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I totally misjudged the whole business of acting.

December 17, 2017

My cousin Rick called me up. He was flying to Seattle from LA to do some casting for his second feature-length film and I asked if I could tag along. Having never auditioned for anything, I was supremely curious as to how that process works.




Like you, I’ve seen countless, hackneyed scenes about actors enduring the horror of auditions. In those films, the main character, goes into a room full of other actresses who all look like her. After waiting, she is called in by a casting director; a plumpish, bored, unromantic, joyless, monotone woman who is impressed by nothing. The actress expected to read four pages of script but is cut off not 20 seconds in – “Thank you. We’ll let you know.”


We’ve all seen this scene in like... ten movies at least, right? Personally, I’m imagining Carey Mulligan, Amy Adams, or perhaps Kristen Wiig as the auditioning actress role. For the casting director, I’m picturing Kathy Bates, or Jessica Lange. Beth Grant would be perfect too. What’s super meta is that an actor had to audition to win the role of an auditioning actor. And the actor playing the casting director had to audition in front of a real casting director. I want to see that scene! I also wanted to see if that scene was even mildly accurate.



So here’s a list of my non-actor, non-director, non-casting, non-movie-business takeaways about the casting process.


1. I Should Think More Highly of Acting


For some reason, I figured that a scriptwriter, director, casting director, SOMEONE, had a specific idea of what sort of person would play a role and the job of the auditioning actor was just to conform to that. Which is true, partly, in some cases. But I was blown away how often Rick, the dude who wrote the script, wasn’t sure exactly which direction a role would go.


When I ran a ballet company and used lots of classical musicians. The main thing you’re looking for is accuracy. How flawlessly can they perform exactly what is written on the page? I mean, expression, style, emphasis are important, but it’s not like one cellist plays different notes or rhythms than the other cellists. They can either play it or they can’t.


Not so with actors. Five different people can read the same snippet of dialogue and it’s like five completely divergent scenes. The meaning of the words is entirely unique depending on who’s saying them.


Part of this, I think, is due to the fact that musical notation, while still fairly inarticulate, is far more specific than written language. Is a comma a breath? A beat? A point of emphasis? A turn? How loud should it be? There’s no dynamics in written language, no forte or pianissimo. There’s no time signature, no beats per minute or written rhythms. Actors just make it all up as they go.


I always had a slightly condescending idea of actors as artists- that they didn’t write their own words, that it was sort of a scam perpetrated by beautiful people. Nope! They invent the meaning of the words, creating a character as much or probably more than the script itself. Honestly, it’d be like if I wrote a music score and then we had different instruments come in to audition for the same line. A tuba, a piccolo, a guitar, a trumpet, and a piano, all auditioning for the exact same part.


2. Directing Actors is a Weird Trick


Apparently some directors hate running auditions. Not so with Rick. He said he likes getting practice working with and directing actors. Even when someone obviously is not right for a part, he’d ask for a few different passes with an actor. Part of that was to see how “directable” they were, how responsive they were to input thrown at them, which would be paramount over the course of a production.


Sometimes he’d say, “Let’s do it again but faster,” or “Smaller,” or “Let’s do a crazy take.” Other suggestions were more abstract. “Try it loopier,” or “Wear a bigger top hat,” or “Less French Detective and more Bronx Police Commissioner.” An especially useful one that he deployed a number of times was, “Okay, now try it again but as a serial killer.” There’s no serial killer in the light-hearted script but he used the serial killer prompt for a number of different roles – always with fascinating results.


Now and again. He’d get up and show them something physical like, “Just let your arms hang,” or “Can you nervously use more of the space?” And for some folks, he’d close his eyes, thinking really hard about what to say, which generally seemed like a bad sign. Other times, I don’t think he wasn’t actually thinking with his eyes closed, I think he was desperately trying not to burst out laughing, which was a super double duper bad sign. And occasionally, he’d say, “Let’s do it again, just like that,” which seemed like a very good sign. Maybe he was looking to see if it was a fluke or something the actor could dial in reliably.


The successful auditions showed a ton of unique looks, which would provide the director with more flexibility to bring a script to life. Some of the actors sucked on their first take but, by the third or fourth adjustment, got to a really potent place.


3. Real People are Better Characters


Some folks came in, introduced themselves and just shot the breeze with us before getting started, and were far more compelling and illuminating characters than they were when they started “acting.” When they started to read the lines, it was like they suddenly became two dimensional, cliché, predictable. I could tell Rick’s direction was trying to prod them back to the regular person who walked in the door.


That’s awfully hard. Being yourself but speaking someone else’s words is super tough. Plus, being looked at so intensely is tough. In physics, the Observer Effect is the fact that observing a situation or phenomenon necessarily changes that phenomenon. This is obviously true for acting. You turn a camera on someone and suddenly they can’t even walk or talk like normal humans.


On the other hand, one person came in who was such a flabbergastingly jaw-dropping character, without trying to “act,” that my cousin said... “I need that guy. I need to write a part for him.”


