I was casting a TV pilot a few years ago, and one of the roles was described as an “Old-World Hollywood agent. He even wears a pocket square in his suit jacket.” All of the lovely actors who came in were dressed to the nines.
I brought in an actor from Canada whom I didn’t know personally, but I had seen his demo reel and been impressed. It was enough to convince me to bring him straight to the producers without a pre-read because I was pressed for time. He had a great comedy background and was a fresh face out here, so I thought it would be an interesting audition at the very least.
When you work on a television show the writers are often the creators and producers of the show. I had a full house that day with the director for the pilot, the star-creator-writer-producer and his writing-producing partner as well.
Johnny Canuck showed up wearing a grungy leather jacket, ripped-up jeans (not the designer kind), and a wrinkled T-shirt. I thought to myself, “Wow, this guy must be really good to be so carefree about how he’s dressed for his audition!” He sat down, didn’t say much, put on his “readers” (half-glasses), and began to read the scene off the page. Our creator-star read with all the actors. The actor continued to read, face down in his sides. He’d look up briefly to see that we were all still there but basically just read off the page. I felt the energy in the room shift. I saw steam start to come out of the producer’s ears. My face got all hot. Then it happened. As if things weren’t bad enough, Johnny decided to try his hand at a joke and change the dialogue. He was sitting in the presence of one of the hottest veteran comedians for the last 30 years, someone who had a long-running hit TV show, and he thought he’d show how funny he was by changing the dialogue. The line read, “Boy! Somebody’s got a bee in his bonnet today!” He changed it to, “Boy! Somebody’s got a bee in his yarmulke today!” He tried to make a Jewish joke to the Jews in the room. At that point, one of the producers’ head exploded. The other producer was so furious he turned his entire body around on the couch to face the back of the room. I felt myself sink into a pool of hot molasses.
He finished his scene. We all just sat there staring at him. You could hear a pin drop. I said, “Thank you,” and he slunk out of the room. Then everybody turned to me with a giant “What the heck was that?” look. I had no answer. I threw myself on the sword. I took responsibility for this guy being unprepared, not caring about how he dressed, and the ultimate sin—changing dialogue.
By the time you get a script, it has been through months of revisions and rewrites, not to mention notes from the studio and the network. The writers want to hear their words. They get very attached to them.
I’ve worked with some directors who openly say, “I’m not attached to the material—it’s OK if you riff a bit.” That’s the time to improvise. Otherwise, stick to the material you’ve been given, put your own spin on it from your well-thought-out character choices, then let it fly…as written.