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Acting 101

18 March 2010 No Comment

Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You — The Audition Process

— April 6, 2001

If you’re like me, your zip code is nowhere near 90210. You don’t have a personal trainer, you aren’t frequently air-kissed on each cheek by complete strangers and you’ve never once uttered the phrase, “have your service call my service.” At least, not with a straight face anyway. But that’s how most folks perceive Hollywood and the acting profession. So, how much of that is accurate? I have no idea.

While the whole Hollywood scene is fun and exciting, I’m personally more interested in learning how Brett prepares for a role than knowing what designer he wore to his latest movie premiere or who he had lunch with last week. Besides, with Brett, his designer is more likely to be Levi than Armani. I don’t know many actors (okay, just one), but Brett seems pretty un-Hollywood to me. He drives a 10-year old car. His agent calls him “Cowboy.” He takes out the trash. I don’t think the word “schmooze” is in his vocabulary. He just loves to act – so it wasn’t very hard to sell him on the idea of having a new section on the web site that focuses on acting.

It’s easy to pick up a magazine and read about the “glamour” aspect of Hollywood, but how often do you get to sit down with a real working actor and ask him what a typical day on a movie set is like? I want to know what he does in between scenes or how often he improvises his lines.

Lucky for us, Brett is willing to answer those questions in this new series of interviews on acting. So, on a Sunday afternoon phone call with me in snowy Colorado and him in sunny California, we decided to start from the very beginning — the audition process.

Let’s begin with the basics. How about explaining the difference between an agent and a manager?

Your agent is the only licensed authority that can set up auditions and negotiate for you in the entertainment industry. Managers aren’t allowed to. I have a manager and an agent. A manager hopefully helps you focus on the kind of career you want to have and the choices you want to make as a performer, if you’re in the position to be able to do that.

When you’re first starting out, you have to have an agent. Once you get an agent, they will hopefully set up appointments for you. Initially, when you first start in this business, they set up what they call “generals.” Meaning, you go around and meet all the casting directors and read for them. You’ll read some scenes for them so they can see what level of talent you are, or whether you’re someone they might be interested in. That’s in the beginning of your career.

As your career progresses what happens is: my agent will call me and say, “We have this audition for you on Tuesday and we’ll send a script over.” I read it, see if I’m interested, and if I am, I call them up and say, “Okay, I’ll go in on this.” That evening I stay up and read the script. Then I get the scenes I’m supposed to read and I basically read them enough so that I’m extremely familiar with them. I don’t always have them memorized, but know them fairly well in my head so I don’t have to read it. I can pretty much have it in my hand as a reference. The other thing I was told years ago was to never actually audition without a piece of paper in your hand. Because if you go in to read for something and the paper isn’t in your hand, they think that’s your performance and not a reading. They’ll think, “That’s as good as he can do because he’s prepared.” Whereas, if you have the paper in your hand, they think, “Well, he was just reading.” Does that make sense?

Yes, it does.

I drive my wife crazy with the way I prepare for a reading – I don’t give up on it. I sit there and work on it until the wee hours of the morning. Then I get up in the morning and start working on it again and making sure I’ve tried every possible combination from A to Z to make this thing as interesting as possible. Initially, when you’re first starting out, you’re generally reading for casting directors. But once you reach a certain level, you’re reading for producers, directors and writers. You go in and you may do a scene –and sometimes they just do this to see whether you can actually take direction – but they will go, “You know, that’s interesting, I like what you did. Will you try it this time and play it like maybe you’re hiding the fact that you’re attracted to this woman, or you’re really angry but you don’t want them to know it?” They do it to see if you can take direction.

Now, are you acting opposite someone or acting alone?

There’s a casting director or a casting associate who reads the scene with you.

Okay, so you have someone to react to.

Yeah, but you’re generally being put on videotape and you’re just reading or acting to someone who sits beside the video camera. They are not in the scene with you. You’re just sitting in a chair, or standing, and you’re acting with a video camera. The producers, directors and writers are sitting there and there’s someone who’s sitting right next to the camera out of camera view, feeding you the cues.

And that’s who you’re making eye contact with during the scene.

Yeah, that’s who you act with, but the important thing to remember is they are just feeding you the lines. Very rarely does a casting person really act with you and you can hardly blame them since they’ve probably read a hundred actors that day. It’s very important to remember that you are there so that they can see YOUR work — not the casting person’s work. Now, there’s a couple of ways I go about preparing for an audition. Sometimes I over prepare, meaning I work on it so much I’ve beaten it to death. Then, I once had a manager who said to me, and it actually worked: “Brett, what I want you to do is read the script once, so you know what the story is. Then I want you to sit down with the scenes and read each scene five times out loud. Then put it down and don’t look at it again. Go to bed. Get up in the morning, start working on it again and looking at it.” You’re familiar with it at that point. If you read something five times you should have a pretty good idea about what’s going on, unless it’s an extremely complex thing. I mean, if I’m doing Shakespeare, I’m not going to do that, because Shakespeare is much more complicated. You’ve got the prose and poetry and your iambic pentameter. So, it’s a little more difficult if you’re doing a theatre project.

