Actors who aim to sabotage other actors rear their ugly heads in a variety of ways, some deliberate and others more benign. But the result is the same. Their actions disrupt focus and undermine the professional process. This is exactly what the saboteur wants: a leg up to snuff out the competition. And although actor sabotage doesn't seem to be the norm, it happens, and it can be jarring. How can serious actors stay on their game while minimizing distractions around them?
An L.A. actor and associate professor at California State University, Fullerton, Eve Himmelheber is all too familiar with the pitfalls of a bustling waiting room populated with people she has worked with or run into before who are unable to read her body language and respect her desire to quietly focus on the audition material. Though not necessarily malicious, these Chatty Cathys can't help but unload their evaluations of the competition in the room, their take on the audition material, or their personal relationship with the casting director that is bound to give them a boost. Says Himmelheber, "They are black holes of energy who suck the very life out of you. These people chat it up to alleviate their own nerves and in doing so send you into a spiral from which any trained actor would have trouble recovering."
Veteran actor Elizabeth Ince has also frequently encountered the newcomer or the actor who needs excessive attention in the waiting room. "They latch on and start talking nonstop gibberish at you," she says. "You try to be polite at first, hoping they'll be satisfied and move on, but listening only serves as encouragement." In such situations, Ince attempts to gravitate to another area of the room. "Still," she says, "you have to start your prep all over again and override the gross noise pollution you've just experienced."
The Drama Queens (and Kings)
Sometimes the sabotage is more overt. Casting director Danielle Eskinazi recalls one actor who consistently aimed to undermine the casting process by exiting the audition room and announcing to the lobby, "I nailed it! They just said they were going to book me." Such shenanigans are not well-received among professional actors or the casting community. Eskinazi politely pulled the actor aside and explained that her behavior was inappropriate and unprofessional to her fellow actors. Eskinazi then called the actor's agent to discuss her future with Eskinazi's office.
Actor sabotage isn't limited to the lobby; it can snake its way into the audition room and prey on an unsuspecting actor who must then try to salvage the situation while remaining professional in front of decision-makers. Eskinazi has seen actors overact, speak loudly, and even steal dialogue from other actors in an attempt to grab attention. Says Eskinazi, "I always tell them that [these tactics] make them look bad and uneven. Overacting doesn't work in an audition or callback room. Please tone it down."
Unfortunately, not every CD or director will come to the aid of an actor railroaded into a sticky audition situation. L.A. actor Julia Frances remembers one particularly humiliating callback early in her career. The director of the film grouped Frances with two other actors and asked the trio to try different roles in order to assess chemistry and character compatibility. One of the actors refused to read for any characters other than the one she performed at her original audition. She then hijacked the scene halfway through the audition by improvising dialogue with the sole purpose of insulting Frances. The actor proceeded to criticize everything from Frances' wardrobe to her character choices. Says Frances, "I was mortified. But since she was doing this 'in character,' I couldn't really accuse her of trying to make me look bad in front of the director." Frances didn't get the role, and she never auditioned for that director again. Was actor sabotage to blame for the missed opportunity? Though Frances can't give a definitive answer, she knows it rattled her focus and hindered her performance.
Today, with eight additional years of experience, Frances wishes she had handled the situation differently. "At the time," she muses, "I was such a green actress that I was deferential to other actors, assuming that they were all more experienced and knowledgeable than me. Now, even though that behavior might catch me off-guard initially, I am much more prepared to take on someone so confrontational."
The Sneaky Petes
Sometimes, sabotage attempts take the form of slick, subtle comments designed to shake the competition's confidence—and the saboteurs are fully aware of the effect. Dirk Robertson, a Scottish-born actor now pursuing a theatrical career in Virginia, experienced this unsettling tactic after having what he thought was a nice chat with another actor while in the waiting room. After the actor auditioned, he approached Robertson and said, "Good luck! Whatever you do, don't look at the director's mustache." Robertson entered the room and, to his horror, couldn't take his eyes off the thin line of hair on the director's upper lip. Says Robertson, "It was great sabotage. [The actor] engaged me in polite, innocent conversation before he went in, so he knew I was going to listen to him when he came out. It was very clever."
