That Part’s Got My Name On It!

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This is me skating in an episode of “Freddy’s Nightmares” the only time I got to use my skating on film, stick with me, it relates.

There’s a story, I don’t know if it’s true, that Jack Nicholson was the worst auditioner of any actor alive, except for Dustin Hoffman. He would screw up one audition after the other, and tell his agent, “Don’t worry, we’ll get the next one.” He finally started making sixties drug movies with his pal Peter Fonda and the rest is history.

This makes sense to me. Auditioning is a different art than acting. The best actors love to rehearse, delve in, research, build characters. That’s not what you do for an audition, you just don’t have time. Most auditions happen within a day and are a five minute shot with the casting director. Of course, you have to be able to act enough to perform the scene required of you, but the circumstances and skills required to get the job, versus do the job, vary by leaps and bounds.

When I was younger, I was a competitive ice skater. I trained in many places, but I spent a year in Lake Placid, NY, my high school sophomore year. Now, at that time, Dorothy Hamill was the  US champion. Her coach, Gus Lussi, never put on skates. But he was the highest paid, most sought after coach in skating.

The mens champion, Gordy McKellen, had just retired from competition and was also coaching in Lake Placid. I still remember Gordy yelling at some poor, untalented student of his, “Step, step, jump, land!! It’s so easy.” Well sure, for him. He had remarkable ability and a natural talent for the athletics of skating, but knowing how to teach it, is a different thing altogether. Champions do not make the best teachers, and by the same logic, the best actors do not necessarily give the best cold readings.

Here’s how an audition goes, for film or tv, anyway. Your agent calls, gives you the time, place and the material, usually the next day. Sometimes you can get the whole script, but often it’s just a scene, and a brief character description. You work up the part, make some blind choices about how to play the scene, go in, wait, walk into the office, say hello, read the scene across from the casting assistant. Hear, “Very nice, thank you.” And you leave.

Very seldom does anyone ask you to repeat the scene, make a change, or even check to see if you are capable of making the adjustment. So what is their decision to take you to the producers based on? Your random choices. All you can do is hope they liked the way you fumbled through it that first time. And of course, that they thought you ‘looked’ the part.

I have never been on a movie or film set that did only one take with no rehearsals or direction. Yet, that is generally how the actors are cast. Any decent director would never take the first cold read, run-through as the final, on-film  product. That would be crazy.

There are several aspects to securing the role that are unrelated to working on a set.

One. You have to keep your nerve. This is crazy important. Especially as the ‘narrowing down’ of actors for the parts go on.  You may return to audition for a part, several times for an increasing number of producers, directors, studio executives, ect. Then there can be a screen test, network approval, etc. I’ve been through a casting for the remake of “Charlie’s Angles” that went on for three months culminating in a full day of 25 amazing actresses for four parts waiting all day in a theatre room to be called in, in different combinations, to read for over 200 people. Nerve wracking. The pressure builds with each step closer you get. “Maybe today will change my life, and then again, maybe it won’t.” Ironically, this series was never made, though the casting process did make Tea Leoni a star.

Two. Standing out in the crowd. This casting director will see fifty women today for a sexy executive. Every one of them comes in in a slick black suit with a short skirt. Not me baby, I would come wearing jeans and cowboy boots, with a jacket, a suggestion of business on top. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. But I’ve been told by more than one casting director that they remembered me for it!

Three.  Be amusing and fun to work with. Okay, who do you want to spend three months in Italy with, the difficult actress who refused to sit down when you invited her to do so, or the one who sat, made a joke about the energy-sucking chair and then got on with it? I’ve actually been told I got the job because I came in and took care of the director, made sure everyone was comfortable and happy. Sure, they liked my look and my performance, but I have no doubt that ten other women, at least, could have done an equally good job on that part. Different, but good. I once went in for a role with the name of “Sherry.” When I was done reading, I held up the script and said, “This part’s got my name on it.” The producers all laughed, and I was booked to do the scenes with Rob Lowe.

It comes to this, once you hit a certain level where producers and casting directors trust your work, casting and success in acting, is brutally random. I know people who are brilliant actors, but who will never make a living at it because they don’t even have a good agent and can’t get the audition! I know certain actors who are brilliant at auditioning, but who will never perform that scene one iota better than the way they did it on the audition, but until people catch on…they get the parts!

But not Jack and Dustin! Cold reading? Not their forte. But give them a couple of weeks and a rehearsal or ten, and watch them soar!! The saving grace for them, of course, is that they don’t have to audition any more. That’s good news for us, we get to see more of them.

I know I haven’t given any real advice about this process, just a dose of reality. So I’ll end with this story.

I was in acting class with Luke Perry when he was auditioning for “Beverly Hills 90210.” We were supposed to be working on a scene together that week for class. But he was also doing what’s called, “final network approval’ for the show. That means they are down to the wire, in this case, Luke and only one other actor were left. I called him to set up a rehearsal and Luke said, “I have this audition for Spelling tomorrow, and I’m so nervous about it that I don’t think I can do anything else, I can barely breathe.” Boy, I could relate.

So I said to him, “Listen, you can’t control wether you will get the part, or if they’ll like your choices, but you have the chance to do what you love, to go in and act, then you have to walk away.”

There was a short silence, and then Luke said, “I think you might have just saved my life.”

Luke got the part, became a huge heartthrob, tv star, did the cover of Vanity Fair, etc. But what most people don’t know, is how he got it.

He and the other actor, both went in and read, and they were asked to wait while the producers discussed their fates. After a grueling 20 minutes, the casting director came out of the office and addressed the other actor, who’s name, appropriately for this story, I cannot remember, let’s call him Bob.

“Bob,” the casting director said, “You gave by far the best reading.”

Luke’s heart sank, but he steadied himself to congratulate Bob. But before he could, the casting director turned to him and said, “Luke, you got the part.”

Aaron Spelling just liked his look better. They could both act.

Wow. Don’t you  just know that’s a story Bob’s been telling for the rest of his career.

So, get in there, make strong choices, don’t beat yourself up if you aren’t psychic enough to guess what they wanted, just be yourself, act, enjoy, and go have coffee with friends before acting class.

Success is random, enjoy the journey.

Shari. November 4th, 2012

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One thought on “That Part’s Got My Name On It!

  1. Wonderful. Thank you, as always, for the brilliant insight. You are so right about doing your best and having to just let it go, and trust to whatever or whoever that we get the part. As long as we do our best, that’s all we can do. Thanks, gorgeous 🙂

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