Holly Powell was a Casting Director for 23 years, working as an Independent Casting Director, Director of Casting CBS New York, Director of Casting Movies and Mini-Series CBS Los Angeles, and Senior VP of Talent and Casting The Greenblatt Janollari Studio. She won an Emmy Award for Casting in 1990 and was awarded the Casting Society Of America’s Artios Award in 1995, and received consistent nominations over the years. She has cast around 100 projects and oversaw the casting as a Studio and Network Executive of many, many more, including “Six feet Under” by Alan Ball and “Lonesome Dove,” the award-winning CBS mini-series. Holly has formed her own Audition Studio in Los Angeles, HOLLY POWELL STUDIOS where she teaches Audition Workshops, conducts Audition Seminars and coaches actors for specific auditions.
THE 4 STEPS TO CASTING A SERIES REGULAR ROLE ON TELEVISION
As a former Independent Casting Director of 23 years, I probably cast about 35 pilots over the years and as a Senior Vice President of Casting for the Greenblatt Janollari Studio and Director of Casting for CBS, I oversaw the casting of probably about 50 more. The casting process to add a series regular role to a pilot or an existing series has been the same all these years. At minimum, it is usually a 4 step process….
(1) The Pre-Read with the Casting Director
(2) The Callback for Producers
(3) Reading for Studio Executives
(4) Testing at the Network
As I sat in those audition rooms over the years, I watched the various ways actors handled repeated auditions, the ways they approached walking into different rooms as the job got closer, and the ways each actor responded to the pressure of testing at the Network. Some were much more successful than others. And the actors who figured out the mystique of the audition process were usually the one’s who booked the part! And I have to tell you, the part didn’t always go to the most talented actor. Demystifying the casting process and being knowledgeable about the steps an actor must travel through to book the part is the key to conquering the audition.
The pre-read with the Casting Director is usually held in the Casting Director’s office. You are usually being “pre-read” by the Casting Director because she doesn’t know your work or has not seen you do this kind of part before. This office is often a small room and you usually see a lot of other actors waiting in the lobby. I always say the lobby of the casting office is your first line of defense. You will see all those other actors and imagine they’re just waiting to sabotage you. But really, you must stay mentally focused in the lobby to avoid the pitfalls of self-sabotage. You see the actor across the lobby who you recognize, you notice what the other actors are wearing, and you hear the casting assistant on the phone checking the availability of a “name” actor for the part you are auditioning for. And you say to yourself…”I’m never going to get this part. That actor has a lot more experience than me!”
Make sure you stay focused in the lobby on your own choices and avoid the chit chat with other actors. Get into the mental focus of the athlete. When your name is called, enter the audition room with CONFIDENCE. This is where the audition starts…from the moment you walk into the room.
Please make sure you do not enter the room in character, but in a hybrid state of being a focused actor ready to go as well as a pleasant person open to whatever the Casting Director throws your way. If chit chat happens, make sure that when chatting is over, you take your 5 to 10 seconds to get back your mental focus before you start the scene. Making as much eye contact with the Casting Director or whoever is reading with you during your audition is key. I hate the word memorize, because actors who try to “memorize” the scene usually are constantly searching their heads for the right words during the audition, instead of thinking of what their intention is in the scene. But, KNOW IT. Please remember, we don’t audition you to see if you can memorize lines. We audition you to see if you are at all right for the part and want an actor to come in prepared with their own unique choices. Hold the scene in your hand in a comfortable way and glance down and grab the line if needed. The best auditions are the ones when you forget the paper is in the actor’s hands.
The Casting Director has been hired by the Producers to find the cast for their pilot or series. They can often be hassled, under slept, and with a lot of pressure to hurry up and find the cast. So walking into the pre-read with the Casting Director can sometimes be filled with mixed signals. The Casting Director may have just gotten off the phone with the Network Casting office saying they don’t like their choices so far. The Executive Producer may have just called and said they have written all new sides and want all the actors to have the new material in the session that starts in half an hour. So understand that the Casting Director can be pulled in many different directions between the Network, Studio, Producers and Director. The actor views the Casting Director as their “gate-keeper” to getting into the ballgame, I know. But know that the Casting Director can often unwittingly be their own worst enemy by falling victim to this tug of war. Hear me when I say…the Casting Director wants you to be “IT”. They want you to be the one to solve their problem. So even if you get thrown a hostile glance or they are not even looking up at you, be focused and ready to go when you walk in the door.
