The CDs Behind ‘Dead to Me,’ ‘Maisel’ + ‘Handmaid’s’ on What Actors Need to Audition

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“In the Envelope: The Actor’s Podcast” features intimate, in-depth conversations with today’s most noteworthy film, television, and theater actors and creators. Full of both know-how and inspiration, “In the Envelope” airs weekly to cover everything from practical advice on navigating the industry, to how your favorite projects are made, to personal stories of success and failure alike. Join host and Awards Editor Jack Smart for this guide on how to live the creative life from those who are doing it every day. This episode is brought to you by HBO.

Casting directors have a special position within the ecosystem of Hollywood. Although often working on dozens of productions at once, connecting content producers and talent at every career level, their day-to-day responsibilities are for the most part shrouded in mystery. Actors in particular, of course, want to understand the perspective of those on the other side of the audition table: What are casting directors looking for, and what exactly do they do? 

Cindy Tolan, an Artios and Emmy Award winner for her years of casting, sees her job as “part of the art-making” of film, TV, and theater. “Just like a production designer, lighting designer, [or] costume designer, we fulfill the vision of the creators,” she says in her exclusive podcast interview. Tolan’s early love of dramaturgy and New York theater caused her to pursue the art form that would allow her to study and collaborate on the work of artists across the industry. “I love reading the script,” she says of the casting process. “I love figuring out what the vision is after reading the script, through conversations with the filmmaker, the show creator.”

Casting is indeed an art form, as Sharon Bialy and Sherry Thomas would attest. Celebrating a 20-year partnership in Los Angeles at their award-winning casting company Bialy/Thomas & Associates, the two join Backstage together to chat about the skills inherent in matching “the soul of the actor with the soul of the character,” as Thomas puts it. “Everything else is hair and eyes and short and tall. So often it’s just that perfect match.”

For Bialy, what actors need to know about the work of a casting director is that they’re on the lookout, endlessly and constantly, for talent. “We always hear actors [ask], ‘How do I get in the room? How do I get in the room?’ And I always say, do good work and we’ll find you.”

Tolan echoes the sentiment: “If you’re good at your job, you’re good at your job. And everybody’s seeing it.” More often than not, an audition is an investment in a potential role down the line that’s a better fit for the actor. “We remember everybody for the next job we’re working on,” she says.

And Tolan, Bialy, and Thomas are all working on lots of jobs, to say the least—many of which end up on awards voters’ radars. 

Tolan’s career spans New York theater, TV, and film, from “Avenue Q” and “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” to “Flight of the Conchords” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” to “Straight Outta Compton,” “If Beale Street Could Talk,” and the forthcoming “West Side Story” movie. An Emmy winner for Amy Sherman-Palladino’s Amazon Prime Video comedy “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” she recently notched a fourth nod for the series’ third season.

Bialy and Thomas, in addition to L.A. theater, Broadway, and dozens of films, have cast TV hits including “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul,” “The Walking Dead” and “Fear the Walking Dead,” “Barry,” “The Righteous Gemstones,” “The Twilight Zone,” and “The Act,” earning a total of seven Emmy nods. They’re now nominated for both Liz Feldman’s Netflix comedy “Dead to Me” and Bruce Miller’s Hulu drama “The Handmaid’s Tale.”

In their expansive interviews, all three CDs offer insights into the current state of the industry, which has shifted entirely to self-taped and webcam auditions. “Now, in the pandemic, it’s the same yet it’s vastly different,” explains Tolan. “All actors are auditioning on tape, which is really difficult for the actor because suddenly, they’re like a film director, cinematographer, lighting designer, and all of that.... It’s okay to send in your self-tape and not to freak out about it like, ‘I have to go out and buy $1,000 of equipment.’ As an actor, it shouldn’t cost you any money to audition.”

READ: Your Guide to the Perfect Self-Taped Audition

They also offer specific tips on the dos and don’ts of taped auditions. “Do not have the reader right next to the camera,” offers Thomas. “And also make sure your eye line is correct,” says Bialy. “The good thing about a self-tape is you can go watch it and do a bunch of different takes until you see the take that you believe works. We often ask people when they send a tape to send two takes, their first instinct and then a second one where they just do much less.”

For further insights from three Emmy-nominated casting directors who know what actors want—and need—to hear, tune into Tolan, Bialy, and Thomas’ “In the Envelope” episode wherever you download podcasts. (Tolan’s interview begins at 12:26, and Bialy and Thomas’ at 49:40.) For more advice from casting directors, check out Backstage’s “In the Room” features here.

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