Why You Should ‘Always Have a Surprise’ in the Audition Room

Photo Source: Joan Marcus

“NCIS: New Orleans” star and 2013 Tony nominee Shalita Grant has been stunning New York audiences alongside stage vets like Phylicia Rashad, Danny Burstein, and Annaleigh Ashford in this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” Now going into the play’s final weekend, the Juilliard–trained actor visited Backstage to chat what it’s like revisiting the Bard’s classic text, moving her talents from the Broadway stage to Hollywood, and leaving a lasting impression in the audition room with the help of iTunes.

Shakespeare is about making your words clear.
“I haven’t done Shakespeare since 2011. I haven’t done a play since 2014 [with ‘Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike’]. It’s been awhile since I’ve been onstage and it’s been even longer since I’ve done Shakespeare. Going from doing television to doing Shakespeare, it’s twofold, the work that you have to do. Not only is it, ‘I have to find a way to be truthful in the moment and be entertaining,’ I also have to make what I’m saying clear, which is not a challenge that you have in modern text…. My first week of rehearsal was really about reintroducing my body to this experience.”

Grant’s advice for TV acting: ‘You don’t have to do so much.’
“Coming from the theater and then going into TV, they’re culturally very different. The work is still the same in that you’re speaking and you want to make sure that you are heard and understood and that you’re believed, but it is just different. I mean, TV, you shoot out of sequence. The great thing, though, is that you have a 14-hour day, and then that’s it. What you did that day is what it is and the next day you move on to something else. I also feel like less is more for the camera. When I first started auditioning [for TV], casting was like, ‘You don’t have to do so much. Your audience is right here [up close]. So you can just be intimate and tell the story. It’s so technical. To be able to portray an emotion, it’s as simple as I squint or I look away and look back. It’s that technical. So I don’t use most of the tools [from Juilliard] that I have in my arsenal in my work on TV because it’s not necessary.”

But a strong foundation in theater has still proven essential.
“That’s the great thing about having a foundation [in theater], especially doing something like a procedural where it is the same thing every week: we get a crime, we gonna solve it by the end. There’s no mystery there! But the great thing about having a foundation is a lot of the time, I’m just giving expositional dialogue, but I can be, like, ‘Ooh, let me try this.’ And it’s just this subtle difference, and the director is like, ‘Oh my god, that’s great! Keep doing that!’ ”

Failure is an important component of any lasting career.
“[I’ve had] a lot of failure—more failure than success. It’s so important [to recognize]. For anybody that is an actor or wants to be, you have to know that you fail a lot. Honestly, as somebody who is a perfectionist and wants to be my best all the time, it upsets me because that’s not always going to happen, so when it doesn’t, I’m just wrecked. It’s good to fail a lot because I’ve been broken out of that self-flagellation when I don’t do well or if I do something wrong. It’s made me a better person and a better person to myself.”

A Tony nomination does not mean you’ll make it in L.A.
“I was 24 and I was nominated for a Tony, and I remember walking into the Golden Theatre, and I was like, ‘What do I do now? Do I stay and try to get another Broadway show and try to win the Tony? Or do I just move on? I’m 24 and I’ve already hit the ceiling. What in the world?’ So I was like, ‘I’m gonna go out to L.A. and they’re gonna absolutely love me and it’s going to go really well.’ Well, that didn’t happen! So I get out there, and it was a year [until I booked work]. From August 2013 to August 2014, I went on 56 or 57 different projects, alright? I don’t say auditions because it wasn’t just auditions, it was for 57 projects, film and TV…. I ran out of money. Because I had success in New York, I didn’t know what it was like to struggle for money. So I ran out of cash, and I was like, ‘How do I support myself [when] I’ve only supported myself [acting]?’ So I went on YouTube and I taught myself how to bartend, and I made up a résumé full of lies…. All the while, I couldn’t tell people that I was a Tony-nominated bartender.”

When auditioning for TV, it’s OK to look the part.
“In L.A. and in New York when you’re putting yourself on tape and when you’re going in for these auditions, look the part. In theater, it’s kind of frowned upon to come in completely with it all. But for TV, look the part. The imagination, that gap, you’re up against A-list celebrities, B-list, C-list—people with names and longer résumés. Look the part. And so that way, you book the room…. I’d work just as hard on my auditions, but what I had to learn was it’s also a look. So that’s really the thing. And always have a surprise. Like, I booked ‘Bones,’ and ‘Bones’ turned into a recur because I went in, I did the audition, and in the sides, it said that she, we were on a date, and it said that she played this one song. Well, everybody got access to iTunes, so I was like, ‘I’m just going to bring in the song.’ I didn’t buy it because I was broke and it was $1.29—hire me first! But I pressed the preview…I played the song. And it lit up the room.”

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