The legacy of Annie Murtagh-Monks precedes her. Her casting work on movies like Japanese Story and Rabbit Proof Fence, and TV shows like Ship to Shore and Sweat, helped bring a welcome and much needed diversity to Australian screens. There’s a reason these shows and films are so memorable, and it’s thanks to Annie’s work in filling out the roles with great actors like Toni Collette, Heath Ledger, and Steve Le Marquand, that we recall with vivid intensity Japanese Story or Sweat or Last Train to Freo.

This dedication and attention has culminated with Annie’s most ambitious casting brief yet: to fill speaking roles that include a Vietnamese family, an Aboriginal family, a Persian refugee family, a character with Cerebral Palsy, and a number of LGBTIQA+ characters for the ABC TV series The Heights. With over 100 speaking roles in season one, it was no small task to present the diverse, multicultural Australia as it truly is. Especially when a lot of the roles required greatly underrepresented actors.

The immense task of filling these roles was recognised by the Casting Guild of Australia, with Annie beating out shows like Total Control, Diary of an Uber Driver, and Wentworth, to win the award for Best Casting in a TV Drama.

Upon wining the award, Annie had this to say:

“I am thrilled to be recognised by my peers for my work on The Heights, because not only was it my most ambitious casting job to date, it was also my most rewarding. It was a genuine privilege to be tasked with finding so many diverse new faces, and the majority of the cast are from Western Australia, which makes me particularly proud of our state. I’m grateful to Matchbox Pictures for bringing me on board and the CGA for this wonderful recognition.”

Ahead of the highly anticipated second season of The Heights, I caught up with Annie to talk about the casting directors role in such a big show. I’ve long been an admirer of Annie and her exceptionally talented son, Daniel, and as such, I was thrilled to be given the chance to talk about the Australian film and TV industry with her.

Given most of us consume film and television and don’t pay much mind to the process of how these productions come about, I jumped off the interview by asking Annie about the role of a casting director.

I advise production companies to help them find the best possible cast for a project. So I’m actually working for the producers or the production company, or the directors, depending on who has instigated the project. In collaboration with them, through meeting with the directors and also the producers, I need to ascertain what their mission is for the project, stylistically.

I also need to be pragmatic and work out what kind of budget they have so we can aim for actors who they can afford. After reading the script multiple times and meeting with them often several times I’ll then go through the process of searching for actors. If they’re an actor with a high profile it will often mean sending scripts to their agent and trying to ascertain if they might be interested in doing it. Then we brief their agent and let them know what we’re looking for, and in many cases, we screentest the role.

All those screentests are used by my immediate producers, of in the case of The Heights, the showrunner, Warren (Clarke), and Peta (Astbury), who was our producer here in Perth. Then we tend to sort them, and organise call-backs, if they’re going to be one of the recurring lead ensembles, and then getting the ok and approval from one of the lead executive producers. On something like The Heights we have a variety of executive producers, so we have Matchbox Pictures, as well as the ABC, so they would see a screentest, and they would give their opinions. It’s really casting by committee these days.

With that in mind, I ask Annie about what point she comes on board to a production. Are scripts complete? Or does she help find people as the scripts are being written?

For The Heights, I came on almost three and a half years ago, so when I came on board there was a bible and a number of outlines for recurring ensemble characters are. There’s a big heap of information for what the character arcs and the story arcs are going to be for the characters. There were draft scripts that were changed by discovery through the casting process as well.

The Heights is, in many ways, a serialised drama. I stumble a bit in my questioning here, trying to find the right words for the show, and instead come back with the label ‘elevated soap dramas’. I cringe as I say the words ‘heightened soap’, knowing full well the tepid pun I’ve just made. It’s not entirely true to say this about The Heights, given it actively tries to reflect real life, and as such, it elevates the serialised drama genre. Thankfully, Annie knows what I’m trying to say and as such, responds in kind.

It’s quite different, it’s almost a hybrid, because something like Neighbours would shoot six episodes a week, whereas The Heights would only shoot two episodes a week, so our shooting schedule was closer to a series, rather than a serial. And I think that allowed a very extensive period of time developing the scripts, over a couple of years even, for the first series. A whole team of writers worked on those extensively, so it meant that the quality of the script, I thought, were amazing, and that then allowed each frame and every other aspect to also be heightened.

