6 Tips for Making the Small Roles Count

Article Image
Photo Source: Levy Moroshan

When our office was hired to cast 40 supporting and featured roles in “Wild” (around 30 of which ended up in the final cut), director Jean-Marc Vallée wanted to ensure that each actor fit seamlessly into the fabric of the film, no matter how small the part. If even one actor felt like he or she didn’t belong, it could ruin the mood and the veracity of the film.

His attention to detail paid off. Not only did Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern turn out award-worthy performances, but the supporting cast, culled from talent proposed by casting director David Rubin’s office in L.A. and ours in Portland, has apparently been a frequent topic at Q&As and in the press. Even Bruce Dern said he hadn’t been this touched by a film in 60 years, crediting the entire cast for their performances.

So, how can an actor make the most of an audition for a minor or even non-speaking principal role, like many of the characters in “Wild”?

1. Come prepared. Just because it’s a cinch to memorize two or three lines, doesn’t mean you don’t have to do your homework. A well thought-out backstory will bring depth and originality to your character. And seriously, if you can’t be mostly off book for a handful of lines, you might be in the wrong business.

2. But don’t overdo it. Small roles often convey everyday occurrences or simple objectives. As we sometimes say in our office, “It’s not the movie about COP #3.” Just because you worked out your character’s life history in your preparation, doesn’t mean you need to stretch, “May I see your ID, sir?” into a soliloquy. Get in, pursue your intention—as if this is something you do every day—and get out. Your homework will infuse your character naturally, without you having to hit us over the head with it.

3. Immediately establish the given circumstances and the moment before. Is it hot? Is it cold? Are you out of breath? Have you just woken up? Did your character just witness a crime? Does this scene pick up in the middle of a conversation or argument? Did you just hike 14 miles in the desert? Bring that into your performance.

4. Be present. You don’t have much time, so really listen and connect with your scene partners. Don’t just wait (im)patiently for your turn to speak, allow their lines to trigger your responses. Practice being in the moment.

5. Bring your A-game. Even the smallest role can generate your next gig. One female actor we hired for “Wild” had an improvised scene with one of the leads, but none of her lines ended up in the final cut. That didn’t stop the director from telling her he wanted to work with her again.

On another project, a director who recently landed his first big feature specifically asked us to read actors we’d cast in his low-budget thriller a year earlier. Their prior faith in him was rewarded with an opportunity to land a juicy role in a well-known franchise.

6. Do your best, then let go. If a realtor shows you a dozen houses, you may like things about each of them, but only one may suit your current situation. Perhaps you need a garage and a quiet street. Next time around, you might want something more central with a bigger yard. It’s all relative.

Likewise, what we’re seeking is the right palette. We’re not judging your acting ability as much as we are identifying an ensemble that best tells the story at hand. That’s out of your control, so just give it your all, thankful to be a part of this amazing industry.

Like this advice? Check out more from our Backstage Experts!

Author Headshot
Lana Veenker
Casting director Lana Veenker began her career in London and, upon returning to her Northwest roots, founded one of the top location casting companies in the country, Cast Iron Studios. Veenker is also a member of the Casting Society of America and the International Casting Directors Network
See full bio and articles here!