Reflections of a Casting Director, 300 Auditions Later

In the last month I have viewed about 500 headshots and resumes online for a single casting project that was seeking 120 principal actors for an “educational/industrial” series. Of those 500, I invited about 300 to audition from Seattle, Portland and  Spokane. The headshot and resume then was and  the first round of the audition process for the actor.  So amazed was I at the discrepancies between headshots and resumes  at a most basic level that I decided to share some  practical, philosophical and humorous reflections about the headshot and resume along with the audition process. Allow me to begin by contextualising myself and my work. I am a freelance regional casting director. I live and work in the NorthWest. To date I  have cast mainly full length feature films; some 20 or so in the past 5 years. I have cast about 100 local and regional commercials in that time.  98% of the feature films I have cast have come out of LA. That is to say, my clients are based in the heartland of filmmaking in the US. I am also an on-set acting coach, as required or requested.  I  have a Private Practice and offer group  workshops and  private coaching. I devise and create workshops for “the actor”, whatever their ‘training-persuasion’: Meisner, Adler, ‘Stan’, Hagen, etc.  I have an abiding passion for the actor in all cultures and throughout the ages. I too am an actor. I have made “the actor” a study across a plethora of disciplines. Historically, I have a doctoral thesis in theatre history and performance. Culturally, I studied and performed as a classical-trained actor in England/Europe.  I have also  directed a fair number of plays. and  have a handful of  theatre publications. Professionally I am  member of the  Screen Actors Guild, Equity and  the Casting Society of America,

Thus  I can see (and often ‘feel’) with startling alacrity, the difference between a film actor and a theatre actor; between a film headshot and  a theatre headshot. I can also see where an actor has become woefully confused about who they are and who they are bringing to the camera.

Ideally, a headshot will convey who the actor is, what their ‘type’ is (words that are anathema to the theatre actor, I know) and what role they best portray in what  ‘show,’ in what genre. Ideally.  The headshot is akin to the actors ‘signature’, literally and metaphorically. “This is who I am” within the world of tv/film characters, says the headshot.  The headshot signifies the character that the actor can best portray for the camera.The headshot then (and sometimes it is a 3/4 shot) is more than just a ‘photograph’ of you. Many a producer and director will by-pass a “photograph” of a superb actor because they cannot see the actual or potential ‘type’ of the actor. Nothing will convince them to turn the headshot over  and read the resume. The headshot bespeaks your on-camera character/type.

The headshot is 8×11.5 (sometimes 8 x10), not 4×6 or 5×7. It  is printed on matt paper (preferably). It is not printed on paper that one would find in an office copier machine. Technically the image is clear, not blurred, it is colour, not black and white, it is current. That is to say it bears a resemblance to you at the time of auditioning.(If one has facial hair/different hair for a current production, then let the  CD know it is temporary); the print quality is excellent. The headshot itself, is not covered in finger prints (one of the hazards of glossy prints).  Your name should be somewhere on the headshot OR the resume or both.

Why?

Because this, and more,  is the professional and  industry standard for good heashots. Because more often than not producers and directors insist on seeing  your headshot (along with the edited  clips of auditions) and because for feature films, LA actors are  looking to be cast in the same films that you are and the liklihood is that their headshots will  meet the industry the standards. A good headshot is utterly captivating. One gazes at it as though already watching the movie; captivated by the actor already ‘there’.  It is one thing seeing headshots on-line and inviting an actor to audition. It is quite another thing to see the hard copy.and realise that ‘up close’ the same image is simply not worthy of the actor standing in front of  me. The time to get a professional looking headshot that has been reviewed by your peers and your agent, is before the audition call.  Attempting to get the headshot and resume together on the day of the audition is tantamount to deciding to learn your lines for “Coriolanus”  (CD’s favourite Shakespeare) on  the day of opening.  It is an exercise in futility.

I heard many wonderful, seriously laugh-out-loud reasons about actor’s headshots especially from actors who had not auditioned for me before. It was puzzling, curious and on occasions humorous to watch actors tie themselves in knots. Some examples:

Actor: “oh…I needed to bring a headshot?”        CD:  “!”

Actor: Handing over 4 x 6 copy paper version of headshot (admittedly in colour) with full sized resume attached “oh yeh…er…sorry about the headshot….just…yeh…gotta get on that”      CD: “!”

Actor returning to studio after her audition, out of breath, to submit a black and white headshot. CD: “do you have a colour headshot that isn’t blurred?… and with a resume?  by any chance?” Actor: Well….you can take the colour one anyways, I didn’t know you needed a resume too?”  CD: “!”

