Playing Along

Has this ever happened to you at a commercial callback? It's a car insurance ad. The 30-something director, who's wearing all black because that shows everyone what a hip, edgy guy he is, asks the actors to pick an animal. Now, he says, play out the scene—involving a car crash and the subsequent conversation with the insurance adjuster—as that animal. No, this isn't on the storyboards. Sure, he just took the Acting Exercises class in film school. Do you do it, however unlikely the commercial will be shot that way? Or do you think, "I'm not playing along with this crap!" and refuse? Well, if that's what the young-hip-edgy director wants to see, do you think you stand any chance of getting cast if you don't play ball? Even if he's an idiot, you've got to make him believe you'll be nice to have on the set all day.

Years ago, I was running camera at a Danny Goldman Casting callback for Eggo waffles. The director paired a barrel-chested man, Glen Veteto, and a very tall, very skinny teenager, Jeremy Howard, as father-and-son farmers. It became apparent to everyone behind the camera that this job was theirs to lose. All they had to do was what the director asked and they would be cast. So after a couple of logical takes, the director asked them to do it with Swedish accents. There was a momentary look of "Whaaa...?" on young Howard's face, then he must have channeled the Swedish Muppets, as he jumped in with both feet. Veteto and Howard booked that spot and it ran. Sometimes a director just wants to see if you're willing to play.

But what if you feel that the direction is insulting? You're a black woman and the white director says, "Um, can you make her more, uh, sassy? You know, more ghetto?" If you're like many of my black friends, you have worked your whole life to change that
image of African Americans. My adopted sister is Native American, and she often hears, "Can you do the—what do you call it?—the reservation sound? Yeah, more rez."

These may seem like insensitive directions, but the reality is that getting offended doesn't serve you. If you want to have the opportunity on the set to show the director, the ad agency, and the client what you feel is a more intelligent approach to the dialogue, you have to book the gig first. Remember, you're going up against at least 100 other actors for every commercial role, and at least 90 of them are going to give it the ol' college try. Besides, when a director has to get through that many actors in one day of callbacks, he or she needs to use a kind of shorthand. There's no time for handholding, even if the shorthand is insensitive.

Steve Grant tells this story: "Years ago, Beth Holmes handled all of [a certain director's] casting. Before going in, she told me, 'He thinks he's a tiger, but he's really a lamb.' His cold and sarcastic demeanor reminded me of my father. I just gave it right back to him. I booked the job and eventually three or four more spots that he helmed. In fact, on one shoot with him, his crew confided that he hadn't thrown his cell phone for over a year—a huge achievement. I managed to get him to end that streak. I always enjoyed working with him and had a lot of respect for his work, even though many others couldn't deal with him."

So go along to get along. Getting a director to agree to spend eight to 18 hours on a set with you is half the battle.