Spotlight: Lessons from callbacks for "Hide/Seek"

In my last blog post, I talked about watching 60 actors audition for my short film "Hide/Seek," and my thoughts on the casting process, as I spent the day watching actors with my casting director Kimberly Graham.  In this week's post, I will be discussing what it was like sitting through 4 hours of callbacks and chemistry reads with 25 talented actors.

Before going into these callbacks, I vetted all the actors.  I mean, I watched their reels (twice), reviewed their audition tapes, looked at their resumes (3 times), googled them, checked out their websites, and armed myself with knowledge.  Creepy?  No.  Normal?  Yes.    I wanted to know everything about every actor that came in, so that I knew their work, how they looked on-camera, and had a sense of their personality.    I am trusting them with my baby, and I want to make educated, informed decisions before I spend a week with them.  

 I wanted actors to come in, and do their best work, as if it was truly happening to them, as if we were on day 1 of principle photography.  At the callback there was nobody in the room but me.  No casting director, no producers, no reader.   I wanted the callback to be comfortable and open, and have the actors feel like they would on set.  I wanted to give them that "It's us against the world" mentality, and I wanted them to bebrave and confident, as that is how I run my classes.  Don't you wish every audition felt like this?  When actors feel judged they get tentative, and I needed them to get crazy.   That's the only way to know if they can truly bring it on set.  As I said before, auditions are an unfair way to gauge talent, and everyone is so on edge.  I didn't want the actors to worry about the camera or the reader this time, so I let them run out the scene however they wanted, with whatever blocking and not have to worry about their frame.  It was liberating for them, as they didn't have the constraints of awkward audition physicality without having someone to work off of.   I know how awkward that can be, and wanted this to be as comfortable as possible.  I hope I accomplished that.

The callbacks began, and I was totally nervous.  At this point, I had no favorites, and everyone had an equal shot at the role.  Truly.  I saw roughly 6 actors for each role in the callback, and I grouped actors to see how they fit together.  I already knew what kind of "type" I was going for, and so I was most interested in who fit together.   Leonardo Dicaprio could come in,  but if he doesn't fit the family I'm casting, it won't matter.  Oh wait....not sure about that one.

I ran it like this: I grouped people, swapped out actors, had them improvise the scene, and had them completely immerse themselves in the world of these characters.   It was really fun and inspiring to watch these actors create a life around my silly dialogue.   Everyone was terrific.  

Here's my takeaway from the session....

1. Everyone killed it.   Nobody was better than anyone else.   

2. My job was to go from  3500 submissions, to 25 callbacks, to 4 bookings.   For a small project like this, that breaks down to actors having a 1/875 shot of booking.  What's it like for a bigger job?  1/1,000,000?    

3. I was looking to cast a family, so i was thinking in terms of physical appearance at this point, as everyone was already more than deserving of playing the roles.

4. "Do we want to go ethnic?  Do we want them to be Hollywood pretty, or small town pretty?  Too tall?"

5. We had 2 top choices for each role based on what we wanted the family to look like.  I could have gone in either direction with the final decisions.

6. I had the actors do improvisations around the scenes.  Some people hadn’t read the script, so they had a hard time with that.

7.  I didn't care what shirt people wore, how nice it was outside, or how much they "loved" the script.   I was only interested in how actors connected to each other on-camera.   The ones who were in the script weren't able to connect.  Simple as that.  

8. I can’t stress enough how much is out of the actor’s control.  We were having discussions about height between the couple, nationality, tone of the performance, and silly small things that have nothing to do with acting, and everything to do with a "look." 

9.   Everyone pretty much wore the same outfit they wore for the first audition.  I think that's a commercial audition thing.   I didn't care.  

10.  I couldn't keep actors more than an hour, I was told, or they could tell SAG (fun fact:  I did that once in LA after I was kept at an audition for 3 hours, and I ended up getting a check fro $100 in the mail).  

11.  I wanted to follow each actor out, just like I did in the auditions, and say "You were great.  Whatever happens, don't lose sleep over this.  Seriously, it came down to type.  You can't control that."

12.  It was all about chemistry reads, and how two amazing actors played off each other.  Just because two actors are good, doesn't mean they will work well together.   Jeff Daniels said "Dirty Little Secret:  Chemistry is nothing more than two actors who listen, react, and trust each other.  I didn't know Michelle, she didn't know me, but on Day 1 we grabbed hands and jumped.  First, we trust.  We'll get acquainted on the way down."  That is what I expected from my actors.  Most did this, some were tentative.  

All in all, this was amazing.  Afterwards, we put pins in the top actors within minutes, as we didn't want to lose them to a bigger job.  I didn't want to wait, keep actors hanging, and stress them out.   I emailed every single one of the actors I definitely wasn't going to use and told them why it won't be going further.  Actors need feedback, it helps them grow, helps them figure out what they need to work on.  Or even helps manage their expectations.  I even emailed some of the agents and told them how great their clients were.   There's too much damn mystery in this business, and people need to know how they did.

For my next blog, I will be announcing the cast!!!!!!  Thanks for coming on this journey with us.