Four actresses reveal the secrets to getting the part

By Benjamin Svetkey
Updated October 25, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

Every successful actress, from the Broadway diva to the big-screen bombshell, shares a common bond: They’ve all learned to survive that necessary evil known as auditioning. It’s a physically exhausting, mentally debilitating, and emotionally draining process — not to mention murder on a girl’s wardrobe. But, alas, there’s no other way to the top.

Here’s how four actresses — each with extensive auditioning experience; each between the ages of 29 and, um, 29 — feel about it. Because they’d all like to continue working in show business, they’ve asked that their names not be printed. One of them (we’ll call her Louise) has been cast in major parts in several Broadway shows, as well as numerous smaller TV and film roles. Two of the others (let’s name them, oh, say, Mary and Jane) have starred in TV sitcoms and had supporting roles in big-budget Hollywood films. The fourth is an internationally famous actress who is as familiar to discerning indie audiences as she is to millions of horny 13-year-old boys. We’ll just call her Movie Star.

Okay, so let’s get right to the juicy stuff What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever been asked to do during an audition?
Louise: One director asked me to bring a puppet. It was for this big dramatic scene with a baby, so he told me to bring a puppet and pretend it was my baby. It was so ludicrous. In the middle of the scene I felt so stupid acting with this puppet I just started strangling the baby. Strangling the puppet. I just couldn’t stop cracking up. I didn’t get that part.
Movie Star: One director I auditioned for made every woman who came in take off their shoes. All the women had to be in their bare feet. I have no idea why.

Do you still have to audition?
Movie Star: Not as much anymore, unless it’s something I’ve never done before — like a new accent or something — and I have to prove I can do it. But I used to audition a lot.

How many auditions do the rest of you do?
Jane: Well, during pilot season [when the TV networks tape their prospective series] you can do as many as 13 auditions a week.
Louise: Or more. You can end up doing five auditions a day, five days a week.
Mary: It gets insane. You have to change clothes five times a day. You’re always in some washroom changing clothes. Louise: I’ve changed in subway cars.

So when you go into these auditions, do you go in as the character you’re hoping to play? Is that why you’re always changing outfits?
Louise: Yeah, for me that’s sort of the first rule of thumb. You go in pretending you’re like the person in the script. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten hired where they say, ”God! You’re just this girl!”
Jane: Exactly. I do the same thing. I’ll go shopping before an important audition and buy stuff that the character might wear. Just so I’ll feel more confident, if nothing else.
Mary: I always go in as myself. Because the main thing I try to convey is the change. This is who I am — and now here’s who I can be.
Movie Star: I think you have to try to convince them that you’re a little bit like the character. You just try to accentuate that part of yourself that might be something like the character. But you don’t transform your whole personality or anything.

Are there any little tricks you sue to give yourself an edge?
Jane: I always do a little research on the director. I’ll go on the Internet and find out what sort of actors he usually hires, that sort of thing.
Louise: Or rent their past movies.
Mary: The directors aren’t as important with TV auditions, though. It’s the executive producer who’s in charge. So you should study up on him…or her.
Jane: Also, I always memorize the scene and rehearse it with friends. But then I bring in the script pages into the audition anyway and pretend I’m reading them for the first time. Like it’s just all off-the-cuff.
Louise: And you have to flirt with the director — but not too much. Mary: Yeah, the f—ability quotient is very important. Sad but true.

The what?
Louise: The f—ability quotient. I think it’s from an Elia Kazan line: It’s not enough to be a great actress, they also have to want to f— you. Something like that.
Jane: Yup. ‘Cause you can go in for a drug-addict character…
Louise: Or a nun…
Jane: Right, or a nun. But you still have to have a little womanly flirtation, a little sensuality. It’s important for him to know that when you walk in the room he’d want to f— you. That the people he works with want to f— you. That the people who see the movie would want to f— you.
Louise: A lot of these directors were geeks in high school, guys who could never get girls. So now they’re in the position of power…
Mary: It’s especially true with TV. The main consideration for casting female roles on TV is the f—ability quotient. It can get really depressing.
Louise: But you have to make sure they know there’s a boundary. You have to make sure they know there is no way you’re going to sleep with them — but you still have to play a flirty game. Flirty but unavailable. It’s a bit of a tease. It’s the mystique that drives directors crazy.

