SPOTLIGHT: Lessons from auditions....

This is my second blog post on the making of my film “Hide/Seek”, a SAG short that I wrote, and will be directing in April.  As you know, I am documenting the process of making this film through this blog, as well as on my Instagram.   The purpose of this is to help actors understand the business side of making a film, through breakdowns, submissions, casting, booking, pre-production, filming, post, and everything else that comes along with it.   There are many do's and don'ts or actors, and I will share them with you.  When I was an actor, there was so much mystery around all of this, and I think it’s important to shine a huge spotlight on this process, as it helps actors gain knowledge, as well as help manage their expectations about this crazy business.

In last week’s post, I talked about submissions.  I received 3500 of them, through Actors Access, Backstage, and through agents and managers through Breakdowns Services.  It was overwhelming, and I offered a bunch of advice for actors who are submitting themselves for breakdowns.

In this week’s post, I will be discussing auditions, and what is going on behind the scenes when actors walk into the room for the first call.

I had 3500 submissions, and I saw 60 actors total over the course of 2 days.  That’s 15 actors per role.   I had 1200 submissions for the role of Sherry alone.    Crazy right?     Half of those 60 choices were current or former students of mine, and half were actors Kim Graham (my casting director) brought in from workshops (that’s right), agent submissions, referrals, etc.  It was a win-win for everyone, as my students came in and made a great impression on Kim, and Kim’s selects came in and got on my radar.  Actors from workshops, who wouldn’t always be brought in for Kim’s other projects, had a real opportunity to come in for a smaller project like this.  My actors had a wonderful chance to impress one of the top casting directors in New York.  By seeing my own actors, I had the distinct advantage of already knowing their work, and already knowing that they would be amazing and knock it out of the park, as I have seen them do over and over again in classes and private coaching sessions.    So the audition was a formality, and more to see if they fit with my idea of the character. 

It was very tough.   Everyone was terrific.   I swear to God.   Going into this, I had one rule.   I don’t care if actors are union or non union, and I don’t care if they have an agent or not, or have been on 15 TV shows.  I just want the best actors.   Having been a professional actor for over 15 years, and having been on thousands of auditions, I know what actors are thinking when they walk into that room.   It was very important to me to make it the warmest, most comfortable environment possible so they can do their best work.  Nothing is worse than walking into a cold room.    It was very hard for me to not “coach” them, especially the kids.  I know if I had 30 minutes with every actor that came in, I could make it the best audition they’ve ever had.  It’s what I do.  However, I had to learn to take a back seat, politely say “thank you,” and fight every urge in my body to follow them out and say “Seriously, you killed it.  I have no idea if you get this or not, but you were terrific.”  Because they were!  And I know how actors get when they leave the room and hold onto stuff.  

Spending the day with Kimberly Graham was like a Masterclass in casting--hearing her feedback, discussing actors with her, what she likes, doesn’t like, etc.   After seeing 60 actors, I learned one thing:  ALL THAT MATTERS IS THAT ACTORS COME IN, BE THEMSELVES, AND TRULY LISTEN.

Everything else is soooo out of your control.   It doesn’t matter what shirt you are wearing, it doesn’t matter if you forget your lines, if you mime or not, and it definitely doesn’t matter if you didn’t get to do it a second time.   It’s a waste of time and energy to obsess about this stuff, and if that’s all you are worried about, then YOU CAN’T POSSIBLY BE PRESENT in a one minute scene on-camera.   That’s the big lesson.  Kim and I talked about that endlessly.  Some actors were too in their heads, and some were so present I didn’t even notice they were auditioning.  That is the gold standard, and what every actor should strive for.  I used to spend countless hours before every audition worrying about facial hair, whether or not I should powder, what my shirt says about me, whether to shake hands or not when I walk in, why the casting director was emailing the whole time I was in the room, why everyone seemed bored, etc.  Everything to take me out of the present moment.  Waste. Of. Time.   None of it has anything to do with what’s happening when that camera is rolling. 

Without further ado, here are my takeaways.  Keep in mind, this doesn’t apply to all projects, and I’m sure it’s different for network TV, but this is my experience working on a SAG short.

1.     I saw 60 actors.  I thought I would be bored to tears hearing all these actors read the same lines for two days straight.  Guess what?  I wasn’t.  I was truly impressed with each actor, and was excited for each one, even the very last one of the day when I was starving and tired and wanted a glass of wine.     I was open and cared immensely, and it was important to give each one an honest shot, and the same amount of attention and energy (as I do in my coaching).  Maybe because I’m the one funding the film?  Probably.

2.     In the initial audition, it’s about weeding out the people who don’t fit the type that I’m going for.   All I needed was for them to read one page of dialogue for me to go “definitely yes” or “definitely no.”  If we didn’t give you a redirect, it means NOTHING.   If I did give a redirect, it was because I maybe didn’t know you and wanted to see if you could take direction.  The callback is for taking the people I feel are right, and really working with them to see if I can get what I want.

3.     The outfit doesn’t matter one bit.  Most people came in with plaid shirts, some with facial hair and some without.  I know they planned this, because I too used to think this mattered so much.  As a director, I barely noticed.  Maybe this matters for network TV, but not for this project.   You are who you are.  I never said to myself "Hm, I WAS going to cast that person, but they wore the wrong color shirt, so I'm not going to cast them anymore."

