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The Craft

To Flirt or Not to Flirt

To Flirt or Not to Flirt
Everyone flirts differently. That's the first thing you need to know if you choose the action "to flirt," whether in an audition scene or a performance. Consider the ways different actors flirt, says Los Angeles acting coach Scott Sedita, one of my go-to people for commonsense advice about acting.

George Clooney has a confident, ironic flirt, with a glint in the eye. Kim Cattrall's flirt is sexually charged. Justin Long's is shy; Michael Cera's is awkward and self-effacing, like Woody Allen's. Angelina Jolie's is seductive. You can flirt coyly, teasingly, comically, innocently, any which way. I've noticed that some people appear to be flirting simply by lowering their voice and speaking in hushed, confiding tones.

Ultimately, though, you must flirt in your own personal, honest way within the circumstances of the script and with the qualities of the character you're playing. Hopefully, what comes out is devoid of facial contortions and artificial mannerisms—specific, not generic. "It's not about how you look when you flirt, or how you think you should look, or how someone else looks when they flirt," says Sedita. "It's about how you flirt, and that makes it organic and authentic."

But is flirting a good action to choose in the first place when you're auditioning? Is it a too easy choice? Do actors tend to go overboard with it? Opinions differ.

Los Angeles casting director Chris Game pulls no punches in an email response. "Actors nearly always overdo flirting and thus do not play it honestly," he writes. "They flirt like people in Mentos commercials. Another way to put it is that they flirt like actors, not like humans. When we flirt as humans, we usually try to convey our desires in the least demonstrative way possible, as a fail-safe in case it is not reciprocated. We generally only flirt in an overly emphatic way if we are not genuine and are doing it to further an agenda. You know, like actors flirt with casting directors!"

Point well taken, Chris, and since he mentions flirting with casting directors: Don't do it (unless it's as part of the process of reading a scene with the CD, of course). One former casting director I talked to said it happened to him now and then when he was casting in New York and L.A. and he didn't appreciate it. At all.

So, back to our question: Is flirting a good choice in an audition scene? "It's not a strong-enough action," says Deryn Warren, author of "How to Make Your Audience Fall in Love With You." "You ought to raise the stakes by needing that person more than flirting implies." She advises her students to "make the other person fall in love with you—this is your last chance to have someone!" Or maybe you're desperate to see if you're attractive or have some other powerful motive. Think of Tennessee Williams' Maggie the Cat. Her flirting, if you call it that, whether it's with Brick or Big Daddy, comes from a very profound and needy place.

If you keep the action at a light, flirty level throughout, Warren says, you'll miss layers. If you choose a stronger action, you'll be forced to ask yourself, Is this working? If not, what are the stakes? She emphasizes that flirting should only be the consequence of another, deeper choice.

My buddy Ed Hooks, who teaches acting in Chicago, agrees: "Flirting is a cheap choice, same as anger. It's the kind of choice any high school drama student is likely to layer onto a scene. I emphatically advise my students against doing that. I tell them to use anger and seduction as last choices, not first, if there is an option."

But when Hooks is called upon to flirt, he's been known to go whole hog. Once, auditioning for a TV role, he found himself in a scene in which his character had to attempt to lure a character played by Jaclyn Smith into a backroom. He wasn't reading with Smith, however, but with the casting director, who was about 60, with gray hair dyed red and a peppery personality. "I could not pretend she was Jaclyn Smith," Hooks writes in an email, "so I pretended I had a real thing for dyed redheads (over gray) with peppery personalities. I did my damnedest to get [her] to go into the backroom with me. She blushed, if you're ready for that!" All the producers and writers and the director cracked up, and Hooks was hired on the spot.

Unlike Hooks, Sedita sees flirting as a powerful choice for your intention (what I refer to as an action). "To seduce," however, is even more powerful if appropriate for the given circumstances, he says. But whether flirting or seducing, the important thing is to concentrate on how what you're doing is affecting the other person. You're trying to change how you're affecting him or her—or maybe, if you're getting the response you want, your aim is to reinforce it. In other words, you want to turn the other person on.

"When you're auditioning, it's so important to make it about the other person," Sedita says, "even when they're putting up strong obstacles—like script in face, or eating a sandwich. Think about how you're trying to change them. What's important is that your intention makes them feel something…. When you try to change the other person, that gets you to stop thinking about yourself."

Acting coach Basil Hoffman has a different view on flirting as a choice. He notes that often the actor knows something the character doesn't: whether or not this flirting is going to be successful. "The actor has to know where the scene is going, and whether or not the character is skillful at flirting," he explains. "The character may be a complete dope but so charming and disarming with his foolish attempts that maybe it works anyway."

But Hoffman agrees when I suggest that actors sometimes take a generic approach to flirting. He deflects that tendency by telling his actors to look for something genuinely attractive about the person they're reading with, even if the reader is a complete stranger, a preoccupied casting director, or someone they can't stand. "There's no standard flirting," he says. "It's highly specific to the situation."

Same goes if you're basically flirting with the camera, Hoffman says, although you're unlikely to be reading right into it. Find a spot on the lens, or to the right or left of the camera, that you love, and imagine it to be (as much as you can) an attractive three-dimensional person.

Think of the camera "as an object you can endow with any qualities you choose," suggests Joanna Merlin in "Auditioning: An Actor-Friendly Guide." "Try transforming the lens of the camera into an eye you love, someone with whom you feel comfortable revealing yourself…. Acting in front of the camera is a partnership between you and the camera." She cautions that you need to imagine all this before you walk into the room, so the camera will already be your friend. Or, I would add, your lover, or the person you want for a lover.

Finally, a caveat: No matter what action you're playing, don't touch the casting director, unless you ask permission before the scene starts. But you already knew that, right?

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