We take in words intellectually. They stay in the memory based on the importance the brain gives them. But we take in reactions on a more visceral level, and they become imprinted on the heart. This is what great film and TV actors offer us through listening. And this is what you have to offer through listening, starting from the very first moment of your audition.
Film and television are reactive media. The next time you're watching a TV show or movie, notice that the actors listen and react more than they talk. It follows, then, that hiring decisions made in auditions are based heavily—at least 50 percent—on what you're doing when you're not reading your lines. Too many actors believe an audition is all about their lines. But while they may read well, they're not going to get the job if that's all they've prepared for. Then, when they don't get the job, they obsess over how to improve their reading rather than how to improve the quality of their listening, their silence, and their reactions to the other character's lines.
The kind of listening that wins jobs isn't about glancing at the reader every once in a while in an effort to appear involved and connected. What I'm talking about is listening so alive and vivid that it expands the possibilities of the role. Some call this "map of the world" listening. It happens when an actor is deeply connected and engaged when the other person is speaking, to the point where the actor's face opens up and shows us the "map" of his or her emotional world. Directors especially love this quality. They know that if they hire an actor who really knows how to listen, they will get consistently dynamic reaction shots and the unique moments of silent revelation that are so vital onscreen. A director friend of mine says he won't consider hiring an actor unless he sees that the actor is able to tell the entire story of the scene through his or her face and eyes. He wants the actor who doesn't actually need the lines to make the scene compelling. That's the level at which job-getting actors operate.
Even in roles with a relatively narrow scope—a tough cop, a prickly judge, a sweet mom—or with very few lines, listening can make or break an audition. The risk with these roles is that even if you have made wonderful choices, it's more than likely that many other actors will have made choices in the same ballpark. So what breaks you out from the crowd? Why you and not them? Again, your uniqueness lies in your moments of silence. While other actors may be able to speak like you, nobody listens like you, processes information the way you do, or reacts as you react. These moments of fully involved listening say more about who you are than the words ever could. At the end of the day, what gets you the job will have less to do with what you say and much more to do with how you hear.
A Dynamic Form of Communication
One of the reasons listening is often a problem in auditions is because most actors don't listen particularly well in real life. This is not exclusive to actors, by the way. Our culture is so wired and we have so much information coming at us from all directions all the time that our brains are constantly multitasking. Our listening skills become shaky at best. We may look like we're listening to what someone is saying; some of their words might even get in. But at the same time, we're thinking about the text we just got, the grocery list, or our next appointment. No wonder most actors, if they listen at all, listen in this distracted, jumpy way in auditions.
Let me repeat: Film and TV are about real listening, the kind that requires you to clear your addled mind and focus exclusively on the person right there in front of you and what he or she has to say. The kind in which you allow the person's words and thoughts to penetrate your heart and mind and then let your reactions to those words emanate purely and powerfully from your eyes as your face relaxes from its neutral curtain and becomes alive with expression. Real listening is about listening as a form of communication that is just as dynamic as speaking and is appreciated as such. The actor who really listens knows it's the eyes that are the window to the soul, not the mouth.
The art of map-of-the-world listening in auditions requires openness born of skill. I teach the specific steps to attaining this skill in much greater detail in my classes, but, simply defined, it rests on mastering a technique that allows you to find and establish personally meaningful relationships to the other character or characters in the scene, in order to form connections that have depth and intensity.
We all know that most of the time you're not going to get a lot of help in this regard from the reader. But that will matter less if you have established a strong relationship: You will be responding more to the feelings you have for the person than to how his or her words are being delivered. If you have the tools and take the time to establish a dynamic relationship, your reactions will stay fresh and vivid throughout the scene. You will be on your way to being a map-of-the-world listener. But if you rely only on the reader to give you something to react to truthfully, well, that's a map to nowhere.
Giving a reading is not nearly enough to win a role. Jobs don't go to readings but to real people, and real people really listen. Jobs go to actors who are confident enough to take the time to deeply hear, process, and react to what the other person is saying. These are actors who know that jobs are won in the silences; actors who appreciate that, as in life, there is no audition that can't be improved by a moment or two of being quiet and connecting. The actors whom directors want are those whose reactions expand the possibilities of the role, and whose open and expressive faces will stay in people's hearts long after the words are forgotten.
Craig Wallace is the creator and teacher of the Wallace Audition Technique. He teaches classes in Los Angeles and lectures at colleges, universities, and arts organizations across the country. He is the author of the best-selling book "The Best of You—Winning Auditions Your Way." Contact him through www.wallaceauditiontechnique.com.