Casting Notes #12: The Audition – For Actors, it’s Time to Play (For Actors)
This 20-part series, written by Team J’s Bjorn Munson, covers the lessons learned during the casting of The Broken Continent web series pilot in 2012. You can find the full Table of Contents in Part 1.
This series is meant to help other independent filmmakers, primarily those who are casting a large ensemble (10+ speaking parts, multiple background actors, etc.). Individual articles may be useful to production companies looking to cast other work such as commercials. There are also a number of articles specifically for actors on how to better submit for auditions, do the auditions, and deal with the statistically inevitable rejections.
The lessons learned have been applied to Team J’s Stonehenge Casting service, an online tool for producers to find actors and actors to find work.
The Audition – For Actors, it’s Time to Play
Welcome back, actors!
If you’ve skimmed any of the filmmaker articles, you’ve hopefully picked up on this theme: you want to make the boring parts of casting easily repeatable so you can focus on the fun parts.
The same idea applies to you. There are plenty of classes and workshops you can take about how to audition well. Apart from some general audition strategy, we won’t focus too much on the creative side of the audition. You can take classes and get coaching for that. We will, however, cover what to expect in the audition room — along with some concrete actions you can take before then.
For those of you who are fans of lists, there’s 15 steps to remember: 
- Do your research – reconfirm this audition is worth it
- Plan your trip
- Organize your clothes
- Freshen up (as needed)
- Review what you planned to review
- Make sure you’re breathing
- Seriously: make sure you’re breathing
- Ace the preliminaries
- Take the stage
- Make strong choices
- Make adjustments
- Exit graciously
- Let go
- Follow-up (if applicable)
Before the Audition Day
As mentioned several times throughout this series, an audition is a job interview albeit a specialized type of job interview. Therefore, all the regular preparation for job interviews applies, to whit:
1. Do your research – reconfirm this audition is worth it
This is admittedly a step that should already be completed, but there might be new information to research and, in turn, that new research means you need to re-evaluate the audition.
If you followed the steps outlined in Part 6, about responding to the casting notice, you’ve done the work. If you’re at this point, you decided this project was worthy for submission. But if they’ve reached out to you for an audition, they may have provided some additional information about the project. Most often, this means the script.
As mentioned in Part 6, there’s several points during the process where you might get a better idea of the filmmakers and the project. And it’s entirely possible that you decide that this project might not be a good one to work on or these filmmakers might not be good to work with. Every actor is going to have a different threshold and this threshold will undoubtedly change over the course of one’s career.
And let’s be honest: sometimes you get the sides prior to the audition and they’re underwhelming (to say the least). I’ve noticed consistently employed actors do have a high tolerance for underwhelming scripts, because often the script itself is not offensive, the actors know they can rock the part, and they have bills to pay.  However, I have seen enough scripts to know that there are instances where the script is offensive or the actor is simply not comfortable with the part.
In that case, my favorite tactic, often employed by actors when discovering a political ad they’re up for may espouse views they can’t stomach, is to have a “scheduling conflict.” Most filmmakers won’t begrudge you being unable to audition because you have “booked a paying gig since submitting” and if you don’t inquire about re-scheduling the audition, odds are it ends there. If you don’t know the filmmakers well, but believe you may want to work with them again, this is a good way to hedge your bets — and generally, there’s no advantage in burning bridges.  If you do know the filmmakers and have rapport with them, you might feel comfortable saying that the script isn’t a fit, but this is usually the exception.  Additionally, if you learn something more about what they’re paying and it isn’t up to the threshold you know you want or need, you should feel free to send a quick, polite message, especially if it’s a project you’d otherwise want to work on. Your rates are thus — and best of luck with the project.  Note that if you’re not consistently getting booked at those rates, you’re better off having a “scheduling conflict.”
If you decide not to audition after being contacted to come in and audition, the one thing I would not do is not send any communication. That goes double if you’ve confirmed the audition time and don’t show up. That we do remember. 
