Advice and Tips for Actors Helpful thoughts on acting from someone who wasn't the least successful actor of all time.

May 8, 2010

Reading the Room

Today I had an audition (yes, on Saturday) where I could have stopped halfway through and said, “Thanks guys.  I’m going to go.”  It wasn’t a bad audition;  I got the material, I connected to it and I basically did what I wanted to do with it.  A couple lines into it I just felt that I wasn’t connecting with the producer and I wasn’t going to get the part (if the people I auditioned for today are reading this: you can still cast me in this and prove me wrong).  What happened?

Everyone who’s ever done theater or spoken in public knows how the audience reacted to their performance.  Actors backstage of a play love to determine if an audience is “good” or “bad” on a given night.  If you’re doing a comedy you generally rank this by how many laughs you get but when you’re doing a drama or simply speaking in public, how can you tell when the audience is with you? It’s something innate, some feeling you get when you stand in front of them.

Auditions are weird in that you might be doing a comic scene but you can’t expect a laugh.  The people doing the auditions may have seen the joke two hundred times already, it’s simply not funny to them.

Let’s take today for an example.  The scene I  was reading wasn’t knock down funny and it wasn’t meant to be.  So when I didn’t get laughs at the slightly funny jokes I wasn’t surprised.  But what let me know I wasn’t going to get this part was that I wasn’t getting any reaction, the people in the room weren’t coming along with me on the ride.  Maybe it takes years to get the feel and maybe some people are just born with it, but I know when I’m in a room if they like me or not.  It’s some combination of body language, reactions to my lines (verbal or physical) and how they talk to me when I enter and when I leave.  It’s rarely something tangible I can put my finger on (unless it’s really bad or really good).  If they’re into it and they’re hanging on my every word I can feel it, and I know I have a shot at the part.

Well intentioned people love to say, “sometimes you think you were amazing and you don’t get it and sometimes you think you stink and you really get it.”  The first half is true.  I often think I’m amazing and don’t get it, but I know I was in the running for it.  But when I don’t feel that connection, I have never even gotten close to the part.

The weirdest thing is that this all happens without me breaking character or with any ill effect on my performance.  I simply feel something in the air.  When it’s going well I feed on it and it makes my performance better.  I’d love to say when I don’t feel a connection I redouble my efforts and make sure I knock their socks off but it doesn’t work that way.  When the connection is not there, there’s nothing I can do to force it.  Sure, ont he way out I can crack a few jokes but I’m only making myself feel better.

One day I’ll write a book on how to have the room sync in with your performance.  Well, I’ll get incredibly rich and famous as an actor first and then I’ll sell the book.  Unfortunately there’s not much you can do to force it.  Just feel it, enjoy the slight sense of closure you get when you know you don’t have to wait by the phone for that part and move on to the next audition.

March 10, 2010

Baseball Analogy to Acting Professionally

I’ve been accused of using too many sports analogies when talking about acting.  Well, I’m a guy who likes sports.  It’s what we do.  Watching the Winter Olympics I marveled at how many non-Winter Olympics analogies were used by the announcers.  It’s pretty hard to equate bobsledding to baseball, but they managed.

So now that spring is hitting it’s one of my favorite times of the year: spring training.  Once a year I get to pretend the Orioles have a shot at being good and this is it.  Watching some pre-season games I had a thought about the guys I was watching play:  every one of those guys, with only incredibly rare exceptions, dominated every level of play they’ve been in before making it to a professional roster.

This is something I don’t think we appreciate enough.  The guy who is in single-A ball (the lowest rung of still being attached to a professional team) was the star of his high school baseball team.  Then he went to college where again he was a major star.  Upon turning pro he was now in the company of many men all of whom were the best their whole lives on their respective teams.  Despite all that, this guy may not ever make it to Camden Yards to get to play a single inning.  The talent level of every one of the guys who wears a professional jersey is so high that even if you’re “the best” in Iowa it doesn’t mean you’re necessarily good enough to play with them.

Actors face a similar (but slightly different) system.  Many of us start out acting in school.  Think back, were you one of the top actors?  Did you have trouble getting cast?  Did you end up being the tree?  If you didn’t get consistent work even at the lowest levels how do you expect to compete with the actors who’ve been at the top of their class everywhere they went?

This isn’t a perfect analogy as their are casting considerations.  Even in high school I was a character actor so I didn’t get the huge glamorous parts of the romantic leads.  That said I worked pretty consistently through high school and college and only had trouble getting cast in a college where they went out of their way to give first crack to their drama students (which I was not).  I still got parts (good ones too) but it was tougher.

