he interview audition is one of the most confusing and challenging commercial calls an actor gets. No dialogue, no copy, no acting—just speaking directly into the camera in response to a question posed by the casting director.
While it may be a mystery to many of us why we don't book more of these personality auditions, it's clear to casting director James Levine. And the explanation begins with a secret most actors don't know: The people watching our auditions often watch with the sound turned down and the remote in hand, ready to skip to the next person. "They want alive and engaging people," says Levine, who's been casting for 15 years. "The most important thing is to open your mouth and start speaking. In fact, the only thing you can do wrong is to hesitate and stammer and ponder what to say...because they may just fast-forward over you. Trust that your brain works fast enough." In other words, he says, if it's not already happening during your slate, you may be skipped over.
The trick is to be as real and engaging as possible, right from the slate, but not to come across as an actor. "Never talk about show business unless asked," Levine advises. "In fact, never talk about acting. Nothing is more off-putting than actors talking about acting."
But if acting is your passion as well as your profession, why wouldn't they want you to talk about it? The unfortunate answer lies in the current trend of using "real people" in commercials instead of actors. Levine, who was a successful actor for 20 years before turning to casting, is often asked to scout nonactors through his full-service casting company, TypeCasting Inc. Why? Because there's a quality everyday folk bring to the table that actors often don't, he says, underscoring the key difference between actors and civilians: "Actors are used to selling themselves, and real people are being themselves, and that's what's appealing to advertisers. Actors can't help it—they're not even aware they're selling themselves most of the time." And that's the trick to acing the personality interview: Be real, genuine, and not actorlike.
So what should you talk about at these vexing auditions? Hobbies are great; stories of death, sadness, and depression are not. But it's not so much about finding the right topic. It's about how you tell the tale. "If you have a colorful story, it's okay to make it even more so," Levine says. "Keep in mind no one is going to research your answer, so you can embellish to keep it lively."
With nonactors a director faces a number of problems: They can't hit their mark; they can't repeat over and over what they did at the audition. That's why savvier directors hire the actors who seem most real. That might explain why the character description at so many of my auditions in the last few years has included the words "real people." On many of those calls, I was even told not to bring a headshot: It looks too "actory."
Without articulating it, casting directors are saying they want a real person with camera-ready skills. And that's why they need us: We get it. "I'd avoid even using the product name at all, unless it's written on the page," Levine advises. "We know what we're selling. If it comes up in proper context, that's fine, but don't start selling it to us."
Commercial actors who work consistently manage to avoid "selling" in favor of "being," always cognizant of the commercial's needs. Levine sums it up simply: "A lot of actors are involved in being liked, and what we really want is for you to get what we're going for. And then we'll like you."