How many times have I read advertisements for casting director workshops that promise a shortcut in the “casting game”? How many “10 Audition Do’s and Dont’s of the Successful Actor” am I going to see? There are folks out there who study the audition process as rigorously as some performers study acting. Most of the time, these are the actors who walk into the room insistent on talking about my body of work or how much they liked the script. Of course, I appreciate it. Who doesn’t like a little ego boost? At the same time, I’m not auditioning fans. In fact, these actors are almost always too focused on giving me whatever it is they think I want that I can never get a feel for where their own impulses are coming from.
Almost always, I wind up going with the actor who auditions me while I’m auditioning them. Rather than shove a board game in my face, invite me to play with your toys! Show me what you like, and at the same time don’t be afraid to let me have my own take on things. More than anything, that will give me a sense of where and how I want to work with you.
Keep in mind that I am not a casting director. My name is Tennyson E. Stead, and I’m a writer/director with over 20 years of experience working on stage and screen. My interest in the audition process is exclusively to find actors I want to work with. I’m writing this post because frequently, the pitching skills so diligently instilled in today’s generation of performers actually gets in the way. Here’s the problem as I see it:
No casting director has my experience and informed intuition when it comes to how an actor will work in the context of a role, an action, or an ensemble of other actors. Without those tools, a casting director has to base their decisions on less relevant, more easily observed criteria. Every person reading this, I assume, has heard the old metaphor of the actor as a paintbrush in the hands of a painter? Whether you agree or not, I’d like to use this analogy as the foundation for a little thought experiment…
Have you guys ever had your parents try to buy you art supplies? My parents have always supported my creative endeavors, and there’s always that REAL expensive brush (or camera, computer accessory, or what-have-you) that catches my mother’s eye. Even if she can’t afford it, she’ll wind up buying it – and it’s probably not something I can use. I’ll never tell her that, of course. Some sales person told her it was great, but that brush doesn’t feel right in my hand. That computer accessory isn’t compatible. Whatever the reason or case, using my old tools is just easier.
Eventually, my mom learned not to buy me tools without asking if I need them. Nowadays, she actually wants me to send her a catalogue number. In the perfect movie world of my dreams, this is exactly what casting directors do.
“Casting Mom, I need Cate Blanchett.”
“Do I find her at CAA or ICM or… You know what, Tenny? I’ll find her. Don’t worry about it. Happy Birthday!”
“Thanks, Casting Mom!”
Pretty good, right? Trouble is, there’s only one Cate Blanchett. If she’s too busy or too expensive to work on my film, which is overwhelmingly likely, I’m going to need to find another “brush” I like. If I explain what it is I love so much about Cate Blanchett to Casting Mom and ask her to go find me something even better, the results will probably be disastrous Casting Mom should not be allowed in the art supply store by herself, because she gets excited by everything she sees and doesn’t have the experience to discriminate. This is why I always run my own auditions.
Also remember that Casting Mom is a best-case scenario when it comes to casting directors. I’m not going to talk trash about Casting A*sh*le, but Casting A*sh*le is out there. Rest assured.
As an actor trying to sell your services, you get to be the kid who works at the art store. Your job, in essence, hinges on knowing your customer. If you’re going to sell something to my Mom, you can’t really talk shop with her. Don’t even try. (In actuality, my Mom knows a great deal more about painting than I do. This is beside the point. She knows crap about acting.) My point is if you’re selling “brushes” to Casting Mom, the thing to do is chat her up a little bit and then just tell her which one to buy. Casting Mom needs to be schmoozed.
If you’re talking to me, then you have a different problem entirely. Both of us know very well that there is no “best brush”. Whether the differences are obvious or subtle, every actor will have their own way of interacting with my script, my cast, and myself. What I want and need as a painter is to get a feel for the subtleties of each individual brush. Schmoozing me will only establish unnecessary boundaries. If I think you need me to do this little courtship dance with you, then I’m going to be very limited in what I try to get away with. Correct or no, I tend to assume that when an actor brings unnecessary structure and decorum to my audition it’s because they need it. Certainly, it can’t be for my benefit! Don’t they see I’m game? Don’t they know we’re already past that crap?
There’s more. Not only do you need to know whether you’re auditioning for a casting director or a director-director, but you also need to gauge how keen on actual acting the director-directors you audition for happen to be. How do you figure that out? How do you know the difference?
That part is easy. Probe. Fish. Throw them a ball and see if they throw it back, just like when you’re sizing up other actors. Ask questions. Push their boundaries, and watch to see whether it lights them up or shuts them down. Goof off. Take risks. Go nuts.
If you’ve put the time into your craft, it’s easy to recognize others who have the same skills. Actors wear their training like clothing. If you can’t see it, just keep studying. Those behaviors and practices will become more and more familiar, the more you expose yourself to them.
When you pick up on the gameliness of someone in the audition room, throw them a bone! Play. More than anything, this will get you working with the people and shows that truly embrace the craft of acting. Even if they don’t cast you right then and there, that director will come to know your texture, weight, and grip. Save the compliments and sweet-talking for Casting Mom. She’ll appreciate hearing it, it’ll give you two something to talk about, and she’ll probably remember it when it comes time to make her decision. With me, however, it’s about playing like you mean it. If you’ve got a copy of the script, which you do… then I’ve already shared my toys. No fair not sharing yours!
Check out more videos from this interview series
with Tennyson here!
If you’d like to ask questions, pose “what-if’s,” rebuke me with experience or hearsay, or just flirt from the safe distance of your personal computer, you can always find me at Tennysonestead.com. To find out more about me, my ensemble, and my stories, we welcome you to our online community at 8sidedforum.com – and please, please support our upcoming feature, Quantum Theory. Quantum Theory is the story of two brilliant, snarky women of science who develop a prototype that gives them the power to change reality itself… until it’s snatched from under them by by LDI, a ruthless and powerful defense contractor. Stealing it back means winning a shell game of changing realities against a foe who does not lose. The future of our world depends upon their success! You can find out more at here, and at Quantummovie.com.
Tennyson E. Stead is a writer, director, and producer of film and transmedia. In his childhood, he spent all his time building cardboard spaceships and rescuing his sister in them. These days he does basically the same thing.
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Check out Tennyson’s prior Film Courage articles: