In this profession, everyone works with their soul – interview with casting director Helga Mandel

Interview with casting director Helga Mandel

Mar 20, 2023

Helga Mandel started her career as an actress, then gradually moved from the cast to the production side of the crew. Today, as a casting director, she selects and recommends actors for dozens of feature films, series and commercials for directors and clients. Helga feels that it all began at birth, or more precisely, at her naming. It's easy to agree with this when reading the analysis of her name, which says that Helga's job is to connect with people, and that the bearers of this name also exude confidence and kindness.

Helga's mother was 19 when she was expecting her daughter. "She was almost a child, but then she saw the German film Helga, which was about the stages of pregnancy and childbirth. She was so reassured by what she saw that she decided that if she was going to have a daughter, it was going to be Helga. "When I was born, the name was so special that the midwife suggested to my mother that she should give me a normal name." The mum's name is Ildiko, so the little girl became Ildiko Helga. She was called Ildikó by everyone from kindergarten to the age of 20, when she entered the legendary National Studio, where one of her teachers, set and costume designer Judit Gombár, advised her to choose Helga, which was more special and would suit an actress better. Ildikó then started the paperwork, and soon she was officially Helga.

From dream to reality

But before we go on stage with Helga, let's return to the nursery for a moment. She must have been around 7 when, thanks to her beautiful handwriting, her teacher mother allowed her to help fill her pupils' report cards: she could write the children's names on the header. As there was always the possibility of mistakes in the writing of the report cards, at least three back-ups were taken home every time. "This year, I also had a spoiled copy, which I issued to my baby doll Kitti. The student's name is Mandel Kitti, her mother's name is Mandel Helga - so, not Ildiko, as everyone called her - her profession is actor and her workplace is the National Theatre in Budapest. I don't know where I got all this from, but I wrote it down, that's for sure, and I still have the proof of it today." During her primary and secondary music school years, she performed almost constantly: she played the flute, piano and clarinet. As a teenager, she was a member of the Harlequin Theatre, the most popular children's theatre in the country at the time. She applied twice to the prose department of the Academy of Dramatic Arts and, after not being accepted, applied to the National Studio. She started in 1991 and graduated in 1994. "I received a lot there, maybe more than I could have gotten at college. I was able to see the legends at work and be on stage with them." After passing her exams, the former 7-year-old girl's dream came true and she was first signed as an actor in 1994 and then in 1999 as Helga Mandel, a member of the National Theatre in Budapest.

From casting to casting

The years spent at the National Studio also had the advantage of allowing the students to take on other jobs. This was the period of what many call the "golden age of advertising", and Helga went from casting to casting and was increasingly called upon to work. "There was a time when cameraman Gyula Pados called me on the phone to ask me why I wasn't at an OTP casting I didn't know I had. He called me in the next day and we were shooting two days later." Although she took a detour and signed on for a year in a theatre, close to the Western border of Hungary. She soon realised that "I only really liked being in the theatre for the company, filming was much closer to me". In Zalaegerszeg, moreover, she didn't manage to settle in and was constantly commuting, as he was either cast in a TV play or a foreign film. She didn't get big roles, but she was in the flow, as they say today, and apart from films she also shot in countless Hungarian and foreign commercials. Not only did she enjoy the spin, but these jobs also helped her financially in the years after her parents moved to Budapest.

"Commercial film is not a matter of talent. It needs a moment of brilliance and precision, because you have a short time to show the character." There was a period when she was in four consecutive commercials in one evening commercial block. And when asked if that didn't bother the clients, the answer was a smile. "They didn't recognise me and I guess the viewers didn't either, sometimes even myself. Probably the secret was that somehow the advertisers always managed to make me look different. Pados, for example, told me that I had a hundred different faces and all of them were photogenic, and of course I never saw that on myself, but as soon as the results came out, I had to say: well, he was right," she adds with a laugh.

The shift from acting to casting

Thanks to more and more work, Helga also joined the Spotcasting portfolio, Zsolt Bándi was the owner of the agency and also Helga's agent. Soon after, Zsolt - who knew that Helga went to the theatre in the countryside and knew almost everyone in the business - got her more and more involved in a job, and the following conversations took place between them.

"Look, this casting call for a commercial just came out, there's a very specific special character in it, who do you think of? I gave him about eight names, gave him the phone numbers and went home."

Then suddenly it dawned on her that she had already met Kriszta Goda when she started casting for Just Sex and Nothing Else. "Kriszta and I quickly got on the same page, it was fantastic to work with her, I really enjoyed it, and I also enjoyed the fact that I had a completely free hand from Zsolt. In the end, this first collaboration and the thinking together went so well that afterwards Kriszta said that if she did anything after that, whether it was commercials or film, she would always want to work with me. For me, that's where my casting career really started, which I basically fell into, but of course there are no coincidences." After that there was no stopping, after this one came Gábor Rohonyi and Konyec, then Gábor Herendi and Lora. At this point, the question naturally arose as to whether she had given up on her acting career altogether. "I felt I couldn't get any more out of my childhood dream, so I put it away somewhere deep in the bottom of a box. I felt I couldn't move forward anymore and I didn't want to be a mediocre actress. I always strive to be the best at what I do."

Trust, comfort, communication

While for many people going to the theatre is fun, for Helga it's part of the job. "It is very important to know the young people, but I also need to know where the older people are." She also reads a lot of scripts and after the first ten pages, the characters are already forming in her head. She writes the names that come up in pencil in her copy and reads the book with them from then on. Sometimes she could see the actor in the character right away. "It's happened twice so far that I knew who would be the best for the role after reading the first few pages, and it worked. One was Zsolt Anger in Hacktion and the other was Réka Tenki in Budapest Noir."

Helga says the secret to casting is listening and communication. Because she has been on the other side and often felt that she was not being listened to, she tries to take the pressure of conformity off the actors' shoulders at her casting sessions. In a situation like this, it's not good to be under a lot of stress, Helga thinks it's better to relax, so she always tries to create a situation at each casting where everyone can bring out the best in each other. "I like to say that I am the bridge. I'm loyal to the actors and I'm loyal to the crew and the creators because I know and understand both sides. And my family has always taught me to look out for each other and in this business that's doubly important. Everyone here works with their soul."

Thanks to the good relationship she has developed with actors and crew, she increasingly works not only on casting but also on the whole film, including the coordination. "More and more I have contracts that include the coordination. I've worked in theatre, so I know the process of negotiation there and how it works for filmmakers. But there's also a demand to be there every day of shooting. In the morning, I go over the day's scenes with the actors, and I'll also nurture their spirits during the day if I need to."