Auditioning in the time of coronavirus: Actors get creative as self-taping becomes new normal
In late March, Broadway and TV actress Lesli Margherita (Homeland) got an audition from her agent. Due to the coronavirus pandemic and stay-at-home orders, the audition required her to put herself on tape. The email also asked her to dress in Victorian-style costuming.
"The little note said, 'Casting would really appreciate if you could evoke the time period,'" Margherita tells EW. "I'm like, 'Are you f—ing kidding me?' It's not like I've got that stuff in my closet. I mean, Mafia princess and slutty, maybe, but this was the furthest thing from me."
With Amazon orders backed up, and unable to stop by a friend's place to borrow wigs and other items, Margherita had to improvise. "I ended up just scouring my closets for anything that had any kind of lace on it," she says. "Then I looked at Victorian hair and makeup online. You basically have to become your own little studio mogul! I just picture the casting people on the other side, scream-laughing at some of these outfits."
Of course, actors have been recording their own auditions for years whenever they've found themselves in the wrong place and time, but now in the time of COVID-19, self-taping is the only option — and with it comes many hoops to jump through. "This has absolutely upended the industry, but it's great that the self-tape process was already in place prior to this," says Lauren Bass of the bicoastal casting agency Bass/Casting. "Seven years ago, it would would've been much more devastating to the industry because people would not have been prepared."
Many actors might be familiar with putting themselves on tape, but doing so under such restricted conditions requires a lot more preparation. Whether it's acquiring the appropriate costuming, as in Margherita's case, or setting up a camera that can capture a full-body shot while living alone, securing that elusive role has never been so challenging. For Big Little Lies actress Merrin Dungey, the first obstacle to overcome was a relatable one. "You're asking me to put on pants?" she says, recalling her initial reaction to a recent audition. "The audacity that I'm out of my sweats!"
Once appropriately attired and ready to shoot, the next challenge Dungey encountered was trying to capture a proper wide shot with no one there to hold the camera (her phone) for her. "I share custody of my kids, and it was a week when I didn't have them — not that I would trust them to hold the camera steady," she says. Luckily, she rediscovered a mini tripod she bought while working on Once Upon a Time. "You can wrap it around a lamp or something," she says. "But, still, it's really hard to do a full-body shot. There was like a thousand instructions for this slate. I was like, 'Come on, lower your expectations.' Also, I've been doing this long enough — you can Google a photo of me!"
Getting the framing right is complicated enough, and actually shooting the audition can be trickier still. After a few attempts, however, Margherita has it down to an art. "I have the most elaborate system," she says. The actress sets up a backdrop ("It's a pain in the butt to do") and lighting rig ("I've got an entire lighting setup that fits underneath my bed"), including a ring light that also holds her phone. "I think most actors have those. It just blows out any kind of virus or alcohol skin."
A few auditions in, and with tape on the floor marking her camera and lighting positions, Margherita has nailed getting her setup in place in 10 minutes. "The tape underneath my carpet makes my floors look like they're out of a sitcom, but it saves me a lot of time," she says. "I just wish I had a mark for my dog that he'd stay on — he's always in the background. It really gives a new meaning to studio apartment."
With everything in place, Margherita can get down to reading her lines — only she has no one to read the opposite part. "That's the hardest thing," she says. "I set up my phone to record, then I have my iPad with the sides on it in case I need to look at the lines — it's on a scrolling system, like a teleprompter. Then my computer is FaceTiming a friend of mine who is reading the scene with me. It takes three devices to do this! I'm sure there's a simpler way, but it seems to work okay for me."
A potentially simpler way to do it would be to utilize an app on which actors can record the lines of the opposite role and hear them read back, but Margherita finds her way more comfortable and entertaining. "That's just too stressful," she says of the alternative. "I've been [reading] for a lot of my actor friends because we have nothing to do. I think actors are just desperate to work on anything, so we're happy FaceTiming and being readers for one another."
Then comes the editing. Dungey has found going to a third party for that step to be massively helpful. "I use this great company called Intrepid for all my self-tapes," she says. "I always get my stuff within an hour, and the quality is phenomenal."
Based in Hollywood, Intrepid Tapes — in more normal times — offers full-service taped casting sessions with high-quality lighting and sound, and post-audition editing too. If actors feel like they need it, they can also run their lines with the Intrepid staff before going on tape.
"Casting directors want to be able to envision how the actor would look on set," says Ali Rothschild, co-owner of Intrepid Tapes. "We can give them that." During lockdown, the company is offering a remote service where they connect on a video call with the actor, read with them, record the audition, edit and compress it, and deliver the finished product. "It's all of us making the best of the circumstances," says Rothschild, who adds that actors can utilize their services a la carte. "Some people just want us to read with them. They're like, 'I can't read with my husband — he's a terrible actor and just makes me laugh.'"
For Dungey, their editing is key. "They make it all pretty for you," she says.
Speaking of looking good, one perk of putting on pants and getting glammed up for an audition is the chance to flaunt during the ever-growing number of group video calls on the calendar. "I just organized a bunch more FaceTime cocktail parties that day," says Dungey. "I already looked nice, so I was just like, 'Let's keep it rolling while mama looks good!'"
While getting in the room with the people you hope to work with is almost always preferable, actors are proving themselves resilient and adaptive in these unprecedented times. Remaining hopeful for the future of the industry also helps fuel their creativity. "I feel eager to participate," Dungey says. "It gives me hope. Hope for what is next. There is a light at the end of this tunnel, and I'm planting seeds to grow when this is over. That's what this is."
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