After 20 years of theater and film casting, this is the one thing I look for in an actor’s audition — filmmaking advice
You’ve prepared your monologue. You’ve rehearsed it with a coach. You’ve spent weeks developing your inner life. You can recite your monologue in your bedroom, a coffee shop, or a crowded nightclub and now you’re ready to audition. You’re palms are a little sweaty and you slate to camera, but what’s the one thing they are looking for?
The most important thing for me is connection. How connected are you to how you feel in the moment? How connected do you feel to the emotions you are trying to express? In some schools of acting, an actor may learn to develop an inner life that helps bring them back to certain emotions, but how does that read to an audience? How true is the lie?
I sat in one audition where an actor said he could laugh, cry, and hiccough all at the same time on cue. Out of curiosity, the director asked to see this performance. The actor performed the actions but they weren’t connected to anything. He could perform the physical functions but they didn’t ring true to anything.
The audition starts when you walk in the room.
There was one actor I called into audition because I knew he was the guy we wanted for the roll. But my co-producer and my director needed to see him, so we had him come in to audition.
He came in and we chatted with him a little bit. He was connected to everything he was saying. He was being his truest emotional self. He was being himself and he was the guy we wanted. My co-producer and director saw that he was the character after talking to him for two or three minutes. Then he performed his monologue.
The monologue was rapid fire, esoteric, and the primary direction he had been given by his director was, “faster.” We wanted to cast the guy who walked in the door, not a talking machine. So before we let him go I said to him, “okay, that was pretty good, but can you slow the monologue way down. I know that might be difficult, but wherever you are emotionally in this moment, bring that to your monologue. Tell us the monologue just like you were talking to us.”
He took a couple minutes, he squatted down near the floor, and I could see him processing this direction. I could see it working inside of him. He started the monologue at normal speaking speed, whatever feelings he had inside played in his performance. He was the guy again. He was the guy who walked in the door. He was the character and we cast him.
When I look through resumes, I look at the experience and I try to get a sense if I could believe them for a particular role. More often than not I’m seeing actors who are in the ballpark for a role and not necessarily the actual character I’ve pictured. Anyone who gets called in has a shot and it’s very rare I see someone and I say that’s the guy or that’s the woman.
If I’ve worked with an actor before, I might write a role with them in mind. Other times I will write a script and I already have an idea of who can play the characters. In our short film, Little Dog, after I had the script I knew who I wanted for the female lead, and she and I hadn’t talked in over seven years! In those situations, I see the actor as the character and I don’t make them audition.
We had one actor come in and she said she had practiced her monologue for the past four years. I knew we were in trouble. The monologue felt over rehearsed and not connected to the actor’s inner life. There are a lot of actorly tricks used to approximate emotion and boost a performance. Speaking really softly, getting loud, and anything that focuses on the vocal instrument. All of these tricks don’t ring true for me. Some actors perform from the neck up. One director I met used to talk about remembered emotions. Some actors play an emotion they remember, not as they feel it now, and not as an emotion evoked in the moment.
At the same time I have seen a number of actors who are able to put on a character. They can use certain character traits as a mask, but there is an inner life that still comes thru.
The Kuleshov effect
In filmmaking, there is an editing technique called the Kuleshov effect. Through editing the viewer takes meaning from the interaction of different shots. You can show the placid face of an actor staring serenely and then a picturesque scene and the audience will think the actor is happy. You can show the same shot of the same actor followed by a shot of something tragic and the audience will think the actor is sad.
Working with film directors, I have often heard them say that an actor is too theatrical or that they would need to pull the actor’s performance back. Sometimes I feel that film is too concerned with the surface. Sometimes I worry that all of us are becoming more disconnected with our own emotions. I would much rather work with an actor that can fully live in their own emotional being and work with them to craft a performance than work with an actor who doesn’t seem to feel.
I love good actors. We have been very fortunate to work with a lot of talented actors and I feel lucky to live in Chicago where there is a great pool of talent. Four years ago three actors signed on for my first film in a few years with me as writer and director. I tell them from time to time that I am grateful to have worked with them. Because they said yes and we made that short, I’ve had the opportunity to make sixteen short films since then.
If you’ve been called into an audition, it’s because you’re supposed to be there. There is something about you that spoke to the director, producer, or casting director. We want you to succeed. We want to see your true self. The words you’re saying don’t matter, if you miss a line of monologue, or if you say a line of dialogue a little differently; it’s irrelevant. What matters is how connected you are to the words and how you feel in the moment.
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