Heather Madill has worked as an extras casting director since 2017, but she’s pretty sure that over 20 years of experience in theatre, administration, and communications prepared her for this very unique vocation.
Working at MadLib Casting & Film Services (named after herself and fellow co-founder Libid Zyla Harder), she recruits all the needed background performers to help make movie scenes feel authentic.
Whether it’s a dozen pedestrians passing by or a stadium filled with 2,000 cheering fans, it’s Heather’s job to provide the most extraordinary extras in Manitoba.
When and how did you start in the media production industry?
I started in 2017 when Shelly Anthis recruited me as a production assistant for some general locations work and then asked if I’d be interested in being an extras casting assistant. I had just left a contract position and it seemed like a good job while I searched for full-time work. I haven’t looked back since!
What area of the film industry do you work in now and why?
Today, I’m an extras casting director. Shelly mentored me through my first solo production shortly after I started, and since then I’ve been an ECD on 18 projects, as well as a casting director on several TV series and a few commercials.
What’s a substantial change you’ve witnessed in the industry?
The industry in Manitoba started growing rapidly right before I started. Everything seemed to just explode and there was more work than available crew! There’s been a big increase in the number of experienced background performers, although one of the fantastic things about recruiting extras is giving people who have never been exposed to the industry a chance to try something new.
I’ve also seen — and championed! — a big shift to digital submissions for casting. I developed an online submission system with an opt-in permanent database for background performers, which particularly helps with recruiting non-union performers.
If you could give your past self advice, what would it be?
I’d tell myself to start doing this sooner! I was nervous about working in media production — it always seemed shrouded in mystery, but I discovered that even though film production is hard work, it’s very rewarding. I especially enjoy extras casting work, it suits my varied skill set.
I’d also tell myself to ask more questions. I think one of the hardest parts of starting out in film is that when you’re surrounded by people who are confident in their responsibilities and every hour costs the production money, it can take a lot of courage to ask for help.
What advice would you give to someone starting off in the media production industry?
Treat every day on a production, at whatever level, as a learning opportunity and take advantage of every single one! Each department has a unique job to do, and it all fits together like a lovely giant puzzle. But if you’re only looking at one corner, you’ll miss the big picture.
I also believe mentorship is a fantastic tool — the people of Manitoba are probably its greatest resource. There are so many talented and skilled people who work in every department! If you can establish a relationship with a great mentor, it can make all the difference. (Thanks and a shout-out to Shelly Anthis for being mine!)
Why is learning and training important?
To learn is to be empowered. To be empowered is to gain courage, strength, confidence, and opportunity. Nobody, no matter how many years they’ve lived or worked, knows everything. How fantastic is it to realize that you can learn something new every single day of your life? Our capacity for knowledge is limitless.
What are some of the films, TV series or even books that have inspired you? How about anything new you’ve been into?
I recently read Educated by Tara Westover and I was incredibly inspired by her story and writing style. She grew up without a formal education but wanted one so badly that she taught herself enough to get into university. She eventually got a Ph.D even though she was 17 years old when she first entered a classroom.
One of my favourite films is Pride and Prejudice (2005). It blends so many beautiful visual and musical elements together. It’s comfort food for my soul!
Is there something about you or an interesting past experience that you’d like to share?
I’ve produced eight full musicals and two plays for the Winnipeg Fringe Festival (as Kiss the Giraffe Productions), most of them on a shoestring budget. I’ve performed in a lot of them as well. Those experiences were incredibly rewarding. I’ve developed lasting friendships, production skills, project management experience, and the ability to move fast and take problems as they come.
Who is someone in the film industry you would like to work with and why?
I’d love to visit some of the other film epicentres in Canada and shadow other extras casting directors during a production. It would be so interesting to see what works for them and if we could adopt and adapt their strategies to improve the way we work in Manitoba.
Where do you see yourself ten years from now?
I’d like to be considered one of the top extras casting directors available in Manitoba, with a strong integrated online system for all processes related to background performers. I’d also like to work for a production that needs more than 3,000 extras cast — just to say it’s been done! I’d love to beat my current record of just under 2,000.
As long as I’m doing what I can to help the Manitoba industry grow and attract more productions, I’ll be happy! It feels great to be part of something so special.
FTM is a member of the Province of Manitoba’s sector council program funded through the Department of Economic Development and Training. FTM builds a highly skilled and adaptable film industry workforce to support the activities of Manitoba production companies. FTM collaborates and partners with members of the film and television industry to identify training needs to support workforce development output.