Sunday, January 29, 2017

Guys are not going to want to f**k her

This is a repost from a bunch of years ago, but with the beginning of pilot season I feel it's important to share it again.  For everybody who thinks Hollywood actors have it so easy and glamorous here's the nitty gritty on what they really go through to get on a pilot.  Submitted again with deep appreciation...

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.

Uh, no.

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!


Roseann said...

Yup- that's exactly how it is.

Rick said...

Great post Ken!

Was this re-post because I asked a few days back whether Jennifer Aniston slept with Warren Littlefield to get the role of Rachel?

Many of my actor friends (not to mention many on net) think so :)

ScarletNumber said...

I like the Paula Marshall reference.

VP81955 said...

"You can play Asian if you have to, no sweat."

Hey, if Myrna Loy could do it (and in the late '20s and early '30s, she did, lots of times), so can you, right? Heck, Myrna was cast in these roles even when the talented Anna May Wong was available...since in those racist days, it was verboten for Asian and non-Asian actors to be cast as a romantic couple.

jcs said...


I'm fascinated by Stephen Tobolowsky's ability to get cast again and again. He can often be found in several shows at the same time (currently THE GOLDBERGS and SILICON VALLEY) and this has been the case for more than a decade. Although he has been in numerous TV shows and many major movies, he probably never had to worry about paparazzi. I've never seen him on any of the major late night shows and I was wondering whether you'd be willing to get him in front of your mic.

By Ken Levine said...


I would love to get him on. I don't know him but will ask around. By the way, he's also in ONE DAY AT A TIME.

Cap'n Bob said...

Thanks, VP, for mentioning Anna May Wong. I've had a thing for her for many a year.

Jeff Maxwell said...

On the other side of auditioning for pilots: Many moons ago, I created a talk show hosted by the mothers of Sylvester Stallone and Cher. A pilot was made for CBS. Two focus groups, 12 in each, all women ranging in age from 21 to 121 viewed a tape of the show in what looked like a police interrogation room. Me and my team sat in a theater on the other side of a one-way mirror watching them watch the show. Thumbs up and I was the co-creator, co-producer, co-owner of a daytime network talk show...and a small villa in Italy.

Halfway though the first viewing, one woman got up and tried to change the channel. Another one left the room. Another one started laughing at the serious stuff. They hated it. They hated the hosts. They hated each other. The second group hated it a tiny bit less, but not much.

The tension was brutal. I asked the daytime VP if we could show it to a third group. She didn't laugh and exited quickly.

No villa.

Unknown said...

For a number of years in the '70s-'80s, I regularly read Weekly Variety.
I wasn't in the business or anywhere near it; I was just curious about how and why things were done in showbiz.

One story from the late '70s had to do with an increasing network practice of signing actors to "talent holding" contracts, which net bosses like Fred Silverman (who was at ABC at the time) would use to put people they liked in shows that were already set.

One example I remember:
When ABC picked up Eight Is Enough, the father role was earmarked for a New York actor named Barton Heyman, who was somewhat less than a household name.
The story goes that Fred Silverman, who'd just taken over at ABC, didn't think Heyman was "star material" or something like that.
So he scanned the list of actors that ABC had on hold, and decided that the part should go to Dick Van Patten, whom he'd seen and liked in other things.
Essentially, that was that; Eight Is Enough made Dick Van Patten's career, while Barton Heyman ultimately became semi-known as the guard who says "Dead Man Walking" in the movie of the same name.
Such is life in showbiz.
Ken, if you've got any specific stories along this line, this might be the time to share ...

VP81955 said...

Wong is wonderful as Marlene Dietrich's pal in "Shanghai Express," arguably the best Dietrich-Josef von Sternberg collaboration. Well worth checking out, even if you're not into pre-Code film.

Steve said...

A Friday question, and a request:

I just read Neil Simon's first memoir, Rewrites, and am about to read his second. I also read William Goldwin's Adventures in the Screen Trade. My question: Can you recommend a list of memoirs by other talented writers (or directors/producers/actors) in the entertainment industry that you think are great, for those of us interested in such things? In addition to your own wonderful book about the 1960s, of course!

Related request: You write such lovely tributes to those who have just passed away. In 2016 that could have been a full-time job. Whenever I read these that I wish the person could have been alive to read such lovely words. So my request or suggestion is: Maybe once a month or so (or whenever you'd like) you could write a tribute to someone whom you greatly admire while they're still alive? Reading the Neil Simon book made me think about that. I imagine you'd have some interesting things to say about him. (Then when they pass, you could reprint the post, and just add a few things.)

Jabroniville said...

This one never gets old. I 100% understand why actors would go the "casting couch" method with stuff like this- especially women over 30. Hell, even Anne Hathaway is losing roles to Jennifer Lawrence, who will soon be losing them to Emma Stone.

Aaron Hazouri said...

Ken, a followup to my previous Friday question, in the vein of pilots.

I asked about followup on pitches if the execs were not interested. Well to my shock, I got an email! He said kind things about all 3 of my pitches, and liked one in particular that he would like me to "put together something." He said "the tone is a little broad which isn't exactly what we are after but I would hate for you to have to change your tone or your vision." (Which of course I'm willing to do if it will get my foot in the door.)

I know you can't write just to please an executive, but if they seem to like the stuff thus far and just want the tone changed, is it worthwhile to take a second pass and send it in again? Does "too broad" mean the thing you've complained about many times - they want less jokes and more "quirkiness?" Or is this just a very nice way of saying "thanks but no thanks?" I'm kind of over my head here!

By Ken Levine said...

Get the sale. Find out what he means and what he wants. Saying something is too broad is way too general, especially since I don't know the particulars of the project, the buyer, what projects they're committed to, etc. But do what you can to make a sale.

Jee Jay said...

Stephen Tobolowsky did his own podcast for a while: The Tobolowsky Files.

There were about 70 episodes from 2009 to 2015. Looks like its been quiet since then.

Jahn Ghalt said...

I have a demographic question about casting directors.

What is the female/male split in your experience? I gather, from a very limited sample, that women comprise a majority.

Was it always (is it now) so? What was the rough split in 1980?

SharoneRosen said...

'Twas much the same for my late, great cartoon character voice career.

YOU BOOK THE NEW PROJCT WITH HB! Oh wait... nevermind... Sally Struthers was available after all...

Anonymous said...

I just finished watching "New Edition" on BET. Emmy awards written all over it. The five principals were cast twice. Once as pre teens and again as adults. Not only was the acting superb, but they performed all the outstanding musical numbers and intricate dance routines. Defiantly worth watching.

Hank Gillette said...

Reading this, it sounds as though an actor has about the same odd getting cast as a sperm has being the one to fertilize the egg.