So you played Hamlet, Romeo and every other lead part in high school and college so you decide to come out to LA and be professional.  Well guess what, so did the vast majority of the people you meet in LA who want to be actors.  This is not the middle of Nebraska where there are three people competing for the role of Officer Krupke this is the “Superbowl of Acting” as an actor friend likes to say.  If you can’t compete in the lower levels you stand no chance here.

March 1, 2010

SAG Should be an Open Union

I usually stay away from hot topic political issues but today I feel like being difficult.

A little history lesson for all of you (modern history):  SAG is the Screen Actors Guild it is far and away the stronger of the two “TV/Film/Commercial” unions in the United States.  SAG is currently a “closed union” that means if you want to join SAG you can’t simply walk in and plunk down the $2100 or whatever the entry fee is these days and join, you have to “earn” your way in.
Yes, I mean to use quotes around “earn.”  You see, there are several ways to join SAG and only two of which involve any sort of acting talent and that’s in an ideal world.  Here’s a short list of ways to get into SAG: get a speaking part in a SAG project, earn 3 vouchers for working background as SAG talent and work a principal contract and be a member of another one of the “entertainment unions” for one year.  The reality is more complicated but I’d seek out answers from the unions directly on this issue as they’re subject to a little interpretation and there are lots of specifics.

I got to join SAG because I was cast in a SAG commercial for Barclay’s Bank.  They did the paperwork to get me in and I was in.  I also could have joined AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) which IS an open union and joined after a year since I worked one of their contracts soon after “going pro.”

Recently news has started getting around that there is an easy way to get into SAG: produce your own internet project under SAG’s New Media agreement and “Taft Hartley” yourself (that is, do the paperwork to make yourself a member).  This means all you need to do to join SAG these days is fill out some paperwork and convince SAG you’re shooting a web series.

There are some very militant people in the unions who think SAG should remain closed because it guarantees that only “serious actors” with “talent” become members.  They are those people who believe having SAG on your resume guarantees them auditions.  The best kept secret about joining SAG is this:  when you join, you get less auditions not more.  That’s because there are a tens of thousands of SAG members who look like you and have more credits than you (when you first join).  When auditioning for non-union roles no one has particularly “good credits” and the playing field is much more level and there’s less competition for each part.  Now SAG jobs pay better on average and in their ranks is the “real work” like TV shows and big movies, but there’s something to be said for working all the time even if it is for less money.

Since the invention of the three background voucher system the system has become overtly corrupt.  It used to be that you could only get into SAG with a speaking part in a SAG project.  That meant even if your friend wanted to get you in they had to shoot you saying something and pay you a day rate.  Now all they have to do is have you sign in three days in a row as a SAG background performer and pay you half as much.  Hollywood is full of pretty ladies with big dreams and they’ve been known to do whatever they need to get ahead, and that includes getting their SAG card.

Another reason?  I honestly believe that most non-union projects are non-union because the producers don’t want to have to pay people a lot of money.  People love to talk about non-union commercials that pay $10,000 but in reality, if they were SAG commercials, they’d probably pay a lot more.  I’ve seen some non-union commercials airing on TV for the last 10 years and I am sure the actor who shot them got paid no more than $500.

So what would be the benefit of SAG being an open union?  First it would cut down on the snootyness that some SAG actors like to carry around, second it would eliminate a lot of the corruption in this business and third it would limit the amount of non-union work in this town that only looks to take advantage of actors.  Since it’s so easy to join SAG these days anyway this would be a mere formality and would open the doors of SAG to lots of people who’ve been trying for years to join but don’t want to sleep with or pay someone for the privilege.

February 22, 2010

You Don’t Want Feedback on Your Audition

Actors love to get feedback on their auditions.  They want to know why they didn’t get cast so they can “improve in the future.”  Let me tell you why this is one of the dumbest things actors do.

First a short lesson for people who don’t know what I’m talking about.  Actors go in for auditions and then leave.  Most of the time no one calls to say they didn’t get the job and so actors sit at home and wait for the phone to ring.  Now we have cell phones so we can sit at Starbucks and wait for the phone to ring, yippy.  Actors sometimes wonder, “why didn’t I get the job” when days turn into weeks and it’s obvious they’re not getting hired.  So actors seek out ways to get “feedback” on their auditions hoping they can improve in the future.

