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Auditioning actors

Preparing for the audition process

Your first step is to create a vision or profile for each character in the script. One way to start is to visualize a well know actor in the role. Don't get hung up on appearance, however. The goal here is to understand the underlying goals and personality of the character. Create your own short biography of the character, perhaps working with the screenplay writer. Your biography will later be valuable input to the actor as they prepare for the role.

Next create a description of the actor you are looking for. Both a physical description and a psychological/personality description need to be expressed in writing.

The best casting is typecasting. Actors hate this concept but its true. You can use a total amateur to play a role if the role is really who they are, and they will probably do at least a credible job. Find actors who's general appearance, personality and life experiences closely match those of the character you are casting and they will do a great job.

A big caveat is to keep your mind open while you are typecasting to the occasional superb actor who isn't at all what you imagined but can bring something very special to the role all the same. The best example is perhaps the casting of Dustin Hoffman in the Graduate.

The screenplay and original stage play called for a very handsome, athletic, tall, blond, charming, dynamic and intelligent young man whom people immediately fell in love with. Hoffman was almost the exact opposite but he was a brilliant actor who created a whole different take on the role and in the process created one of the most memorable performances in film history.

Casting against type can bring out whole new dimensions in a story.

Another consideration in the casting process is that the characters in the story are probably going to undergo some character arc so that the character they start out to be will not be the character they end up. Then do you cast for the character they start out as or as the character they end up being? You get to decide how to handle this, and hopefully get an actor smart and talented enough to do it all.

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The last step is to select the "sides", or pages from the script you want the actors to read during the audition. Always send sides to the actors. It isn't fair to expect an actor to show up for the audition with no chance to prepare. Give them every opportunity to give a great audition. You can also learn a lot about the work ethic of the actor and how much they want the role by how much preparation they put into the audition.

Pick scenes for the sides that let the actor show the full range of emotions for the character. Scenes that are turning points in the character arc are especially good.

Send a synopsis of the story along with the sides. At least a paragraph about the story line and your vision for the story. Another paragraph with the character's biography. Let the actor have access to the entire script if they are interested.

Be open, honest and friendly with the actors. Right from the beginning your want to establish a good working relationship. Directors who are aloof during the audition process have to make up for lost time in establishing that working relationship.

A good model for the directory/actor relationship is that of an uncompromising, but loving and patient parent and an obedient child who wants to please.

Auditioning name actors

If you are so lucky as to have the possibility of using a name actor you will probably find that they will not be willing to audition. They will feel that their work is well known and their time is too valuable. This is normal procedure for the industry so you will need to work around it.

You should still try to arrange at least an informal get together so you can see if your personalities will mesh. Also be sure to find out, probably from their agent, what special considerations they will expect. If the name actor is willing to work for a reduced fee but requires the most expensive housing, food and treatment for themselves and a host of followers you may not be able to afford them.

How to conduct an audition

Auditioning is just a fancy word for a job interview.

A casting director's advice to actors regarding auditions

Update your headshot every year or anytime your appearance changes. Come to the audition looking like your headshot unless you have been asked to change your appearance. Mat finish in Black & White.

Casting Director holds initial audition to pick the 7-10 best fits for each role. Actors attending the initial audition have been pre-qualified by a phone interview after having received their head-shot and resume. Then the producers/directors/etc. attend the callback audition.

At the audition you will probably be video-taped. You will probably have to fill out an information form (a job application) but should not have to sign any kind of contract or model release. It wouldn’t be enforceable unless they paid you. You will have 15 minutes to audition at the most, perhaps 30 minutes at a callback audition. You will probably audition alone at the first audition but may audition with a group of other actors at the callback.

Generally wear nice, casual clothes and street makeup unless you instructed to do otherwise. Some actors come in their own costumes and makeup for the role. You should check if this is OK. Wear minimal jewelry and body piercings and obvious tattoos are not appreciated. Do not wear white, black, red or small patterned clothes because they don’t work well on video. Have one or two changes of clothes just in case.

Some casting directors use a point system to evaluate you. You start with a total of 25 points and have points deducted for mistakes. Five points are for how professionally you behave when you arrive (10 minutes early, pleasant attitude, prepared, with pen/pencil, highlighter, makeup, change of clothes, at least 5 extra headshots and resumes). 15 points for your audition, Five points are for your exit (thank everyone; shake hands, pleasant, professional quick, quiet exit). If you have more than 1 or 2 points deducted you won’t be considered

You should receive “sides” before the audition but may not. Always face your audience. Never apologize or get flustered if you make a mistake. Adlib or calmly ask if you may start over.

You may be briefly interviewed at a first audition but will be interviewed more thoroughly at a callback. The director want to see if you are pleasant, human, easy to get along with, organized, understand the role, believe you are the best choice for the role, want to know what you will bring to the roll.

