Siegfried Wagner, head of casting at German producer Bavaria Fiction, talks to DQ about his career so far, building the on-screen ensemble for Das Boot and finding an actor to play football legend Franz Beckenbauer.
Having originally joined Bavaria Fiction as a lawyer, Siegfried Wagner subsequently moved into casting at the German producer and has never looked back since, becoming its head of casting in 2008.
Wagner has overseen casting for shows as varied as war drama Das Boot and fact-based crime series Das Geheimnis des Totenwaldes (Dark Woods), as well as picking actors for other series such as Tatort and Arctic Circle. He also recently worked on Bavaria’s television biopic of iconic German footballer Franz Beckenbauer.
Here, Wagner tells DQ about how he became a casting director, what his role entails and which show he thinks has perfect casting.
How did you get started in casting?
In 1999, I started as a lawyer at Bavaria and was responsible for actor contracts. To understand exactly what I was negotiating, I started reading scripts, got to know actors and simply acquired a great deal of knowledge about the range of agencies and actors in the industry.
Our in-house executive producers recognised my expertise and asked me if I would like to cast projects on my own. One of them was Stephan Bechtle with the RTL project Die Jahrhundertlawine, a German-French-Polish coproduction. The next production was Machen wir’s auf Finnisch by exec producer Astrid Kahmke, a comedy movie for ProSieben with up-and-coming talent like Volker Bruch as the love interest, plus Lasse Myhr and Jasmin Schwiers. The film won the producer’s award in Hamburg and so it became quickly clear – Siggi should cast!
What does a typical day look like as head of casting?
There are no typical days. But there are very typical work blocks and work processes that simply move to the front, depending on what the priority is at the time. The best work block and most inspiring is, of course, the content work – reading scripts, treatments or maybe just an exposé and then really getting into the development and working out ideas and characters. For me, it’s always the images that emerge, simply by letting them happen – that’s the most beautiful part.
But of course, there is also the classic work, for example managing emails, job applications, recordings, researching actors and viewing showreels, dailies and e-castings. Typical live casting days are where lead roles are cast in constellations. You are on location all day with the director and you are supporting, contributing ideas and changing constellations on the spot. Another block is meetings with executive producers, directors and commissioners to discuss cast proposals. These are the most important, typical work blocks that take place on normal days.
Do you have a particular process when assembling the cast of a new project?
Yes, I have a very typical approach. Sometimes I joke that it’s the lawyer in me, as the first thing I do is an overview of the role constellation, which shows all the roles and how they are connected with each other, visualised with arrows. Who demands what from whom? Who killed whom? Who is married to whom? What are the family relationships? For me, it’s essential to not only grasp the individual characters, but also to always have the entire ensemble in mind.
Where do you go to find new talent?
Everywhere. I actually still read a lot, particularly cultural features and theatre reviews, and watch young actors on stage and recognise their first accolades and awards. I’m in an extensive exchange with drama schools – especially for the graduate auditions, which are always extremely informative and exciting – and, of course, with agencies, which are also perfect seekers and finders of new talent.
Is there one actor you’re particularly proud of discovering?
That’s a difficult question to answer, as talent shines through and is seen by many. You have to approach them at the right time with the right project. If you have a series like Das Boot with a very young U-boat cast, you have to search intensively for actors who are just getting started and aren’t established yet. Through outstanding projects, you are often an accelerator of careers.
Is there a way you like to work with directors, writers and producers during the casting process?
A fluid, open exchange matters most to me – thoughts and ideas flying back and forth. At Bavaria Fiction, we have our own in-house casting department and this enables us to be involved very early on in the development stage. You can think about actors right from the start and, once the directors are on board, it’s simply a creative feast to exchange ideas with them and the producers.
How has your job changed across your career, for better or worse?
Many aspects have evolved, but some have also become more strenuous. Although Germany is still lagging behind other European countries a bit, the recognition of the work of casting directors in this country has vastly improved. The German Casting Association has contributed a great deal to this and we’re now more visibly credited. Diversity has always been important for us, but to see, particularly over the past two years, how freely and creatively you can simply challenge once stereotypical roles and debate about gender and gender identity is inspiring.
