Chemistry Lesson

We're often paired up at auditions—husband and wife, two best friends, co-workers. But what happens when you feel no chemistry with the person who's supposed to be your loving spouse or you can't stand the actor who's playing your best friend? If you audition long enough, it's bound to happen. And it raises a couple of obvious and important questions:

1. What do you do when you don't feel that ineffable "chemistry"?

2. Do directors always cast two actors who auditioned together as a couple—meaning a bad scene partner will drag you down as well?

For answers to these questions, I went straight to Killian McHugh, who teaches commercial auditioning in Hollywood and who won Back Stage's 2010 Readers' Choice Award for Los Angeles' favorite commercial workshop/class and tied for favorite on-camera class/teacher.

"You need to create the chemistry regardless of your scene partner's attitude. That's your job," says McHugh, who directs commercial sessions for Alyson Horn Casting when he's not teaching.

Whether you feel your scene partner is uncooperative, difficult to relate to, or just not very good, your job is to convince the director or casting director that you're fully invested in the relationship. Liking the other actor or "feeling" the chemistry isn't really part of the equation, any more than enjoying the Doritos you have to eat at an audition. Your job is to make the auditors believe you have great affection for the product; your actual dislike of salty foods isn't relevant. If you don't act as if you love Doritos, you're simply not doing your job, and the same goes for working with a scene partner.

In reality, wherever we're acting, it's rare that we're literally in love with the person we're playing opposite. The same tricks you might employ in a film to feel more warmly toward your partner should be used at a commercial audition. Try the magic "as if."

Use the Negative Energy

On the other hand, depending on the characters' relationship, you might be able to use some of the negative feelings you may have about your scene partner. Co-workers could be competitive and less than friendly. A girlfriend and boyfriend may not always be lovey-dovey; this may be the kind of relationship in which the partners get on each other's nerves or act a little playfully combative. In other words, not liking your scene partner could be used to your advantage. Of course, we're talking about commercials and not "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" The stylistic demands of a commercial (as opposed to a drunken screaming match) must be honored.

Still, can your less-than-excellent scene partner ruin your chances of getting a callback or even booking the job? Not often. "They don't cast you as a couple in most cases," says McHugh. "They cast individuals and then pair them at callbacks." That's why you'll sometimes get a callback and arrive to find that your original scene partner didn't.

At the callback, they really do look at each actor as a separate individual. In the 10 years I ran commercial casting sessions, I saw the director and the ad agency spend hours at every callback mixing and matching couples—even those who didn't read together—just using their headshots. That's business as usual. As McHugh points out, "Just because you're paired with someone doesn't mean he or she will be the one you'll end up working with on the set."

Moreover, as actors we have no way of knowing if a director has specific requests regarding how he or she wants the actors to be paired. Of course, you can always ask, as I have, to read with someone you've seen waiting in the lobby to audition. If you spot someone you think would make the perfect spouse, why not ask? If the powers that be say no, you graciously accept the decision and do the best read you can with the person you're paired with.

The bottom line, says McHugh, is that "you can't let anything interfere with your audition, regardless of your scene partner." Whether the problem is a less-than-warm casting director or an acting partner you wish you didn't have, you still have a job to do.