Cast Away!

Some thoughts on audition technique ☛

Casting can make or kill your film. Get the wrong actors for the roles and your audience will be watching the lighting. Even if you get the right actors for each part, but they don’t gel with each other: the audience will start planning their weekend shop.  It’s vital to get it right.

Earlier in the summer I conducted mock-auditions for the Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts. I’ve run many casting sessions before, but I’d never seen 30 or more actors in a day. Still, that was the nature of the exercise, and the experience taught me as much as it taught them. Here are some ideas for both actors and directors drawn from that experience and my past forays into the field of casting.

Naomi Watts gives everyone a surprise at her audition in “Mulholland Drive”

The Actor

There are some basic rules that should go without saying, but occasionally need repeating.

  1. Aim to be early. Turn up ahead of time and you might be seen early, perhaps because someone else has dropped out. If this happens, you might either get seen for longer, or at least get brownie points for helping the director and casting director, if they’re behind schedule. Turn up late and, unless your performance really knocks the ball out of the stadium, you’ve lost the part. Simple as that. Film and TV shoots run to tight schedules, TV in particular. For smaller roles they’re keener to know that the actor will show up on time, than they are to know that they’ll shine.
  2. Know the script. While it’s rarely required that you be word perfect, it’s important that you’ve had a chance to familiarise yourself with the scenes. A couple of students at Mountview tried to audition without even having read it through once. Pointless – I could tell nothing about their ability to play the part. It is however possible that you won’t get the script until you turn up; in this case allowances will of course be made.
  3. Be polite. Again: obvious. Remember that the director may well need to spend a lot of time with you on set:  give off a bad vibe you might just lose the part to another actor of equal talent but greater charm.
  4. Want the part. Usually not a problem, you’d think, but you’d be surprised. One of the most striking things I learnt from the Mountview students was how powerfully enthusiasm for the job (or lack of it) can communicate. There was one student who strode into the room armed with a warm handshake and unforced eye-contact. Everything about him conveyed an earnest enthusiasm for the project, keenness to work with me, and a deep belief that he was right for the part. The effect was overwhelming: he had me wanting to like his performance, and believing that he’d be a great guy to have on set. I’m going to remember what he did for the next time I go up for a job.

As for the performance itself, usually you’ll be given no direction when you first play the text. The trick here, I believe, is: go for it. If you have an extreme idea, try it out. Don’t force it, but be bold. The director may well have seen a dozen or more actors playing the  scene, and many of those performances may be quite samey. An actor giving the reading that’s markedly different will be a refreshing change. It’s even possible that your interpretation might spark new ideas in the director. They might start looking at the character in a different light: your light.

That being said, some directors, particularly writer / directors, have a fairly fixed idea of how they want the scene to be played; this is where the redirect is vital. The director will be looking for two things on the redirect: range and responsiveness. Too often the performance second time round is only fractionally different from the first take. Either the actor hasn’t listened, or they only have one performance to offer. Neither is good – the director wants to be able to work with you. Making your performance on the redirect significantly different from your performance first time round, shows that you can take direction and gives you an opening to impress with your range.

Above all, if you don’t get the part don’t see the session as having been a waste of time. There can be a hundred reasons why you weren’t cast that are outside your control. Impress the director or the casting director and, even if you don’t get this part, you’ll get on their radar. They might even start trying to think of other roles in which you might fit.

The Director

As chefs know, great cooking can’t happen without good quality ingredients. Similarly with casting actors – it’s the secret shortcut to impressive performances. Besides it takes even the most talented director a lot of time, effort and energy to squeeze a decent performance out of a weak actor. It’s so much easier to cast an actor who has natural talent and screen-craft, so that you can focus your attention on the subtle nuances.

Here are some simple suggestions that might help in the audition room:

  1. Give the actors time to prepare. Auditions should be about seeing an actor at their best, so give them as much time with the script beforehand as you can.
  2. Keep open space between the actor and yourself. A desk might be a power prop for business interviews but, while an audition has a similar objective to an interview, it is a very different beast. You’ll be doing work with the actor on the scenes, to see how you operate as a creative partnership. Desks suggest a far more disengaged dynamic.
  3. Make sure there’s more than one of you. If you have a casting director, have them in the room, failing that the producer or even just the person operating the camera. For a start, you’re going to need someone to read in the other part: it can be difficult to judge the performance if you’re reading yourself. It also adds to the sense that yours is a serious production. A lot of actors treat one-man-bands with a caution: physical evidence that at least one other person believes in the project can reassure them.
  4. Record it. Most people do these days; it‘s indispensible. I never cease to be amazed at how often the actor who appeared to be the best candidate when you were in the room, ends up not to be the right choice when you watch the tape back. A quick camera tip: many rooms used for auditions have harsh top-light and, combined with the use of low-end camcorders, it’s easy to end up with a recording on which you can’t see the actors’ eyes. Before you start, take a minute to work out where in the room is most favourably lit and keep the camera low, so that you’ll be seeing up into the actors’ eyes.

Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford trying out for “Star Wars”

Most auditions start with a brief chit-chat, traditionally where the director asks what work the actor has been doing recently. This information should be evident on their resume, so the content of the conversation is usually redundant. Other directors ask the actor about their impression of the script or of their character. This can be more useful, but often ends in gushing flattery from the actor. The brief chat can still be useful for the director, so that they can get a sense of the actor’s natural presence, when not in character. I have a trick for this borrowed partly from a technique taught by Simon Phillips, but it ceases to work if the actor knows what’s coming, so I’ll have to leave it to you to think of a good way to use the chat time… or you could take one of Simon’s courses and see what he suggests.

One of the most important factors in getting good auditions, in my opinion, happens before the actor enters the room: the selection of the scene, or scenes, that the actor is to play.  Too often, directors choose expositional scenes just because they’re dialogue-heavy. Actors are only as good as their material; give them a scene with no dramatic meat and most will struggle. The ideal scene would be a two-hander, possibly a three-hander, in which the the auditionee’s character goes through at least one dramatic turn – they should learn something new that changes their attitude to things. At the very least you want a scene that gives the actor a chance to show you a number of different strategies their character could take to achieve their objective.  This doesn’t even have to be a scene that they’ll play in the finished film, or even from that project at all, as long as the emotional energy and character-type are pretty close to the character for which you’re seeing them. It’s more important that the scene gives them material that will allow them to show their best work. As theatre director Blanche McIntire has observed “you want people coming out feeling like they’ve done a good job”.

There are a number of other processes that can be used in the audition – many directors set up improvisations, for example. These can be a useful way to discover out how adaptable is the actor. Of course if you’re going to be using improv as part of your creative process in the piece itself, it’s vital to discover that the actor has those skills. This goes for any specific ability you need the actor to have that can be demonstrated in the room – accents, singing, conjuring tricks – you want to see it in action.

Finally, remember that you can recall actors if you’re not sure. The most important time to think about a recall is where you’re casting characters in a relationship. It doesn’t have to be a romantic relationship; it could be brothers, mother and daughter, villain and henchman, but if that relationship is central to your story, you’re going to need to know that those two actors click in a way that works.

The audition process is where you establish your relationship with your actors. It they feel that they’ve been cast on looks alone or in a random fashion, they’ll respect you less. Embrace the audition process to the full and the actors will feel confident that they’re right for their part and have earned it. They will feel that you are serious about getting the best from them. Given that relaxed, confident actors usually perform better, you can see that well-conducted auditions can not only get you the best cast, they can encourage the cast to be at its best.


Copyright © Guy Ducker 2012

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11 Responses to “Cast Away!”
  1. Nic Lawson DP says:

    What do you mean by “Get the wrong actors for the roles and your audience will be watching the lighting”? Surely the audience go to the cinema for the lighting!

  2. Lynette Creane says:

    Really useful! Although tying to be friendly, eager and keen makes me look like a demonic smiley nutter once the nerves kick in!!!

    • guyducker says:

      Generally best not to come across as a nutter, but I’m sure you don’t. Of course, not everyone can stage a full-on charm offensive, especially when they’re nervous and getting into character, but if you can do it convincingly it’s very effective.

  3. streeterman says:

    Simple..excelent stuff..thank you

  4. streeterman says:

    Sorry…I might (or might not) be able to act a bit, but I can’t spell…..I meant ‘EXCELLENT’ whoops!!!.

  5. Carlo Irwin says:

    Good article; I have been on both sides of the casting table for a number of years,
    The director wants the actor to be great and they are rooting for you. Not to mention
    that it helps them feel better about their choices.

  6. Great information. I like that your point of view came from more than 1 angle.

  7. uigei says:

    Great info…thank you

  8. B S Kumar says:

    Lovely and many thanks! Here’s a tip I’ll give actors – keep it simple. Directors look for something they can use, not the finished product. If you’re getting directions for take 2, it means there is potential. Listen carefully, ask for a couple of minutes if you need – all these are signs that you are going to “work” on your role.

  9. pieter pretorius says:

    Thanks for the info. Starting on my first project and need all the help I can get.

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