Since that incident, Robertson has approached auditions as if they were a competitive sport. "You engage and interact with the people you have come to see—no one else," he says. "That way your energy and concentration remain intact. It is worth remembering that even conversations which are not meant to throw you can distract you."
Sabotage can take place behind the scenes of a production—and it can be ugly. At 10 years old, Brenda Stevens did a show with a junior theater company in San Diego and had a run-in with a stereotypical stage mom. Stevens had already been offered a role when her friend's mother called the casting director and convinced the CD to share the role with her daughter. Throughout the run of the show, the stage mom complained to Stevens' mom that Stevens was trying to sabotage the woman's daughter. Says Stevens, "Thinking back on it, it was a really mean thing to do to a 10-year-old. Fortunately, even at 10, I was able to separate what was happening offstage from my performance. It all just felt so unfair. I remember feeling like I couldn't win, no matter how nice I was to her daughter." Stevens encourages young performers to share negative experiences and frustrations with their parents, if only for moral support. The experience taught her to always be respectful and careful with her words. "You never know what someone will overhear and how they will take it," she says. "I think that is especially important in this business, where everyone knows everyone and egos run rampant."
The line between actor sabotage and self-sabotage is often blurred. Himmelheber believes that self-sabotage is much more prevalent than actors sabotaging other actors. "Self-sufficiency and self-confidence are required of us as performers," she says. "Nagging doubts or trying to control the parts of the industry that we have no control over—such as 'what type they are looking for' or 'how many they are hiring'—are more paralyzing to the actor than the occasional oaf in the waiting room." L.A.-based casting director Chadwick Struck agrees. Though he hasn't witnessed actors sabotaging other actors in the waiting room, he has seen plenty of actors shoot themselves in the foot by over-intellectualizing material and underpreparing. Struck suggests that actors use their time in the waiting room wisely by thinking of ways to play the scene the standard way while also considering options outside the box. "Don't put yourself in a position to be sabotaged, simply by focusing on your prep," he says. "In the audition room, have confidence in your choices, but be ready to be pliable."
And the Anti-Tactics
Although it is a rare occurrence, actor sabotage is an inevitable part of the business. Says Frances, "There will always be actors in the waiting room talking about how they are good friends with the casting director or bragging about the jobs they have booked." But Frances encourages her fellow actors not to take it personally. "Things like sabotage are done entirely because of the other person's insecurities." And there are ways to circumvent these toxic tactics. Frances' negative experience taught her the value of studying improvisation in order to handle unexpected situations in the audition room. Some actors choose to listen to music to stay focused; others may retreat to the restroom for a moment to collect themselves. Ince avoids all conversations. "Veteran actors know that the minutes spent in the waiting room are golden opportunities to make the transition from traffic delays; parking; weather; [have] last looks [for] a new, sudden insight into the copy which is going to change everything; and most of all, focus, focus, focus." At the end of the day, the job is won by the performance in the audition room, not the drama happening outside those closed doors. "The best thing is to ignore it as much as possible and not let it affect your performance," offers Stevens, "because the casting director or director doesn't really care what someone else did to you. Your performance is all that matters."
Robertson's newfound competitive spirit after "the mustache incident" paid off. At a recent audition, he found himself engaged in a conversation. Remembering his past mistake, Robertson told his colleague straight up that he didn't want to talk so that he could concentrate on the audition. When he stepped into the room to audition, he realized that the person he'd been speaking with was the producer of the project. The producer clearly respected his boundaries and focus—because Robertson got the part. He suggests, "Don't ever be rude, just firm. You can politely remind people why you have come. If they have come for the same reason, they will understand. You've come to work. Anyone connected with the production, who has not introduced themselves, is going to respect that." Indeed, if you are professional, you will be treated in kind, and you'll have the comfort of knowing that you achieved your success through diligence and honesty.