4. Choosing is Hard


Sorting the actors and actresses into “good” and “bad” is way easy. Hell, I could do it and I don’t know anything about acting. It was just obvious. Beyond that though, it seems like a mystery to me. Sorting out which of the five good actors would get a part seems arbitrary. There’s no established rubric by which to measure those talents. It’s not even apples and oranges. It’s apples and monkeys. 


(Side note: Come to think of it, why can’t you compare apples and oranges? They’re both fruit. I just Googled “What’s the Opposite of an Apple?” and fell down a truly bizarre rabbit hole.)


I glanced over the notes Rick was taking as people auditioned and agreed with everything he wrote. A few of them... I thought they were better than he did but probably because I’ve seen fewer actors, fewer auditions, and have never worked with them. Rick said he usually kept auditioning until he saw someone who was so totally head-and-shoulders above, so fascinating, so off-the-charts perfect that he finally understood the character and the script that he, himself, had written. To me it seems almost like looking for a person to fall in love with, going on date after date after date after date until you just... fall in love. And even if you can’t articulate in words what love actually is, you’ll work your ass off to find it.


Yes. For better and worse, casting is speed dating.


5. Why isn’t Reading a Bigger Deal?


One of the things I was helping Rick out with was reading the other parts of dialogue for people who were auditioning. This was a good idea because it takes a good deal of attention to read all those interstitial lines, that could be better spent watching, thinking, noticing, suggesting, etc. Plus, I had such a blast doing it. I got to read all these different parts, pretending to be all these different people – old men, young women, crazy people, sad people – and didn’t have to be all nervous about it. There’s something splendid about acting. You get to lie on purpose and not only is this behavior tolerated, it’s encouraged. I wish we didn’t call them actors and called them liars instead. “Hey, Look! It’s that gorgeous liar in that show I like!” “And the Oscar for Best Liar goes to...” 


Occasionally, I got too into it and Rick had me dial it back, making it more blank and mannequin-esque so that the way I read didn’t impose on the space the actors had. That makes sense. If one character is totally one way, that would force the other actor to respond, sort of dictating the meaning. On the other hand, he told me numerous times that the way I was reading made the audition one of the most fun he’d ever done. This means one of two troubling things (or both).


The first possibility was that he was blowing smoke up my ass. I’m not an actor. I don’t practice or take classes. The other possibility is that people really do read lines to auditioning actors like a lifeless, bored, unromantic, exhausted, bored, joyless casting director, just like in those cliché movie scenes. Maybe there’s a good reason they’re cliché. Perhaps they’re accurate, that there’s just too many auditions to churn through to do an attentive reading with every auditioning actor.


If so, that sucks. Acting is a back and forth sort of thing, a game of catch. Seems to me like half of acting is responding to what the other actors do. A reader could throw the opposing lines at the actors with different inflections and intentions to see if the auditioning actor could recognize and respond to those different vibes.


Logistically, it’d be impossible to audition each actor with every combination of every other actor in some sort of perfect chemistry matrix. On the other hand, chemistry is indispensible. I don’t know anything about making movies but I’ve paid fifteen bucks numerous times to sit in a dark theater on a bright day and watch two people talk to each other with zero chemistry. Lack of chemistry is a waste of money and time and sunshine.


Even when I was reading a woman’s part or as someone was who a different age or a different race, I felt as though I could feel actual chemistry from the good auditions. When it happened, it felt like a pleasingly ticklish discomfiture, and I felt like Rick and I didn’t want to talk for a while after the lines were done, letting the moment sink in before saying, “That was amazing. Really great take. Now can we run the same thing but... can you do it as a serial killer?”


6. Casting is Sheer Exhaustion


The first day, we did like... thirty? Thirty-five auditions? We watched people read from noon to six and it was as if we had stumbled into a vortex, a magic wardrobe, a tear in the fabric of time. It seemed like days passed and after, I was dead.


Part of it is that it’s mentally exhausting observing and evaluating. Same thing goes for staying at the Metropolitan Museum of Art too long. Fatigue from the work of watching just devastates your brain and eyes and ears. I felt like I could barely string a decent sentence together by the time we finished and Rick said, “You think that’s tiring? Try shooting a movie, Cousin. Our days are usually twice as long as that, twelve hours, sometimes longer. And it’s every single day for weeks.”


And So The Moral of The Essay is This:


Acting definitely deserves more respect than I’ve ever given it. It’s an authentic art form that generates the work as much as a scriptwriter or a director. The process of auditioning is even more brutal than those cliché scenes in movies when someone is enduring a brutal audition.


Mostly know that, if you’re auditioning, the glassy-eyed visages on the other side of the table have nothing to do with you. It’s because the people evaluating you are super tired and needed to eat a burrito hours ago. Even looking at masterpieces for six hours will wear out anyone.


Lastly, this. I only went to one set of auditions. I’m sure it’s different for other writers and directors and casting teams. Furthermore, I’m highly, highly biased because this particular writer/director/casting director is my beloved cousin.


This project could be awfully good. Ultimately, his comeuppance as actor-judge will be revisited ten-fold when peeps watch the entirety of what he’s brought to screen. That said, getting a little peek at a few of the characters alone got me pumped to see the whole story on the big screen. I’m not pandering to Rick as a family member helping out with casting. The whole time, I was thinking, “There’s something here. I think there may be something here.”



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