Must-Know Acting Advice from 2020’s Emmy-Nominated Casting Directors

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Photo Source: Raquel Aparicio

There’s just one time each year when casting directors’ work is recognized at a major awards ceremony: the Emmys. This year, those behind the ensembles of perennial favorites like “Schitt’s Creek” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” as well as new ones like “Normal People” and “Watchmen,” were nominated for finding the best actors for the job. Those contenders have learned a thing or two from watching thousands of auditions, and they shared their sage wisdom with Backstage.

“When you get an audition, look at who’s directing it [and] who’s written it, [and] look at their work. There’s a tone that every director has. There’s so much information to be gotten from doing that research. Then, I would say, try to make some strong choices. I feel bad for actors if they’re self-taping and not getting any direction, because they don’t know what to do. But sometimes people go just in the middle, and the middle never works. Just try to, with what you know, make a choice.” Francine Maisler, nominated for HBO’s “Succession”

“You need to be prepared, but you have to bring something into the room that makes you special for a role.” —Suzanne Crawley

Victoria Thomas, nominated for HBO’s “Watchmen”: “Know the history of your craft and of movies and television. Look at actors in the past and learn from the good ones. I think knowing the history of your industry and your occupation is a good place to start. I find that a lot of people don’t know as much about the history of Hollywood and movies as I think they should. Have some sense of who came before you, and that can hopefully impact your acting. The other things are what a lot of casting directors say: Prepare for your scenes, make a choice, but also be prepared to make another choice if I give you a direction. Someone will come in and do it once, and I give them a direction, and they’ll do it exactly the same way. I understand nerves and that you’ve practiced, but you have to leave some opening to adjust. Take classes. Study. All that stuff.”

Jon Comerford, nominated for Pop TV’s “Schitt’s Creek”: “If at all possible, familiarize yourself with the tone of the project you’re auditioning for. Especially if it’s a show that’s already aired, try your best to at least watch a scene or two from it. It’s never as black-and-white as just comedy or drama.”

David Rubin, nominated for HBO’s “Big Little Lies”: “Really, two things above all else: One is to prepare. By that, I mean study the craft of acting before you even embark on a professional career, and then certainly prepare for each individual audition, which involves making very clear choices and learning as much [as you can] about the project beforehand so you understand the tone, energy, and style of the production you’re auditioning for. The second most important thing is to never pander to what you think the filmmakers are looking for. Never walk into a waiting room and see people there and presume that they’re going to get the role, and not you, because they look more like the character you envision than you do. The one thing every actor can deliver in an audition that no one else can is their true self. Bring whoever you are to the role. It could be very different from what the filmmakers are looking for, but if it’s authentic and it works, it can actually reframe what people think they’re looking for.”

What makes Emmy-worthy casting?

Suzanne Crowley, nominated for BBC America’s “Killing Eve”: “Don’t try and second-guess what’s wanted. You need to be prepared, but you have to bring something into the room that makes you special for a role.”

“You want to do the work and do it as well as you possibly can and be polite.” —Alexa L. Fogel

Gilly Poole, nominated for BBC America’s “Killing Eve”: “Treat the audition as if you are playing that role, not thinking, Are they looking for this or that? Often, things aren’t so defined on the page, and everybody has a sense of what they’re looking for, and then somebody will do something completely different and we’ll think, Isn’t that much more exciting than we thought it could be? You’ve got to own your audition. Listen to any notes that are given, which is why you need to be prepared. But you also have to bring something of yourself to show what you would do.”

Cindy Tolan, nominated for Amazon Prime Video’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”: “All you can do as an actor is be prepared and love what you’re doing. It’s out of your hands. It’s not a perfect world when it comes to the business, but you have to remember it’s art married to commerce. It’s called show business. The business side is the part that can cripple an actor.” 

Sharon Bialy, nominated for Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Netflix’s “Dead to Me”: “We look at people as professionals, and if you keep working hard, the cream rises to the top. It’s not how you are when you’re successful; it’s how you are when you take rejection. As actors know, you can come in and do an amazing audition, and for a variety of reasons, you won’t get the job. [You just have to] keep going and believe in yourself, and eventually it will happen.” 

Sherry Thomas, nominated for Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Netflix’s “Dead to Me”: “Being an actor isn’t about being famous. An actor can be somebody who is happy acting on a community theater level. It’s an art form.” 

Nina Gold, nominated for Netflix’s “The Crown”: “Only become an actor if you absolutely have to, because it’s pretty difficult to do. You have to get ready to put up with a lot. There must be incredible highs, but also lots of disappointments and rejections. And learning to accept that is part of the whole of the job.” 

What does a casting director do?

Alexa L. Fogel, nominated for Netflix’s “Ozark”: “I don’t really give actors advice. My thing is that, as an actor, you want to empower yourself and use your own common sense to make decisions instead of letting other people tell you what’s smart or what’s best. I think that most of us know the answers to most questions if we think about it in common-sense terms, so I think you don’t want to do anything that you wouldn’t do any time you’re meeting someone you hardly know for a very short time, in terms of what you do in an audition. You want to do the work and do it as well as you possibly can, and be polite.” 

Allison Jones, nominated for HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm”: “Don’t beat yourself up, and move on after every audition. I’ve never been an actor, so I don’t know it, but if I don’t get a job, I beat myself up. I would say just keep moving forward. Tenacity is everything.” 

“Being an actor isn’t about being famous. An actor can be somebody who is happy acting on a community theater level. It’s an art form.” —Sherry Thomas

Louise Kiely, nominated for Hulu’s “Normal People”: “Preparation is absolutely paramount, whether that’s for a self-tape or coming in to meet a director. If you are coming in to meet a director, read anything you can. Read the book, read what’s on Wikipedia, watch the director’s work, and, obviously, prepare your sides as much as you can. The work has to happen outside. If you come in for a director and you haven’t seen their work when it’s available, that’s kind of crazy. Know your genre, know the thing, and be able to say to them, “I enjoyed this film.” Because you’re there; we already think you’re terrific. We’re going to expect the sides to be read really well anyway, so make it even better by actually just preparing. I tell them, I’d never go to a meeting without preparation, [and] I expect the same from them. I think that really helps with nerves, as well.” 

Jodi Angstreich, nominated for Netflix’s “Unbelievable”: “I think there’s definitely the cliche of making a strong choice, but there is something about not playing things safe or not overthinking it. Just try to walk in a room, have a strong perspective coming in, and bring everything you are to that character, so it feels different and fresh when you walk in. That way, I will identify what you did with that character differently than what everybody else is doing. For pilots, we see so many people for one role. Especially during pilot season, actors are going to feel a little bit comfortable. They walk in and just do things that are sounding the same as everybody else, and what stands out are the people who don’t sound the same and who really just bring it. [Don’t] let the waiting room affect you. When you think, Oh, that girl’s here and she beats me in everything, or whatever it might be, and get in your head about that—[instead,] come in and bring yourself and what the best part of you is to the character. That will get rid of the cliche of bringing a strong choice, but that’s basically what it is.” 

This story originally appeared in the Aug. 27 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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Elyse Roth
Elyse is a senior editor at Backstage, where she oversees all casting news and features content, including her weekly casting director Q&A series, In the Room. She came to New York from Ohio by way of Northwestern University, where she studied journalism, and now lives in Brooklyn. She might see and write about awards-worthy films, but Elyse still thinks “Legally Blonde” is a perfect movie and on any given night is probably taking in some kind of entertainment, whether it’s comedy, theater, ballet, or figuring out what show to binge next.
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