I’m not sure if Annie also made the pun at the end of her answer to help accommodate the awkwardness brought about by my silly pun, but the more I spend talking to her, the more I appreciate how aware, empathetic, and understanding she is. Her answers are considered, reasoned, and well thought out. She is quite clearly someone who knows the importance of her role in Australian film and television, and as such, she’s keenly aware of the impact her actions have on those who want to help change the industry for the better.

Which is part of the reason why Annie’s much deserved win for Best Casting in a TV Drama at the Casting Guild of Australia’s 2019 awards means so much. Annie’s appreciation and understanding of what needs to take place for real-world diversity to be shown on screen is evident in her output as a casting director. But, that doesn’t mean that it’s not a challenge. I ask her how she manages to reflect the real world when it is so rarely shown on screen?   

As the Screen Australia study showed a few years ago, it highlights where we need to be going. I have to say as a casting director in the industry over several decades, and one of the executive members of the casting guild, we have been talking about this for many years, and often we will get the go ahead to screentest people from a diverse range, and we’ve gotten down to the final two people and often there was sometimes a safety element that came into play in the final decision.

For this particular show Que (Minh Luu) and Warren (Clarke) who had the initial idea, they had wanted to create a series, or a serial, that more accurately portrayed the Australian society now and have stories that included real life drama, and believable scenarios rather than perhaps more heightened or less every-day situations. They were absolutely dedicated every step of the way to find people who were authentic in those different areas and not take short cuts.

So, when we were looking at a particular nationality like Iris, who is a Vietnamese mother, I couldn’t cast a Eurasian actor, or an actor who is Thai, or a Chinese actor, or an actor who was a different nationality in that position, and so I really did have to go and find someone who was in the Vietnamese community who I was then able to train up and give acting coaching to. And Carina has come up exceptionally well.

And we have the Persian-Iranian refugee family, we have the Aboriginal family. We have the character of the girl with cerebral palsy, and I thought to myself, wow, that’s going to be a real challenge. Because I know having a son who is disabled, there is only a small pool of disabled actors in Australia and understandably so, because there haven’t been many opportunities for them to be cast in things. Therefore they don’t see the potential pathways for themselves, and haven’t necessarily paid the money to get the training or anything. But, fortunately, we were able to find Bridie (McKim), who Daniel (Monks) was actually mentoring at the time, and she was in a second year at NIDA doing the acting course at NIDA, the full time degree acting course, and I asked Daniel to do a self-tape with her so that she could be considered in the running, and she was just great and perfect for it.

And although she hadn’t ever acted professionally before, she had all the right possibility and she brought a charm to it, and a natural quality, which was fantastic, and she has cerebral palsy. And of course, when we were able to cast Roz Hammond as her mother… one of my peeves that I hate about parent/children combinations is that they don’t look believable… as Bridie’s real-life mother made a comment one day on a Facebook post, she said, ‘how come Bridie’s television mother looks more like her real mother than I do!’

As a testament to Annie’s ferocious desire to meet the brief she’s delivered with, when presented with a possible hurdle in relation to casting a Vietnamese character in their 50’s, she had this to say:

The producers had the option to re-write the character, but instead I reached out to Perth’s Vietnamese community via letterbox drops, community groups and the Vietnamese Consulate. I received 50 expressions of interest from Vietnamese women across Perth. We narrowed it down to a shortlist of three, and ultimately cast Carina Hoang, an author with no acting experience. Carina was a refugee herself, but had never considered taking up acting.

While The Heights is full of diverse talent, there’s also a few ‘name’ actors in the cast. People like Roz Hammond (Micallef-show regular, Muriel’s Wedding), Shari Sebbens (The Sapphires), and Marcus Graham (Underbelly) help round out the cast. I ask Annie about how important it is to have people like Roz there to help lift up the underrepresented actors?

Absolutely vital! They’re names because they’re damn great actors so having actors like Roz, like Fiona Press, like Kelton Pell, those people really help to help raise the bar. Rupert Reid on this series, and Marcus Graham on the first series, all of those people who had experience, they’re really able to be there and help out and mentor the brand-new actors and the ‘newbies’ in the series. 

But these ‘name’ actors weren’t the only ones helping out the ‘newbies’, with Annie stepping into the role of acting coach on The Heights, helping actors like Carina work through their first professional roles. In turn, Iris has become one of the shows most loved characters. When I watched the first two episodes of Season two with a full audience, the feeling in the room was purely electric when Iris appeared on screen. The affection for her, and Carina, was tangible. Just as the affection for every other actor and character was too.