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The Working Actor

Hire Education, Out of Character

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Hire Education, Out of Character
Dear Michael:

Why is it that actors tend to book work when they don't care about the audition, don't need the work, or are sick or tired during the audition? Is it possible for actors to actually book a job that they care about and really prepare for? What mental inductions can you suggest to get us to the place of relaxation and optimal creativity during the high-pressure scenario of an audition?

—Kurt Qobayne, Croton-on-Hudson, N.Y.

Dear K.Q.:

You've asked about one of my favorite actor topics: the psychology of auditioning. For years now, all over the country, I've taught a one-night seminar called "Audition Psych. 101" and been fascinated again and again by the universality of some of the warped ways we actors think about this process. Often the solution comes down to thinking about it differently.

The reason we seem to give better auditions when we're sick or tired or we don't need or want the job is this: Being in these states obliterates a whole lot of extra mental stuff that otherwise gets in the way—trying to calculate how to get hired, how to impress, how to be liked, how to get it right; soliciting approval of our talents; wondering how it's all going; and so on. We're too sick, tired, or uninterested to care. With all that self-evaluating, anxiety-producing nonsense absent, we're able to show up at our best—to come in and simply do the thing we know how to do: perform. And the people behind the table are able to witness our talents, because we're not editing or worrying or trying to guess what they want. We're just doing our thing.

So, what do you do? Run out and get sick before every audition? Find things to hate about every project? No. I have another, more sensible suggestion, which may be equally unpleasant, but which I stand by.

Actors who've taken my class have been most helped by making a particular mental adjustment. It's not what you'd expect, and most find it hard to embrace at first. But it's been my experience that this approach is more helpful and more freeing than anything else: You're not getting the job.

Yep. That's it. That's the big secret to better auditioning. Look at the pure mathematics: How often do we actually get cast? How many actors are vying for the same role? I mean, let's just get really real here for a moment. Statistically, the chances are slim-to-none that you're going to book the acting job you're auditioning for. What's more, there seems to be very little pattern, very little that's predictable, trackable, fair, logical, or consistent about who gets hired. It's all very mysterious, really. Besides that, we can't guess what a particular director or casting director will like or not like. So, when we go to auditions trying to figure out how to get ourselves cast, we've set an impossible goal, because it's not something we can control. No wonder it causes nervousness and anxiety. Trying to figure out how to get an acting job is like trying to figure out how to defuse a time bomb with foreign instructions. It's enough to melt your brain.

So I say, stop doing all of that. Stop trying to steer the casting process. Stop trying to figure out how to get the job. We actors waste all kinds of time and energy trying to break a code that doesn't exist. It's random. It's subjective. And there isn't always a correlation between merit and success. So if getting cast is your only satisfactory outcome, you're going to be disappointed again and again. It's not your fault; that's just the math. It's far more likely that you will not be the actor they choose.

I know that sounds discouraging, but here's the paradox: If you truly embrace the fact that you're not going to get the job, it frees you up to just relish the moment when you get to be an actor and play a character while people watch. Because that's all you get, really. When you go on an audition, you are guaranteed only one thing: the chance to act. You love acting, remember? It's what drives you. And when you audition, you get to do that. You get to play a role for a few minutes, and no one will take that from you. Savor those moments.

With this frame of mind, instead of looking for approval, you're offering your unique take, your way of doing the role. (Since you're not going to get the job, there is no longer a right or wrong, just your take on the part.) The result is that auditions get much less terrifying. You might even find yourself loving them.

Dear Michael:

Have you ever been called to a commercial audition where you feel like you don't fit the breakdown? I have an audition tomorrow, and I play a sales representative. Although I'm over 18, I look younger in person (15–17). My headshots look exactly like me. I recently got them done because I had this problem before, where I was going out for college-type roles. What should I do in this situation?

—Not the Type, Los Angeles

Dear Not the Type:

Here's my short answer: Go.

I've had those auditions myself, where I was completely wrong for the part and I knew it. There was one where I was called in to audition to play the friendly checkout register guy who represented the store the commercial was for. I never play that guy. I play the untrustworthy competitor, or the dumb neighbor who doesn't get it, or some weird character part. This role called for a nice, normal, friendly, helpful spokesperson type. I couldn't imagine what the casting people were thinking.

So I went, grumbling the whole time...and got a callback. In fact, I was the only person called back for my role. They were matching up the other actors to me. That's how sure they were that I was their choice. You guessed it: I booked the damned thing.

Now, granted, a few months after the spot aired, the store went out of business, but that's beside the point. For whatever reason, the advertising folks wanted someone like me to represent this particular product.

Trust the expertise of the casting folks. They know what they're looking for and who they want to see. And if—worst-case scenario—they've made a mistake by calling you in to audition, they still get to see you give it your best shot. And that's an ad for a different product: you.

Postscript: Sure enough, Not the Type wrote back to let us know he'd gotten a callback for the role he wasn't right for.

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