Thursday, February 20, 2014

How to audition for pilots

This is the time of year when actors are auditioning for TV pilots. It’s Hollywood's answer to musical chairs, but the music is sped up. 90% of the pilots that networks commission are made in the spring. So actors are scurrying from audition to audition.

Producers are also scrambling. It used to be if you saw an actor you liked you brought him back in for a callback after you’ve seen a sizable number of applicants. Now you may see an actor you like at 11 AM and learn he’s going in to be tested for another network pilot at 4 PM. If you want him, make a deal and get him in to see your network before 4. If not, you might lose him. On the other hand, you might be pressured into hiring someone you might not be totally sold on. And there’s always the chance you let the actor test for the other network and he doesn’t get the part. He’s suddenly available again. But it’s a game of high stake poker.

Among the many acting courses that are taught here in LA are classes that specifically teach you how to audition. I suppose they’re helpful. I’ve never cast someone who took one of those courses, but that could be coincidence. How these instructors think they know what I’m looking for in an audition is beyond me. On the other hand, there are wonderful actors who just freeze up during auditions and as a result don’t get hired. I could see where one of these courses might be very valuable for these people.

One danger in racing from audition to audition is that you go up for so many roles that after awhile you forget what you did where. When a producer hires an actor he expects him to give the same performance he saw in the room, but actor friends of mine have said there are many times they get hired and have no idea what they did to get that particular role. “Was this the one I was laid back and cool, or was this the one I was real intense?”

Every producer has his own style of casting. And every producer has his own expectations. I can just tell you my tips based on years of casting.

Don’t come in with a schtick. I’ve heard theories that actors should do something crazy to be noticed. 99% of the time you’ll be noticed in a bad way. Just come in, very professional., say hello, shake hands if the producers extend theirs (I always do; a lot of producers don’t), do the scene, thank everybody, and leave.

Don’t spend the first five minutes telling us how hard it was to park or how hard it was to find the office.

If you have questions about the scene or the character or the intent, ask. We’re happy to point you in the right direction, or at least steer you away from the wrong. It’s also quite acceptable and even encouraged to ask, “Is there anything I should know?”

After you do the scene, offer to do it again with any adjustments the producers might have.

Don’t be all “actory.” Don’t face the wall and come out swinging like a boxer. Don’t stare off into space for two minutes while you try to locate your emotional center. Don’t let out a war chant to psyche yourself up before beginning the scene.

Don’t come in wearing an elaborate costume or drenched in blood (unless it’s yours).

Don’t memorize the scene. Read from the script. You get no points for memorizing and most of the time you’ll forget words, paraphrase, or make shit up. I want you to concentrate on your performance, not memorization. Hold the script in your hand and sell it.

Don’t make up dialogue, and especially don’t make up monologues. This happened once to us. I should also add at this point – don’t audition when you’re stinkin’ drunk. Especially at 9:30 AM. This was for BIG WAVE DAVE’S. The character was a colorful free spirit who migrated to Hawaii. This plastered actor starting reading the scene and then stopped right in the middle. That sure caught our attention. What the hell was he doing, just staring at us? Finally he spoke. “Pussy!” he yelled at the top of his lungs. David and I were taken aback. Neither of us could remember writing “Pussy!” into the script. The actor then launched into a long monologue about Hawaiian women and how to get them into the sack. None of it was useable – not that we were looking for ways to get our actors to randomly scream out “Pussy!”

Don’t tell the producers what’s wrong with the script?

Don’t tolerate any inappropriate behavior from the producers. This is not some “indie” project. This is a major network pilot casting legitimate SAG members. If the audition process is anything less that totally professional, you have a right to complain to your agent, manager, or whomever.

Don’t be late.

Don’t just assume we recognize you from the soap opera you’re on or the Flomax commercial you’ve done.

And finally, remember that we WANT you to succeed. Every person who walks through the door we’re hoping is the one we’ve been looking for. So take a little of the pressure off yourself.

