How to Fail an Audition
And how to nail one. Tips from a Hollywood casting director on the 5 stages where things go right or wrong.
May 23, 2017 | by Brad Gilmore
Auditions are bizarre. They overwhelm actors. They mislead casting directors. They frustrate creators and producers. Their atmosphere is often tense with insecurity and sabotage. How can talent shine – and be discovered – in a process that resembles nothing so much as a visit to an overbooked doctor’s office? The question has hovered over show business forever.
As an offering of demystification, I’ve broken down The Audition into five crucial stages. 1. The Waiting Area 2. Entering the Room 3. The Scene Shift 4.The Audition and 5. The Exit.
To understand the ordeal, actors must realize that they are always auditioning for two things at the same time. One is the role being cast. The other is a firm place in the casting director’s mind. There is no surefire way to win any particular role. But if you ace these five stages, you’re guaranteed to be remembered – and almost certainly cast in the future.
Part 1. The Waiting Room
To be: the very spirit of generosity
Not to be: a petty saboteur
The waiting room is a universal symbol of fear and insecurity – whether for casting or any job interview. What makes it worse for an actor is that often everyone else in the waiting area looks the same – and just like you! Sometimes these competitors are famous. You’ve seen them on screen a hundred times, and now they sit next to you, waiting their turn to vie for your role. It’s easy to feel like a nobody. But the last thing you should do is act like one.
I sometimes sit incognito in the waiting room of my casting office. I’ve witnessed actors deliberately mislead other actors about what sides are being read. I’ve seen them boast of recent glories, real and phony, and generally poison the air with their insecurities. One time, I was asked by an actor waiting to audition if I had been “working recently.” He had a tone. He did not know, of course, that I was working at that very moment. All the same, his devious question produced a surge of self-doubt and made me, the casting director he was about to audition for, wonder why I wasn’t attached to more projects. I can only imagine how a fellow actor would’ve felt. The rat knew what he was doing.
But he didn’t get the part. If you engage in waiting room sabotage, you might succeed in scaring your competition off to the hills (or to the nearest yoga compound), and more often than not, the casting director won’t spy on your tactics. But know this: you will walk into your own audition with the bad energy you’ve created. And it will be felt.
The other thing will also be felt. Back when I was a casting assistant, I noticed a girl named Cassidy Freeman sitting in the waiting room we shared with another casting office. Her magnanimous spirit was impossible to miss. She had a spark and an energy that usually goes by the name of It. She struck me. When I became a casting director, she was the first person I auditioned. She got the part — her very first. Shortly after, I cast her in a movie called Finishing The Game directed by Justin Lin (Fast & Furious: Tokyo Drift, Star Trek Beyond), and she has since starred in the TV series Smallville and Longmire.
The audition begins before you read lines. Don’t be like the famous actor from 90210 who once walked into my office and, supposing me to be an underling, scolded me in front of my “bosses” because leaves had fallen on his head in the parking lot.
His hair was fine. But he didn’t get the part.
Part 2. Entering The Room
To be: confident
Not to be: a tornado of desperation
Now you walk into a room with hungry-looking members of a firing squad who stare down on you with bubbles over their heads that say: dance, monkey. They are in fact very hungry, these various producers, but what they’re hungry for is lunch, and perhaps a wire transfer from China by Friday to save them from pulling the plug on their project. However, the casting director is paying attention. And he can immediately notice subtle clues about your character.
One look into the eyes and I begin to discern: Am I in good hands here? Am I nervous for this actor? Will his ego ruin chemistry on set? Will he be able to handle script or direction changes smoothly?
The first and constant role of every actor is to be a confident actor. Enter the room with this confidence. Pretend you don’t need the part. Treat the casting director (and whoever else present) as your audience, not your future boss. Treat the casting office as a theater instead of a courtroom. You’re here to entertain. You’re here to play, to enjoy yourself doing what you love, and, if we’re smart and lucky enough, to lend your talents to our production. Just play. Obviously this kind of confidence is rare, and too often wasted on famous leafblowers from 90210.
But whenever I see this rare confidence in an actor, I don’t forget.
