It’s that time of year again; I’m back from vacation, the summer ends, football is in the air, and my bank account balance is getting leaner. I make a majority of my odd-job money during the summer, and as it winds down I find myself searching for little pick up jobs here and there to help make ends meet while I plug away at my writing (and get distracted by Miami Dolphins football).
One of my many odd-jobs is acting… technically. Most of my “work” has been in commercials, but every once in awhile my agent sets me up on a TV or movie audition. Years ago when my agent called with an audition, my heart would race and butterflies of anticipation would overcome me. “This Russian soap commercial could make me famous!” Nowadays, I complain about how much time I’ll have to take off of work to go to the auditions and call backs for the part I most likely won’t get.
For people outside the “business of show,” the fantasy of working in television and movies seems so thrilling. (I know, I was once one of them. “But that…was a long time ago…” he stated over dramatically and hamming it up for the camera). In reality, getting cast in a commercial or bit part isn’t as glamorous as it sounds (at least not for the extras). Working on set is mostly just standing around at the craft services table (a series of snack tables mostly full of unhealthy junk) and chomping away while the production crew hangs lights and makes sure the sound is synced properly. When you’re not being lit from different angles or re-touched with makeup, you’re in a trailer reading or napping.
I once got hired on an episode of the HBO series Deadwood as a “Hearst Pinkerton Gunman.” After arriving on set at 4:00 A.M. and being informed I was late, I spent several hours getting in makeup and costume. Then from 6:30 until 11:30 I sat in a chair playing with my prop gun while the same 5 second scene was shot several million times. After lunch, I sat on set until 6:00 and then went home. The next day I did the same thing, until the 3rd day when my scene was called.
My “scene” consisted of me leaning against a stagecoach near the saloon. When the director called “Go” (Action is not always the preferred word choice), the leader of our group came out of the saloon, nodded at me, and then I drew my gun and followed him. We shot that scene five or six times and then I went home $200 something dollars richer (for 3 days, before taxes). Glamorous? No?
You can imagine my hesitation when my agent called me recently with a “big audition.” It was for a commercial (more like a reality show) for ESPN. I can’t go into to many details (confidentiality stuff… Hollywood’s big on that sort of thing), but suffice to say I would be on the road for several months and paid SAG scale (Screen Actors Guild pay = WAY more than $200 and something for 3 days).
Auditions are a bizarre process to a newcomer and veterans alike. Firstly, I had to find the audition. Most of my auditions are in one of three familiar buildings, but occasionally, I get a real doozy off the beaten path in some back alley part of Hollywood that belongs in graphic novels. This one was a doozy. I’m not sure what a crack pipe looks like, but I’m fairly certain I stepped on a few en route to the building.
Parking is always an issue, and I’ve learned after several parking tickets to read signs VERY carefully. Hopefully by time I’ve parked, I’m not too late or too early (You want to be right on time or you’ll piss some casting agencies off). Nowadays, a lot of stuff is done with computers, so I don’t have to show up with a headshot (photo of myself that I paid way too much for and doesn’t look like me anymore because I’m too cheap to pay for a new one every year). Once I composed myself and checked the time, I wrote my name and contact info on a sheet of paper and took a “side” (piece of paper with my lines on it). I wasn’t emailed the “side” the night before, so I have a few minutes to memorize my line or lines. Most of the time the line I’m auditioning for is something like “Touchdown! Woo-Hoo!” or “Paper or plastic?” Sometimes I’m lucky and there isn’t a line at all, they just called me all the way down here to smile and nod. For those of you thinking of a career as a thespian, (lol…career) heed this advice: If you can’t memorize your handful of line(s) and figure out an interesting way to deliver them by the time they call you in to audition several minutes later (Sometimes WAY longer if they’re running behind), then you probably shouldn’t be in the “business of show.”
In the audition room the first thing I usually do is have a little back and forth with the casting director, as if we’re long time pals, and I genuinely care about him/her. It’s a sad game actors play in the hopes of being “remembered” for that one funny line or how much we fake laughed at the casting director’s terrible jokes. I’ve actually auditioned with this particular casting director dozens of times, and I’m not even sure what his name is… it seems to change every time I audition with him. I did remember that his children are all in some travelling musical theatre show for kids in hospitals, so I talked about that briefly, and we all fake laughed.
After demeaning myself, I “Slate.” Slating is a industry way of saying ‘Tell us your name, and show us the front and side of your body while we film you and stare at you on a computer screen.” After the “slate”, he told me a little bit about the role and any relevant specifics. (The jobs on the road for several months, no contact with the wife, and I would get to watch a lot of football). He says “whenever you’re ready” (Which translates to “start immediately regardless of how ready you are because it’s almost time for my lunch break.”) Then I say my line a couple of times, he thanks me, and I drive home questioning every single choice I made in a cataclysmic inner monologue.
