By Craig Wallace.
Auditioning has changed so much in the past few years. While it was once enough to “play the role,” it is not nearly enough today. The actors who are scoring the jobs are the ones that know how to truly embody the role. They have the ability to make the words come alive in a connected, honest, and dynamic way.
To do this requires a way of preparing that allows you to go deeper than the competition—a way of working that doesn’t look at auditioning as a problem to be solved, but rather a dynamic, creative art form all its own.
Here are two ways that can help free you to creatively and skillfully embody the role and book the job:
Get rid of “right” and “wrong.”
Of course the casting director, producers, director et al. have some idea of what they’re looking for in the role you’re auditioning for. However, they are having a session, which means that they need answers—answers you have to provide for the character they’re casting: Who is the person behind the words? How do they breathe and feel? How do they look? Why do we care about them?
The only right answers to those questions are your answers.
If we must use the words right and wrong: the “right” decisions about the piece are the ones that connect you to the words on the page in the most honest and compelling way possible, the decisions that allow your voice, your energy, and your heartbeat to come through loudly and clearly.
So if there’s anger in the scene, you need to make sure that it’s not generic anger, but anger the way YOU would express it. If there’s humor, don’t just try to “be funny” in a way you think will please the people in the room; be funny as YOU are funny.
You are you and everyone else is not—no one will be pleased by you hiding parts of yourself in an effort to do what you think is the “right” thing.
Ultimately, they will decide whether or not you’re right for that particular role. But you can be assured that even if you don’t get that one, if you were true to yourself in the audition, they will have truly met you, gotten to know you, considered you, and they will most certainly see you again.
The reason many actors fall short of embodying a character they’re auditioning for is because they prepare primarily from the mind. But what they should be focused on—where the answers to the questions you need to answer about that character reside—is the body and heart.
A creative way of working is needed so that you can deeply explore how you feel instead of what you think.
In life, when you experience anything, that experience is taken in first by the body. The sensation the body feels causes the limbic center of the brain to produce a corresponding emotion and this emotion triggers a thought. This order of experience—body, heart, then mind—is also the way a good audition is prepared. It’s essential that the mind is quiet enough that you can actually feel how the words on the page cause your body to react.
When you’re reading the angry part of the scene, how does that anger manifest in your body? Does your stomach tighten, your breath shorten etc.?
These physical reactions will determine the specificity of the emotion that’s produced: your anger, not just some vague idea of anger. And in the funny part of the scene, what does funny feel like to your body? Where are you affected? What emotion is triggered by those sensations? And now, what are your thoughts about those emotions? Does your anger cause you to feel thoughts of justification or revenge? Does your humor engender thoughts of joyful glee or caustic sarcasm?
Exploring in this way guarantees that the people in the room see an embodied person because you’ll be experiencing all of your emotions in a thoroughly human way: physically, emotionally and mentally. And every line you speaks will be rich and fully dimensionalized.
Instead of tearing your hair out trying to decide what’s right and wrong, you need to be fully engaged in a creative process that frees you to explore the full range of what you have to offer the words on the page. If you work this way, you won’t be just another actor acting the part; you’ll be the true embodiment of the role and that will go a long way toward making you the actor they have to hire.
Now that you’ve embodied the character, it’s time to being them to life with the qualities that are specific to you. In other words – to make the role YOURS! So, let’s get specific.
I was in a casting session recently for a series regular role on a pilot. The role was that of an angry, rebellious mid-20s male. The scene was with his brother and mother and was three pages long. There were 42 actors seen for the role. You might imagine that there was a lot of yelling and screaming going on, and you’d be right. As a matter of fact, disconnected, generic rage was the order of the day and at the end of the session, there were only three actors who truly stood out as contenders.
When it was all over, the CD said that she was really impressed by the fact that those three had made such original and different choices. At first, I agreed, but after giving it some thought, I changed my mind. Their choices weren’t different. They had also made the choices of anger, frustration, and rage—the scene didn’t allow for much else.
The difference was that they had a way of working until they found the colors within those choices that represented their specific personalities. With most of the other actors, you got the feeling that they looked up the definition of anger in a dictionary and just “did that.” The three in contention weren’t “doing” anything. They were simply “being” angry in a way that was so specific and compelling it appeared they were doing something entirely new.
Specificity is the hallmark of great acting and is also the main component in a successful audition. Here are two ways move from the generic to the specific:
Work with the body.
