If you want to make money within the growing “Actor-Scam-Industrial-Complex”, just sell access to yourself (if you are in the casting business), or sell a list of easy answers: “10 Things to Help you Book in the Audition Room”, etc. Almost none of this will help, by the way, but hope springs eternal and selling “hope” (or the illusion of hope) is a big business. You get the idea.
Along with this, I’ve noticed a growing number of blogs, articles, and advice for sale about what actors should do in casting sessions – how they should behave, what the accepted protocol is. This is a burgeoning cottage industry that’s selling advice and access to eager and desperate young actors. Right or wrong, it exists; it’s part of the landscape.
I have no doubt that some actors do not know the (sometimes) unspoken rules about how to conduct themselves in a casting session, and to be honest some of this can be useful. However, much of it – provided you are a functioning adult – is simply common sense. But I gather that a number of casting directors must not be getting functioning adults at some of their sessions, hence these articles which seem to pop up on a fairly regular basis. It’s interesting that the responsibility for proper behavior is given solely to the actor – which fuels the “please-pick-me” narrative. Deadly. However this responsibility is a two-way street; I’ll get to that in a moment.
The casting session is often a compromise for both parties; the actor and the casting office. Despite the fact that we want to do well, and Casting wants us to do well – it sometimes goes like this. The actor gets the material at 4:30 pm the day before a 1 pm audition the next day, and she has a work shift that night that ends at midnight. Three scenes, nine pages. She has no time (or money) for a coaching session, so (take your pick) – her best friend, boyfriend, or girlfriend runs the lines and may offer a tip or two. She gives up her work shift for the next day, and arrives to find out they are only doing Scene 2 – her least favorite of the three scenes she stayed up half the night preparing. They’re running 45 minutes behind (after she nearly killed herself to get there on-time) which gives her just enough time to lose her edge and concentration. She’s eventually rushed in, and pretty much rushed out. It appears that either an offer is out on this or it’s already cast and they are going through the motions. Perfunctory, polite, and ultimately fruitless. The actress can either throw up her hands in futile desperation or realize that days like that are just one small brick in your “wall of success”.
To be fair, casting offices also deal with compromise continuously. As actors we are only thinking of our task, our moment to shine. But we have no idea what their barely concealed chaos is. They are also under time and money pressures from producers, networks, studios, agents, etc. I am sure that on many days theirs is also not an easy task. The fact that anything good or constructive comes out of this creative minefield is always a miracle of sorts. And it often does – the result of talent and dedication on both sides. There are victories for both parties that do happen on a regular basis.
With apologies to my casting director friends who do an exemplary job, I would like to propose a list of things that casting offices could do to help actors do their best work in these compromised circumstances.
1. Please do as much as you can to be sure your sessions run on time. I know that’s not always easy. Everyone understands that occasionally things happen that are out the casting office’s control, making this impossible. But actors often have other appointments to get to, jobs to get to, or kids to pick up. And we need to do our best to be ready with our best work when our appointment time arrives. Without intention, our time is sometimes treated casually – that it’s of little importance. That underlying meme only serves to unsteady our nerves, sometimes make us angry, and subvert our performance. Actors are instructed (in these ubiquitous articles) to come into the casting session with the strong inner narrative of being an equal. When our time is treated cavalierly, that can be a challenge.
2. Please don’t take calls, texts, or emails once we are in the room. This goes for actors as well. Turn the damn thing off for the 4 minutes you are in there. It’s unprofessional, and has happened to me more than once. Again, this is common sense and professional courtesy for both parties.
3. Please don’t eat while we are in the room. Talk about a common sense idea! Early in my time here in LA, a casting director was eating during our meeting, and continued to eat all the while apologizing profusely about it. Then – she picked her teeth with the corner of my picture. LONG PAUSE….followed by stunned astonishment (talk about playing a moment). Just visualize that for a moment; take that image in completely. I had the presence of mind to say incredulously, “Did you just pick your teeth with my picture?” and when that statement was met with embarrassed silence, I simply walked out. I told my agent at the time, who apparently got very heated with her, and she was much nicer to me after that. At least she never ate in front of me again! So, just take a lunch break, which ironically I understand could make it harder for the sessions to run on time! But don’t eat in front of actors in a casting session, please. I only bring this up because it’s happened to me more than once – not the tooth-picking-headshot thing, but the eating thing.
4. Feedback: if feedback is asked for and given, try to be sure that whoever is giving it has some real knowledge of what to say, or what actually went on in the session. I was in an office recently and overheard an assistant giving feedback from a session I’m pretty sure she was never involved in. She was manning the desk (answering the phone), and reading someone else’s notes from the session over the phone to a manager or agent. The core of what was written down was pretty diluted, and by the time this uninterested assistant was giving the feedback – it was fairly generic and meaningless. Side-note: I frankly dislike the whole feedback obsession, and think we actors and our agents (and managers) give this too much weight. There are so many reasons why an actor or actress did not get a certain part that have nothing to do with their performance, ability, preparation, talent, or professionalism. It’s the look, the hair color, the age, the physical match with the character’s mother, the producer’s niece (who gets the part) – much of it has nothing to do with feedback on how the actual audition went. All that said – if an actor or actress gets the same negative note over and over, such as: “She doesn’t listen”, “He talks too much”, “She was unprepared”, obviously that is feedback to take to heart and decisively act upon. The rest of it is often generic and not useful. How many times have we heard the phrase, “We knew it when she walked into the room.” Our job as actors (and mine as an actor and a coach) is to find a way to “walk into the room” with the right narrative, with a confidence that is infectious, and the understanding that sometimes it’s your time and sometimes it’s not. Move on…..
5. Most actors take significant time and care preparing this work, often in very compressed conditions, time-wise. We pour our heart and soul into it. That short, sometimes 4 minute meeting becomes our job for the entire day. We give up our work shift for this. Efficient time management within the casting session itself is sometimes an issue. And the ticking clock carries it’s own pressure for the casting office and actor alike. Understood. But if actors are asked to prepare three scenes, I politely ask that the casting office (if at all possible) please extend the professional courtesy to allow him or her to do the three scenes he or she spent significant time preparing. Or at least the best two! There are probably good reasons why casting offices do not do this, but ultimately I think it’s a matter of respect. Or lack thereof. The great writer-director Gary Ross (who recently visited my class) said that he simply tells casting that he needs 20 minutes with each actor. He takes the time to actually work with each actor, give them more than one shot at the material, and adjust their work. And he said he takes the time whether he thinks the actor is perfect for the part of not – out of respect for the actor’s work brought to the marketplace that day. He also leaves the door open to be surprised. Process vs. results. Gary’s take on it was communicated with such respect, and I wish that kind of experience was more the norm than the exception.
6. Office Acting: The best actors are sometimes not good at auditioning, and the best at auditioning are sometimes not great actors. In the audition, actors attempt to bring their very best work on the first take – because they know that they may not get a second shot at the scene. It would be so helpful if actors felt they might have more than one shot. Just knowing that would take some pressure off. I know that most casting offices will say that an actor can always do it again, but often the unspoken feeling in those sometimes hurried rooms is that you cannot or should not. And – note to the actor – a second take from the actor had better be worth it. Just doing it twice for the sake of doing it again is not enough by any measure. Change it up, take that risk you were too afraid to take the first time around. Be fearless on the second take.
7. Lower budget films (where it may be a passion project), or higher budget films with top directors, usually give the actor time and a workspace conducive to creativity. The “factory feel” that network series television sometimes embodies, is often the opposite. Despite the best of intentions, actors go in and out of those rooms very quickly. My wish is that casting offices could create an atmosphere where actors can work rather than perform. I know that’s a big ask…..but I’m putting it out there. If you create a space, an atmosphere, and an ethos that communicates an understanding of the actors’ task, there will be much better results all around.
All of this is part of the “mad bargain” that is an acting career, and the casting career as well. We need to be as professional in our behavior as we expect others to be. My whole purpose here is for actors to more completely understand their task in this transaction, that they are not the only ones under the gun, and for our brothers and sisters in the casting profession to understand that we work best in a “warm” room.
In the current proliferation of the “Actor-Scam-Industrial-Complex”, forgive us if we actors sometimes lose sight of the fact that casting offices and casting directors really want us to succeed. They truly do. They are rooting for us to be great, to solve their problem, to come into the room and “take” that role by virtue of our preparation, talent, confidence, and professionalism. I know this from personal experience.
Put this in perspective: given the sheer numbers, just getting an appointment for a great role in a top project is sometimes the miracle in and of itself. Booking that job is a further miracle. But with good will on all sides, miracles do happen on a regular basis. I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it as well.
Break a leg….everyone!