April 24, 2024
People & Places

Discovering the stars

You may not know her name, but Angela Heesom is a pioneer of South Australia’s film industry, discovering and nurturing local talent through her company Heesom Casting.

Angela Heesom in her casting offices at the SA Film Corporation.

She’s been hailed as the mastermind who discovered screen star Teresa Palmer, but casting director Angela Heesom baulks at that accolade.

Yet, there’s no denying it was Angela’s instinct and tenacity that resulted in Teresa being cast in December Boys in 2007, co-starring alongside Daniel Radcliffe in his first film post-Harry Potter fame. It was a career-making moment for the young South Australian actor that catapulted her onto the world stage.

“We weren’t casting the movie, it was being done out of Sydney, but the producers came to town and brought us on as support, and I knew they were looking locally for talent,” says Angela, who runs Heesom Casting.

“So, I asked if they had found their lead here and they said no, which I thought was unusual because there was a great role for a 16-year-old. So, I rang them back and said ‘Did you screen test Teresa Palmer?’ and they said, ‘Who?’.

“So, I got Teresa in here and we did a screen test and she went on to get the role. It was a real sliding-door moment because I wasn’t really working on the film but I knew Teresa would be great. She definitely had the ‘it’ factor, but that’s not enough, you’ve also got to be able to really work on screen.”

Since then, Angela has become both a mentor and close friend to the now 37-year-old Teresa, who is one of the most in-demand stars internationally.

“The most rewarding part about Teresa Palmer is that her success hasn’t changed her,” Angela says. “That’s what I find really disarming about her … she is still the most generous, sweet person you would want to meet.”

Teresa Palmer is just one of the local stars who’ve experienced their “big break” thanks to Angela’s instincts and expertise. The casting director has also helped launch the careers of South Australian stars such as Xavier Samuel (The Twilight Saga: Eclipse) and Harrison Gilbertson (Oppenheimer), since launching Heesom Casting in 2000.

In the past 23 years, Angela has cast actors and extras in hundreds of locally made productions including Wolf Creek 1 and 2, Storm Boy, Beautiful Kate, Deadline Gallipoli, Anzac Girls, The Hunting, First Day, Aftertaste and Mortal Kombat.

Angela’s daughter Louise joined Heesom Casting in 2013 and the mother/daughter duo work out of the South Australian Film Corporation offices at Glenside.

A shot of Angela early in her career during her Actor’s Ink days.

As a casting director, Angela’s work involves screen testing professional actors, as well as tracking down specific kinds of people for various roles, be it for a TV commercial, a TV show or a feature film.

That often means tracking down authentic, real-life people rather than trained actors and some of Angela’s assignments have included finding a pygmy, people with missing body parts for a thriller, women with no teeth to play turn-of-the-century gold diggers’ wives, and a bunch of bikies for a movie called Broken Hill.

“They wanted really dangerous bikie-looking people, not the ones who wear red bandanas and ride Harley Davidsons on the weekends,” Angela says. “So, I went to the softer bikie organisations. I didn’t want to go to the Gypsy Jokers, but to the fringe people who hang out with the Gypsy Jokers.

“That’s the beauty of having someone like me on the ground who could go to these places and find specialist people. Over the years I’ve had to find real bikies, real altar boys and real prostitutes.”

Louise says Angela has been known to “scour dump yards, muscle her way into mine sites and chase teens at skateparks” to find exactly who she needs.

“I mean she literally jumped out of a moving car once to beg a guy to take her business card, just because he had a great face,” Louise says. “She is shameless in the pursuit of casting.”

Angela says she’s actually very mindful about approaching people but says she often has to act swiftly, and nine times out of 10 people are open to the conversation.

“If I advertised that role, I’d never find that person but they are sitting there, right in front of me,” she says. “So, then I plough in and say something like: ‘I know this is going to sound really weird, but I am a casting director and I’m looking for someone for a role and you look just right’.

“When I’m on a mission to find someone, I’ve got to go to as many places as possible as quickly as possible. I haven’t got two hours to sit and have dinner and look around – I’ve got two minutes.”

A hazard of the job, however, is that Angela never switches off – she is constantly doing what she calls “street casting”, scouring restaurants, music festivals, shopping centres, schools, anywhere in search of the next amazing face.

Angela, front and centre, with some of the neighbourhood children she used to cast in her backyard productions.

“You can’t turn it off. Sometimes when I’m doing my shopping in the Central Market, I have to look at the ground to resist scanning the faces in the crowd,” she says. “I can’t help myself. If I see a face that might be good for something I just have to speak to them, so when I’m in a hurry I try not to look anyone in the eye.”

As a casting director, Angela says she is often asked how she recognises the “it” factor, that star quality needed to make it in the competitive world of acting. She says it’s hard to describe, it’s just a feeling.

“It’s almost like they have a halo around them in my mind, it’s something in their DNA,” she says. “But the actor also needs natural instincts and imagination to do well. Courage is a very good thing, and you also need to be interested in stories. On top of that, you’ve really got to want it, really want it, as well as having a good screen presence.

