Acting is reacting. If you aren’t truly listening and reacting to your scene partner then you might as well be a bump on a log. I love to watch an actor soak in information and see it wash across her face. All you have to do is live in the moment of the scene, think, take in the information, and actively listen—the camera will do the rest.
I always like to read with actors rather than hire a reader, because I can always tell if they’re acting on their own or actually with their scene partner. I can tell if they’re just waiting for their cue line or truly listening to me. I notice this mostly with child actors who seem to shut down between their lines.
An audition the other day perfectly illustrated this issue. The scene called for a child to have fallen into a deep hole that was filling with water. He was panicked, wet, cold, and in serious pain from having caught his foot under a large rock below. Deeply wedged in below the surface, he was frantically calling out for help. Each scene called for him to maintain and sustain a greater level of panic. There was an enormous amount of dialogue being delivered from the rescue crew up top. The child and the rescue team were able to communicate through a phone they had delivered below through a PVC pipe, so he was hearing their plans and directions.
I noticed several times that his face seemed to go blank when the info was being delivered, as if he wasn’t even there. He would only perk up when he heard his cue line. I directed him to use his breathing to help him connect to the fear that he was feeling. When you’re scared, your breathing changes. Even though he was trapped and didn’t have a lot to say, he needed to listen to all of the dialogue coming from the rescue crew so that he would know what they were planning to do with him. It’s always good to make the stakes high—he literally wouldn’t survive unless he listened to what their rescue plan was going to be. He needed to know every detail in order to get out before the water rose above his neck. By the last reading he was fully aware of his surroundings and dependent upon hearing every word spoken so that he could stay alive. He was almost hyperventilating. His attentiveness and acute listening skills produced a scintillating, edge-of-your-seat performance because not only was he fully committed to the scene and his character, he was listening to every specific detail that the other characters spoke as if his life depended on it.
When I’m auditioning actors, I always instruct my cameraperson to shoot plenty of “heads and tails.” This means they roll the camera for a few moments before you start the scene and keep it rolling for a while after the scene, until I call cut. A good director knows that there are priceless moments to be caught just before the scene starts and just after the scene ends. Make sure you stay in character in your audition even though your dialogue has stopped and the scene has seemingly ended. Your reader may throw in an extra line at the end and segue into an improv when you least expect it. If you’re truly listening, you will be ready to catch that ball when it’s thrown to you.
Great actors are those who are good on their feet and on their toes during a performance onstage, in front of the camera, and in the audition room.
Like this advice? Check out more of Marci Liroff's articles!
Known for her work in film and television, producer and casting director Marci Liroff has worked with some of the most successful directors in the world such as Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott, Mark Waters, Christopher Nolan, Brad Bird, and Herbert Ross. While working at Fenton-Feinberg Casting, she, along with Mike Fenton, cast such films as “A Christmas Story," “Poltergeist," “E.T. – The Extra Terrestrial," “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom," and “Blade Runner." After establishing her own casting company in 1983, Liroff cast “Footloose," “St. Elmo's Fire," “Pretty in Pink," “The Iron Giant," “The Spitfire Grill," “Untamed Heart," “Freaky Friday," “Mean Girls," “Ghosts of Girlfriends Past," “Mr. Popper’s Penguins,” “Vampire Academy,” and the upcoming “The Sublime and Beautiful,” which she produced as well.
Liroff is also an acting coach, and her three-night Audition Bootcamp has empowered actors to view the audition process in a new light. The class spawned an online course available at Udemy entitled "How To Audition For Film and Television: Audition Bootcamp".
Photo by Doug Hac.