Emotions live in the body, not in the mind. The mind’s primary job is to keep you safe by providing logic and context. In an audition, a safe and logical reading will never book a job because safe and logical thoughts do nothing to humanize the words on the page. Add to that the fact that acting is not about thoughts—no one really cares what an actor is thinking—it’s about feeling: how you feel and how you can make an audience feel.
To go back to the above-mentioned audition, the three actors who understood what was required of them found the feelings of anger and frustration in their bodies–they literally embodied these emotions. That’s what humanizes and illuminates the words on the page and that’s why you need to be looking for your answers in the place where you feel, the body, not the place that you think, the mind.
Go beyond the label.
There is no such thing as anger or sadness or happiness, for that matter. Those are just labels. The label we give an emotion is actually the sum of a number of different emotions. For instance, if I ask you to describe anger, you’re going to do so by giving me a list of other emotions. “Anger” as an emotion is actually nonexistent, it is simply a word that we apply to a set of emotions that produce a certain feeling. So, the actor playing a definition of anger will be flat and generic, not to mention dishonest, because there is actually no such thing. The actor who feels the way that anger lives in their body discovers all of the emotions that are in play. Their anger is alive and fascinating to watch. They are the embodiment of a specific type of anger and casting knows that the audience will relate to and identify with this complex, three-dimensional human being.
The lesson here is to have a way of working that allows you to calm the mind and explore your body’s emotional mapping so that you can find the specific feelings that make up the emotion. This is the specificity that books the job. Everyone else may choose anger, but your anger will not be about volume and indicating, your anger will be a window into your soul. Live the feelings behind the label.
In many large ways, we’re all the same. Human beings have basically the same qualities and desires. But, while we may all contain the same emotions, we feel them very differently. It’s the actor who has a way to go deep inside his body and heart in order to explore the specific makeup of his emotions who will break out as an individual. And that’s the actor who gets the job.
Now, let’s go into the room and get that job!
To say that we’re in the richest time in television history is an understatement. Not only is the quality of the writing phenomenal, but the quantity has skyrocketed as well!
As studios, cable channels, and streaming services continue to churn out product at this furious pace, it’s becoming harder and harder for them to break these shows out and get an already over-saturated audience to give their show a try. There’s also the hard-to-ignore fact that audiences’ attention spans are getting shorter and shorter. With the ability to stay focused on one thing at the eight-second mark, the executives in charge are demanding ingenuity more than ever from all the creative and technical departments. Sets, lighting, costumes, hair and makeup have to be eye-catching in ways they never had to be before.
And so do the actors.
As far as auditioning goes, the days of a nice smooth reading being enough to get the job are gone. You need to show that you have what it takes to grab the audience’s attention and keep them riveted for the entire length of the time that you’re on camera. Finding and executing your moments is key to auditioning this way; it’s what I call having the ability to “hook and hold.”
It begins with having a way of working that enables you to break down the text and discover the moments the writer is offering you. Remember, it’s not the showiest actor who books the role, but the actor who moves the writers’ story forward in the most compelling way.
After the mind has dissected the text, it’s time for the body to take over. The decisions that will get the job and create your most dynamic moments are found in the body and heart. The words need to transform, through you, into a three-dimensional human being. The emotions that will enable this transformation live in the body.
When you mine your body and heart to find your connection to the piece, your decisions will be grounded in the truth of your life and the piece will be enlivened by your vision. You’ll then find that the moments will grow organically out of the work and become a powerful representation of you and all that you have to offer the role.
Now that you see where the strongest moments of the piece live for you, your body will tell you what those moments need in order to have the highest impact. Do they need space, time, a breath, pace? If you have found your decisions by exploring the emotional mapping of the body, this same mapping will let you know how to handle the moment. Remember: delivering your moments isn’t choreography, so stay with the body and let it guide you to the most honest manifestation.
When you work this way, you’ll be more than just the next actor reading the scene. You’ll be the actor who hooks their attention and holds it for the entire length of the scene. And if you’re being put on tape, even better. You need moments that pop to get the people watching to pay attention to a taped audition. If you have those moments, you’ll not only hold their attention, but you’ll show them that you have the knowledge of what acting for the camera is all about and the skill to deliver. Being camera-ready is an essential component of a job-getting audition.
The bar has been raised and more is being demanded from the auditioning actor than ever before. But from what I’m hearing from casting, most actors are seemingly unaware of this and remain behind the curve. It’s not just about having a “good” audition (whatever that means), it’s about connecting to the text, your decisions, and your moments in a way that shows the people watching the effect you’d have on the audience if they hired you. They need to see that you have the talent, charisma, and skill to hook the audience and take them on a ride they won’t want to leave.
It’s all in the moments.