This probably stems from normal job interviews where candidates call back a week later and hope to get feedback on their interviews.  Typically in job interviews the same types of questions are asked all the time so it’s legitimate that someone could improve their interview for the next time.  Also this is an excuse to call back a recruiter who might say, “you were great but we had to hire someone’s cousin, luckily there’s a better job opening up next week I’d love to talk to you about.”  Really that’s a pipe dream and the real goal is to improve for the next time.

Actors lie to themselves when they say they want feedback.  Problem is, they’re never going to audition for that part again.  Actors aren’t asked, “what is your biggest weakness,” they’re given a part to read.  The part they’re given next week will be completely different.  Notes like, “you should have been angrier when you told him you were leaving” are useless.

Truth is actors want this to be their feedback, “you were amazing but we had to hire someone else’s cousin, we’ll bring you back in next week for this amazing guest star role.”  That’s an ego stroke, nothing else.  Actors just want their egos massaged since they didn’t get the role (shocking).  If they honestly loved you they would have brought you back in next week anyway, even if you didn’t convince your agent to call the casting office.  Yes, it’s another excuse to “stay in their mind” but you also come off as a little needy.

No matter what they say there are only two pieces of feedback you will ever get, “this role no longer exists/it’s now a role for a fire-breathing midget” and “someone else was a better fit.”  Any other way the feedback is sugar-coated is simply someone trying to be creative or nice.  You could have been perfect for the role and someone decide to cut the role out or someone else was simply better for the role (sound familiar?).  Yes, being a cousin of the producer counts as “better for the role.”  Why?  Because to the producer this was more important than giving the best audition.  Sucks, but he’s the producer and you’re not.  It hurts to think you didn’t give the “best audition” or have the right look for a part but that’s the reality of Hollywood.

When you’re asking for feedback you’re really asking for validation of your skills as an actor since you didn’t get the ego petting of getting the role.

Here’s all the feedback I need: did I get the role?  No, then I should probably work harder in the future.  Even if the role was cut or went to a teenage Asian girl (really happened once) I can still improve, everyone always can.

October 22, 2009

What To Do After an Audition

In the past month I’ve had piles of auditions and it made me think of what an actor should do after an audition.  There are a few steps I go through after each audition and I’d like to share with you my post-audition ritual:

Throw Out the Sides:  If you don’t know what audition sides are, they’re selections from a script chosen for an audition.  When I walk out of an audition I throw out my sides.  Well, that’s my second choice.  The first choice is to leave them outside the casting room so another actor can use them.  If I left my copy in my car or at home I throw them out the first chance I get.  If I get a callback I just look them up again.

Archive Any E-Mails About the Project This includes any casting notices, copies of the script or love letters from the casting director.  I get it all out of my inbox.  If I have anything to look up in the future about the project I can search for the e-mails.

Try to Forget Anything Anyone Ever Told Me About the Project: I ignore posted “callback” or “shoot” dates which are often wrong anyway.  I try to forget any compliment or slight the director gave me and I stop myself from analyzing them (What did he mean by “nice job?”).  I try my hardest to not calculate how much I’d get paid on that national commercial.

Take Five Minutes to Analyze the Audition: After forgetting all the nitty gritty and putting business stuff out of my mind I take five minutes to think about what I did in the room and what I could have done better.  This step doesn’t take an hour or a week, five minutes is more than enough.  This is a great activity to do in your car.  It’s famously known that the best audition you ever do is to your rear view mirror on the way home from the actual audition.  I take whatever lessons I can from each audition and then move on to the final step:

Forget The Rest of the Audition:  Forget those lines you flubbed or the flat line reading and go on to something else.  Go hit the driving range, read a book or just watch some TV.  Obsessing over a past audition isn’t going to help you land the role or improve as an actor.

This was all prompted by my audition about an hour ago.  It was flatter and less inspired than I thought it should have been.  By the time I got home I had pretty much forgotten all about it.  When I thought back about the audition I said, “I was flat, didn’t do enough with it.  Next time I’ll reach a little more with it and let them dial me back.”  Those were my only thoughts.  I wasn’t thinking about shoot dates or anything, simply that one thought.   It took me years to get to that point but it’s probably my most useful skill as an actor (besides acting).

Obsessing over audition and waiting for the phone to ring can make the whole acting experience miserable.

April 22, 2009

Becoming a Good Actor

People wonder all the time how they can be the best actor they can be.

Learning how to be a good actor can be broken down into two questions.  The first question is, “How do you act?”  This seems to come from a lot from people auditioning for community theater or trying out for their first student film.  It’s natural to be nervous and wonder how the heck to perform in front of an audience or act in front of a camera.

