Of all the things I've posted over the last eight years, this has been my most requested. And since we're right in the middle of pilot casting season, I thought I'd re-post it with sincere admiration to those gallant actors and actresses trying to beat the incredible odds.
My heart always goes out to actors during pilot season (which this is). Here’s how hard it is to become a cast member of a hit series:
When a writer/producer gets the good/bad news that his pilot has been greenlighted the first thing he does is hire a casting director and together they prepare a list of possible worthy candidates for each part. They then meet with the network casting person. She responds to your list. “No, no, hate him, uch, no, no, no, uch, no.” If one of those “uchs” is you you’re dead.
The network casting person will then present her list. One name sticks out. The writer/producer tells her he won’t cast this guy because he killed his grandmother. The network casting maven says, “Well, he didn’t kill a member of your immediate family. Read him anyway.” Basically writer/producers are expected to pursue the names on her list. If you haven’t already been eliminated you’re now at a huge disadvantage if you’re going up against one of these golden names. (By the way, it is very easy to go from this list one year to "uch" the next. Beware.)
Now comes the reading process. Out of all the pilots there may only be a few roles you’re right for. There are also a few more you’re not right for but you apply anyway. You can play Asian if you have to, no sweat.
Your agent submits your name. The casting director may not think you’re right or not be a fan and you’re dead. Assuming you’re over that hurdle you’re invited in to read. There usually are a hundred or more actors reading for every role. Great odds, huh? In these initial sessions you’re usually reading for a committee – the writer/producers, the pod producers, a couple of studio representatives. All you need is one of them to not like you and you’re toast. And by “not like” that could mean “too tall”, “good but we’ve seen him in things”, “he was my waiter last week at the Daily Grill and was terrible”, and “guys are not going to want to fuck her”.
Now there’s a new wrinkle. Networks insist the auditions be recorded and sent to them for perusal. Let’s say you’re reading for a part you’re not right for. Or you just didn’t do well. Not only are you dead but now the network gets to see your bad audition and you’re now on the “no, uch” list for other projects. So for the seven pilots you’re going up for, that one audition just cost you four of them.
Ready to go back to Michigan and teach 5th grade yet?
You make the cut. You get a call-back. By that time you’re not sure what you did that they liked so much? Can you do it again, whatever it is?
You’re on a roll. You kill at the call-back. You’re now a finalist. Your agent makes a deal contingent on studio and network approval.
You read for the studio. Another committee, mostly made up of non-creative types. All it takes is one to hate you.
They don’t hate you. You move on to the network test. You and four other candidates are led into a screening room one at a time where you audition for the network president (and a committee but when the network prez is there their opinions mean nothing).
Talk about pressure. Let’s say you were up for the role of “Rachel” in this pilot called FRIENDS. How different would your life be depending on whether or not you got that part?
You can hit it out of the park and still not get the part. The network president may be partial to a name on his golden list. He may have no ability to judge talent. He may not want to fuck you.
By some miracle he likes you. But there’s a hang-up. He still wants a bigger name. So you hold your breath while the producers make an eleventh hour plea to Paula Marshall. She passes. They settle for … I mean “cast” you.
You’re in, right? Not so fast.
During the week of production there are network table readings and runthroughs. You could get fired at any one of them. And it’s not necessarily your fault. The material could be awful, the director gave you bad direction, they never really wanted you in the first place.
But you survive the week of production and film the pilot. Now comes research and test screenings. I’ve observed these focus groups. One woman says she hates you. Why? She can’t believe you wore those shoes. (That’s a true story.) The network says if the show goes forward you’re to be replaced.
That’s IF she show goes forward. You could give the performance of a lifetime but if the show doesn’t get picked up you’re dead. And again, there are sooooo many factors that go into that decision that have nothing to do with you... although your life depends on it.
There is a God. The show gets picked up. You’ve tested okay. You’re home free now.
There may be an actor from a pilot that didn’t get picked up that the network really loves. They want to make a place for him. That could well be your role. Again, you’re dead.
But that doesn’t happen. Not in this case. You get on the air. I’ve seen actors replaced after three or four episodes (although it’s fairly rare) but chances are you’re safe…
IF the show becomes a hit. How many shows get canceled? About 90%.
You can understand why my heart goes out to actors. I just can’t imagine facing that level of constant rejection. So congratulations to all the actors who do make it. Savor each and every moment. Go to the parties. Be in the parades. Do the photo shoots. Fly in the company jet. You’ve won the lottery. Also, print this out and read it in three years when you start wondering if the show is holding you back.
Good luck this pilot season, thesps!
Saturday, February 16, 2013
By Ken Levine at 6:00 AM