In the course of my career I have sat through hundreds, even thousands of auditions. Time and again it amazes me how only a small group of actors, about one in ten, consistently deliver performances in auditions that set them apart from the majority of their contemporaries. These are the actors who are constantly being called back and book the jobs on a regular basis.

So what is it that this top ten percent of auditioning actors are doing that others are not?

I’ve always maintained there are two different types of acting. One is when you are working on a production, be it film, television or theatre – where you are part of a collective effort to create something worthwhile and your efforts are encouraged and supported by the other members of the cast and crew. The other is when you are auditioning, an environment where you are being scrutinised, judged and compared to others, and you are essentially on your own in creating the scene.

The two different environments require different skills, and actors need to master all of them in order to be successful. I know so many great actors who thrive in the former environment, but fall apart when it comes time to audition. The actors who develop their skills to operate in both arenas invariably end up with successful careers.

The most important quality to have in an audition is confidence, and the best way to develop confidence is through experience. The more often you audition the less intimidating the process becomes.

But just being confident won’t get you the job. You will be competing against a lot of other actors who are just as motivated and talented as you, and you have all been brought in because you fit the part physically. So your job is to stand out from the crowd.

My number one complaint as a director when auditioning is how many people come in to audition and give the exact same reading of the text. So when an actor comes in to read and gives an original take, something different to what everyone else is doing, it catapults them into serious contention for the role immediately.

Still from Film Venture’s “The Callback Queen”

So, to the purpose of this blog. How do you stand out from the crowd? I have identified 4 key areas where you can apply yourself before an audition that will give you the edge over your competition. These points are essential to delivering an effective and believable performance in an audition, but are more often than not overlooked by actors.

1. Subtext

The number one thing most actors ignore, or fail to explore in an audition.

Drama revolves around conflict, and in times of conflict we very rarely discuss the conflict openly. When writers are developing a scene they are told, “If the characters are talking about what they are talking about then you’re in trouble”. In other words the characters will talk about anything but what is really at stake in the scene. Your job as an actor is to ferret out the real meaning behind every line.

So how do you figure it out? Well, the first thing to look for is context, explore the scene in terms of what happens before and after it in the script. You will find clues about characters’ motives in a scene by reading further ahead to see how their actions play out. Or you can discover information about one of the characters that the other is not aware of by reading earlier scenes in the script.

For example, lets say there is a woman, JILL, sitting at a desk in a room and a man, JACK, enters and asks her to go out in the sunshine with him. The surface reading of the scene is that Jack wants Jill to go outside. There is conflict if Jill refuses to go, but the stakes aren’t very high.

Now let’s say we read a scene earlier in the script where Jack places a bomb under the desk, intending to kill a rival. Jill came into the room unexpectedly and he now has to get her to leave without giving away the presence of the bomb. Suddenly the stakes are raised by supplying the actor playing Jack with information about the scene that he would not have had just from reading the scene out of context.

Alternatively we could read a scene from later in the script where Jack proposes to Jill in an elaborately constructed scenario in the gardens of the house with musicians and their close friends and family in attendance. Now when we play the scene Jack has a different reason to want Jill to leave the room with him, but the stakes are nevertheless raised.

So the same scene with the same dialogue could be played with two different interpretations of the subtext resulting in a completely different performance from the actor playing Jack.

Unfortunately you may not have access to the full script in an audition, but if you can get your hands on it do, and look for clues as to what is really going on in your audition scene. If you don’t have the full script, then you need to use your imagination and make some strong choices about what could be at stake in the scene. Just bear in mind that if you play the scene on the nose by delivering the lines with surface meaning then you will fall into the category of actors who all deliver the same performance.

If you make a strong choice about subtext and it is wrong or inappropriate the director or casting director will discuss it with you and give you direction to steer it more towards what their reading of the scene is. As long as you can adapt your performance to incorporate this adjustment you will have identified yourself as an actor who can explore a scene in depth, discuss it articulately and adjust the performance appropriately. This is a good thing.

2. Objective

Focus on the other person in the scene.

Most actors in auditions focus on themselves, thinking, “How will I say this line?”, or “How will I hold myself physically?”, or “Where will I look at this point in the scene”?

