How to Audition the Young (of All Ages)

Photo Source: Jon Farmer

Casting is tricky in any film. There is always a certain gut instinct involved. But with children it becomes even trickier. In casting the two lead children in "Dolphin Tale," I had many preliminary conversations with our casting directors, Kerry Barden and Paul Schnee. Because I've had experience directing child actors and nonactors—and have been an actor for many years myself—we felt the best tactic was to cast a wide net, to audition as many kids as possible, whether they were experienced in film acting or not. For a child actor, a résumé never tells the whole story.

I have a few rules. First of all, I feel that a director's job is to be a guide, a collaborator, especially with a child actor. I never sit behind a table or desk at an audition. The goal is to put a child at ease, to make him or her feel comfortable and relaxed, and setting up barriers is counterproductive. I pull a chair out for myself facing the auditioner's chair. A director's job is to get the best performance possible, and I believe that the first step is to make sure the actor trusts you, looks upon you as an ally and even a mentor. The very first audition establishes a relationship that will resonate throughout the filming.

When the child actor comes in, I start a casual conversation. I think it's important to get children to talk about their day, the trip over, where they got their shoes, anything. This way you can see something about their personality, their ability to be extemporaneous. Is the child preprogrammed by a parent or coach to say certain things? Does he or she listen and engage? I want to know what kind of person this is. Does the child have charm and charisma? Does he or she seem self-centered or surly? Some children are there only because their parents have pushed them into it. This is beyond sad, and it's usually pretty detectable.

Then the child will read two or three different audition scenes. I try to choose scenes that have very different tones. I always try to have a trained actor reading across from the child; I want to see how the child reacts to another actor who's giving something. There's nothing worse for any actor than to have to audition across from some nonactor droning the lines. Sometimes, to see if a child is listening and responding within the scene, I will read opposite him or her myself. Then I can look into the child's eyes and see what's going on there.

I watch for a change in demeanor as a child begins to read the scene. Too many children are overcoached: They have rehearsed the scene with parents, or coaches, or over and over in the mirror, learning the scene by rote. And that is deadly to a performance. After the first pass through, I will usually give some direction and have the child do it again. I ask him or her to change intentions drastically, or change lines or add lines. It's not to make the scene play better, usually; it is simply to see if the child can make adjustments. Sadly, all too often they've learned the scene exactly one way and are incapable of altering it.

If the child takes direction, has that gift of "actor's relaxation," listens to the other actor, and shows genuine talent and a good personality, I will mark the child down for a callback—a chance to really work with him or her and get the scenes on their feet. Then I move to the final step: I go into the waiting room to meet the parent or guardian. Because when you cast a child, you are casting a whole family. How the child is raised and looked after, and how he or she will be when working on your film—these things are crucial.

In "Dolphin Tale," I had the good fortune to cast two amazing child actors: Nathan Gamble, a very gifted, skilled actor with many film credits, and Cozi Zuehlsdorff, a very gifted, skilled actor with no film credits at all. Her only experience had been in stage productions in her community. But she is extraordinarily talented, bright, and well-raised, and after having auditioned her in the manner described above, I knew she was our Hazel. Résumé be damned.

Charles Martin Smith was one of the young stars of George Lucas' "American Graffiti," followed by "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid," "The Buddy Holly Story," "Never Cry Wolf," "The Untouchables," and "Starman," among other films, before heading behind the camera as writer and director on "The Snow Walker" and "Stone of Destiny." He directed "Dolphin Tale," opening Sept. 23. He continues to act.

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