Actor: (hands dramatically thrown to ceiling, head thrown back) MY. DOG. ATE. MY. HEADSHOT.! (Probably a theatre actor) You know how DOGS will do that….y’know just kinda…gnaw away….?   CD: (with considerable and English restraint;)  actually. no. I do not.

Actor gives headshot toCD.   CD (baffled) your name isn’t on this, how do I know who you are? How do I let your agent know who you are?   Actor: oh man….y’mean…I didn’t put my name on there?

The Resume which should be attached to the headshot – back-to-back , so that I can read the resume with a simple flick of the wrist, is a simple directory or account of performance related activities and ‘other’ skills, listed chronologically that augment the actors ‘signature’. The resume gives me additional clues/hints as to your capabilities and allows me to consider other aspects of the role that the  actor might be able to bring to the character. As an acting coach I like to coach the actor, have them try a few things, have them walk away from the audition with something. In this instance their resume is a reference point that allows me to , very quickly, speak a language they fully understand, so that they can ‘hear’ what is being asked of them.  It engenders confidence  and the actor will ‘give up’ a little more of themselves in that moment.  “Ah-ha! I see you played …Coriolanus and Dame Judi Dench played Volumnia. Good stuff! Remember that moment when… etc? Good! that’s what’s needed for this on-camera with your mother!”. More often than not the actor relaxes into the state of ‘being’ required for the camera.

You.

All the training and coaching in the world cannot undo the nerves, fear, butterflies, heebee-jeebees, nausea, dread, terror, migraines, that attend an actor, that literally haunt her as she readies herself for an audition. I will go a very long way indeed to put an actor at ease as they audition. But I finally admitted to myself on my three week jaunt that when an actor grabs their “electronic device” to pull up their sides, as casually as pulling out their cell phone and taking a call in their home, they are probably not ready to be invited to any set: be it for a commercial or a movie. One of the ‘hazards’ of auditioning is being called to an audition with less than a day to prepare -  if you are lucky.  In this instance however, actors,  had been notified 3-5 days prior.  “I-couldn’t-bring-up-my-sides-my agent-sent-them-to-me-too-late-to-print them-have-you-got-any-or-is-it-okay-if-i-use-this (e-device in hand) does not endear one to the casting director. Be honest. If you aren’t as familiar with the sides as you would like to be,  have them in hand and use them as needed. I will discuss the actual audition performance in future blogs. There is usually a ‘reader’ who will read with you; use the reader as your scene partner, and connect with them. Imagine they are the other person in the scene. Do not look down ‘the barrel’ of the camera unless asked to do so. (for a commercial for example) Always assume that you work with the reader and at the end of the scene hold for a moment until you hear cut before breaking out of the performance moment.

The Slate.

I hear all manner of things about “how to” slate.  That one should smile, that one should be cheerful, that one should be neutral, be passive, be active, be inactive, be direct, be indirect.  I say this: put your energy and focus into the performance. Slate: your name, your agency and the role you are reading for. If anything else is required you will be told.  It’s legendary but true, sometimes actors are so nervous they cannot remember their names, or they forget their agents name  and then become embarrassed, or actors use it as a ‘spot’ to show how charming they are, or they suddenly  become coy, or flirty; bosoms heave larger, voices deepen, (or rise) hips sashay and jaw lines protrude.  I exaggerate, but you take my point. Put your energy into the audition. Keep the slate simple. Besides  if you are about to audition for an emotionally intense role….it would be very difficult indeed to switch between two radically different and possibly opposing states in an authentic way, even though Hamlet states that one may indeed: “smile and smile and be a villain”.

You might be wondering why one would take the time to write about obvious, unbelievable faux pas. The reasons is because even the most skilled actor is on another plane when they enter the audition room. They might suddenly find themselves reading opposite the ‘A’ lister who has flown into town and be totally overcome with nerves, or a director they admire. They might want more from the reader and not get it, they suddenly forget the 2 lines they had spent 48 solid hours working on. But the main reason people  people I saw didn’t make the cut  was simple.

They were not prepared.

Even before the camera was rolling, they were unprepared for job. By the time the camera was rolling they were ‘undone’ or maybe they were just ‘done’.

I host a range of auditioning for camera workshops in which we explore the ‘psychology of the headshot’ and at the same time we are exploring the psychology of the actors in the room.  In those sessions I always tell actors that what demarcates the good actor from the mediocre actor is one thing: the level of preparedness.

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