I always encourage actors to avoid this. We are looking to create truthful performances that accurately reproduce human behaviour. In real life we don’t walk around deciding how to say a sentence or how to hold ourselves physically when interacting with another person. Our attention is more often than not on the person we are talking to. Francois Truffaut said that “film is life with the boring bits taken out”, and it’s true. Every scene in a film or TV show revolves around a moment of conflict, usually designed through the use of opposing objectives. When two people in a scene want different and opposing things conflict results.

So you need to decide on an objective. The basics of an objective are:

  • It must relate to the other person in the scene
  • It must be achievable immediately
  • You must be able to gauge whether or not you have achieved your objective by looking at the other person.

The difficulty with an audition is that you are very unlikely to have the perfect scene partner to create a believable performance of the scene. This is the main difference between acting on set or in rehearsals with the final cast members, and an audition where more often than not the casting director or an assistant are reading opposite you. What this means is that you can’t rely on them to give you the reactive or emotionally stimulating performance you might wish for (no offence meant to any readers out there, but they’ve usually been repeating the same lines ad infinitum all day, so we’ll cut them some slack!).

So instead you must use your imagination to create the reactions from your reader that will allow your performance in the room to flourish. This is one of the most difficult aspects of auditioning and can only be developed through repetition and practice.

Once you have mastered this though, if you can use your objective to keep your focus on the other character in the scene and not on yourself, the resulting performance will be far more truthful and believable.

Still from Film Venture’s “The Callback Queen”

3. Transition

Audition scenes are chosen specifically to include an internal shift for the character being auditioned. You must identify that shift and incorporate it into your performance.

Ask yourself in what emotional state does the character start the scene, and what emotional state are they in by the end of the scene. You must accurately and believably portray the shift from the opening emotional state to the closing.

Emotion is not something that can be switched on or off at will, it requires a stimulus. Usually in drama that stimulus is provided by your scene partner, but in an audition, without the support of a fellow actor to get you into the right head space for the scene you must provide your own stimulus.

This is where knowing your own emotional makeup is vital. As an actor you need to know what stimulates you to achieve a certain mood or emotion. What makes you happy, sad, angry, whatever. Through experimentation with the various disciplines of acting you need to figure out whether memory, imagery, sound, touch, a physical activity, a mantra, a person or any other number of things works best to create an emotional response.

Incorporate this into your preparation for the audition and use it to focus yourself in the moments before you enter the room.

Then, as you perform the scene allow the momentum of the drama to carry you from one state to another. Ideally this will happen instinctively, but if it is not happening that way you will have to create a stimulus to shift from one state to another.

The important thing is that the transition takes place gradually, internally and in the moment. This ability to shift emotion internally is a key thing directors look for when vetting actors.

4. Personal connection

Make the scene mean something to you.

As I mentioned, many of the other actors who are being auditioned are likely to be as suited to the role as you are. So how do you make your performance memorable? What do you bring to the table that no one else can? Well… yourself. Everything that makes you who you are. Your unique emotional makeup and attributes.

And how do you bring that to bear in the audition? You find something in the material that you can connect to on a primal level. What I mean by that is you need to find something in the piece that affects you in a deeply emotional way.

Think of it like this. Every scene in a well written script involves conflict, and the stakes are always high for the characters involved in that conflict. That’s essential for good drama. So to put yourself in the skin of the character you need to experience the same emotions. It is not enough to approximate, or indicate an emotion. The camera doesn’t lie, and we can see false emotion for what it is. Indicating a thought or an emotion is the quickest way to the exit door.

Substitution is a great tool to use to connect to the material in a scene. Unless you have experienced the exact circumstances of the scene you are going to have to use your imagination to connect to it on an emotional level. We all have relationship dynamics that are primal – mothers, fathers, siblings, children, loved ones, family and friends.

Substitute an appropriate person from your own life for the character you are talking to in a scene and use your imagination to create a “What if?” scenario. “What if my boyfriend had just killed a girl while drunk driving?”, “What if my father just told me I was adopted?”, “What if my girlfriend were sitting in a room with a bomb and won’t leave?”. You see where I’m going.

So, to conclude: All four of the above are things I look for in a casting situation. If I have an instinct about an actor I will discuss their approach to the scene with them and try to figure out what makes them tick. There is nothing more rewarding in an audition than discovering an actor who can intelligently and articulately discuss their approach to their craft and the scene in particular.

Keep these four concepts in mind when approaching an audition. If you incorporate them into your preparation you will elevate yourself into that top ten percent of actors who make a director or casting director sit up and take notice during an audition.

© Graham Cantwell, Film Venture 2018


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