2. Plan your trip
This is exactly like any other job interview. You want to know:
- How you’re going to get there
- How long it’s going to take to get there, including a buffer for traffic, etc., ending with
- An arrival time ideally 5 minutes before your interview time.
This ideal is for your prospective employer: from multiple articles to anecdotes to personal experience, we don’t want to deal with you way before your scheduled audition time. Five minute before is perfect in our minds: not too far before and not late. Definitely not late. If you personally want to aim for 10 minutes beforehand, because of any prep you want to do — or simply to do a pit stop before going into the audition, feel free. If you’ve skimmed the other articles in this series, you’ll realize filmmakers should have a waiting area with friendly check-in staff who don’t mind too much if you’re early (provided it’s not the first audition of the day and you never expect that means you get to audition earlier).
3. Organize your clothes
The night before the audition, make sure your preferred wardrobe is clean and ready to go.
As should be echoed with any other audition prep class or article, with the rarest of exceptions, please don’t go in costume.  Your wardrobe should be emblematic of you and the character you’re going after.
We saw many actors take this to heart for the Broken Continent. Many of the people auditioning for the lords wore suit jackets with button-down shirts. Those auditioning for the queen often had dresses. Simple and emblematic. There’s no one-to-one and there’s no one right answer regarding your audition wardrobe. You’re presenting yourself as a candidate for a particular role: what’s going to help that? You can’t forget yourself or the character in that answer. 
At the same time, it’s easy to over-think this. If you’re spending more than 5 minutes riddling this out, go with something you’re comfortable in that doesn’t look bad. We cast plenty of people who showed up in jeans (fake gasp!).
At the Audition Site
Once you get to the audition site and before the audition, there’s four things to keep in mind, two of them optional.
Obviously not optional: you want to be sure the casting people know you’re there. Ask any logistics questions you need and confirm that you have the right number and format of headshots & resumes. If you’re going to freshen up, feel free to let them know that too. The check-in staff are hopefully friendly, but they also might have many actors asking them questions. Re-assuring them that you haven’t disappeared (or indicating where you might have disappeared to) can’t hurt.
2. Freshen up (as needed)
While this is an optional step and –depending on how soon your audition is– potentially not an option, it’s not a bad idea. After checking in, go ahead and take a pit stop, check your makeup, and make sure your threads are in order. Also, if there’s any possibility at all for there to be anything in your teeth, it will be there if you don’t check.
3. Review what you planned to review
Highly optional, but if part of your process is to review the facts of the production or the script so you can be nimble with questions and choices in the audition room, go ahead and do so.
Just like good test-taking behavior, this is meant to be reviewing, not cramming. This should be relaxed or at least a way to focus your energy.
4. Make sure you’re breathing
Speaking of energy, this is not an optional step. It’s okay to be anxious. It’s not okay if that gets in the way of delivering the audition you’re capable of. Whatever methods you use to get in the groove, focus, and get less anxious, make sure to employ them. Breathe. Listen to music. Simply freshening up and reviewing the script often works for many actors, which is why we mention them, but you’d be surprised at how many actors I notice at Stonehenge forget to breathe.
In the Audition Room
Here’s where there’s plenty of workshops and acting coaches who will be happy to help your with your craft. Nevertheless, there’s several parts to an audition you should be expecting and be prepared for.
1. Seriously: make sure you’re breathing
You may have just left the waiting area remembering that everyone in this room wants you to succeed. Now you’re meeting them and –depending on how they look or react– maybe you’re anxious again. Stay cool, stay breathing. 
2. Ace the preliminaries
It’s not uncommon for the auditors to ask you some questions about you and your resume before doing the audition. This is as much part of your job interview as the audition, so expect it and embrace it and don’t try and rush past because you want to “get down to business.” And just like with a regular job interview, you should be ready to speak about every single credit you have listed. What was that show like? How was it like to work with that director? Did you do any stage combat in this play? All of those are fair game. And by the way, this should go without saying, but all your credits and all your classes and education you list? They should be real. Don’t embellish and don’t make things up.  As with any other job interview, accentuate the positive.
