Whether you're an aspiring actor hoping for that first job or an actor who has worked before and wants to work more, you're polishing up your résumé and headshots and readying for that exciting time of year: pilot season.
If you're anything like I was, you're feeling a combination of emotions. You're eager, scared, and optimistic. You may not know what to expect. But I'm going to give you the benefit of my years as an actor—past and present—to help you take full advantage of the promise of pilot season.
Behind the Scenes
Here's what's going on behind the scenes. The producers have huddled with writers and commissioned scripts. The writers have put words to page and brought projects to life. The networks have okayed the pilot scripts, and the producers are scrambling to fill the parts on dozens of sitcoms, dramas, dramedies, and whatever new genres are on the horizon. Hundreds of parts—characters of all sizes, shapes, colors, quirks, and ethnicities—are waiting to be brought to life by actors like you.
Agents are asking for up-to-date pictures and résumés. Casting directors are making lists. Hopes and dreams can be realized or smashed. Unknowns can become the next Jennifer Aniston or Jim Parsons in the comedy world or the next Emily Procter or Michael Pitt in the drama realm. With a little luck, persistence, and preparation, it could be you.
One of the key tools you'll need for pilot-season success is script interpretation skills. You're given an audition script. You'll use script interpretation to break it down. It's harder to do that during pilot season because you can't base your choices on having seen the show and knowing its tone. But it can be done. Ask yourself: "What did the writer of the pilot have in mind when writing the scene I'm auditioning with?" "What are the personality traits of my character?" "What does my character need from the other people in the script?" "What is this particular scene about?" "How does it fit into the whole scheme of the pilot?"
The tone of the show comes strongly into play in script interpretation. Is it a wildly offbeat comedy like "Arrested Development"? Or is it a more subtle, intelligent sitcom like "30 Rock"? Is it a matter-of-fact drama like the "CSI" shows? Or is it an emotional one like "Private Practice" and "House"? You, the actor, must decide to the best of your ability.
The Chemistry Reading
Let's say you hit it on the head, do your audition, and get a callback. And let's say you get a second callback, it goes well, and now you've read for the casting director, the producers, and the studio. That's when you get the holy grail of pilot season: the chemistry reading, sometimes called a mix-and-match. A chemistry reading is a fancy name for the opportunity to read with the other actors being considered for roles in the pilot. You have reached this point in the process by letting the producers imagine you in the role. Now it's time for them to see how you work with the other actors they're considering. It becomes all about the relationships that come alive in the room.
You may get an opportunity to rehearse with other actors in the scene. Take advantage of this time to see what everyone brings to their parts and how you can play off of them. Let your instincts take over and try to see how you and the others fit the parts. Let your best self show up. It's not about one-upping the other actors or showing off what a good actor you are. It's about collaboration.
Play off the other person. You react differently with every person in real life. Why shouldn't you do so in the reading? Playing off the other person allows the essence of the relationship to come across. If you are lucky, there will be feedback from the producers. Hopefully, they know what they want.
Don't take it as a bad thing if the producers give you an adjustment. Most likely, they want to see if you can take direction. Anything they give you as an adjustment is golden! Let it guide you in your take on the part. Don't throw out all the good work that got you there; just add the adjustment to the part. They like you. That's why they are working with you. Take a moment to adjust to what they want. Many times they will have you work with different partners (that's why it's called a mix-and-match). Be open to change.
Chemistry means pizzazz—how you fit with the other actor or actors. Is there sexual chemistry? Loving chemistry? Friendly chemistry? In order for this to burst through during the reading, let your true self come out. They want your special quality to come through. Figure out why they keep bringing you back: What makes you special in the role, and how can you let that shine?
What is your essence when you are being sexual? What about when you are dangerous, strong, meek, funny, sad, angry? They are looking for you. Don't hide who you are. It is all about your specialness. No one is like you and no one has your experiences. Everything that has made you unique is what has to come out in this reading. To give them a stereotype or conceal yourself is a huge mistake. Take chances. Reveal, reveal, reveal. Make strong choices and take risks. Have fun.
Pilot season is a feeding frenzy. You have to keep your wits about you to succeed. The parts don't exist without you. You bring them to life. You could be the unknown factor that snaps the character and show into focus. The studio has to decide on you, and then it's up to the network to make the final decision.
They don't know what they're really looking for until you enter the room and show them. They want to be dazzled. The chemistry reading is where unknowns can make their careers. To do that, you've got to be able to be yourself.
Ken Lerner studied with Stella Adler and has worked as an actor in Los Angeles for 35 years, appearing on more than 50 top TV shows and in numerous films and commercials. He began teaching for his mentor, Roy London, and is the owner of the Ken Lerner Studio (www.kenlerner.com).