I was about to graduate college with a degree in theater. My beloved professor and acting mentor sat me down to discuss my future as an actor and what to expect. She spoke for an hour about potential pitfalls in show business, how to maintain motivation, capitalizing on my strengths and addressing my weaknesses. At the end, she correctly interpreted my distracted inner monologue of “Shut up you old bird and let me outta here so I can go have a Cobb salad with the Coen brothers and win an Oscar before I turn 26!” Her punch to my shoulder snapped me back into the moment. “Hey, dummy,” she said, “this last thing is the most important thing, so listen closely: Auditioning is the job. Actually working? On a set? Getting paid? That’s all gravy. Auditioning is the nine-to-five. Auditioning is the job, and the work is a perk. Don’t ever forget that.”
Auditioning is the job, and the work is a perk.
Boy, was she right. I estimate that over the last fifteen years I have auditioned somewhere between 600 and 800 times. I have auditioned for everything from unpaid student short films to small roles in summer blockbusters. I’ve auditioned in Detroit, Los Angeles, New York and Chicago. I have even worked as an assistant for casting directors allowing me to better understand the audition process from the other side. I am in no way trying to paint myself as an expert or as an actor who has auditioning figured out. (If I did, I’d be verbally abusing a terrified assistant through puffy, enhanced lips right now, not writing to you.) I will, however, say that I have learned a few things that will help you aspiring actors tip the odds in your favor just a bit and avoid a couple of things that will most definitely sink your battleship.
You’ll get a phone call or email from your agent. For the sake of this article let’s say the audition is for a commercial. They inform you that “You have an audition for a Kraft Shells and Cheese spot over at Happy’s Casting tomorrow at 11:30 a.m. Look at the breakdown and let me know if you can you make it?” The “breakdown” is a one-page info sheet containing every little thing about the project (roles, shoot dates, producers, locations, etc.). Really read the goddamned thing. You’re gut reaction is going to be “Yes! Of course I can! Whatever you need! If I have to wait on one more table explaining our gluten-free options to a ‘cool mom’ in workout pants while her two-year-old son Tanner plays Fruit Ninja on his own personal iPad, I’m going to stuff my head in the oven. So, yes!” But the truth is you may have to go to a wedding on the day it shoots. Or maybe you have to take off your shirt in the commercial and you are not comfortable with that. There are many reasons you may need to pass on an audition. If you address those reasons early, you’re good. If you wait until you are already in the process to bail, you are dead meat. Casting agents are very busy and will remember (or remember to forget) people who are unreliable.
You may need to pass on an audition. If you bail in the process, you are dead meat.
This Kraft audition you can do, so you call your agent and confirm. Get to work. Memorize your lines. Learn them front to back. Work at it over and over until you could talk about Shells and Cheese in your sleep, because you can’t make an acting choice and make it yours until you have the script on lock. And holding your script in an audition looks bad. It distracts from you and your performance. It reeks of a lack of preparation. Sometimes it cannot be avoided, but try like hell to get rid of that script. If you have a question or don’t understand something, call your agent and ask. They work for you. They want you to succeed. Don’t be shy.
Now that you have the script down, you need to think. Think about the product, think about the tone of the commercial, think about the pacing of the dialogue, think about the room you’ll be in and how it may be situated. Visualize the whole experience. Most importantly think about what choice you are going to make to put your stamp on it. There’s always a choice. Some are small, and some will rattle the rafters. Don’t make an arbitrary choice just to make one. Fall back on your training and trust your instincts. The choice will reveal itself naturally. It may not come quickly, but it will come. And when you make a choice, you will separate yourself from the pack.
Finally, you are ready to go. You feel confident. Great! Now do it again. Double-check everything. This last step has saved my ass more than a few times. I have missed entire pages of dialogue because I didn’t scroll all the way down to the end of the email. I’ve memorized the wrong character’s lines. I’ve realized that the audition is at a different location than I thought or on a different date entirely! It happens. If you double-check everything you can save yourself from looking like a moron. Which is a good thing in any profession.
Arriving at an audition is a lot like being in a David Lynch movie.
