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Casting Advice

‘The Americans’ + ‘The Long Road Home’ CD Explains How Listening Can Make or Break an Audition

‘The Americans’ + ‘The Long Road Home’ CD Explains How Listening Can Make or Break an Audition
Photo Source: Nat Geo

A glance at CD Cami Patton’s Resume reveals a wide variety of projects, often ones with high profile names and devoted fan bases like “Justified,” “Parenthood,” and “The Americans.” One theme that she seems to return to amidst the mix of comedies and dramas are projects that focus on military stories. True or fictionalized, it’s a genre she likes to explore, and for Nat Geo’s miniseries “The Long Road Home,” she revisited the familiar topic in a story about American heroism in the Iraq war. The series depicts the true story of a group of soldiers from Fort Hood, Texas that was violently ambushed in Baghdad in 2004 during the Iraq war. The events changed the tone and course of the future of the conflict. Despite the challenges presented in the project—based on real people and events, based on a book, finding actors who could play convincing soldiers, an on-location shoot, and more—Patton describes the smooth process of bringing this little-known story, which cuts between the battlefront in Iraq and the homefront in Texas, to the screen.

Why was “The Long Road Home” a project that you were interested in taking on?
When Meg Liberman and I were casting partners, we did “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific,” and being involved in representing people who are representing our country and fighting for our country is important to me. My father was a flight surgeon in the Air Force and was in Vietnam when I was young. The material itself was important and exciting and I enjoy working in that kind of world, trying to find actors that will do justice to the real people. That’s the biggest challenge but also the biggest payoff.

What was the casting process like?
It was amazing. We were just trying to find the best people for each role, and it was very collaborative and supportive. Most of the process was putting people on tape and sending the auditions to our producers. If I remember right, I think there was only one day where Mikko [Alanne] (the creator) and Phil Abraham, our director, were in the room with me working with a couple of the actors that we were testing, but most of the time it was done with taped auditions and/or offers. It was a very cohesive group, and I have to say that particularly up through the network process, it just felt like everybody was working toward the same goal and were very much in sync.

How did the book and true story influence the process and the final cast?
It was a huge part of the process. We had a ton of material, pictures, and video clips. Fortunately, because Martha Raddatz had been there so many times and had interviewed the real vets so many times, there was so much access to information and material to try and do justice to those people. We tried to come as close as we could at least in who their essence was. As we got further down to the smallest characters, there were a few that were less specific, but by and large, Mikko worked really hard to represent the real guys and certainly the core people that were involved in that nine-hour situation. We did our best to come as close to them as we could.

Was there any additional research that you did for the casting process?
Other than reading the book it was based on, I tried to immerse myself as much as I could in what we knew about those particular people. I’ve got a pretty good history of working on projects that are involved in the military or are involved in soldiers, so coming into it, there were a lot of actors who can walk in the door and you believe that they’re soldiers, and there are quite a few who that’s a harder leap for, and I think just having lived in that world before sort of helps inform that. However, at least this time, we weren’t having to do something that was a period piece, which really helped.

What made this project unique to other military stories you’ve worked on?
What really struck me was, as someone who tries to pay attention to these things, I had no idea what happened. It was complete news to me; I missed it the first go-around. I felt that was true about a lot of people as I started talking to agents and actors as they would come in, they were all fascinated by this story, and yet, it just wasn’t as well publicized. Not to take away from that or the fact that the book was a success, I do think that there was a large part of the population who just weren’t as aware as they should’ve been that this happened. To read about what they went through and what they came out of, and all of the people who went in trying to save them, trying to help, and what those other people went through, it was just overwhelming. It just felt like something that people really needed to know.

What were some of the challenges you experienced while casting?
A lot of it is it’s a long process, and over time, there were things that changed in terms of people’s availability, or people that we might’ve been excited about that couldn’t make things happen quite fast enough, weren’t ready, and then maybe became unavailable. But, I have to say, for having done big projects before, it was a really smooth process. One of the huge challenges was the fact that the whole thing filmed in Texas on Fort Hood, and we had local casting in Texas, and Beth Sepko did an amazing job in trying to find a community there, which was an unbelievable challenge and she managed to pull it off. I watched her have to do it, but that wasn’t something that that was my particular challenge. It was amazing that she was able to tap into that community.

Also, one of the challenges when working with soldiers is, because they’re in uniform and wearing helmets so much of the time, we have to make sure that when you see a face underneath that helmet, you recognize immediately who that is. It’s very easy for people to all look alike and it makes it confusing in those situations. You have to know that there’s somebody who’s really monitoring what that picture is, what that field is going to look like. It’s a particular challenge any time we do soldiers actually in action.

READ: The Importance of Challenging Your Comfort Zone

When you work with a location casting director, are you mainly working separately, or are there parts of it that you collaborate?
It’s very collaborative. I think it’s different with each casting person and each project. For me, and very specifically for this, whoever I’m working with, I watch everything that they do, everything that they send, and the main part of trying to help figure out who makes the most sense. I have the bigger review of who the rest of the cast is, who’s going to be in those scenes with these people, and I’m trying to make sure that everyone is identifiable.

What physical considerations did you have to make for the actors?
We had to make them for many of the actors. For example, the character Eric Bourquin is an incredibly tall guy. The actor we cast came in the first week of casting, and there was no beating him. It was just obvious that he was going to be the guy. There certainly is [a level of fitness required] because you do have to believe that these people can handle that situation, and more when they actually get the job, they have to be able to do it. They have to be able to reasonably approximate it and learn how to handle a gun like they do it all the time, particularly when they’re loaded down with that equipment. So much of it takes place in the heat of actual battle, so they were all going to be wearing all of that equipment just about all the time. It’s easy for someone to really stand out because they can’t do it.

What is different about the industry and casting since you started out?
It’s so dramatic. We always were trying to find the best person for the job, no matter where they came from. It was not always easy to include people outside of our local market. Even ten years ago, we were getting a lot of self-tapes and whatnot, and how we dealt with those was very different than it is now. When I pick something out, people basically all over the world are self-taping and sending it to us, or uploading it to my casting site and being considered that I never would’ve known are there. I’ve hired so many people I’ve never met or never been in a room with because they have gone from self-taping somewhere to shooting on a location somewhere. It has basically gotten to a point where most of the producers and directors and the studios and networks are used to that process. We do our best to at least give a director the opportunity to FaceTime or Skype with an actor and have a work session with them wherever they are. It’s amazing how as an industry they have embraced that part of the process, which was always the difficult part.

On the downside of that, we used to all be in a room hunkered in together for hours having casting sessions and it was so much more personal between the showrunners and the writers and the directors and any actors and me. We all felt like part of a team, and now it’s a little harder because everybody’s spread out all over. Rarely are you all in a room together; you’re more often on a conference call together. It gets a little harder to have that feeling, but at the same time, it takes some of the pressure off the actors when they don’t walk into a room of ten people. There’s a give and take, there’s good to it and there’s a downside. It’s definitely incredibly different.

Where do you look for talent besides agent submissions?
It really depends on what the project is. Each job is its own different animal. I love to go to theater, I go to theater a lot, I also go to National Theater Lodge where you can actually go and see tapings of plays that are currently on stage in the U.K., so I see as many of those as I can as well, just so I know that talent base. The other thing that’s different that’s made the job a little bit more difficult is that there’s now so much direction in trying to stay on top of who’s on what and what you’ve seen. There’s a lot more to process. I think there are 450 shows at the moment with all the streaming services and everything else, so it’s just a process of trying to learn as many actors and stay on top of that as I can without getting overwhelmed. And, for me, the good news is everything stays in my database. I can go back and see people when I’m working on a project and wonder if I have missed anybody. Who should I see on that maybe I haven’t thought of? I scroll through and see. I think a lot of actors’ misperception is that we operate from main lists, so big names, and I’ve seen that talked about before, and that’s so not the case.

READ: How to Choose an Outfit for Your Audition

What advice do you have for actors?
I would say there are two things that are critical. The first one is from the second you walk in the door, be listening. It’s very easy because of nerves to get in your head and be so busy concentrating on what you were planning to do when you walk in that you’re not hearing the dialogue coming beforehand. It’s a tip off that they’re not in the right place. I think by and large, most casting people do their best to try and make that as relaxing as they can. We’re all trying to help make that as easy a process as we can. Casting directors want you to be the answer. They want the actor who walks in to be great.

The second thing I would say is that when you walk out of a room, let it go and don’t think about it again. I couldn’t understand how my sister, who is an actor, could go through audition after audition, and go to lunch. I would’ve been obsessing about what I did or didn’t do or what had happened. Did they like me or did they not? She said, for her, the audition was a job, and if she got booked, that was the gravy. And I think that’s the best way you can look at it: your job today is to go on whatever auditions you have, be as prepared as you can be, and be as relaxed as you can be. If you don’t hear back or you don’t get it, don’t sweat it. There’s so much out of your control at that point, and all you can control is what you do in that room.

What shouldn’t an actor do in your audition room?
That’s tricky because for everything that I say they shouldn’t do, I have an example of someone who did it and it worked. I think if they’re going to do something that might be a big surprise, say it first, and sometimes we can say, well, here’s why you shouldn’t do that. For example, if they’re trying to include you in the scene some way, that could often backfire. But it’s a very tricky question because you sort of get in on their process and it may take away some moment of brilliance.

One thing that I do think is people are encouraged to ask questions, and there’s nothing wrong with asking questions as long as you’re prepared to hear the answer. Often, people ask a question and then whatever they do does not reflect the answer to that question, and now they’ve really tanked themselves rather than if they’d just done it the way they were prepared to do it. Then, we wouldn’t have noticed that they didn’t do whatever we said. If you actually have a legitimate question, fantastic. But it really does go back to what I said about listening. If you have a question, really listen to the answer and try to address it and take it in. That’s really the key: being open, listen, and try to be as relaxed as you can in that environment so you can do your best work.

Is there something that an actor can do to be more memorable in an audition?
There are times that someone makes themselves memorable for one reason or another, but it’s really more about consistency. There are people who you just know are in the bank, who are going to come in and rock it, no matter what it is. They may not even be remotely right for it, but they’re going to make it work for them, and they’re going to be good. With that said, everybody also has the right to have a bad day or an off day and not nail it, and it doesn’t mean you’ve just blown it with that person and we’re never going to bring them in again. We’re all human and we all know that, but it’s really just about showing that you’re professional and that you take it seriously and you show up ready and prepared and that you’re going to give it your best shot.

I also think sometimes people get forced into going in when they’re not ready, and that’s a mistake. Usually, we make sure that everybody has a point that’s long enough to be prepared ahead of time and have as much information for them to be prepared. Now, particularly with all the streaming services and everything else, there’s no reason, unless a show has never aired, that you don’t have the opportunity to at least see an episode of it before you go in if it’s a television show. You can get a sense of the tone of the show, and that’s just a part of doing your homework. We all do try to make sure that there’s enough time to do that. There are times when we’re in the throes of it, and there is no time, and we’re begging people to come in on a wing and a prayer and give it their shot, and when we do, we’re aware of that, and we try to help them in the room and give them as much support as we can. In general, if you’re going in for a pilot, or for something that requires a lot more prep time and you’re not ready, you’re doing yourself a disservice going in, and you should either reschedule it if it’s possible. If not, it’s going to mean you lose out on the opportunity. It’s really just about making yourself as prepared as you can until you can be relaxed when you’re in there and be ready to take a change or a note if there’s anything else you need to do differently.

What don’t actors realize about what a casting director does?
I don’t think they know how many people generally are weighing in on a process,  how random it can be, and why someone does or doesn’t get a job over the next person. There are so many times producers and casting directors love what someone did and they don’t get the job. In those instances, what happens is they may not get that job, but they’re going to be remembered, and eventually, they’re going to get the right job. When I was casting “Justified,” it was a very specific tone and a very specific pool of people that were right for it. I had actors that came in over, and over, and over through the years, and eventually, we get the exact right part. There were several times where, after having done that, I was actually able to offer them a part that would end up recurring because they’d done such great consistent work all along; it just wasn’t the right part. The best thing I can say is if the casting director is bringing you back, even if you’re not getting the jobs, then you’re doing your work. You’re doing a good job, they like you, and they’re going to help you find the right work.

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