“What gets you the role is not what’s on the page, because that’s what everyone’s doing. It’s what’s not on the page that gets you the role – it’s the circumstances and emotions around the dialogue.”

While Angela plays it down, it’s clear her gift is being able to draw out that emotion to get the best performance from an actor during a screen test.

“I don’t get anyone the role, but I unlock stuff and I feel so excited, I’m on top of the world when they get a role,” she says.

Angela recently did a screen test with a then-unknown local named Shantae Barnes-Cowan, when a role came up for an Indigenous actor in the Rachel Perkins TV series Total ControI.

“She’d never acted in her life and I will never forget she came in here and we just plotted through these four scenes for this lead role,” Angela says.

“It wasn’t quite clicking but we stuck with it, because often your emotions can be quite contained. So, it took a lot of courage for her to get where we needed to get emotionally but it happened.

“I said to Shantae that day, ‘You’re going to be an actor, you are just a star in the making already. You’ve got all the natural instinct’. I would describe Shantae as an Indigenous version of Julia Roberts, she smiled and she lit up the whole space.

Angela, aged 19, spent a year in a wheelchair following a hit-and-run accident.

“She went on to get that film, I sent the tape to the director who said, ‘We don’t need to call her back, she’s got the job’.

“That’s what I love about this job, intercepting young hopefuls when they haven’t got the career yet. I am lucky enough to get to interface with them early, then they get that first role and they’re off.”

Shantae has since gone onto win lead parts in titles such as Firebite, Sweet As, and Wyrmwood: Apocalypse.

Louise says watching her mother in the audition room with an actor is “magical”.

“She is able to bring something out of the actor that sometimes they didn’t even know existed,” she says. “And seeing that moment of metamorphosis is one part awe-inspiring and the other part totally addictive. The way she dissects script, understands screen language and the tonality needed to serve different genres is just second to none. It’s those pinch-yourself-moments that you think, ‘Hang on a second, this is my mum’.

“But she is so humble about it all. I remember one day she had Toni Collette and Eddie Redmayne in the room, after taping David Wenham for a different project and then jumped on a call to Orlando Bloom’s agent.   

“She has single-handedly forged an entire industry sector and pioneered a casting industry in South Australia where there was none, and it forever changed the local landscape of filmmaking. The term ‘casting director’ didn’t even exist in South Australia before Mum became one.”

A clue that Angela had a knack for casting occurred during her childhood in the working-class area of Liverpool in the UK, growing up with brothers Lindsay, Chris and John.

Angela would regularly transform her father’s backyard shed into a “little theatre”, complete with a stage and curtains.

“Then all the kids from the back streets were my cast,” she says. “I got them in and wardrobed them all and I directed shows. I was eight years old. That was just playtime in those days, but it’s funny, you look back on where you go and where you started and perhaps there was a little seed planted then.”

An on-set shot from the 1989 French movie, Australie, with actor Jeremy Irons, to the left sitting on top of the truck, and Angela, centre front in white t-shirt.

Angela’s parents Bernie and Mary moved the family to Australia and Angela eventually left school and got a hairdressing apprenticeship at Shergis salon in the city.

But a tragic hit-and-run accident at age 19 changed the course of Angela’s life forever. She was riding her father’s scooter home from a babysitting job, when a car crashed into her from behind.

“The impact threw me to the other side of the road, about 60 metres, and then another car ran over me, over my middle,” she says. “I remember going up in the air and thinking this isn’t going to be good.

“The first car took off, so we never found out who that was. It was a rainy, wet night and I remember coming to, lying on the road and there was a third car that had stopped just before going over my head.”

The traumatic ordeal resulted in Angela being hospitalised for a year and undergoing more than 15 operations as they “pieced me back together”.

She was in a wheelchair for most of that time, but says her “young human spirit” got her through, as did her parents’ unending support and she soon learned to walk again.

While she was convalescing, Angela taught herself to type and eventually got work as a receptionist and switchboard operator at a local food company. But it was her next job, at major advertising agency McCann Erikson, that saw Angela become “switched on” to the film industry.

“I ended up staying there for a couple of years and felt very lucky that I had fallen into this job. I felt like I’d found where I wanted to be,” she says.

At age 23, Angela headed to London, working with the Moving Picture Company, and moving up the ladder to the role of production manager: “I call this my ‘falling in love’ period because once I got there, I just fell in love with everything to do with the film industry: the creativity, the excellence, the dedication of everyone around me. It was inspiring.

“We were doing all the big TV commercials like the Gina Lollobrigida Lux soap ads and Hot Chocolate music videos.”

Louise Heesom now works alongside her mother in the casting business and says Angela’s talents are “awe-inspiring”.

Angela eventually returned to Australia, working with a South Australian company called Film House which made documentaries, and it was around this time that she met and fell in love with Adelaide cinematographer and director Peter Smith. The couple had Louise in 1984 and while they eventually parted ways, they have always remained firm friends and still catch up.

When Louise was a toddler, Angela toyed with the idea of leaving the film industry, studying an Arts degree at Flinders University, but the pull of the film world was always intense, an addiction almost.

Angela recalls stopping her car around town to watch film crews on location.

