This article first appeared as part of Jenelle Riley’s Acting Up newsletter – to subscribe for early content and weekly updates on all things acting, visit the Acting Up signup page.

Sophie Holland originally wanted to be an actor, but says it didn’t work out for many reasons. “Not least of all, I was probably terrible,” she says with a laugh. “But I love the industry so much and somebody said to me, ‘If you want money, you should be an agent. And if you want power, you should be a casting director.’” 

Though Holland now says she might have been “misled” about the power – she feels like “any other self-employed creator begging for work” – she fell in love with the process of casting. And as someone who understands acting (and is married to an actor), she brings a deep respect for the craft to her job and a special empathy into the process. “As a casting director, I think you need to give safe environments so that people can be their most creative selves,” she notes. “If you put the pressure on or they’ve had a shit time or you’re unkind to them, it’s not going to help anybody. So it’s your job really to create an atmosphere, an environment where they can do their best work.” 

Currently, the U.K.-based Sophie Holland Casting can boast several of Netflix’s most popular shows – including “You,” “Wednesday,” “The Witcher” and its prequel “The Witcher: Blood Origin.” She’s also worked on the streamer’s “Shadow and Bone” and “The Witcher: Blood Origin” as well as films like “Thor: The Dark World” and “Cherry.” While she loves the world of sci-fi and fantasy, she’s also looking to find projects that are “based more in the here in now.” She elaborates, “Something a bit political and juicy. I love those shows like ‘Succession,’ which I feel are reflecting events in the real world. So be it TV or film or independent film, I’m open to diversifying my portfolio.” 

What was the project that really confirmed you wanted to work in the field of casting? 
I think the first time I felt like a casting director was when I worked on something called “The Kill Team” by Dan Krauss, which was the story of American soldiers over in Afghanistan. It was the first time I understood that casting wasn’t just about finding beautiful people who could do the American accent convincingly, but that casting could have a real, profound impact on the people watching it. On that film, I was able to meet people that I would never know. It was set in Afghanistan and we don’t have actors from Afghanistan here. So then I had to go out and find them in the communities that existed in London, of which I had no prior knowledge. That became a journey of seek and ye shall find. I was learning about new communities and how to best represent them on screen. It felt important and it felt like I had a hand in how these people were perceived. 

You can affect change in whatever tiny way because you are in people’s homes and they’re watching this world. And that sort of solidified when I had a child, she’s five now, and I thought how hard it is to be a girl. I remember thinking I have to help her because she’s going to come under attack, just like I did, just because she’s a girl. Maybe she’ll be lucky and get to nine before somebody calls her a bitch. And it made me so sad that she was going to experience that and I couldn’t protect her from that. But what I could do is change the way people see women through casting. I can make them powerful and empowering and then the floodgates will open to them. 

Does that affect the projects you choose to take on? 
I’d like to say yes, but I also come from a working class background and you have this fear you will never work again. So if somebody offers me a job, I’m probably not saying no. But I do apply this theory to everything and it makes me push boundaries a little harder because I think representation is important. Not just for women, but all minority groups. Like, people have different physical abilities and I think it’s important they’re seen in strong and fierce roles. Realizing this was a real moment of falling in love with my craft in a way that feels very specific to me. 

Are there specific examples where you found someone or fought for them in a role? 
I mean, that has become sort of a calling card of mine. I am always the first to champion diversity in all its glory. One that springs to mind was the character of Yennefer on “The Witcher.” Lauren Schmidt Hissrich is the showrunner and we work so well together and she’s so open to conversations. In the book, she’s described as the most beautiful woman in the world. This was a few years ago and I’d like to think things have changed. But when you think about people’s unconscious bias – especially in the fantasy world, it felt like these worlds were predominantly white. And I remember saying, “I feel like we need to challenge what people think of as the standard of beauty. And having a woman of color in this role does incredibly powerful things to the people watching. 

You cast Anya Chalotra in the role, was she someone you were familiar with? 
Anya had graduated not long before she started on “The Witcher,” it was one of her first roles. I think I was the first audition she had out of drama school and I knew she was special. I knew we would work together, I just had that feeling, like our journeys were somehow entwined. I took Lauren to see her in this show set in India and she was telling these stories about the history of India. And there was a whole process – we did chemistry reads with her and put her with other actors in different scenes. 

Where are some of the places you find talent? Do people reach out to you? 
I literally get hundreds of emails every single day. Which is amazing, because I want people to know that they can reach out I think that is absolutely prerogative. And it’s our privilege to go and find new talent. That job on “The Kill Team” really taught me that. 

I use drama schools and agents, of course. You put out social media calls. But it’s also important to go to places like youth clubs, drama clubs. Because if you want to be an actor and you come from a working class background but can’t necessarily afford drama school, what would you do in that situation? So fringe theater is really important, places like City Lit in Covent Garden in London. It’s about going the extra mile. 

With those hundreds of emails, how can an actor stand out to you? 
Sometimes it’s just those emails crashing a desk at the right moment. But show reels are important. And if you can’t afford a show reel, record something on your phone to send out. It’s important people see you can act, don’t worry too much about the lighting or the look of it. On emails it’s good to mention what’s specific about you. Like, if you play the trombone, I might be looking for a trombone player that day. It also helps to know what people are currently casting and why you might be a good fit for it. 

Is there anything you would want actors to know if they are taping or coming in to audition for you? Pet peeves or preferences? 
Every casting director is different and everybody has different tastes. It’s not necessarily about whether actors are good or bad. It’s just that my taste is different to someone else’s taste. I personally, like everything really stripped back and really simple. So on a self tape, for example, I don’t really want anything to complicate it. Very basic lighting – so I can see your face. I just want to see your eyes, and I just want to hear you. I think when you’ve worked in the industry for quite a while, you’re really good at seeing talent when it’s there. So I don’t like things that necessarily get in the way of that. And I think less is more, if I’m honest. And if possible, you should enjoy that process. It’s a quick use as part of it. And I think it’s much easier if you embrace it, than if you’re constantly worrying about it. 

I imagine you’re at the point where you don’t really see many bad auditions, it’s just about an actor not really being right for a role? 
Correct. I just don’t know that I believe in a bad audition. I think I think it’s just perhaps right or not right? It would be it’d be a very dangerous thing for a casting director to say, “You’re not a very good actor.” First of all, that’s what an arrogant statement that is to make. It just actually might be that they’re not to my taste, or they’re not right for that role. I feel it’s really exclusionary to be that way. The other thing I feel like I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is that everybody has something special about them. And it is your job as a casting director to help unlock it; you have a responsibility and that you’re not passive passenger. Also, how brave are these actors to do what they do? It’s such vulnerability and courage. And, and I feel like if you don’t respect that, and you don’t love them for it, and probably casting is not the job for you. 

This interview was conducted before the SAG-AFTRA strike began.