Here are my basics:  Know your lines, know your character, know the story and then try to speak clearly and have fun.

You want more complicated answers here are a few books that I’ve pretended to have read:

Sanford Meisner on Acting
Acting: The First Six Lessons (by Boleslavsky)
Acting for the Camera (by Tony Barr)
True and False (By David Mamet)

The second part to this question is “how do I behave as a good actor.”  And here’s my personal advice on that question:

  • Don’t Be Crazy – Crazy people like to say they’re actors and actors often think they have to be crazy to be taken seriously.  It’s not true.  Some of the best actors I’ve worked with are normal people who happen to be very good actors.  Don’t believe everything you read in the tabloids.
  • Don’t be a Jerk – Actors somehow got the impression that they have to be mean to everyone they meet.  Series regulars are mean to guest stars, guest stars are mean to co-stars and everyone’s mean to craft services.  Don’t.  Be nice.  People like to work with nice folks.
  • Roll With It – Sad fact of life is that lines change, blocking gets switched and scenes get added/deleted.  Relax and deal with it.  No one is out to get you.
  • Be Helpful – Performing a play or shooting a film is a lot of work.  Depending on the union status of your project actors may be prohibited from doing anything but acting.  That means if you’re on the set of Grey’s Anatomy and someone asks you to move a c-stand around, you say no.  But when you’re acting in community theater or doing a student film do us all a favor and help as much as you can.  Don’t let it get in the way of your acting but lend a hand any way you can.
  • Take it Seriously – You are an actor because you enjoy acting and that’s great.  But it’s a job (paid or not) and you need to treat it as such.  No one says you can’t enjoy work, but you’d better put your nose down when it’s time.
  • Listen to Your Director – The director has one goal, make this the best project possible.  It’s not about stroking your ego, it’s not about ruining your career and it’s not about trying to make your life difficult.  If the director tells you to cry as you cross from stage left, then cry as you cross from stage left.  Try it before you start complaining about how it’s not something your character would do.  It’s the director’s decision, not yours.
  • Listen to the Script – I’m stealing from one of the books above but you’d be shocked how many actors see something in a script like “Irving hits his sister” and claim, “Irving would never do that.”  Yes he would, it’s in the script.  Everything you need is in the script.  If you start making up crap outside the script you’re not performing the same play/film as everyone else.
  • Be Friends With Everyone – This is the most important advice I can give, especially starting out.  This doesn’t mean you have to buddy up to everyone and kiss butt.  It means you have to smile, be nice to everyone on set and help in any way you can.  This goes triply so in small projects that don’t pay.  People don’t do student films forever.  They go on and do bigger and better things.  Or maybe their college roommate goes on to do bigger things.  Either way, they become a good ally in this industry.  Everyone says the entertainment industry is about “who you know” and that’s completely true but more importantly it’s about who likes you and wants to help you out.

January 2, 2009

Booking More in 2009

from the neighbor's
Creative Commons License photo credit: Ali San

Happy New Year to All!

Here’s a very simple exercise.  Examine your 2008.  Look at the records of your auditions, meetings and all the tactics you’ve used. Write them down, you’ll be surprised at how many there are.

I talked about making good resolutions over a year ago and all that info still stands.

This year I want you (as I am doing) to look at all the opportunities, accomplishments and actions you had and took in 2008.  You can make the list as extensive as you like.  Here is an example of some of mine:

  • Got WAY more callbacks than ever before.
  • Got MUCH better at “feeling out” which jobs I would be back for and which I wouldn’t.
  • Helped produce three pretty amazing showcases and helped transition the show from a tiny 66 seat theater in 2007 to a 260 seat theater.
  • Started writing my first screenplay.
  • Made contact/friends with many new “industry folks” online.
  • Started a Twitter Account to keep my fans (I assume that’s you) up to date and build a bigger fan base.
  • And on a personal note ran two half-marathons and a full-marathon having not run more than a mile straight since high school while raising over $2400 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

Now, instead of making brand-new resolutions or “goals” as they really should be called I simply want to focus on improving some of these things.  How?  Well, as you can tell from the title of this post I really want to book more jobs in 2009, I want to finish my screenplay, meet even more industry folks online and in person and finally run even more.

These look more like typical resolutions.  They’re not actionable, most aren’t quantifyable and they’re pretty vague.  This is where I go back to how to write resolutions.  I then focus my goals on improving things I’m already really proud of.  Build success upon success.

Powered by WordPress