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The Craft

Auditioning for Pilots

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Auditioning for Pilots
Reality-check time: As Los Angeles acting teacher Doug Warhit reminds us, most pilots don't go beyond the pilot stage. Of those that do, most are canceled within the first four weeks. So there's no need to get your knickers in a twist. As with any other audition, focus on the work.

"If you're getting an opportunity to read for a pilot, you must already have strong acting chops," says Warhit, author of "The Actor's Audition Checklist" and other books. Consider this an opportunity to do what you do best: act.

But bear in mind, a  pilot audition is slightly different from an ordinary TV audition. For one thing, you can't watch the show to get a sense of its style and tone. You need to do a different kind of homework. "You have the breakdown and the script—it's not a big mystery," says actor and former casting director Mara Casey.

First order of business: Ask your agent for the complete script. If that's not available, Casey advises you to just make your choices. If anything is unclear, like a relationship, ask the casting director for more-detailed information to help you make the strongest choices.

If you don't have the complete script, Warhit recommends going to www
.showfax.com. There, for a $68 a year membership, you may be able to read the sides for other roles that are being cast for the same show, which will give you a fuller picture.

But listen up. According to the Screen Actors Guild, you have the right to see the entire script: "The latest version of the script will be made accessible to the performer in the casting office twenty-four (24) hours in advance of a scheduled reading or immediately after the scheduling of the interview, whichever last occurs." Robert Benedetti, a longtime film and TV producer and author of "Action: Professional Acting for Film and Television," observes that not enough actors take advantage of that right.

In any case, go to IMDb.com or IMDb Pro to read up on the pilot's writers, director, and producers. Often they have a consistent tone or style that they carry from one show to the next.

Warhit says actors sometimes neglect to ask their agents if the show is a comedy or drama; you can't always tell from the material. And if it's a comedy, find out if it's a one- or four-camera setup, because that too is indicative of the show's style. If it's a one-hour drama—say, a police procedural—it's helpful to find out if it's like "NCIS," which has humor, or "CSI," which doesn't.

But teacher-coach Margie Haber warns against making assumptions about your character based on this type of general information. If you're auditioning for a cop series or a lawyer series, she says, remember that the character is a human being with relationships first of all; the occupation comes second.

"It's good to know whether it's a sitcom or a drama," Haber says, "but basically it doesn't make any difference if you don't have the relationship. Then you lose what makes you human." In other words, focus on the connections your character has with the other characters. "There are certain structures to every genre," she explains, "but don't be burdened by the idea of what those are. That'll take over and you'll play the idea and lose what's important: living the life, having the relationships."

She also notes, "A pilot is the beginning of a series, so it's extremely important for the audience to fall in love with the relationships"—and that's what you need to concentrate on.

Networking the Networks

TV director Mary Lou Belli, who wrote "The Sitcom Career Book" with Phil Ramuno, has another tip: In addition to checking out the creators' style, find out what types of shows are usually presented by the network that's producing the pilot. So if, for example, "Everybody Loves Raymond" creator Philip Rosenthal is now writing a show for TNT, that means he'll have a different audience in mind.

Also remember, says Belli, that in a pilot you are creating the character from scratch, and thus the parameters are very broad. Just because the character breakdown indicates a 19-year-old, college-educated African-American female, the role could still turn into a 40-year-old Korean man who owns a small business. "The character is just something the writer wrote on a page because it filled a plot point," she says. "What's important is to find the character they want to fulfill that plot point.

"That being said," Belli continues, "the more richness you bring to that character, and the more you note how that character fits into the whole," the better off you'll be. That's why it's so important to read the whole script, so you know how your cog fits into that wheel. She adds, "The place where actors tend to go astray most is in style—for example, being bigger than needed when the style is going to be realistic, not at all farcical." Still, she says, a strong choice is always better than no choice. That provides room for the response to be: "I see what you're doing, but we're not going that way."

The pre-read that you'll have with the casting director is a good time to ask questions. The CD might have additional information from the writer that's not in the dialogue or stage directions, such as, "We want a Matt Damon type like in 'Good Will Hunting.' " That knowledge can guide your choices. Also, if the pilot is going through many rounds of auditions, the CD knows what's been rejected and, says Belli, can offer tips like, "They hated it when so-and-so did that, so don't do it."

"What's unique to pilots," says Benedetti, "is that there's a lot riding on choices made on both sides." Among the studio's concerns is choosing just the right actors for the pilot so that they don't have to change horses (so to speak) midstream. "They hope to live with you for however many episodes are picked up," he says, "and it's unpleasant to replace someone after a pilot's been shot, but it happens."

So pilot auditions are nerve-racking situations all around. Benedetti, who's been through many, both as actor and producer, says that at the callback stage it tends to feel like a court-martial, with a room full of producers, network representatives, reps of sponsors, and others. Try not to buy into that tension.

It should be noted, though, that screen tests are sometimes used for callbacks, including pilot callbacks. According to one casting director, the Fox network has started using screen tests; others may be doing so this year as well. Casey points out some obvious advantages for the actor: no more intimidating studio execs who seem more interested in their Blackberrys than in you, plus you get help with your makeup and hair. "But of course, there's no coming back into the room with different adjustments," she adds.

Benedetti echoes Belli in observing that CDs can be your best friends. Don't hesitate to ask them flat out what the creators are seeking.

Ultimately, despite the additional pressures and possibly the sense of not knowing what the show is about, says Warhit, your mindset has to be: "I have at least as much to offer them as they have to offer me. I have a great gift, and now I get to share it." That's true whether you're auditioning for community theater or a TV pilot. "If you focus on the work, you can make creative, fun choices," he says. "Don't make it be like a visit to the Land of Oz."

If you get to audition for a pilot, he reiterates, you've got it going on. You wouldn't be there in the first place if you didn't already know what you're doing.

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