Arriving at an audition is a lot like being in a David Lynch movie. You enter a dark room to find it’s filled with people who look and are dressed exactly like you. Some sit alone, sweating, their toes tapping a million miles an hour. Others roam aimlessly muttering to themselves incoherently. It’s bizarre. It is entertaining if you relax enough to take it all in. So do that: relax. You are not going in front a Congressional sub-committee or hosting Saturday Night Live. It’s an audition. There will be more. Even if you totally eat it—which you most likely will not—the sun will rise tomorrow. The casting agents want you to be great. Think of them as teammates, not opponents. So calm down and get into a positive headspace. Lean back, relax, and remember: You already did the work. This is the fun part, performing.
If it’s the initial audition there will probably be a couple of people in the room. The casting director is running the show and usually behind the camera as well as an associate at a computer uploading the footage. If it’s a call-back—a second audition of actors chosen by the client and director, from which the final decision will be made—then all bets are off. It could be three people on a couch. It could be twelve people crammed in a room and another eight on a teleconference from L.A. on a flat screen in the corner. No matter the situation, you should behave the same: Be cool. Be nice. Say “hello” and smile and act like a normal human being. I have watched people turn into babbling goons, do little dances, forget everything because they were out until four a.m. the night before. Their audition is over before they even start. They pulled the pin on a grenade and dropped it at their own feet. Sadly, sometimes, you are the one standing right next to them—collateral damage. Be cool, and everyone will be better off.
Do not, under any circumstances, enter the room and open with an excuse.
This next piece of advice may seem like common sense, but it happens constantly and I guarantee you will not get the job if you do it. Do not, under any circumstances, enter the room and open with an excuse. Do not do it! Ever! People do it all the time; you can feel the air leave the room. I have sat in on casting sessions and watched relatively famous actors that the director is dead-set on hiring walk into a room and say, “Hey, sorry. I just got the script and traffic on La Cienega was terrible so I haven’t had time to work on it too much.” Meanwhile the director has silently, very casually, drawn a line through the actors name after word one. It’s bad form. No one gives a damn about your life outside of that room at that moment, so leave it at home.
You should take improv classes immediately.
The person running the audition will usually give you some final notes before a take or, even better, re-direction after a take. Stop and listen. This is the moment where you can book a job. If you are at a call-back, they already like you enough to see you again. Do what you did originally to confirm that you kick ass. Then the director says, “Try it again this way.” They have given you a gift, so listen to what they say and apply it as best you can. If they think you can take direction well, that is less work for them. Over the last five years, improvisation has become almost a necessity in auditioning. You should take improv classes immediately. At half of my call-backs the director says, "That was good. Now riff on the next one. Throw the script away.” I love it. It’s all about listening and reacting. It’s another chance to show them something special.
You did all you could do. You came fully prepared. You made a choice. You relaxed and were cool in the room. You listened and had fun. You did your job. It’s in their hands now.
The bitter truth is you probably won’t book the job.
If you book the job, enjoy it! You earned it. Wallow in it. You are incredibly fortunate. Let it wash over you (in private, please). Nothing is more annoying to the rest of us than an actor massaging his or herself with some humble-brag about how tough a day it was “on the set.” Do good work and be cool and directors will cast you again. It is a truism in this business that bookings beget bookings.
The bitter truth is you probably won’t book the job. I am not trying to piss in your Shells and Cheese, but it’s a fact, and I don’t want to mislead you. Even if everything went perfectly, you still may not get it. You can destroy the room or leave people crying in laughter or sorrow or even have them applauding your audition and saying you killed it. You can do all of that. But if one person in the room with power thinks that you look like that kid that used to push him in the snow when he was a little, you’re toast. Game over. That is the brutal truth of being a struggling actor. At times it can feel like the most rigged game in the world. Take solace in the fact that many times it has nothing to do with you.
After thirteen years I still have to tell myself to move on. So move on. Let it go. Give yourself an hour to beat yourself up, call everyone involved an asshole and curse the undeserving scumbag, talentless hack, jerk-off that booked your job. And then move on. You have to because auditioning is the job. And tomorrow or the next day or someday very soon, you’ll have another job to do.
A Detroit native, Patrick Gough began acting in 2001. Since graduating from the University of Detroit in 2003 with a degree in theatre, Patrick has been working steadily in television and film. Some of his credits include "National Lampoon's Totally Baked," Starz network's "Boss" and Will Gainey on Fox's "The Chicago Code." He currently resides in the Chicago area.