Part 3. The Scene Shift
To be: You
Not to be: Instant Laurence Olivier
As an audition starts, many actors shift gears: in voice, posture, intonations, overall character. This is usually not good. We’ll be engaged in some regular small talk and then all of a sudden the person disappears into a larger-than-life performance. One actor began a scene for me by running around my office (the scene took place during a friendly jog in Central Park). Another began his audition by yelling at the top of his lungs, then lifted me off the ground by my shoulders and nearly blew out my eardrums. Seconds before, we were chatting about the writer’s strike. Such a jarring shift into Ack Tohr land makes me question which of the two personalities is the real one – and feel like I’m being tricked. Also, if a part requires such a major transformation from you, why would I think you’re the right fit?
Much more impressive is when an actor starts a scene without any apparent changes – as he might begin a conversation. Don’t change your voice or your mannerisms. Show us you can adapt a script, a scene you didn’t write, a character who is unlike you into your own personality. Nobody said it’s easy. But if you do it, you’ll automatically enter serious consideration, even if you don’t physically fit the role as initially imagined. I have a short-list of actors I bring in at every opportunity, even when they’re completely wrong for the part. I trust they’re going to bring great energy and liven up the room – in other words, make my job fun. There is always a chance they will inspire us to completely change the role to fit them.
Two more tips: trust that we know you can jog, and please never lift me off the ground.
Watch Henry Thomas slip naturally into character and score this historic role in E.T.
Part 4. The Audition
To be: self-aware, considerate
Not to be: confused about the purpose of an audition
Auditions can begin off-track. That’s normal. What distinguishes actors is how they behave once off that track. Most push through in the wrong direction until the scene ends. Bad idea. If you already know you’re not doing well, you can bet we know, too. Once a famous Eighties Heartthrob came in to audition with holes in the knees of his jeans so big we could see his entire bottom half when he sat down. The audition started off awkward. We felt uncomfortable. He sensed this, and grew tentative. But he forged right ahead until the end of the scene – dragging us along by the threads of his denim.
Could you turn a horrible situation like that to your favor? Yes. Say you recognize why we keep staring at your bony knees, stop the audition, and make a joke about how you no longer can afford a full pair of Levis. That would win over the room. Alas, that’s not what Eighties Heartthrob did. Instead, wrapped up in his own head, he trucked on, unaware that his knees had lost something of their glamor in the three decades since he bought those jeans.
If you recognize a false start, stop early in the scene and ask to start over. This conveys self-awareness, confidence, and a desire to get it right. You won’t be judged for sputtering out of the gate. Just don’t keep sputtering or wait till the end to ask for a do-over.
Remember: my job is to cast the right actor for a role. It is not to receive a perfect performance during this one appointment. An audition should never be a performance. You are more important to me than the flawlessness of your audition.
Part 5. And … scene: The Exit
To do: leave
Not to do: linger
One time at the end of an audition an actor pulled a gun on me. It was not loaded; he did it for effect. If you look up “not cool” in the Urban Casting Director Dictionary, you’ll see this actor’s photo. Just below the entry “never again.” The end of an audition presents a great opportunity to exercise commonsense. Say a polite “thank you,” pack up, and leave. Know when it’s over. Do not scatter desperation with comments like “will there be callbacks?” and “I can do so much better, I promise!”
Portray confidence in your understanding of the process. Be courteous to me and to the other actors out in that scary waiting room. After all, they look just like you.
The industry novice who reads this might be struck by the implication that casting directors and producers are human. This is partly true. For better or worse, being part-human affects our decision-making. Ever wonder why some actors of questionable talent keep appearing in role after role after role after role? The frequent answer is that they are uncommonly easy to work with. This is bad news for some talented jerks, but you can use it to your advantage. If I like you and sense that your character at least surpasses the subterranean bar for being a good person in Hollywood, your chances shoot up like a star.
And yes, there will be callbacks.
Watch David Cross perform the classic sketch The Audition from Mr. Show.
Brad Gilmore has cast dozens of feature films, including 1915 The Movie, Burying the Ex, and Finishing the Game: the Search for the New Bruce Lee. He is currently in pre-production on Die Laughing for Sony Worldwide. He has twice been nominated for the Casting Society of America’s Artios Award for outstanding achievement in casting: for A Bag of Hammers in 2012 and Pixies in 2016.