Picture this: You've made it through the pre-read, the callback, and the producer session. Your agent negotiated your rate and you already signed a "test deal"—your contract, should you get cast. You and a handful of others read for the studio executives. The studio chooses you and one or two others to test for the network. Now all that stands between you and the career of your dreams is a performance in a room full of network executives. No matter how confident you are, the pressure is enough to psych anyone out.
Ally Lattman, former vice president of television development for Lionsgate, admits testing can be very intimidating. "At the producer sessions, we are usually sitting on couches, chatting and joking with the actors," she says. "Those can be fun rooms, even at the studio level. But when you come into a network test, it's all business. Come in and read your scene; that's it. I don't know that I've been in any warm-and-friendly network test rooms."
In a pre-read or callback, you might perform for only two or three people, but in a studio or network test there could be as many as 20 pairs of eyes watching. "The studio execs, the network execs, the business people… everyone who is spending money all want to be able to give their opinion and make sure the right person is getting the part," explains Lattman. Network tests are often held in screening rooms in order to accommodate all the executives. "It feels like you're doing a one-man show," says Amir Talai, a series regular from CBS's 2008 "The Ex List."
Nikki DeLoach, a series regular on Fox's "North Shore" and NBC's "Windfall," says her first test was definitely the scariest. She was 12 years old and testing for "The New Mickey Mouse Club." DeLoach knew that more than 20,000 kids had auditioned, 24 were left, and only seven were being picked for the show. All the executives from Disney were sitting in a darkened theater, and she couldn't see their faces. The anxiety was nearly too much for the young DeLoach to bear. "I almost vomited backstage," she recalls. "But then this funny thing happened. Before I went onstage I said to myself, 'I have to go out there and have a blast.' And that's what I did. And I got cast."
As an adult, DeLoach doesn't get as nervous as she did at that Disney audition, but admits testing can still be intimidating. She tries to think of testing as just another audition, but she knows it's easier said than done. "Obviously the stakes are higher when you're testing," says DeLoach. "There's fewer actors, you're all talented, and you know that it could be any one of you. You all could do this job. Basically it just comes down to the executives and what their idea is for this character and if you fit that idea or not."
Talai, a veteran of many studio and network tests, says the most unusual part of this process is returning to the waiting room and sitting with the other candidates. "Everyone has to stick around," says Talai. "You don't do [your scene] and then leave. You do it and then you go back in the waiting room and hang out. After everyone has gone, you might be called back into the room for an adjustment."
After the studio test, the studio executives will release a few of the actors before bringing their final choices to the network. Often, the studio and network test will be on the same day, only a few hours apart, which can be very stressful. "It's really tough when [the network test] is the same day," says Talai. "It doesn't afford you the opportunity to let go of the audition. You are essentially in 'ready' mode for hours." Talai says he usually has a very healthy "let it go" attitude about work and auditions, but in this situation, "it's hard to think about anything other than the TV show and the various ways the paycheck and fame might change your life. It makes it really difficult to let it go."
ALL SIDES UNDER PRESSURE
The pressure at a network test is high for other people in the room besides the actors. Casting director Bruce Newberg, who currently casts "The Closer" and "Hellcats," remembers when he was casting the pilot for the sitcom "The Class" and had to test three separate times for one role before he found an actor the network loved. Lattman says it's not unusual for the network to be unhappy with the choices the studio has brought to them. "If the network doesn't [like your choices], you have to start the casting process all over again," she says. "Sometimes I would be sitting there just holding my breath, hoping the network saw what I saw in that actor."
According to Newberg, many producers will set up "work sessions" for the actors before the tests. Usually the producers and the casting director will work with the actor, without pressure, and try to get their performance as perfect as possible so nothing is left to chance when they are in front of the execs. "For both 'The Closer' and 'Hellcats' we had extensive work sessions with each actor that went on at least an hour, or as long as the actor needed," says Newberg. "We went over all the scenes and tried them a number of ways. We kept doing them until they felt completely comfortable. That's terribly important, to feel completely prepared." Talai has always found the work session incredibly useful. "It really gives you time to ask more in-depth questions about the character," he says. "Also, in that work session, you start to develop a relationship with these producers, so when you go in for the studio test, you see the producers sitting in the front row or the back row and you feel like you have an ally in the room. That's really great."
THE ALTERNATIVE TEST
In lieu of the in-person network test, some networks have opted to give the top two or three actors screen tests for their role. Tom Donaghy, creator and co-executive producer of ABC's "The Whole Truth," loved that the network wanted to do screen tests for his show. "They were fully produced screen tests in the way that you see in movies from the '30s and '40s," he says. "We had a set, we had costumes, we had makeup, we had our DP shoot them, we had our director, Alex Graves, who did the pilot, direct them—so they were produced auditions at the highest level." The best footage was then edited and taken to a screening room where the executives watched the auditions on a movie screen. Donaghy thinks this gave actors the best chance at showing the executives what they could do. "Also, we got the opportunity to see the actors as they would appear onscreen. People do photograph differently than they appear in real life. And I got to see how they handled the costume and direction and all that. They can't be thrown off. Actors are asked to go from zero to 100 in certain situations, and this was certainly one of them."
"Screen tests are really fun because you get to [perform] with another actor and they record it so it feels like you're actually on set," says DeLoach. However, she isn't sure they are any less nerve-racking for actors. "I just try to think of it like 'I'm just going on set and doing my job.' "
Lattman much prefers the live test to the screen test. She believes there's a lot you can tell about an actor when they walk into a room, before they even start reading. "You get a sense of them," she says. "You get to know them. You definitely can't do that with a screen test. What are they going to be like to shoot with? Sometimes you can tell from a few minutes of meeting them in the room."
THE NEXT LEVEL
While the process of pilot casting can seem overwhelming, it's important for actors to remember just getting to the testing level is a huge accomplishment. Studio and network executives who have a lot of power in Hollywood are seeing you, and who knows what that could lead to? Think of the casting people and the producers as people with whom you are developing a relationship.
Talai says that when he tests, he tries not to get too caught up in the "What ifs," instead maintaining the attitude of "If I have reached this point now, chances are I'll reach it again."
DeLoach stresses the importance of a "Just have fun" attitude, like the one she had at her first network test. "I remember one year I tested for a Fox pilot and I was just so grateful to be there. I didn't expect anything out of it and it was such a fun experience. But the next year I tested for a lot of pilots and I put a huge expectation on myself and it definitely was not as fun. I got caught up in it and ended up being nervous." Now DeLoach treats every audition and every test as if it's just another chance to do what she loves—act. "That shift in perception changed everything for me."