4.     If people forgot their lines, it didn’t matter.  They just asked to start again.   I didn’t care at all.  I used to think this meant I wasn’t getting the job.  Not true.

5.     Some actors are great auditioners, but have never been on-camera before, and have no proven track record.  Some are not so great in the room, but have huge, amazing resumes and have been on dozens of TV shows and major films.   Auditioning is a very weird, unfair way to gauge talent.

6.     When actors are done, there is always those ten seconds while they gather their stuff and leave the room.  It’s silent.  It’s awkward.   It’s part of your job.  Sometimes I felt the need to say “great job” over and over again, because I know how awkward that is, and then I learned to just shut my mouth.

7.     Sometimes the only reason you don’t get called back is because “I wasn’t feeling it.”  It had nothing to do with the read, and everything to do with the type that I have in my mind for the script that I wrote two months ago, that I poured my heart and soul into.   For some actors (even Meryl Streep), there is literally nothing they can do to change that.

8.     Sometimes the feedback is “too tall,” “too stiff,” “too sexy,” “not listening,” “too ethnic,” “not relatable enough” or “it just didn’t pop.”  And sometimes I agreed, and sometimes disagreed.  It never went much deeper than that.   We had lots of discussions about what we wanted the "family" to look like in the film (blonde, ethnic, New England, Ken and Barbie, etc).   

9.     Some actors made strong, crazy choices that didn’t make any sense.  It didn’t matter.  If I liked them, I had them try it again a different way.

10. I didn’t care one bit if an actor “said the line wrong.”  It’s about the essence of the person, not the nuance of a line.  I can worry about that more in callbacks.

11. Some actors just seemed “too young.”  As the day went on, after seeing many people, I realized I wanted older actors, and the vibe of the characters changed a bit in my mind.  

12. There were so many good actors, I wanted to bring back 90% of them.  I could only bring back 5 for each.

13. Just because we didn’t say anything after your audition, or didn’t smile, doesn’t mean we didn’t like you.   Half the time an actor would leave, and Kim would say “I love her.”  Half the time I would say “Definitely a callback. What’s for lunch?” and I would check my Instagram.   Never did we sit there for 10 minutes and discuss any actor at length.    I used to take my time in the waiting room after my auditions, just to see how long they stayed in there talking, figuring that meant they were really considering me.  Trust me, we are telling stupid stories about our dogs.

14. The casting director is there to serve me, the director.  She has opinions about actors, as do I, and it’s very specific to this project.   If someone was not right for this, but nailed it, both of us were like “Love them. Must remember that person.”  That goes a long way. 

15. When a director or casting director says “good job” at the end, don’t think too much into it.  It’s just filling space while you gather your things.  Same goes if they ask your height or age.  I used to think that meant I was booking the job.  Not true.  Just time filler.

16. I’m looking to cast a family.  A 6 year old kid, her mom, and her grandfather.  Some actors fit together, some don’t.  No matter what shirt you wear.

17. For this kind of project (SAG short, not network TV), I’m looking to cast people who look like they live in a small town, not “Hollywood” types.   Some people are just way too good looking for that. 

18. Some terrific people didn’t get callbacks, and for those I knew, I emailed them individually to tell them why.   There is nothing worse than never getting any feedback, so I felt compelled to give out that information.  I will do the same with the callbacks.  I wish in this business that every actor could get immediate feedback on the spot.

19. Some actors were “offer only,” and wouldn’t audition.   Some had tons of credits, were nominated for major awards, and were more than happy to come in and pre-read.  Made a huge difference.  With a small project like this, it means they like the script, and that’s the kind of person I want to work with.

20. Self tapes… always secondary to being in the room.    I always want to meet someone and give them notes.  If the self tape wasn’t the right vibe, it was hard to call them back.  If they were in the room, they may have had a second chance. 

21. Sometimes I would ask myself “Would I want to spend five days on a film shoot with this person?” And sometimes the answer was no.   You have to be someone people want to work with.   Open, non-judgemental, intelligent, and professional.

22. The scene I gave the actors was very active and physical, which is hard to do in an audition situation opposite a reader.     Some people acted “out of breath,” and some didn’t.  Some mimed, and some didn’t.    I truly didn’t care, as it was more about the essence of the person, how open they were, how much they were listening (and not too planned in their choices), and whether or not the audience would like them and relate to them.

23. An actor who comes in, just stands there, and really listens and absorbs what’s being said, goes way further than an actor who comes in with planned stuff, and are too “in their head” and not really in the scene.

Hope this helps you guys understand what goes into something like this.  This is all for a small project, that is paying actors $125/day.  I can imagine this being very different for a network TV show, with many cooks in the kitchen (showrunners, casting, producers, writers, etc.).     Having sat through this, it makes me think back to all of those auditions through the years where I overthought every single little part of the audition, and the sheer amount of time I wasted worrying about things that don’t matter.   Just learn to be present for two minutes and listen.  Then let it go after.  It goes a long way.  

In the next blog post, I will be discussing CALLBACKS, where I will be pairing up the actors, doing chemistry reads, having them improvise, matching them up, and ultimately deciding on my top four choices.  Yay honesty!