Now don't screw it up

By Tricia Johnson
Updated November 08, 2000 at 05:00 AM EST
Credit: Pitt: Theodore Wood/Camera Press/Retna

They slog through audition after audition. They stand up and deliver lines insipid enough to make Joe Eszterhas look like Eugene O’Neill. They act sweet, they act surly. Actors, it’s clear, are willing to suffer through the most crushing blows of humiliation in their quest to climb one step higher in the Hollywood hierarchy. And who determines whether an actor winds up as a bit player? or Brad Pitt?

The casting directors. They’re the judges who deliver the final verdict on your face, your voice, your smile. Up to 30 thespians a day pass through each of their courtrooms as they try to create pools of talent for directors to sample from. Here, EW cozies up to a veteran casting director — who talked on condition of anonymity — to get the skinny on what to do and what not to do as you stand before the arbiter of your fate.

What’s the biggest mistake actors make during auditions?
They’ll talk too much — to the point where they practically talk themselves out of a job. Or they’ll make jokes about how bad they are. It’s a nervous thing, and they think it’s funny, but it’s off putting. The worst thing is when they’ve done a good job but the director asks a question and the actor takes that as license to just go on and on.

Open casting calls — are they worth it?
It’s a long shot, but yes. We’ve cast children from open calls, and it’s a good place for casting directors to find real people. We’ve actually given people careers from open calls even if we didn’t cast them in that particular film. So it’s good for being seen. It’s not a movie that I cast, but the lead [Rob Brown, 16] in Gus Van Sant’s new movie [”Finding Forrester”] was found at an open call. He wasn’t an actor.

Does the casting couch still exist?
To a degree it exists. Actors are not stupid. My attitude is if you’re going to get something out of it, and you want to, then why not? It might not get you the job, but it could certainly help you. But if you’re going to use the casting couch, there are probably a couple of couches you have to sleep on, including the casting director’s, the director’s, and the producer’s.

Is there any hope for someone who freezes up during auditions?
Yes. Chloë Sevigny is a brilliant actress but I’ve heard she’s not a good auditioner — she’s shy. Vincent Gallo is another one I’ve heard is a terrible auditioner but a very good actor. The situation can be overwhelming, so I can understand why a sensitive person might not be the best at [it], even if they are a gifted actor. But I think actors are bad judges of how their audition was. We get calls where the agent says, ”Oh, so and so did a really horrible job, can they come back in?” And we say, ”Actually, they did a really good job and we’re probably going to hire them.”

Should you walk into the room in character?
I personally loathe it. But sometimes it works. There’s that famous story about Hilary Swank auditioning for ”Boys Don’t Cry” where she went in with her hair tucked up into a hat and acted like a boy. But that’s a very specific thing. But be careful: If the character is arrogant, you can come off badly.

Any cases where a virtual unknown blew away a casting director and got a career out of it?
Edward Norton on ”Primal Fear.” He pretended to have a stutter for the audition — I think he was [recently] out of Yale. He was pretty much an unknown before that, and now he’s got a great career.? I think when Tom Cruise did [1981’s] ”Taps” they kept adding scenes for him because they liked him so much.

Not everyone can master a British lilt like Gwyneth Paltrow. So what should you do if the character calls for an accent?
First, find out if they want you to try to audition with the accent, or if they just want to see the acting. [An accent] is hard to pull off in an audition unless you are a skilled technician, because it becomes about the accent and not the acting.

Should you memorize the lines for the scene you’re reading?
I think it’s great if you can memorize the lines. But still hold the paper in your hands, because chances are you’ll get nervous and forget them. Same thing if you need your glasses to see. Come in without your glasses and introduce yourself, then put the glasses on, because there’s nothing more painful than watching a poor actor stumbling through the lines because they can’t see. But make sure they’ve seen you without the glasses at some point.

What’s your advice on head shots?
Please make it look like you. Yes, head shots have to be retouched, but there’s nothing worse than calling the person in and they don’t look anything like the photo. If you’re an ugly actress or you’re fat, that’s how you’re going to get hired. Just make sure your eyes are alive and you look like yourself.

How about reels?
People tend to make them way too long. We don’t have the patience for anything more than five minutes. You can have a second one available so that if they want a longer reel you can send it. Put your best work on there that’s going to show your range.

What about following up after an audition?
Agents usually follow up for what is called ”feedback.” If you don’t have an agent, don’t make a pest of yourself. Send a thank you postcard — something you don’t have to open. It never hurts to send a note saying thank you, I was glad to meet you. Don’t ask if you got the part or not, because the truth of the matter is, if they want you, they’ll track you down on vacation in Antarctica. That old cliché ”Don’t call us, we’ll call you” is really true here.

Get advice from a superagent, see what four Hollywood actresses have to say about the business, or meet the winners of EW’s Screenplay Contest.