake’s wholesome but newly adventurous nature, and despite having never acted on camera before, he had a natural emotiveness and a grounded essence. I knew I could work with him to deliver a solid performance (spoiler alert: he did).
I scoured casting sites for Ohio local talent, still trying to find Dom, the romantic interest. The pool wasn’t huge, but I found Drake Tobias on Backstage and immediately knew from his reel that he was my Dom—charming with the crashing wave of youthful confidence that the role required.
Thankfully he was in Ohio for our dates and down to join us!
Nate Frison and Drake Tobias in 'Rabbit Hole'
When it came to casting the role of Denise, the QAnon mother, the dialogue and character could go very comedic—almost caricature. It was imperative to me that Denise must feel real. The absurdity of Q needed to come from an honest place.
I remained confident that I could find this locally, but after exceeding our crowd-funding goal I was able to work the budget to accommodate a NY hire for the role.
It was interesting being on the other side of the table. Usually, it’s the casting director’s job to think outside the box of what the director wants. When I envisioned Denise I had in mind this person I see a lot in Ohio: the Crossfit mom who has a bold floral tattoo sleeve, loves Budlight, and is a “mama-bear” type.
But when coming up with ideas, I switched to my casting hat, and the person I kept coming back to was Catherine Curtin (Stranger Things, Orange is the New Black).
I started a conversation with her reps, and after learning she loved the script, I knew she was the right choice. I was elated when she accepted an offer and was game to come to Ohio to shoot. Curtin is known for being a very dynamic performer, and we quickly jumped on a call to discuss the character and story. She not only understood the character but further brought out a maternal quality in Denise that made the unraveling of their relationship extremely heartbreaking.
Working with Catherine was a dream and also terrifying. She is an actor actor. She gives 110 percent. She’s worked with incredible directors. I tried not to let the imposter syndrome creep in.
After our first set-up, an emotional FaceTime scene that was filmed in only a few takes, everyone was eager to move on. Catherine pulled me aside, gently took my shoulders, looked me in the eyes, and said, “Are you sure you have what you need from me?”
Then, it hit me: Catherine Curtin has flown to Ohio to act in your film.
Through several conversations with Catherine about the character, breaking down the script carefully with Nate, a clear vision and shot list with my DP, and an extensive amount of prep, the first shot went seamlessly. It had even moved me to tears. Yes, I had gotten what we needed!
Nate Frison and Catherine Curtin in 'Rabbit Hole'
On our final day of filming, as the crew was setting up for our last shot inside a quaint local restaurant, everyone ventured outside, eyes fixed on the sky. The first lunar eclipse of the year was happening—the moon appeared a deep shade of red, a Blood Moon
A wave of emotion crashed over me. Part exhaustion, part euphoric delight. The moment felt destined. Everything seemed to make sense at that moment, as the pieces I didn't even know I was searching for had come together.
Turns out, the Blood Moon signals self-exploration and rebirth.
Something about doing this in my hometown, with my family and friends on set as extras or helping as PAs—it took me back to being a kid with my dad’s giant camcorder on my shoulder directing my friends in “films.” A true full-circle moment.
I wiped my tears, pulled it together, and went back in for the single remaining shot—feeling more than ever that I was on the right path and that good things were to come.
All this to say, as creatives, it’s natural that we will ebb and flow with our interests and our projects, and that’s okay. There’s no shame in wearing multiple hats and excelling in multiple things; they will only help to inform one another. But if there is something you want to do, or you feel you’re in the shadows of a career, then why not take a step out and give it a go? Why not?
This post was written by Aaron Schoonover.