But, when you’re just reading film and television scripts, most parts don’t take that much. There was an old joke that a friend of mine said: “Any actor who spends more than five minutes working on a TV audition is obsessing.” (laughs). I tend to obsess. I work and work and work and I don’t let up on it. I stay with it until I’m completely comfortable and I can walk in there and do it.

A lot of actors go into an audition and try to be chatty and they have a little story to tell, so maybe the people will remember them from the story. Then there are the other actors who walk in and they don’t say anything and they’re going to be completely cool. They just come in and do their thing and then leave. My philosophy is to go in and to be a professional and say, “Hello, how are you?” Sometimes I know the people because I’ve seen them before. I don’t give them a whole lot of information. Then I say, “Well, look, I should read, so do you have anything you’d like to tell me about this character?” I always ask that. So, if they have something they want to say, or have something they are looking for, I might get a bit of information from them. So, I might have a clue as to what they are looking for.

Then I’ll say, “Alright, let me do what I’ve prepared and if it stinks, stop me, give me some direction and let me try it again.” And they say, “Okay.” Usually, I don’t get stopped, because they can see I’m prepared and I know what I’m doing. Unfortunately, things have changed. It used to be that you’d always get directed. Even if they love what you do, the director would try to tell you to do something else to see if you could take direction well. Nowadays, people just sit there and look at you and you do your reading and they say, “That was great. Thanks a lot.” And then you leave.

And that’s all the feedback you get?

Yes. And then later you hear, “They loved you, they want you to come back, they’re going to have a call back.” Or they say, “You’re fabulous, they’re going to make you an offer.” Or maybe they say they want to test you for the network. I’ve heard stuff as stupid as, “Well, they think that you’re wonderful, but your face is too pointy to be a leading man.” (laughs) Years ago someone told a friend of mine that his teeth were too small to be a leading man – that he’d never make it in film and television. He’s now a movie star. So, you never know about some of the asinine comments that have come out of people’s mouths.

How do you get this feedback? Do they call your agent and tell him these things?

They tell the agent and the agent will call you up laughing, going, “You’re not going to believe what they said this time.”

Right, you have tiny teeth (laughs).

You also might get a feedback saying, “Well, they thought you were terrific, but they’re going to go another direction.” And you go, “So…what does that mean?” And they’ll say, “They want a bigger name.” And I’ll say, “Well, make my name bigger! I’ll be Brett Austin Cullen. (laughs). Anyway, the casting process is very strange. Sometimes you’re not cast because maybe the female producer thinks you look like her ex-husband and she can’t stand him and doesn’t want to see you on the set every day. She’s thinking, “Oh, god, this guy reminds me of my ex-husband, I’ve got to look at him every day.” Or maybe my eyebrows are the wrong color or my nose is too long or they want someone with crooked teeth. I mean, you never know.

Doesn’t that drive you crazy, though?

No, it doesn’t.

You just learn to deal with that.

It’s just subjective. You have to take it with a grain of salt. That’s why my favorite word is “tenacity.” Don’t take no for an answer. If you don’t want to hire me, then fine, but I’m going to be here. I’m going to keep it up.

Do you typically know what other actors you’re up against for a role?

No, not unless you see them at the audition. Generally, there’s a whole bunch of actors sitting around waiting to go in and read.

And half the time you don’t find out that you didn’t get the job, you just don’t hear back from them. Is that true?

Yeah, or I’ll finally call my agent and say, “Hey, whatever happened on that thing?” Just recently he said, “They really liked you but they thought you were too western.” And I said, “I was wearing a suit!” And I wasn’t doing a Texas accent. How could he think I was Western? Sometimes they will just give you bullshit answers.

So what typically happens on a call back?

A call back may be that you’ve gone and read for one producer and the casting people. Then they have another producer or maybe the studio head or the studio executive that’s in charge of the project and you have to go read for them. Or you might have to read at the network. You’ve gotten past that one level and then generally, you don’t have more than two readings for a part. So, you just go back and read for someone else. Or, it may be that they’re mixing and matching people – bringing in a bunch of actors. Maybe it’s an ensemble show and they want to put me with a girl or another guy who may be a partner on a cop show, let’s say, and they want to see you read together.

And there are things you do, in terms of dress – like, if I’m going in to read for a CIA guy or lawyer, you tend to get dressed for that. Or if he’s a DA, you may not wear your nicest suit because they may not have the money that a private lawyer does. So, you dress down a little bit. I have friends who go to the extent of — say, they’re going to read for someone who may be a little bit more street, or a little edgier — they’ll actually put this stuff on their teeth to “yellow” their teeth. I don’t tend to go to that extreme.

Do you think that actually influences them?

Well, I guess the philosophy is that they don’t want to leave anything to chance, because for the most part, people don’t have the creativity to see through what you generally look like – that they can’t dress you or do makeup to make you look a certain way. So, they’ll go in there trying to look as much as they can like the character.

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