If you have questions, something that’s keeping you from fully committing to a choice in your read, ask them! For the Broken Continent, we had a whole new fantasy world with its own rules of magic and plenty of unusual names to pronounce. As long as your question is focused on performance and clarity, the writer or director will probably enjoy clarifying it. Save your logistics questions like schedules for at the end of the auditions.
If you don’t have any questions, no problem! And if they ask, you can say so, ready to jump in.
3. Take the stage
Take your time to find your mark and connect whomever’s operating the camera: they’re your ally too (in terms of our case study, that camera operator could be the DP for all you know).
Just like the beginning of movie, your audience will forgive a slow start, so take those seconds that seem like minutes. Soon enough, the minutes will seem like seconds.
4. Make strong choices
There’s no way to phrase this in such a way to address all scripts and situations. However, after seeing literally thousands of auditions, I know when an actor has committed to a choice and when they’re unsure. A fully inhabited choice that’s in no way what we’re looking for is still more interesting than a half-hearted one. And it tells us you can commit to a character. Whether we find a match with you and the character you’re auditioning for is where the adjustments come in.
5. Make adjustments
If you take nothing else away, know this: your job is not to “nail the audition.”
Look at the title of this article. Look at it again.
“It’s time to play” was not chosen at random.
You’re working your craft and talent to bring that character to life with a freshness and immediacy that rings true.
Do you think you did that? Looking at the faces of the auditors, do you think they think you did that?
Cool! Now let’s try something else.
Because maybe the truth you brought to life is one they don’t want in this scene. Or maybe they want to see how much you can do the same thing, but make the character more noble. Or sleazy.
Playing is, after all, what you’re trying to get paid to do. Even if you’re going to punch a card on camera, you’re going to do it in a style that serves the script.
On set, when you’re going into hour 13, perhaps you can admit you’re feeling “kind of beat,” but right now, you want to be game for trying adjustments as long as they want to keep you in the room. Odds are, you’re learning a bit more about the director too.
6. Exit graciously
Eventually, playtime will be over. Perhaps all the auditors look each other and nod and you realize the audition is done, or one of them –clearly in the role of ‘bad cop’– says they need to move on to keep on schedule. Remember, that’s not a bad thing, so long as they’ve seen enough to call you back. 
At this point, they will probably thank you and hopefully give you some details about the project — possibly a summary of what has been provided before. They might also ask you if you have any questions. Just like at the top of the audition, it’s okay not to have any questions, but in that case, you ought to have at least one question:
Who’s the best person to contact if I have questions?
It’s probably going to be the casting director or, more generally, the casting firm. In any case, it’s worth knowing. 
When are you looking to make your casting decisions?
You can phrase this a number of different ways, but it’s best to ask in general terms. This is because most filmmakers are absolutely horrible at closing the loop on casting (as will be explained more in Part 18). If you’re not cast, more often than not, you usually just don’t hear from them. However, phrasing it in such a way that it’s not “When are ya gonna let me know?” means the filmmakers have space to say things like:
- “We want to have our cast about a week or so before our shoot in September”
- “We want to have our cast lined up by the end of this month”
- “If we want to call you back, you’re hear from us in the next two weeks.”
In all of those cases, they don’t have to say exactly when they might contact you — or even if they might contact you (which they likely won’t). However, you now have a much better idea when you’re out of the running. This is a heck of a lot more certainty than you’d get from just hoping they’ll contact you.
After these and any other questions are answered, it’s time to thank them for the opportunity to audition and exit, stage left, right, or up center as the audition room geography dictates. Give a cheerful goodbye to the check-in staff too  and proceed to let it go (see below).
Bear in mind, these two questions –and any others you might have– are only valid if you’ve decided you are hoping to be called back and get the part. If you’ve gotten red flags during the audition or during the casting process, you can cheerfully say you don’t have any questions, thank them for the opportunity, and move on.