Did I smile too much? Not enough? Did I make eye contact? Should I have said PAPER or Plastic? Paper OR Plastic? Paper Or PLASTIC? Did I capture the essence of a clerk!? Was I ethnic enough!? Should I have parted my hair down the middle to look more nerdy!? Was this stain always on this shirt!? Should I have lead with my left foot!? Oh God do they think I’m left footed!? Is the campaign marketed toward left footed people!!?? What am I doing with my life!!!???
I need pancakes. Pancakes will make me feel better. Pancakes will make me feel fat. If I feel fat, I am fat. The breakdown specifically asked for “average build.” Fat is not average build. I’ll get a short stack.
Once I’ve de-stressed with a “coffee” (uber fattening Frappuccino) and “muffin” (cupcake), I went back to my normal life, hoping for a call in the next few days. Actors need thick skin, because most of the time the call never comes. I’ve been on the other side of a production, and cast a few things myself. It’s pathetic, but sometimes the decision comes down to the color of someone’s hair or whether their ears are pierced or not. It’s a business of nitpicking, and unless you’re a star, you’re under constant scrutiny for tiny choices you make. I’ve not cast someone before despite a great audition because I didn’t like the way they pronounced “Am.” They kept saying “Em.” Being as the scene called for several “Am’s” I couldn’t in good conscience cast the actress because I couldn’t get over her pronunciation. Stupid huh? She would have done a MUCH better job than the headache of an actress that we cast.
But Tony, I’m a writer, not an actor! I would never do any of that stuff, so why do I need to know any of this?
I’ve become a better writer because of my experiences as an actor. For one thing I’ve gotten better at writing characters because I now understand that simply writing the color of hair and build of a character doesn’t make them a “character.” A character is full of unseen backstory, inflections, tone, pacing, nuances, and grit. I really should have cast the “Em” girl, because she had all of that, but I went with the safer pick. My work suffered because of it, and I learned a valuable lesson: Cast interesting people, and they will make your words more interesting.
There are also so many different ways a line or scene can be delivered. Sometimes an actor can find a way of delivering your words in a much BETTER way than you had imagined. A simple tinge of an accent or inflection can change a character from a flat leading man, to an eccentric narcissist. You may not have the opportunity to go to a “real” audition in your city (community theatre DOES count), but you can teach yourself the difference between the written word and spoken. Check out the famous Hamlet soliloquy, depending on how it’s delivered, it completely changes the meaning of the play. Is Hamlet a coward? Suicidal? Vengeful? Or something else altogether? You can say “To be or not to be” so many different ways it will make your ears bleed. Take one of your own scenes and speak your words out loud into a camera and watch them. By listening to your words spoken, you can find what works and doesn’t work, and can even discover many of the holes and loose ends in a scene or story.
Another benefit of hearing the difference from the page to the stage is dialogue timing. I’ve written scenes that sounded like lyrical magic in my head, but on the page they came out as long winded and pretentious when delivered at a first table read. By reading your words out loud (or better yet buy some pizzas and invite some friends over for a table read), you can discover one of the most important things of all, scene economy. Do you really need that wordy angst filled monologue at the beginning of the scene or can you just open with the main character punching his best friend in the mouth? Read it out loud and you’ll probably realize showing the characters angst is a lot more effective than saying it.
Most writers are afraid of the rejection of showing their work to others. Another hilarious one I hear is that writers are afraid of someone “stealing” their work. I’ve written a lot of stuff, and I know plenty of writers who have written far more than me. Nobody EVER writes the same thing. Your voice, point of view, style, rhythm, and CHOICES make your writing uniquely your own. If I told 100 different people to write a story of two lovers meeting in space for the first time after both of their spaceships crash land on an mysterious planet with a hostile alien population, ALL 100 of them would write completely different stories. You have to get used to rejection as a writer; it’s a part of the business. Every writer who’s ever written anything has written things that they thought were wonderful that stunk up the room. I’ve been rejected more times than I can count. Yes, it stings initially, but the only thing to do is to re-write, re-tool, and move on. Would you rather put your writing out there and be told by everyone it’s terrible and then move on to something else OR spend years working on something only to figure it out that it stinks on your own? If it’s good to begin with, it can get great; if it’s mediocre, it can get better; and if it’s terrible, it’s probably going to get worse with every re-write.
So go forth and embarrass thyself my fellow Odd-Jobbers. Audition for plays, local commercials, and barbershop quartets (the quartet probably won’t help your writing, but who doesn’t like a tune crooned by four mustachioed weirdoes in straw hats?) Put your work out there for others to read: local newspapers, literary journals, and friends who like pizza. Listen to your words and take in what works and what doesn’t. Your writing will improve once you get used to the crippling depression of rejection.
Tony LaScala @Coloropolis
P.S.: I Didn’t get the ESPN commercial, so the audition actually cost me $120 something dollars after lost wages, gas, parking, and post depression Crème Brulee. THIS Odd-Jobbers, is the reality of “Show Business.”