Read the Room

When you go in for a late-afternoon commercial audition, you're likely to be fresh-faced and upbeat about being there. But actors are sometimes oblivious to the fact that the casting director has already been at it for six or seven hours. He or she likely has that not-so-fresh feeling. In fact, the CD could be more tired and annoyed than you realize.

"Actors have no way of knowing the session was too packed all day and the casting director didn't get a lunch," says Killian McHugh, a CD with Alyson Horn's office in Hollywood, who teaches workshops in commercial audition technique.

If the direction you're getting from a casting director isn't of the hand-holding, warm-and-fuzzy variety, chances are good that the CD is having a rough day. That's something you have to be sensitive to if you want to maintain a warm, ongoing relationship with that office.

"Actors don't know what it's like at 4 p.m., after a long day of calls from the producer, ad agency, the director, often giving conflicting notes about the commercial," McHugh says. "We're bombarded on every side. Plus we're seeing a bunch of actors who had late-afternoon appointments but who didn't want to come at 5, so they all came at 12."

What actors fail to understand, he explains, is how vital it is for them to read the room. An actor should be able to tell when the session director is about to have a breakdown. There's no need to ask how the day has been going when you can see how overcrowded the waiting room is. The best approach, he believes, is to just "come in, say hello, do the things we ask you to do, and get out quickly." (McHugh, who won Back Stage's 2010 Readers' Choice Awards for favorite L.A. commercial class/workshop and favorite L.A. on-camera class/teacher, also dispenses daily audition tips via Twitter and on his Killian's Commercial Workshop page on Facebook.)

Perhaps the most important thing to remember, says McHugh, is: Don't let the casting director's energy be your energy. If you take the CD's bad vibes to heart, you won't be able to do your best work. You have an acting job to do when you walk into the room, whether the CD is nice to you or not. In all likelihood, his or her momentary unpleasant demeanor has nothing to do with you, so there's no reason to take it personally.

It's also common during frenetic casting days to receive conflicting direction: The CD says one thing at the first call, but the director says something different at the callback. Understandably, this can be confusing. Your job is to roll with it.

"That's the way production is," observes David Bellantoni, a New York casting director with Beth Melsky's office. "They'll have long meetings about how to approach the script, but things change constantly. The director may have a different view from the ad agency, and those ideas get melded, and it will be different from when we started casting."

McHugh concurs, noting that it's bad form for an actor to mention the difference, because it may reflect poorly on the casting director. "It makes everyone look bad," he says. "It doesn't matter if your direction is different from the first call. And there's no need to apologize for how you did it the first time—that's what got you to the callback. So, now do it differently."

Actors are nervous at a callback, and nerves can lead to inadvisable remarks. Don't go there. Anything you say at your callback that might reflect negatively on the CD should be avoided at all costs—even if you know you're "right." Take McHugh's advice: Read the room. You'll know when to say something or remain silent (except when speaking your copy, of course).

"Scripts change constantly," says Bellantoni. "Expect that. They're likely to change from first call to callback to the booking. But it's a collaborative thing, constantly editing as we go along. The name of the game is change, so run with it."