“I wish I knew what that was,” she says. “I think it’s the magic of what happens between ‘action’ and ‘cut’. You look at what happens in our industry, the massive amount of people who all pull together.

“When I was working on Mortal Kombat three years ago, the call sheet for lunch was 1200 people. That’s 1200 people all there to make what happens through a camera lens magic, from the time of action to cut. It’s like a sacred moment, all these people working towards that one thing of total glorious perfection on screen.

“I think it’s the collaboration. I’m a bit of a pack person and it’s the pack spirit kicking in in a very creative way. The end result is entertainment and telling stories.”

Prior to her role as a casting director, Angela ran her own actor’s agency, Actor’s Ink, launched in 1994. The business gradually expanded, offering not just talent representation but also acting lessons, driven by Angela’s passion to support both local talent and the industry more broadly.

“There’s no point having a client list of 2000 people and they’re not equipped enough to actually get the jobs when they come in,” Angela says.

“I’ve always been very honest about what I don’t know, but I think the actors just loved my dedication to the industry and they loved that I was very proactive, I wanted them to succeed. So, you know, within three years, I became one of the biggest agencies in the state.”

By the time Angela sold Actors Ink in 2000, she had seven full-time staff and 30 casuals.

Angela running a screen test with Shantae Barnes-Cowan, a young star who Angela says had that “it” factor from day one.

There were tough times too, though. In 2007, amidst the global financial crisis, Angela was forced to bolster her income and found a job in a factory packing brochures into boxes.

“Some of the brochures I was packing were for the X-Lotto and I had actually been involved in making those brochures and casting the actors in them,” she says.

Over her long career Angela has worked with respected local directors such as Scott Hicks and Craig Lahiff but it was only recently, she fulfilled a lifetime ambition to work with iconic director Rolf de Heer, casting his film The Survival of Kindness.

The film follows “BlackWoman”, who is abandoned in a cage on a trailer in the middle of the desert. Angela undertook the difficult task of finding the lead actor– a black female who is in every scene, but has no dialogue.

She scoured migration and refugee groups before meeting a woman named Mwajemi Hussein at a community cafe in Adelaide. Mwajemi was a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo who had never been into a cinema, let alone auditioned for a role.

“I just knew she had the role as soon as I met her,” Angela says. “She had this beautiful face and she was very open, I felt that I knew her instantly.

“She had had such a hard life, spending years in a refugee camp, but she went from refugee camp to red carpet.”

Angela recently joined the board of the South Australian Film Corporation and says the local film industry continues to attract international productions thanks to our talent, locations and “can-do” attitude.

“People want to make movies here because we haven’t lost the family feel of how we do our work, it’s not just a business, it’s a love we all have and that culture is still there,” she says.

“Location is another big factor, we are only 15 minutes away from the Hills and 15 minutes from the beach and we can actually shut down a street in the city to film. Our locations are like nowhere else, the desert locations such as the Flinders Ranges.

Angela, reading a script in her office, says she has no intention of slowing down and that being around stars still gives her “tingles”.

“And the crews are incredible, as good as anywhere in the world, expertly equipped, dedicated and highly skilled. With the expansion of the film industry here and the plethora of films we can work on, this skill base will continue to broaden. We are a very can-do industry and a very nurturing industry.”

Throughout her career Angela has won multiple awards, including Most Outstanding Contribution to the SA Screen Industry in the 2019 SA Screen Awards and a slew of Adelaide Advertising and Design Club awards and Casting Guild of Australia awards.

But perhaps what she is most passionate about is championing disabled artists via her work on the Casting Guild of Australia Diversity and Inclusion Committee, where she has established a nationwide industry database dedicated to disabled artists: “This means the mainstream casting industry takes notice and we can draw more on this under-represented group of talent in the casting process, ensuring equality of opportunity and enabling more equitable representation on our screens and in the stories we tell,” she says.

“This is very dear to me and I work closely with Tutti Arts here in SA to get their work and abilities noticed more in the national screen industry.”

Away from work, Angela loves the gym, staying in shape to ensure she can keep up with her adored grandsons, Taj, two, and Huxley, six months.

Louise says: “She is the most devoted, imaginative grandma. I ask Taj every morning what he wants to do today and he always says ‘see Grandma’. It’s the most beautiful, tender, loving and magical relationship to watch.”

Angela also loves playing the piano, cooking and entertaining and describes herself as a fiercely competitive board game player.

She regularly hosts dinner parties where up to 20 guests play board games in between courses.

Louise and Angela outside their offices at the SA Film Corp with Taj, left, and baby Huxley. Louise says Angela is a devoted and imaginative grandma.

“It’s a fun, relaxed way of getting people together,” she says.Retirement isn’t on the horizon, Angela says, as she prepares for another casting session that afternoon – more faces to discover, more stars to unearth.

“Being around stars still gives me tingles,” Angela says. “It’s special because I really respect them all so much and they are my idols. I’ll be going forever. I don’t want to stop. Life may get in the way and stop me but I’ve still got a lot of petrol in the tank.”


This article first appeared in the December 2023 issue of SALIFE magazine.

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