Sunday, February 11, 2018

How to audition for pilots

This is the time of year when actors begin 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 shtick. 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 usable – 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.   Especially now in the "MeToo" era. 

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.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

This all makes me think of all those great audition scenes at the beginning of TOOTSIE. "Is my acting interfering with your talking?"


Roseann said...

Great advice, Ken.

Charles H. Bryan said...

Coincidentally, I just listened to a Nerdist Writers Panel which discussed casting. A casting director (whose name I forget) on the panel discussed the role of diversity in casting. Generally, this director did not present herself well, seeming to look at diversity concerns as a pain and complaining about how a show she worked on was told to hire a Latina instead of the white actress which the director thought was perfect for the part. She didn't identify the show or the role.

So, I guess my Friday Question would be: What advice would you have for those making casting decisions? What do those who are casting now telling you about bringing in a greater variety of actors for roles?


Gary said...

Did the guy who auditioned for Big Wave Dave's have a big orange comb-over?

E. Yarber said...

Auditions aren't just for actors. When I was trying to help aspiring withers develop their scripts, I would read their material and set up a meeting near my apartment. We'd sit down with a couple of cups of coffee, and I'd ask, "What are you trying to do with this?"

Usually I'd hear how the writer had come to LA, the Magic City, to make their Dreams Come True. The next most popular answer was that they'd had an unhappy childhood and wanted the emotional support of the artistic community. Sometimes I'd hear how they wanted to go back to their high school reunion and show all those conformist losers who'd tormented them that they hadn't settled for a dead-end 9-5 job but had taken the chance of breaking into Hollywood.

To my horror, one guy (and bear in mind these were always people I'd just met) enthusiastically launched into a graphic account of all the famous actresses he intended to have sex with once he became a famous writer. Before I could stop him, he got far enough to indicate that he had even worked out the specific order of his conquests.

Approximately ONCE the writer began talking about the SCRIPT he'd written. It's no coincidence that his work was the best I'd seen from a beginner, and that we were able to set up goals to reach with it while agreeing on problematic areas of the story that had to be fixed.

I always felt slightly guilty about this practice. I didn't intend it as a trick question, but frankly it was very helpful to me in working with clients. Most of the time they either wanted some sort of personal validation or for me to encourage their fantasies, while I was just there to help them prepare a script for submission, not be a counselor or cheerleader. I haven't done it in a few years now because most clients weren't happy with what I was actually offering them.

That's the same feeling I got reading about the audition process today (bet you were wondering when I'd get around to the actual subject). Wannabes think they're selling THEMSELVES.... their quirks, their problems, their needs. Potential employers are less interested in the fascinating details of the applicant's life than finding someone who can fit smoothly into the grinding process of bringing a film or TV show together on time. They don't need you to tell them how great you are or try to charm them. They're looking for someone to PLAY a character, not BE one.

Generally, the slightly hysterical types trying so hard to push themselves are the ones who'll be trouble to deal with. If you ask them to change their work, they'll argue with you out of insecurity instead of adjusting. They have the idea that artistes must be pampered in order to get their invaluable work from them. Nobody has time to put up with these games, especially with the clock ticking. What you want to get across to an employer is that you've prepared for this job, have respect for everyone involved, and have something special to contribute to the group effort. If you can do that, you'll get all the validation you need, but for positive reasons, not neurotic needs.

Mike Bloodworth said...

Too bad you didn't have a blog twenty years ago. I really could have used this advice THEN.

Andrew said...

My favorite audition story is of Jason Alexander, who auditioned for Seinfeld thinking he had no chance of getting the role. So he relaxed, felt no pressure, and walked out thinking that was the end of it. He was certain they were going to hire Jerry's friend Larry Miller.

Here's a brief interview where he describes it:

And speaking of Seinfeld, this clip of the auditions for the pilot within the show is very funny:

Liggie said...

I've seen a number of video auditions where the actor gives their name and the part they're auditioning for, poses for a full standing shot, and then reads from a scene or two (with someone offscreen reading other characters' lines if necessary). I wonder how many of these make it to an in-person casting.

Mark said...

I read examples of a couple of notable exceptions to your rules. One was Estelle Getty (by far the least established of the original Golden Girls cast) showing up in character including full makeup. The second and more notable was Tim Reid complaining vocally about the character of Venus Flytrap. In the account I read, this pissed off all of the executives in the room with one important exception, Hugh Wilson, who had always planned to make the character deeper as the show progressed and saw all the criticism as a sign that he and Reid were on the same page.

Jeff Maxwell said...

Some years ago (everything now is years ago), I auditioned for pilot starring a verrry famous comedienne. The role was that of her son. Just as Ken advised, I came in, was polite, read the scene, said thank you and left. My efforts were successful enough to get a callback (second audition for the producers). The callback went very well, too, and I was quite excited about getting the job.

Much to my disappointment, my agent called to tell me I was not going to get the role because the casting director said, "you were too Jewish." Thinking he was kidding, I quizzed him seriously for more information. With confidence, he laughed, repeated the casting director's words as being hers and said we'd get the next one.

I called SAG to express my discomfort about being "too Jewish" or, except for fat or thin, too anything for that matter. SAG went ballistic.

Investigations into the casting director's practices were launched. She went ballistic; the studio she worked for went ballistic; my agent went ballistic, suggesting that it was he who used that language, not the casting director. I knew him quite well, and it was not something he would say. Maybe somebody said it to the casting director, but in my heart of hearts, I think it came from her. And it shouldn't have.

My point is, no matter what you do in that dynamic audition moment, there are forces, agendas and prejudices in place you have zero control over. Ken's recipe for an audition frees you from doing anything but being the best you you've got. Regardless how anything you may be.

Covarr said...

I can't imagine why anybody auditioning for a role wouldn't leap at the opportunity to read a scene twice.

Last year, my fiancee was auditioning for a play I assistant directed at my local community theatre. Her first reading was hilarious, but didn't suit the tone of the script as a whole. I think she realized partway through that it wasn't what the show needed, but she'd already settled into that character and changing mid-reading would've ruined the scene worse than a wonky interpretation. As soon as she was done, she asked to read it second time to try something else, and she gave an emotional, heartfelt performance. The best acting I've ever seen from her in an audition or otherwise, and in my (probably biased) opinion, the best audition for the role. It really astonished me just how much difference a second reading can make.

In the world of theatre, every performance is a rehearsal for the next. I feel that's just as true of auditions, whether for plays, pilots, movies, or whatever. If there are really people who have a shot at a second reading and don't take it... just, wow. How could you possibly justify throwing away something that would improve your shot at the role so much?

Jonathan Stark said...

Been on both sides of the camera, as have you, and this is great advice for any actor. The process sometimes feels so mystical but being armed with information really takes much of the mystery out of it. My only addition to what you said would be to say that no matter what you do there will always be some A-hole directors and producers who talk or don't give you the respect you deserve. They forget that, at the point of the audition your job is not specifically acting, it's getting getting jobs. But no matter how rough it may be in that room and you're reading thinking 'they hate me', you could be dead wrong and they LOVE you... they're just a-holes. So do your job, read your sides, thank everyone and leave. Because what you do not want to do is alienate the casting person. Believe me, they know when they're working with A-holes and you're doing them a solid by being professional and keeping your cool.