Why ‘Playing Real’ Is Sometimes Your Best Audition Bet

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During her 25-year career as a casting director, Shannon Pinkston—owner of Dallas-based Atomic Casting—has traveled the world looking for singular talents to cast. She specializes in what she calls “real people,” though not “reality” types: Those with special skills from sword swallowing to unicycle riding, who provide background color and specificity to movies, TV shows, and the like. We picked Pinkston’s brain about her craft and how detective work and technology play a big role in her success.

You work with specific types of performers. How do you go about finding such specialized talent?
I’m a journalist at heart, and I love a good challenge—the harder the search, the better. With technology as it is today, it’s so much easier [than it used to be] to dig for people with interesting skill sets, or whom meet a certain set of parameters. No more knocking on doors and driving around to look for people. I’m a huge tech geek, and have really enjoyed the evolution of all the electronic elements of casting. I’m a bit unusual, in that I run my own camera and do my own uploads, so all the tech toys have really kept me on my toes over the years.

What do you look for during an audition?
For the bulk of my auditions, due to the style of directors I primarily work with, I am looking for very natural, very real, documentary-style authentic auditions; people who are comfortable in their skin and can talk to me truthfully about what interests them in their lives. I really strive for genuine answers from genuine people. Rarely do I want or need someone to come in and “act” for me in a commercial audition. Instead, I just need them to come in and talk and connect with me on some level and listen well and be directable. I have a very strong intuition, which also helps in my specialty talent searches, that lets me know right away if somebody is being disingenuous with me. So many of my directors want to hire people, and I quote, “Who are gonna be fun to be around for 14 hours on set.”

What is the appeal of this kind of work?
Specialty casting is where I get to be really creative. You tell me, “I’d like you to find a fun car club,” and I will bring you back the unexpected, as in the “Hells Belles ’50s Pinup Vintage Car Club” I unearthed in the Bay Area about 10 years ago. It’s just fun to put on my creative hat and dive into the Internet to prowl around for interesting people to celebrate. It’s truly my favorite part of my job.

How different is the process when you are not working with “actors” per se, but performers?
Honestly, for me, it’s pretty much the same. I rarely need them to “act,” even with a dramatic script like those we had [when I was casting] “Prison Break.” I want anyone in front of me to be organic, real, and as honest as possible, with either their personality, interview answers, the specialty skills they are showing off for me, or the script I give them to work with. I want them to be honest about their capabilities. Don’t tell me you are proficient on horseback if you are not, and will bounce off the horse on the first take and break your arm—it happened. And don’t tell me you are able to walk up a set of stairs carrying an older woman on a couch, if you have a prosthetic leg that doesn’t bend—that gets me screamed at. (Also happened.) I want them to listen. I want them to be professional. Above all, I want them to remember to be grateful that we all get to play dress-up for a living.

Describe the best auditions you see.
The best auditions are the ones where people come in determined to do their best, and enjoy the process. Those people are in the moment. They are not in their heads. They are open to listening to me and rolling with the punches. They remember to breathe when the camera turns on. Those who come in with an attitude of desperation about getting the job, or an attitude of any kind actually, tend to not do so well with me. I have a very definite “play nice or leave” policy, and I take great pride in being extra supportive and nurturing of talent. But I am the first to shut somebody down if they have a bad attitude, or continually fail to be on time or take direction. We are all in this together, and I am as professional as they come and I expect the talent I bring in to be the same—that way, we all win.

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