After the Audition
Both of these steps will be covered in depth in Part 18 (The Reaction) and Part 19 (The Aftermath) respectively, but are worth mentioning briefly here.
1. Let go
I know it may seem too “zen” and definitely counter-intuitive, but even though I keep on saying this is a job interview, there are two points where thinking about “getting the job” is not productive. First, you need to not concentrate about “getting the job” aka “nailing it” in the audition room. Second, you need to not worry about “getting the job” after you’re done auditioning.
On the level of an actor practicing his or her craft, you want to leave all notions of “getting the job” before you even enter the audition room: because it does not help you get the job. In a 2012 video, actor Bryan Cranston expertly articulates this notion, which supports the ideas of play and being truthful.
Once you’ve done that, you’re done. Just like Michael Caine says in his book: you need to approach this as the part you’ve been dying to play all your life. But once the opportunity is done, which it is for all intents and purposes at the end of that first audition, you’ve got to move on.
Now, from a practical level of managing your schedule, you may not entirely be able to let it go if you think you might be booked (that’s where the notes about schedule come in), but on a psyche-preserving level, you have to enjoy the moment and then not expect anything. Even if your bills need to be paid by booking gigs, you need to move on to the next gig.
So engage in whatever celebratory ritual you want after auditioning, but move on. To paraphrase a certain Disney tune, the success or failure of one audition shouldn’t bother you, anyway.
(Additional considerations for letting go will be explored in Part 18).
2. Follow-up (if applicable)
If the filmmakers are ones who you really want to work with in the future, whether it’s based on the volume of projects they do or the type of projects they do, keep tabs on them and let them keep up to date on what you’re up to.
With Social Media today, it’s not uncommon for production companies and individual theaters to have pages you can like or Twitter feeds to follow. And on the low-tech side of things, if you have a mailing address, you can send them postcards from shows you’re in. All that, and other tactics (including how to do more effective networking) will be explored in Part 19.
For the next few articles, we’re going to switch back to a focus on filmmakers going through callbacks, casting background performers, and the special considerations for fight auditions.
FOOTNOTE #2: I think you’ll find that ‘industrial’ and training projects often have scripts written by committee which also must be approved after a legal review –a process that often does to the flavor of the script what freeze-drying does to the flavor of food. There is good money to be made by actors who can bring that text to life– and having met some of the original scribes of that material (who are not fans of the required “freeze-drying”), I know they thank you for it.
FOOTNOTE #3: I’ve seen plenty of scripts that have stereotypes of women and ethnic groups that range from tired to incendiary. The sad truth is that the filmmakers who most need to “board the Clue Bus” are the ones least likely to think they even need a ticket. For that reason, I urge actors to resist the temptation to set the filmmakers straight. Odds are they are not open to a teachable moment. You time and energy are better spent finding the next project to submit to.
FOOTNOTE #4: As discussed earlier in the series, I specifically reached out to actors whom I thought would be good for certain parts. One actor, whom I’d worked with over 10 years previously was someone whose bread-and-butter are classical works and well-realized period characters. As I often tell young filmmakers, you want a variety of ages and looks in your film to implicitly sell the wideness of your world and was certain he could do it for Broken Continent. After I jogged his memory, he appreciated me reaching out –what actor doesn’t like being sought out specifically?– but after a few days he wrote back stating that he really felt the script and type of project wasn’t a good fit. I was bummed to be sure — but I was also sure that if he ignored his feeling, it could lead to a bad audition and wasted time on all our parts. But note it took both of us being able to step back and consider what was the best overall that made this approach work. It’s very easy for things to go badly.
FOOTNOTE #5: You have to be able to do this in a just-the-facts manner and stay pleasant. There could be good and bad reasons for filmmakers to not be able to have a budget to afford your fee. Actors aren’t the only creatives who are well served by just-the-facts negotiation versus emotional battling as Quinn McDonald wrote in a recent blog post: http://quinncreative.wordpress.com/2014/10/25/growing-without-pushing/.
