The merest mention of a cold reading can send shivers down the spine of even the most experienced actor. More disliked than not being SAG-eligible while all your friends got their cards, and more avoided than a kissing scene with an ex, the cold read is universally dreaded.
We can’t promise to fully cure Cold Read Dread Disorder (which is definitely a real condition—we’re not doctors, but we watch a lot of medical dramas). What we can do is help you shake those nerves and fill you in on the best tricks of the trade to improve your cold reading skills.
In a cold read, an actor gets a script or sides mere minutes before the audition, with no prior knowledge of what it contains. You’ll most commonly experience a cold read in commercial auditions, but some producers request it for TV shows, film, and theatrical productions.
There are a few reasons why you’d find yourself facing a cold read. Occasionally, it really is just a matter of a casting director or producer deciding to see another option in the moment—they liked your take on Character A, for example, but would you mind giving Character B a try real quick? Other times, a cold read comes as a result of a creative change; you walk into the room and discover the sides you just learned got a rewrite overnight.
No matter the scenario, it’s important that you make every second count by learning about the scene, setting, and most importantly, your character.
1. Practice ahead of time: While it’s not possible to practice the actual lines for a cold read, you can practice reading a new script, fleshing out a character, and responding to other readers quickly. Think of it like taking multiple practice tests before taking the real one. Even though the words on the page are different, practicing demystifies the experience. It also familiarizes you with the process enough so that you can succeed when the real thing comes along.
2. Record yourself: One of the best cold reading exercises for acting is assessing your own performance. Although it lands somewhere in the liminal space between amusing and soul-crushing, recording yourself cold reading allows you to see mechanics and mistakes from an outside perspective. Are you rushing words? Making strange facial expressions that don’t fit the scene? Not sure what to do with your hands? Take note and adjust accordingly.
3. Skim the whole script/sides: If you’re already familiar with the project you received cold lines for, reading through the entire script ahead of time will prevent you from being surprised by a sudden change in character, plot, or emotion. Imagine reading as Darth Vader and not seeing the “I am your father” line ahead of time; your delivery might end up more Maury Povich than climactic cliffhanger. A quick skim of the script ensures that you have some idea about what comes next.
4. Interrogate set and setting: Immerse yourself in your character’s mindset and the setting they inhabit. “Figure out what just happened. In television and film, scenes usually start in the middle,” says acting coach Matt Newton. “What happened right before your first line? What did someone just say to you? Your first line is always a response. Figure out where your character is coming from and what emotional level to start at.” Take a moment to imagine your character’s surroundings, emotions, and relationships. These elements propel the narrative and allow it to come to life.
Similarly, be sure to consider scene context. A scene set in a noisy bar is vastly different from one set on an isolated Antarctic trek. While your character might be a lovable, egomaniac Dwight Schrute–type in both settings, each engenders different behavior. Any ideas, events, and places brought up in a scene need to feel real to you in order to feel real to your audience. Think of how you behave differently in different contexts and use that to guide your character’s behavior.
5. Get physical: Just summon your inner Olivia Newton-John. A cold read doesn’t mean you need to be stiff. We communicate with body language as much as with verbal language—so smile, cry, wink, or contort your body if the scene calls for it. Producers care more about experiencing your emotional range as an actor than verifying that each movement perfectly aligns with the script. Of course, keep it within reason: Unless you’re reading for Tommy Wiseau, you don’t want to overact.
6. Focus on the beginning and ending: The opening and closing of your performance leaves the biggest impact on your audience. Take one of your precious pre-audition minutes to memorize the script’s first and last lines to allow yourself a strong eye contact-filled delivery.
7. Relax: Take a few beats to concentrate on your breathing and release the tension from your body before starting the performance. Be especially aware of how you treat the script. “Avoid the famous two-handed, desperate, white knuckle ‘I’m gonna win an Oscar!’ death grip,” Newton advises. “Nothing kills a cold read more than an awkward silence when an actor is struggling to turn the page.” Instead, make a small fold at the corner of the page so you can easily flip it without disruption.
8. Look up: Don’t just stare down at the script throughout the audition. “Hold the script in front of you with one hand—so you can look down quickly with your eyes when necessary, and not with your whole head like a ‘bobble-head actor,’” Newton adds. Although it’s tempting to frantically read the next lines while other readers perform, or gaze constantly at the script to prevent a lengthy pause if auditioning solo, looking down shuts you off from the audience. Follow the script with your thumb so you don’t get too lost. Engage the readers and audience by looking up as much as possible.
9. Listen carefully: A cold read is a bit like improv; it’s not just dependent on you, but also on the people around you. Listen to other readers to learn more about their characters and adjust your own lines accordingly. If another reader decides to turn what you thought was a comical scene into a somber one, it’s better to go along with their interpretation—or to try and gently coax it back to yours—than it is to simultaneously carry two different versions of the same scene.
10. Let it go: It’s almost certain that you’ll miss a line, forget a vital part of a scene, or mess up the pronunciation of a word. Just remember the wise words that the Snow Queen and cold (read) guru Elsa got stuck into our collective consciousness, and let it go. Fumbles happen, and it’s more important to stay in character than fixate on the error or pause the audition to apologize.
Finally, try and learn from your audition mistakes. Whether you spent the entire audition staring down at your shaking hands, missed more lines than you’d care to admit, or misinterpreted the scene entirely, learning from your mistakes makes the experience worthwhile. Mourning a bad cold read is only natural, but once the anguish passes, don’t try to block out the entire event. Instead, use your mistakes to provide you with a practice roadmap so you’re even better prepared for your next audition.