As a young actor in the throes of The Hustle, I read a lot of character breakdowns. Most female roles I apply for through casting websites are rather bland, and several are blatantly sexist. But even the roles that don’t hit you over the head with patriarchal ideals still seem to subscribe to a rigid set of characteristics. This is especially true of leading lady roles. I believe I’ve found the formula for an ingénue; follow the recipe below and you can make your own!
Describe her attractive looks. The first and most important part of the character, The Look. The beginning of any casting call will describe how beautiful and attractive this woman is, often using buzzwords like “model looks,” “girl next door,” “stunning,” “gorgeous,” and “sexy.” These descriptions are sometimes concise, but can often be lengthy and repetitive, and sometimes the physical description takes up the majority of the breakdown.
Reveal her relation to the male lead. Now that we know this girl is hot enough to be onscreen, let’s get to why she’s here in the first place: to serve as love interest/character development in the male lead’s story. She is often the girlfriend, fiancé, wife, or crush. Sometimes she’s the ex if you want to get edgy. Rarely is the female lead presented without a male counterpart for whom she is designed.
Establish “cool girl” status. Oh, don’t worry. This isn’t your average hot girl. This is a cool hot girl. She’s not like other girls. She’s down-to-earth and likes regular things, like wearing t-shirts and jeans. She loves pizza. She even looks pretty without makeup. She’s confident and comfortable in her own skin. She might be described as smart or witty (usually juxtaposed with a reminder of how attractive she is). “Aspirational” seems to be the latest cool-girl buzzword in character breakdowns, although it’s up to interpretation what this actually means. This part of the formula is pretty flexible, but something is always included to “set her apart.”
Remind the actress how difficult it will be to do her job. Since this is the Leading Lady of the film, the grand finale is usually some phrase intended to scare away all those women who aren’t talented enough to handle this Difficult Role. Usually clinched with clichés like “must have great acting chops,” “ability to handle dialogue,” “good facial expressions,” or “this is a demanding role.” Casting directors assume that most women who are making a career out of acting are not talented or smart enough to be able to handle this kind of complex character arc, so it’s safest to remind these women that acting is hard and should not be taken lightly.
Is the recipe really that simple? It sure is! Check out these real-life examples:
MANDI / Non-Union / Lead / Female / All Ethnicities / 18-40
Mandi is a budding starlet, gorgeous and talented. Her rich boyfriend pays for her to open a new club and it quickly establishes her as an A-list talent. Looking for that rare combination of great looks and dynamic personality. Specify nightclub experience in notes. Models welcome to apply, please state acting experience and if you have a portfolio to share.
KRISTINA WITH A K / Non-Union / Principal / Female / Caucasian, Hispanic / 18-30
Valley Girl, Definitely Pretty but you have ulterior motives and an evil side to you as well. You have always had a thing for your best friends boyfriend. When you find out they broke up (or so you think) you make your move. Strong Actor Needed for this role.
SARAH / Non-Union / Principal / Female / All Ethnicities / 20-26
Sarah is the stunning ex lover and is torn that she’s meeting her ex at this party by complete surprise. Needs to have an expressive look in her eyes. She is dancing with her boyfriend but keeps looking at the host and constantly gets distracted.
WIFE / Non-Union / Lead / Female / Caucasian, Ethnically Ambiguous / 20-22
This beautiful woman would stop men in their tracks. She is a knock out. But she has a bit of the girl nextdoor vibe. She is the long time love of our hero. They went to Highschool together and have spent every moment together. Despite him being an asshole. She must have an emotional range from anger, to sadness, to crying. Again, she must be a beauty. One day of shooting in department store parking lot.
Now you can make your own Leading Lady! Or you could ignore the recipe, add more substance and complexity, and create a new character free of archetypes. Chef’s choice.