Casting the right talent for a film or TV project is an essential part of the preproduction process. Casting directors and producers will often utilize a screen test to figure out which actor is the best fit for a role.
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A screen test is a filmed audition that helps determine whether an actor is right for a particular role. Screen tests are conducted during preproduction, after the first rounds of auditions have concluded and the search has been narrowed down to just a few candidates. If you get to the screen test stage, you’re close to booking the role.
Screen tests differ from other types of auditions in how targeted and specific they are. While demo reels, self-tapes, and casting calls can show off an actor’s general talent, screen tests reveal how they look and feel on camera in that exact role. This means not only capturing the audition with several cameras from different angles, but also occasionally in costume, with an already-cast co-star, or under certain lighting conditions specified by the cinematographer.
In some cases, there may be no lines at all, with the actor asked to perform physically, display facial emotions, or stand completely still. Before casting Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man, Sony needed to be convinced the actor could believably play tough. As a result, his screen test has a much darker tone than the finished film.
Occasionally, screen tests are used to examine intangibles that the casting department is looking for but can’t quite put their finger on. “When I cast ‘E.T.,’ we had all our final choices of kids come to the writer’s house and play ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ to see their chemistry,” casting director Marci Liroff tells us. “It became clear that one of them didn’t quite fit with the others.”
Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
Productions use screen tests to get a sense of how an actor performs on camera under certain circumstances. Screen tests can determine:
- How an actor’s talents and presence in the room translate to screen
- How an actor looks in full wardrobe and makeup, which can be particularly important if the project is a period piece or has a striking visual style
- How an actor looks in different lighting, which is particularly important for the cinematographer
- Whether the actor fits into the tone, mood, and genre of the project
- Chemistry between two potential leads
- Chemistry between actors who have not yet been cast
- An actor’s improvisational skills
- Whether the CD and/or director want to keep the actor on file for future opportunities
Though casting off of self-tapes and demo reels isn’t going anywhere, screen tests are still an important part of the casting process. This is especially true with higher-profile projects, where much more time and money is being spent—and risked—on finding the perfect actor for a role. Major studio franchises such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe often audition dozens of actors for its beloved comic book roles, and the specificity of a screen test—which can include seeing what the actor looks like in costume while delivering actual dialogue from the script—is unparalleled when the casting director, producers, and director need one last piece of evidence. John Krasinski, for example, often talks about how he screen-tested for Captain America, a role that eventually went to Chris Evans.
Dacre Montgomery, “Stranger Things” Season 2
This screen test is clear evidence that Montgomery fully understood the character of Billy—from his physical demeanor to his gestures to his cool, intimidating personality. It also makes clear that the Australian actor would have no problem with an American accent.
Tom Holland, “Captain America: Civil War”
This video showcasing how Holland nabbed the role of Peter Parker gives a glimpse into how a casting audition differs from a screen test.
Audrey Hepburn, “Roman Holiday”
Hepburn was invited to do a personality test on account of her not being able to meet the production team in Hollywood. Although it’s an older example, this screen test shows how the general foundations of the process remain relatively the same.
Rachel McAdams, “The Notebook”
Using a pivotal scene from the script, this screen test demonstrates McAdams’ ability to portray a character in a moment of high emotion through small gestures and thoughtful emotional responses.
Shay Mitchell, “Pretty Little Liars”
Mitchell talks the audience through the experience of auditioning for “Pretty Little Liars,” as well as showing her screen test. Not only do we get insight from an older Mitchell, but this screen test also demonstrates her acting ability at a young age.