Des Hamilton is a big Glaswegian man who enjoys swearing. He's also cast some of the best films of the past decade, working alongside directors like Shane Meadows, Lars von Trier, Gaspar Noe and Lynne Ramsey. I first came under his intense gaze when he cast me in the film Bronson, though as it turned out I couldn't do it. I haven't acted since, but rather than lock myself away in my bedroom and sob over missed opportunities, I got in touch with Des and his colleague Lara Manwaring who came along to make sure he didn't end up irreparably insulting anyone.
VICE: So what does a casting director actually do? Do you think the role itself is a product of the modern film industry?
Des Hamilton: How the fuck would I know? Have you ever fucking heard of Google? Six to eight weeks before a shoot the director is being pulled in every direction: by wardrobe, by locations, or working with the cinematographer on the look of the film, which, for me, is the most important thing. And then the director's got a personal life – maybe a wife who wants a holiday before the film brings its world of chaos. A strong casting director who shares the director's vision of the film is essential – sometimes you watch a film and can't quite articulate why you don't like it. A film can look beautiful, it can sound great but if you're watching two planks of wood bang their heads together it's going to be crap.
OK. So how did you come to work with Shane Meadows on This Is England ?
Mark Herbert, who's the head of Warp Films, sent me a script called Bulldog, which was the working title for a while. I really liked it but I wasn't at my best at the time – I told him that I was pretty messed up, but he just said "Yeah, we all get that way" and that Shane wanted me to go up and have a look around anyway.
Were you given free rein to find the cast?
It was all about the kid. That was my job, what I was there to do. The core of the film is that – my fundamental task was to find Thomas Turgoose.
There's this clip of you talking to Thomas Turgoose on YouTube...
Yeah. You ask him a load of questions and he seems more interested in his new bike... Is that one reason why you thought he might be right for it?
Shane didn't want someone who was coming into it having seen loads of films, who wanted to perform and be an actor. He didn't want somebody stagey, with a theatrical background. The best thing was Shane and the whole production crew's reaction to Tomo – it was like nothing else I've ever seen. We saw a lot of good kids, but when he came in to read, they needed seatbelts on their chairs.
Is that rawness and naivety something you can only get with kids?
No, I had that with Kathleen McDermott [Morvern Callar ]. She was street cast as well. We also had it with Ashley Walters for Bullet Boy. Saul Dibb, the director, wasn't sure about him but he came in and did an improv and it had the same impact. It was impressive.
How does street casting work?
With Tomo's character in This Is England, we looked in community centres around Cleethorpes and Grimsby for kids who didn't go to school. We'd go into shopping malls and arcades, hang around outside football games.
How do you approach someone in a situation like that?
You get a bad reaction sometimes. People tell you to fuck off. I stopped a kid in Camden a couple of weeks ago, and said, "Excuse me, is that your big brother? Can I speak to him?" and he just said "Nah, fuck off". I was in Central Station in Glasgow a little while ago too, looking for people for a Doves video Lynne Ramsey was doing. I approached four girls and they all told me to fuck off.
Des Hamilton with some Japanese Celtic fans
How do directors with very specific ideas about what they want communicate that to you?
I went to spend the day in Paris with Gaspar Noe for Enter The Void. We sat and he showed me some stuff on YouTube that he found funny, clips of films he wanted to reference. That was a huge help. The time constraints around the industry don’t make for great art, but someone like Gaspar could go away and shoot anything and it’d be brilliant because he’s a genius filmmaker. He’s touched.
What’s his working process like? It seems like he takes his time.
Well, he’s not just directing his films, he writes them as well. It’s his art and I think he gives it the respect it deserves. He’s very careful about his choices. And then he drops some punk into it. He’ll set something up carefully but then he can grab people off the street and just drop them into scenes at the last minute.
How did you get started in this? You were an actor yourself, weren't you?
I was a terrible actor. I got drunk and stoned at parties in London and because I'm Scottish and daft people started telling me I should be an actor. I wasted five years of my life. I had no passion for or interest in it, though the money was nice. Previously I'd been earning £10 an hour on building sites, so the pay for adverts and proper acting jobs felt pretty fucking good.
Do you think being Glaswegian in London helps with the casting? Are you able to scare all the southerners?
Ha, I think with the material we work on, coming from a working class background helps. But I don't think the actors who come in are scared... Were you?
No, but I'm a tough dude. One of my favourite memories of doing a casting with you was when you tried to get me to look at the camera properly, and you just went, "Oscar, why don't you behave like a fucking human being for once in your fucking life!" I remember thinking it was a good note, because some casting directors don't actually tell you what's on their mind.
Suicidal is a strong word – it's a major part of my vocabulary, I use it willy-nilly – but I left a lot of castings feeling pretty bad about myself when I was acting. Obviously only one actor can get each role, but I don't want people to feel like they want to kill themselves.