What about when you’re auditioning for female directors?
Jane: That’s a different story. When it’s a woman, you want to make them feel like you can be friends.
Louise: Absolutely. It’s a totally different dynamic. You want to seem nonthreatening and sort of malleable. Like they won’t have any problem controlling you.
Jane: That you would respond to them as an authority figure, that you’d believe in them. Because so many female directors are fighting so hard to be where they are that they want their actresses to be supportive.
Movie Star: I don’t know. I had an audition once with a female casting director and she was like, ”I want you to try to seduce me. Just do anything you want to me.” So sometimes the dynamic isn’t that different.

That audition wasn’t put on videotape, by any chance?
Movie Star: Actually, it was.
Louise: A lot of auditions get put on videotape, which is another nightmare. Your worst auditions are out there on tape. But sometimes that can help you. I did this taped audition where I dressed up as this S&M chick. I went out and bought a leather bikini, a push-up bra, a dog collar. The sort of stuff I didn’t have in my normal wardrobe. I didn’t get that part but then I got this other movie later on where I played a totally different sort of character. And the director of that movie told me he hired me because he saw my S&M audition tape. So you never know.
Mary: There’s a famous tape of [she names a well-known movie actress] auditioning for the part of a Russian character and it’s supposed to be hysterically bad. It sometimes gets played at parties in Hollywood.
Movie Star: I know that when Stanley Kubrick was casting for Eyes Wide Shut, he had some of the actresses audition by sending in videotapes of themselves in their underwear.

It sounds like there are a lot of head games involved in the audition process.
Movie Star: Oh, yeah. There are lots of stories about Oliver Stone holding auditions and pretending not to pay attention. Making phone calls and stuff.

Do competing actors ever try to psych each other out before auditions?
Mary: Absolutely. There are a couple of actresses who are notorious for that. They’ll do stuff like come out of the audition and announce that they’ve got the part — even when they haven’t — so that the other actors feel like they don’t have a chance.
Louise: Or they’ll say stuff like ”Are you really going to wear that outfit?” before you go in for your audition.
Mary: They’re evil. Pure evil.

It sounds like a pretty nerve-wracking experience even without those sorts of mind games. Have any of you ever blown an audition because of sheer nervousness?
Mary: One of my first big auditions was for a casting director who happened to be African-American. I really wanted to make a good impression and I did a really good audition. Afterwards she came up to me and said ”Thank you, ma’am. You did a really good job.” And I was so nervous I said, ”Thank you, mammy.” I meant to say ma’am, but mammy came out instead. I’m not a racist, but it just plopped out. And there was just complete silence in the room. No one could speak, they were so embarrassed for me. And everything I tried to do to apologize just made me sound like an even bigger racist. That was the worst audition of my life. Needless to say, I didn’t get the part.
Jane: My worst was for a movie director in London. I’d met him in Los Angeles and when he was casting his movie he flew me to London for the audition. I did all this preparation because I wanted the part desperately. It was a really dramatic character, this sexual killer. I had to rip off my top and cry and simulate masturbation and stuff. So I go to London and I rip off my top and cry and simulate masturbating. I do an amazing job. And after I finished, the director tells me I was really great but, oops, he thought I was someone else. He had me fly to London because he mistook me for another actress.
Movie Star: I had one director try to get me into a three-way with his wife during an audition. That was pretty freaky.
Louise: One director asked me to take off my bra for an audition. I walked out and his assistant came running after me to apologize. I guess the assistant realized I could sue them or something.

Did you get the part?
Louise: F—, no! They just wanted some little nymphet to go in without a bra.

Jeez. It sounds like a pretty rough profession.
Jane: It can be pretty degrading. But it’s not always like that. It can be totally thrilling, too. When you audition for a really good director and he recognizes your talent. Even if you don’t get the part, it’s thrilling. Of course, it’s even better when you do get the part.

So what advice would you give aspiring actresses on how to deal with it all?
Louise: Lie about your age. Always lie about your age.
Mary: And get therapy. You’ll need it.

It’s from George Meyer, a Simpsons writer. He said, ”In this business, you can make a ton of money doing work that you hate and go home full of self-loathing. Or you can make two-thirds that doing something that you love. And two thirds is still a lot more than you ever thought you’d make.” I’ve never worked on anything I felt was a waste of time. Am I on the Forbes list of richest entertainers? No, but I have plenty of money, like my life, and tend not to hang my head when people ask what I do for a living.
— Conan O’Brien, host of NBC’s Late Night