Actors who regularly audition for commercials have my utmost respect and empathy.
Yes, the rewards (i.e. residuals) can be great for those that book the job. But the process of auditioning for commercial productions is nutty and can be demoralizing. There are many, many more at-bats than hits.
For working actors, (not “stars,” because different rules apply to “stars”) it’s a grind where you rearrange your life for the two minutes or less that you spend in the audition room. And then there are a million things that are outside of your control that go into the decision.
I’ve written before about how to nail the callback audition. But I thought I’d share a little bit more about what happens behind the scenes and what’s in the mind of those making the casting decisions. After all, the more you know, the better you can prepare.
1. Your look matters. Big time.
Seventy percent of the audition is over before you read the first word of the script. This may not be fair, but it’s just the way it is. The way you look is a big part of it; especially in commercials where you’re telling stories in 30-seconds and you to establish characters quickly. If you don’t look like the character that the creative team has in mind, it’s not impossible to book the job, but it’s unlikely.
In addition, how you present yourself — the way you say your name, your voice and your general attitude — tells the team a lot about you before you ever deliver a line. (This actor makes sure his body language is as close to the character as possible, from the second he walks into the audition room.) You probably can’t book the role before you’ve read, but you can either tee yourself up for success or create an impression that’s hard to overcome.
And here’s a dirty little secret: in the first round, we may not even watch your whole audition. During the casting process, there can be hundreds of auditions to watch and only a few hours to do it. Usually, I have give my callback selects the next day. (I can’t tell you how many times I’ve plugged in my headphones after I’ve put the kids to bed and scrolled through auditions in the middle of the night.) You get a gut impression of somebody right away. If you like them, you watch more.
There are three people who can put you on the callback list: the director and the ad agency creative team — the writer and the art director. If none of those people puts you on their short list, you don’t advance to the next round.
2. There’s a small group that will decide your fate.
For TV commercials, there is a team of people in the room who will have a say in whether or not you get the job. The director, of course, and the ad agency creative team.
At the end of the callbacks, the director and the agency creatives (yes, they’re called “the creatives” and it’s sort of silly, we know) will come to an agreement about their recommendations and back-ups. Then those choices are presented to the agency creative director, who has veto power.
Once the creative director is on board, then the recommendations are presented to the client. Sometimes, there are multiple levels on the client side that have to view and approve your casting video. (On one of my recent jobs, there were two mid-level clients who had to approve, then the CMO, and then the CEO himself had to give the stamp of approval.) So there are a number of different people who have to agree that you are “the one” before you’re offered a part.
Of course, there’s absolutely NOTHING you can do about all this, so there’s really no reason to worry about it. Do your audition and let it go. If you’re the right person for the job, the director and agency will fight for you and work to make sure you’re the one hired.
3. There are ways to make yourself more “right” for the role.
Make sure that you read the casting spec before you show up. Look for clues in the write-up and adjust your wardrobe and performance accordingly. Getting past the initial audition and getting a callback is mostly about seeming “right” for the role. We’ll get a longer look at you in the callback.
Of course, if the script and casting spec says “over the top,” you can be as big as you want.
But more often then not, we’re looking for performances that seem real and natural. Not “actor-y.” We want subtle moments that feel genuine. You’re not auditioning for a stage play — it’s a TV commercial. Play the scene as you would for your close up. If you’re too big, you come off as fake, which is absolutely NOT what most clients are looking for.
4. Even if you don’t get this one, we’ll remember you.
Despite seeing thousands of auditions, we remember good people. The casting director may put in a good word for you. The director or agency creatives may remember you from a previous audition.
Casting as much in LA as I do, I see a lot of the same actors over and over again. Just because they may not be right for the first four spots they audition for doesn’t mean they won’t be perfect for that fifth spot.
For a recent job, I asked that we bring in a specific group of actors that I’d seen before, who I liked and remembered. The director did the same thing. Even if you don’t book this job, a good audition can lead to future work.
By the same token, if you’re an asshole, we remember that too. (More than likely, the casting director will stop inviting you in. Casting directors are the initial gatekeepers, so it’s important that you have a good relationship with them too.)
5. You can sabotage yourself by talking more than you listen.
The quickest way to eliminate yourself from contention? Talk too much and don’t listen.
In an audition, you’re being judged on several things. Do you look right? Are you delivering a good performance? And one of the biggest things in a callback: Can you you take direction? All of these are factors in whether or not you will book the job.
If a director gives you direction, shut up until he or she is done talking. So many actors say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah…” right away when the director starts giving a note. Many times, actors miss what the director is trying to say. When the director is giving you an adjustment, be quiet and listen. When he or she is done, ask any clarifying question and then give it your best shot. (Just like Conan.)
Recently, at a callback audition, our director actually had to say to an actor “Hold on, let me finish,” as he was giving a note. That actor did not book the job.
Break a leg!
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