FOOTNOTE #6: In his excellent video about audition etiquette, Sean Pratt mentions that actors who don’t follow up after being specifically contacted to audition end up on The List of Actors We Don’t Follow Up With Again. This is 100% true. Actors who attended the in-person Stonehenge auditions may remember how we codified this with the “Mud List.” Because hundreds of actors tried to get the scant 120 guaranteed slots, an actor with a guaranteed slot who didn’t show and didn’t let us know couldn’t appear at another Stonehenge for three years (at one point, about 9 events). Once that was instituted, people got much better about canceling. And yes, issues with less-than-communicative actors for the Broken Continent and other projects I cast have lead me to create another Mud List. Life is short and casting deadlines are shorter.
FOOTNOTE #7: For the Broken Continent, one of the actors showed up in full armor. Needless to say, this made an impression and he did wind up getting a part. However, this still ranks as an exception for wearing a full-on costume to an audition. The reason here is that the gentleman in question not only worked on the Broken Continent as an actor, but he helped get similarly well-armored colleagues to appear in the web series AND helped make some of the armor we used. If you are a zealous re-enactor (e.g. Civil Way, WWII) with expertise in and access to the types of costumes the filmmakers might need, you might consider it. We make no promises.
FOOTNOTE #8: One of the actors auditioning for a lord delivered a fine audition and had a great wardrobe choice to complement it. He showed up well-dressed with nice pants, a suit jacket, and a calculatedly untied bow tie. He knew what he was doing with his costume choice, we knew what he was doing with his costume choice, and he knew that we knew what he was doing. It completely fit his rakish read of the character and his overall tone: perfectly presenting what he would bring to the part and the project. That’s an actor you want to work with.
FOOTNOTE #9: Remember, you might be catching them just after a particularly dispiriting audition OR while one of them realizes they really should have gone to the bathroom OR as the post-lunch sleepiness might be setting in. You’re bound to by hypersensitive at this point, but remember, you can’t control how they are feeling or what happened before. You can only control you.
FOOTNOTE #10: I say it should go without saying, but I have had the distinct displeasure of catching someone lying on their resume a couple times during auditions. It’s rare, but just like when it happens with a regular job: you never forget that person — and not in a good way.
FOOTNOTE #11: I’m sure there are examples of the production team feeling they have the perfect actor for a particular role after the first round and then they offer the part then and there. However, if producers are following the same casting format as the case study, then they are wisely not making any casting decisions until after callbacks. This is because almost no role is cast in a vacuum: you need to play off whomever is cast in the roles that interact with that character. Unless you’re one of the stars that is key to the project being funded, then the producers will consider this (and if you are one of the stars integral to the project’s funding, why are you auditioning? Everyone else is auditioning in part to be a fit for you).
FOOTNOTE #12: Incidentally, if this question completely confuses them or clearly annoys them: that’s a red flag for you (and yes, I mention this from my experience as an actor). At best, they clearly aren’t interested in you for the role and, at worst, they’re so disorganized, they haven’t really worked how they’ll deal with actors as they move into production (which, if you think about it, is an important HR/logistics question). Besides which, the best filmmakers you want to work with can provide a general email address that works just as well for the people they do want to hear from or work with in the future as it does for the people they’re not so keen on. And they’re also wise enough not to burn bridges. As I’ll explain in Part 18, there’s any number of reasons why you might not get a part. Good filmmakers might be absolutely sure you’re not the right choice for this part, but they may be equally sure they want to work with you in the future.
FOOTNOTE #13: Your goodbye to the “check-in” staff is not only an easy way to leave a good impression, but it might tell them that the auditors are free. Frequently, the check-in staff needs to ask the auditors a question during the day, but they obviously don’t want to interrupt an audition. If they see you and know you’re done, this might now be the time for them to get an answer from the auditors.