5 Tips for First-Time Actors to Get Their Big Break

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Photo Source: Raquel Aparicio

The cast of Hulu’s “Pen15” is unlike that of any show on television (or, in this case, streaming) right now. Thirty-one-year-old creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle star as middle school versions of themselves among a cast of real middle school–aged actors, creating an at times unnerving, irreverent, hilarious, relatable dose of nostalgia. Casting director Melissa DeLizia was behind the unique cast and did a wide search to find authentic-feeling young actors to populate the show’s classrooms, school dances, and gymnasiums. DeLizia is known for casting quirky comedies, including Comedy Central’s “Another Period” and “Drunk History,” and she drew on those experiences to assemble the perfect balance of humor and emotion between the adult and young talent on the show.

What was the “Pen15” casting process like?
“Pen15” was an exciting undertaking. The majority of the roles were kids. There was a point in time where we thought about casting other adults to play kid roles, and we even had a couple of casting sessions to kind of see what that would look and sound like, but ultimately we felt that it would take the viewer out of the show. Maya and Anna are so incredibly believable as 13-year-olds; you get lost in their world. Having that grounded by actual 13-year-olds really brought the show together. I probably ended up seeing most of the child actors that were available and willing. Along with watching countless self-tapes from all over, we had numerous rounds of callbacks and chemistry reads to make sure we could find the right mix of kids, and we ended up with a really special group; no kid was like the other.

Were you looking for actors with comedy experience?
No. The biggest trait we were looking for was confidence. Maya and Anna are comedy geniuses; they can make you laugh out loud one minute and feel something deeply the next. It was very important to find young actors who felt confident enough to act alongside them. But at the same time, we were looking for a cast that felt very real and grounded. We wanted to find actors who were true kids and teens that were going through the trials and tribulations of middle school in real time. We ended up casting a lot of new actors who were intrinsically playing themselves in one form or another. We leaned away from casting actors who had worked a ton and toward kids who were fresh.

What are qualities that made someone stand out in auditions?
We were looking for kids who weren’t aware that they were acting, who came in just being themselves and didn’t realize this was a huge deal. They’re opposite two amazing actors, and this is kind of a high-pressure thing. We were looking for kids who wanted to come in, play, and have a good time. That made it the most grounded, and they also weren’t inherently afraid of acting opposite Maya and Anna because they didn’t realize what this huge opportunity was. It was innocent but fun, and that made it really exciting to watch.

READ: How the Creators of ‘Pen15’ Landed on Hulu

How did you find the young actors?
We did a wide search. In addition to managers, we looked into schools and any personal connection anybody had with a school or a theater and got our ideas from them. I was very open because of what we were looking for. I was not opposed to asking my own neighbor to audition their child. Whatever we needed to do to find the weird, quirky awkwardness of a kid is what we did. I think the opposite is true for the adult actors. I would say, for the roles of the parents and the teachers, we were definitely looking for more seasoned actors who were experienced and could help shepherd our younger cast. Each adult actor we brought on really helped with that vision and made it a cohesive whole.

What are some differences between performing comedy and drama?
In drama, as long as you have the ability to be real and grounded and connect to a moment, you can be successful. With comedy, people say, “Be funny, go!” That’s not how it works. There’s a lot of timing in comedy. Especially in what I do, improv, I love to see who can play with me and keep up. I would say, if you want to get into comedy or that’s something you love, take some improv classes. It’s really a great way to get your feet wet. I think they’re fun and entertaining. Thinking about the difference between drama and comedy, in drama, you pretty much stick to the page. In comedy, you have to think on your feet a little bit more, and that’s a different skill. If you take improv classes, it will help you be comfortable with the fact that if you go off-page or if another actor opposite you goes off-page, it’s OK. It will help give you the ability to go with it.

Where do you like to look for talent outside agent submissions?
I like to see comedy shows, improv showcases, and improv shows whenever I get the chance. It’s really helpful. I also watch a ton of demo reels for stand-ups or anything I can get my hands on to find new people. I’ll watch a little bit of everything, TV- and film-wise, to keep up. I’m obsessed with paying close attention to actors and keeping track of everyone that I like so I can bring them in for my own projects.

What advice do you have for actors, specifically young actors starting out?
For me, preparation is key. That and making a strong choice, even if it’s not the exact right choice. I also really love it when an actor is unique and puts their own personal spin on it. That instantly makes me want to watch.

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