Best of luck, and if this is all the stuff they tell you in those audition classes I want $150.


Hamid said...

Ken, you should compile all your casting stories and working with actors stories into a book. The pussy anecdote had me in stitches. I love the chutzpah of an actor coming to an audition and giving tips on how to pick up women in Hawaii. I'm still getting over your hilarious story about firing an actor who stuck his tongue down an actress' throat during a rehearsal.

And please say that the war chant is something that actually happened at an audition. That sounds priceless.

RockGolf said...

More curiosity than anything, but I wonder if the "don't try to memorize the script" advice would apply to Marilu Henner? Could/can she remember entire scripts on sight?

(For those who don't know, Henner has the one-in-a-billion ability to remember everything in her life in detail. Ken's line about what she had for lunch on a random 1994 date? The weather on Feb 5, 1983? She'd remember.)

Scooter Schectman said...

I used to watch Henner on "Taxi". To hell with her memory, those assets of hers don't lie.

Zhou said...

For me English language is the second language so the ordered memorizing of the real words must always be done. No feelings of disrespect from me but trust in me it helps Ken Levine! Maybe for otters this trick is not the same but I feel the preparing actor should do this. One role was given to me this way. Thank you.

Jim S said...


Friday question. I just read a Slate Magazine article by Amanda Hess titled "Are Female Executives to Blame for Hollywood's Unrealistic Beauty Norms?"

To sum up, Hess spoke with producers and writer, including Jeff Garlin and Jill Soloway about how women are selected for parts. Garlin said men, unless they're jerks tend to be more respectful. He added that there are always jerks, so not all men are respectful. Garlin also told a story of a woman who got hired after auditioning commando style and giving the four other male producers a Sharon Stone. He thought it was unprofessional, but the other four wanted her.

The article quoted Soloway as saying " 'Some women want to have good-looking women in their shows, because we’ve been told that that’s what will make the show promotable to the widest audience, and we want to get our shows on the air."

So to make a long story short (too late?) are there idiots out there who will 86 a good female actress who is in reasonable shape and not the Hunchback of Notre Dame because she's not Twiggy? Does Hollywood think we non-coastal Americans are so stupid that we only watch shows with perfect people?

Mike said...

How do you know you've never cast anyone from those classes? Do you ask them?

How do they know what you are looking for? Perhaps they are being taught by people who have done casting? Just like this blog post!

MikeN said...

Did you just advise actors to no be like Daniel Day-Lewis?

Klee said...

I just picture Diane Chambers (not Shelley) doing the breathing thing and closing her eyes to "find the center" of the character!

Hamid said...

Ken, you'll love this parody of the Samuel L Jackson/Sam Rubin interview.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

I'd be interested to know how you define "inappropriate behavior" on the part of the producers. (I'm remembering Dustin Hoffman in TOOTSIE asking one pair of chattering producers during an audition, "Is my acting interfering with your talking?")

RockGolf: I don't think Mayim Bialik can remember everything that ever happened to her (and who checks that claim, anyway? if Henner makes up what she had for lunch in 1983, how would you know?), but she's said that she has an eidetic memory, so can read scripts off the page in her head. Makes it hard for her when, as they inevitably do, they change stuff at the last minute.


Gerry said...

Good comments, Ken! I've done some pitching of TV animation projects, not successfully, but I've been through the process.

The best pointer of all is to realize that the people listening want you to do well, they're on your side and want to see something great. That simple knowledge, if you can really internalize it and work from that point of view, is the single biggest thing to know in my opinion.

Brandon Nyte said...

This is great to read and very helpful, but where can one learn where these auditions are taking place if you do not have an agent?

bonobos marcos said...
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Anonymous said...

I didn't know how much of a time constraint producers are in if they see someone they like. Just like you said, it used to be that you would have them come back another day. I think that it is important to have some proper training before trying out. Not everyone has the acting gene, but it's up to the people sitting behind the desk to find the ones who do.