Also, digitalisation has simplified a lot of processes: there’s no need to search through the archives, as everything is available online, and e-casting has become an important tool for early casting processes.
At the same time, the pressure is growing, as everything has become faster with more projects coming in.
You’ve worked on Sky original series Das Boot since the beginning. How did you bring together the ensemble cast?
The role constellation and visualisation were key. First of all, we drew a huge submarine to understand where each character is placed. The officers with leadership positions have a certain standard of education and therefore require a different portrayal, with a different posture. The further back you go on the boat, the more the energy becomes different, much rougher. Having the U-boat visualised helped tremendously to find the right constellations and hence bring the crew together as one. This also transferred to the rest of the ensemble with the storyline set on land.
The international scope of Das Boot and working together with international casters is also extremely inspiring, as key characters from countries such as the UK, France and the US have to fit into the overall picture. We use the Castupload database, to which all casters have access and can view casting proposals and auditions. Seeing the proposals of the international casters from France, the UK, the US and Italy is always exciting. The contribution of the Czech cast for smaller roles, via the service producer, has also been very important.
How does your role change with each new season?
The role doesn’t really change. It has always been important to the executive producers to ensure continuity in the quality of the acting. As we are forced by the course of the war [in the show’s story] to recruit younger and younger U-boat crews, the challenge is to find those actors who can withstand the pressure of acting in a confined space over a long period of time and, at the same time, maintain the quality of a high-end series.
When it comes to a show like ARD Degeto and NDR miniseries Dark Woods, which is based on a true crime story, how does that affect your approach to casting?
It was different from usual. As we were working with the research team, we saw pictures of the real perpetrator, the victims and the police officers. This changes your perception as you notice their posture and read their faces, even though our characters are fictionalised. Although we didn’t cast based on resemblance, it happened subconsciously, as the key inner motives you’re looking for in the auditions are maybe more easily recognisable when [it comes to characters based on] real humans.
For Der Kaiser, what attributes were needed to play the lead role of Franz Beckenbauer?
Two very essential attributes: infinite charisma and football ability.
And why did you choose Klaus Steinbacher?
Markus Zimmer [Bavaria Film Production CEO] pitched the project to me at a very early stage and I said right away that I only knew one actor who could play it. That was Klaus Steinbacher. He has an unbelievable presence and I’ve had him on my radar for a long time – in Das Boot, he plays a very nasty character, which back then led to the question of whether such a nice, humble and charismatic young man could actually play the bad guy. But [Das Boot] director Andreas Prochaska and I were convinced, and he did it perfectly. After he graduated drama school, Klaus introduced himself to us, coming to the office and blowing us all away with his smile and personality. That’s very rare. And of course, he can play football too.
What are the most challenging aspects of your job?
Never standing still and staying curious and open; always being on the move and never resting on what you have seen and achieved at some point in your career. You never stop thinking. That is a great challenge – to find the moments when you can switch off for yourself and where you can create again. That’s holiday breaks, just going out and drawing creativity from art exhibitions and novels, and not reading a script for a change. The pandemic has been challenging, as you have to make the impossible possible, such as finding a new actor from one day to the next due to a case of illness. Surprisingly, however, my team and I always made it.
Is there an example of one show you think has perfect casting?
One of my all-time favourite series is Sex Education. It was so ahead of its time and, for me, the reflection of a better world, a fantasy world. Through these convincing characters with perfectly cast actors, a simple authenticity is created that no one has ever questioned. Suddenly clichés are thrown overboard. Here, we have a black character who does not belong to a low socioeconomic class; a white, attractive character who belongs to the poor. Without much ado, a door opens and the audience is introduced to the parents – two women. These are just some of many examples, and it’s the same clever storytelling when it comes to inclusion in the later seasons. It’s not always easy to find an actor with a disability to play a disabled character, but when you do, it’s a huge win for everyone and, of course, for the show.
What’s the secret to finding good chemistry on set?
I firmly believe that if you set the same high standards of acting within a production from an artistic point of view, it will lead to an inspiring working chemistry and the spark will ultimately spread to the audience. Seeing the cast as a whole from a single mould – that’s the secret sauce.