You may be asked if you mind working with children, animals, changing your hair color or style, need glasses or have any problems with strong language, nudity, political issues, religious issues, etc. and can be on time in remote locations or at very early hours (ie. Have any schedule conflicts).

Then you will be told to get on the mark and “slate”. Give your name, who represents you or “independent” if you don’t have an agent (they want to know where they would send your paycheck). Speak clearly and spell your name if it is unusual. Then you may be asked to stand in profile on both sides and to show both sides of your hands. Also give them a big smile.

It is OK to adlib and show your personality a bit during the audition but don’t overdue it. They should give you a few moments to get into character, and will possibly let you do a run-through once before they video you. At a first rehearsal it is not expected that you have memorized your lines but they will probably want you to be off-book for a callback.

Ask any reasonable, short questions if you have them. Thank the director and shake everyone’s hand and leave. You will probably not hear from them again if you haven’t been selected.

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Do your auditions all at once if possible. You will find you can learn a lot about the appropriateness of an actor in just a few seconds. It's also a good idea to have the actors work as a group so you can see what kind of chemistry happens between them.

Rent or borrow a public place like a church or library meeting room, an office, a school room after hours. Some actors, especially attractive female actors are reluctant to go to a filmmakers home to audition. Invite them to bring their husband, boyfriend or girlfriend to wait for them if they will feel more comfortable.

Make sure the place has two rooms so actors waiting to audition can be by themselves until you are ready for them.

When the actors arrive have a facilitator take them into the waiting room to fill out an information form to get any additional information you need that was not on their resume.

Set up a video camera and let them know you will be videoing them solely to judge their performance and will not show the video to anyone outside the production without their permission.

Start by asking a lot of the usual interview questions about their goals, favorite productions, worst productions, how they got into acting, what classes they are taking, etc. The actors will naturally be nervous about the audition and you want to put them at ease so they can do their best. Tell them as much as you want about the production and about your experience (be honest). Answer all their questions and get a feel for whether they would really like to act in your movie.

Make sure they know exactly how much they are going to get paid, if anything, and make sure they are OK with that amount. When they seem fairly calm ask them if they're ready to do a reading.

It's best to have two or three actors read to each other to observe the chemistry. If they are auditioning alone have someone else there who will give the answering lines besides you. Preferably another good actor who can help push them to do their best.

You want to watch everything about how they talk and how they move to see if they are able to be convincing in the roll.

Thank them for the first reading and tell them they were great. Then ask them to do it a different way. If they gave the lines with a lot of energy ask them to try giving the lines as slowly and disinterestedly as they can. Whatever they do the first time ask them to do it a different way.

You are trying to find out how versatile and willing to take directions they are. You will generally form opinions very quickly about who might work and who won't.

Things to watch for:

  • Do they understand their character and the character's place in the story?
  • Do they understand the arc of the character and the character's goals?
  • Have they thought of original ways to present the role, different from what you imagined?
  • Do they have the courage to try bold choices of presentation, not intimidated by the situation?
  • Do they work well with the other actors, get along and encourage them?
  • Do they seem honest as individuals and honest to the reality of the character they will play?

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During the audition the director needs to be directing. This means there should be a give and take of offering suggestions and experimentation back and forth between director and actors.

Thank everyone for coming and tell them you'll get back to them.

Audition callbacks

Have a good look at the video and decide who you want for your first choices. Get input from other members of the creative team. Don't get over anxious to hire someone who was especially impressive. You may still find better. Be as professional as possible. Take the time to contact any references if you haven't already.

Call the best candidates back for another audition. They should be excited that they passed the first audition and will do their best job on the second try. Give them different "sides" to read. Make sure to ask them if they are available for the dates and really prepared to give their all for the show. You should very much try to have the actors work together in ensemble during the callback. You really want to know that the right chemistry is going to happen.

Call your choices back the next day and let them know you want them for the show. Let them know that you are very excited about the job they are going to do. Arrange to get together with them to sign a contract and set the dates as soon as possible.

Be aware that the humble actor begging for a job yesterday can in an instant become a demanding prima-donna today.

Be sure to call back or E-mail the actors you are not choosing and thank them for auditioning. Let them know that they weren't quite right for this movie but you would like to consider them for future projects. Actors really appreciate not being left wondering forever if they are being considered for the part, and you really might want to use them in another project.

You now have your cast. Time to start rehearsals. Send everyone the full screenplay so they will hopefully read it and start studying their role.

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Must Have!

The Filmmaker's Basic Library has all the top-rated filmmaking resources.


Sites with information about finding, auditioning and casting actors

Check out Michael Shurtleff's excellent little book, Auditions: Everything an Actor Needs to Know to get the Part. Besides being by far the best book available for actors on how to audtition, for filmmakers it's a mind opening look into what acting is all about and the internal processes a good actor goes through.

The Wikipedia contains a short article about casting actors.

A scam warning and code of conduct for actors auditions is posted here by the the SAG-AFTRA Union.

Happy Filmmaking!

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