What I Learned: From the Audition to the Set

“…you learned to make the other actor look good so you looked good…” – Bill Murray

I recently returned from ten days in Dallas shooting an episode of a FOX one hour episodic show.  I want to stress the fact that I do the work that I preach.  I hold myself accountable the same way I hold my students accountable.  In fact, I’m probably much harder on myself, which I’m sure doesn’t come as a shock.  Since I’ve returned I’ve worked with several people on auditions.  Without exception, the actor shows up “prepared”.  Unfortunately, this means memorized.  Now, my students know I’m not a fan of starting with memorization.  If real work hasn’t been done, then the memorization is a waste of time.  In fact, it is usually a hindrance.

The last actor I worked with memorized words without truly knowing what he was saying.  Unfortunately, he didn’t have any emotional connection to the words or the scene he was in.  When we started working, he became even more frustrated because he kept saying the  lines wrong.  No matter how many times we ran a scene, he used the memorization process as an excuse to not really commit to the scene.   Now, I was watching an actor totally removed from the scene and sabotaging himself with a bad process.  We are not wired to effectively memorize a string of words.  Actors must understand the ideas and have feelings about what each sentence is trying to convey to have the words stick to our brains.    So, I say it now:  DO NOT MEMORIZE WORDS.

This needs it’s own paragraph.  So, one more time:  DO NOT MEMORIZE WORDS.

Discover the emotional content of the words.  In other words, know what you are saying and how you feel about it.  This process is often more effective when you work with someone, but I rarely work with anyone on my own auditions.  It is vital the person you are working with let you make those discoveries, so be choosy about who you work with.

For my audition I had to prepare three scenes including a nice size monologue.  Now, I love monologues.  Many actors fear and even dread them.  I really can’t relate.  For me the process is usually easy and enjoyable.  I enjoy finding a way to connect all the ideas and emotions.  This particular monologue I connected with very easily and in no time I was spot on… with my intentions… and my words.

When we were filming that scene, we had done at least a dozen takes for the master shot and the coverage of the other actors in the scene.  Each take was fueled with the intentions that had become a part of me and I was spot on each time.  However, when the camera was turned on me for my close up, the director decided that a totally different read on my monologue would better serve the scene.  Without batting an eye, I nailed it on the first take.  If you know what you are saying and take responsibility for each and every line, you can make adjustments with far more ease.  I knew that I could trust the work I had done and it was a part of me.  In other words, the original intentions I had found solidified the words into my memory.  The words will always be there regardless of any change in intention.  In fact, playing this way often brings out creative gold.

So, to summarize:  Know the scene and know how you feel about it (now you are on your way to feeling how your character feels).  Then, work line by line understanding and taking responsibility for each line.  Work on committing to the feeling of each line and how the line before got you there.  Pretty soon they all fit together like a jigsaw puzzle.


“I hate the audition process.  Having experienced it as an actor, I found it demeaning.  As a writer and director, I find it damn near useless.”

– David Mamet

“In the audition room, the actor is a supplicant…  He is allowed, encouraged, and, if gifted, driven to cast himself in various enjoyable, demanding roles and situations. These situations may not be noble, but the work, and the joy of exploring them, is.”

– David Mamet

Very rarely do I encounter an actor who loves to audition.  It is the most frustrating and nerve wracking part of the job of acting.  For the actor, nothing will cause more sleepless nights,  amplify the voice of self doubt, and encourage self sabotage like auditioning.  In his book, “Bambi vs Godzilla:  On The Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business,”  David Mamet includes a wonderful essay, “Good In The Room:  Auditions And The Fallacy Of Testing,”  which breaks down the psychological process of auditioning from both the acting and casting sides of the room.

As actors we love and need and want to act.  When we audition, generally we are not driven by that love, need, or want.  We are instead driven by a desire for a job.  We are not acting, but interviewing for a job.  The casting directors, producers and the director are not there as audience members to see a performance, rather they are judges on a jury.  They are not there to see if you can act, they are determining if they can see you “act the part.”

The Audition is the job.  One more time for good measure… The audition is the job.  Long ago I discovered that the key to auditioning successfully is to approach auditions differently.  I use the audition to act.  I see it as an opportunity to do what I love.  How ever many people are in the room, they are my audience.  I will often get frustrated when I don’t get hired after I know I have given an amazing audition.  In fact, I would call my agent and say, “How could they not hire me?”  He would respond with, “Your problem is you think you actually have some control over that.”  That is the truth and it is valuable information.  I do not concern myself with getting the job (usually – we’re all human).  That is out of our control.  Proper preparation and having fun are the keys to the castle.  I usually leave an audition thinking, “Well, they get that one for free.  If they want another it’s going to cost them.”  It’s more important that I like it more than they do because eventually they will decide I am the right choice, and then they’ll pay for it, and then they’ll film it.

One last thought for the actor.  Remember, if your agent got an audition for you, that means two people think you are right for the part; your agent and the casting director.  It’s real easy to sit in the actors waiting area and look at the other people reading for the same role and start doubting yourself.  Stay focused.  You are not in casting so don’t start casting someone else in your role.  Play the part.  You are an actor.  Whether you get the role or not you are perfect for the role.  I can’t think of a role that I couldn’t imagine myself playing.  Some roles take more work and are more challenging, but that is the fun of it.  That is what we do.  At the audition, that is all you should do.

Don’t Always Listen To The Writer

“I don’t honestly think people know what acting is.”

“Somewhere in your career, your work changes. It becomes less anal, less careful and more spontaneous, more to do with the information that your soul carries.”

-Ben Kingsley

One of my pet peeves is writers that feel the need to do the actor’s work for them.  There is a big difference between a writer giving an actor the words to say versus giving direction on how to say it.  Sometimes these directions are subtle and show up as over eager punctuation.  Sometimes they are more obvious and are laid out very specifically in the stage direction.  Either way, unless the writer is the director (and often even then), the characters are no longer his.  The story is his, but the characters now belong to the actor.

I saw an interview with Christopher Walken who said that the first thing he does when he reads a script is to cross out any and all punctuation.  That way, he can find his own rhythms of speaking the words.  But wait, you say!  What about the writer’s intentions, you say?!  The writer’s story will be told, I promise.  Once a director takes on a project, he or she might respond to the material in a way different than the way the writer originally intended.  The writer is no longer in charge.  The end result will be that the writer’s story will be told, they just may not be happy with the end result.  Oh well.  To all writers out there – If you don’t want to give up your scripts to the collaborative process that is film (and theatre), then write a novel.  If you still disagree with me, then consider this, Christopher Walken won an Oscar.

Let me give an example.  Here is a line of dialogue:

“We decided… just to talk to each other, but in the process we have created for ourselves a whole new life — possibly.”

The scene where this is from boils down to a man asking a woman to take a chance with him.  The writer added the ellipses, “…”,   and the  em dash, “–“, so that the actor knows to  pause.  Here is a Wikipedia definition of an Ellipses, “An ellipsis can also be used to indicate a pause in speech, an unfinished thought, or, at the end of a sentence, a trailing off into silence.  The ellipsis calls for a slight pause in speech.”  Here is what Wikipedia says about the em dash, “It can be used instead of an ellipses to indicate a sentence stopped short not because of interruption but because the speaker is too emotional to continue.  It also often demarcates a parenthetical thought.”

So, now we know what the writer wants us to do.  He wants you to pause twice in the sentence, the second time, perhaps, to add some emotion.  I would approach that line differently.  I know where the scene is going and I know how to drive it there.  But I’m going to go my own route.  How I pause and how many times is my business.  My job is to connect to my instinct and play the scene.  All that bogus writer direction needs to be flushed down the toilet or it gets in the way.

Now, if anyone reading this is still fighting for the writer, let me leave you with one final thought.  I recently was talking about this same subject with a casting director friend of mine and as I made my arguments she asked if I wasn’t afraid of upsetting the writer by clearly ignoring his intention.  I thought about it and said no for two reasons.  First, 9 out of 10 actors auditioning for the same role will do exactly what the writer says to do.  One or two might actually do it proficiently and the rest will look rehearsed and stale.  If I find my own way of getting to the finish line I know it will stand out in the minds of those in the room.  Which brings me to my second point.  I said,  of those in the room who are doing the hiring, I’m betting that the writer has the least amount of say in who gets the job.

She looked at me for a second and then her jaw dropped a little.  “Oh my God, I never thought about that, but you’re absolutely right.”  You see, everyone agrees that the actor must serve the writer.  What they don’t get is that the ones that don’t do it, often actually do it better.  Think about it.

What About You?

“You have to find out what’s special about you as a person, and you always have to be developing your point of view.” – John Turturro

I was at an audition recently and I ran into an actor that I’ve seen many times over the years reading for the same part as me.  I could tell by his posture and body language that he was not confident in the audition he was about to have.  He eventually said to me,”I haven’t got a shot.  Did you see who else is reading for this?”  Well, I understand this train of thought very well.  Many acting jobs have been won and lost in the actors waiting area.  I once had an actor try to ease his own anxiety by very loudly saying to me, “How come you are so damn calm?!!”  I was calm because I knew what my job was and how to do it.  He didn’t affect me in any way other than making me chuckle.

It’s easy to get caught up in waiting room antics.  It’s even easier to get lost down a road of negative thoughts.  Ultimately, it’s not about the job.  It’s not about who else is reading for the role.  It’s not about who might or might not be in the audition room to give or not give  you a job.  The actor who thought he didn’t have a shot went on to say that knowing he wasn’t going to get the part relieved the pressure.  If he hadn’t been trying to convince himself of that he would have been right.

The only thing that matters is how you feel about the role.  If you can put all the bullshit aside and breathe life into your work then you have succeeded.  Focus on the character – your feelings and your point of view.  That is your job.