After the audition is over, don’t offer excuses as to how horrible the audition was…don’t ask if you can do it again a different way….don’t say, “Would you like to give me some direction?” Asking a Casting Director if they would like to give you direction could be misconstrued as an arrogance and pushiness that the Casting Director is failing in their job. It could be a bit of a minefield depending on the mood of the Casting Director. The best way to exit the room is to again make eye contact and say “Anything else?” That puts the ball in their court to give you direction if they like. Leave with as much confidence as you entered. “Thanks! Bye!” Out the door.
THE CALLBACK/PRODUCERS SESSION
The Casting Director has called you back for the Producers because THEY LIKED WHAT YOU DID IN THE PRE-READ! The biggest mistake actors make in a callback is that they change things. They go home and work on it and come up with all these brilliant new ideas to try. The goal of the callback is to be consistent! When you work on it at home, work on making sure the lines are second nature to you. Work on strengthening your intention, clearly define your relationship and get great visualizations as to “place”. The only way to be consistent in repeating an audition is not to ask yourself HOW you said a line, but remind yourself of what your intention is.
The callback is usually in a different space than the pre-read. It is usually in the Producers office on the Studio lot where the pilot is being shot. In the callback room will be the Executive Producer, usually the creator-writer of the show called the “Show Runner”, and 2 or 3 other Producers who are either writing or non-writing Producers. The Director of the pilot or episode may or may not be present at this stage of casting. A big difference in Film casting and TV casting is that TV Producers not Directors are the one’s who choose which actors will “test” at the Studio and Network. Directors come and go on a TV series and don’t always have a vote in casting.
When you walk into this different, larger room with more people in it, make sure you say “Hello”, making eye contact with everyone and locate who you will be reading with. The best way to overcome the room size difference is to make the Casting Director, or whomever you will be reading with, your barometer. They have usually chosen to sit a comfortable distance from you to help you be as real and natural as possible. Remember this is Television, and if the room is really large it should not be influential in how loud you are. One of the biggest mistakes in callbacks is that actors become “theatrical” because they see the size of the room and try to fill it. After you finish, you may be given direction. Sometimes this is different than what the Casting Director told you. But, don’t think the Casting Director was wrong or that you did something wrong. The Producers often have something in mind they haven’t fully voiced to the Casting Director or they may be giving you direction just to see if you can take direction! They will never have you do it again if they don’t like you…they will only have you do it again if they see something in you that is right for the part. So if given direction it is a good thing! Adjust!
Sometimes you will need to have a second callback for the Producers. Remember consistency is the key. That includes wearing the same outfit you have been wearing to the previous auditions. I have seen more than one actor lose the part because they changed what they were wearing and, as good an actor as they were, didn’t “feel” like the character anymore. Remember, they have started to visualize you in the part, so make sure you WEAR THE SAME OUTFIT to each audition.
An example of this comes to mind when I was casting a pilot several years back and one of the characters I was casting was for a lawyer’s assistant.. A wonderful actor that we decided to bring to the Studio, he had worn the perfect black slacks and dark blue shirt for three auditions. I told him to wear the same outfit for the Studio test, and he laughingly said, “Wait till you see what I’m wearing tomorrow!”. Thinking he was joking, I didn’t think anything of it. But the next day as the actor entered the doors of the Studio wearing a white suit, red shirt and looking like he was going on a cruise. He didn’t look like he belonged in the world of a law office any more! He was a great actor and we wanted to bring him to the Studio to give him a shot, but in truth, his look was a bit “off” from the leading man we wanted. And when he changed his clothes, he wasn’t “right” anymore.
It is at this point that the Producers will decide whether to take you over to read for the Studio Executives.
READING FOR STUDIO EXECUTIVES
When the Producers decide that they want to take you over to read for the Studio Executives, you first have to make a “test” deal before you are allowed to read for them. This happens because the Studio wants to know how much you will cost before they “buy” you. The Casting Director calls your Agent for “quotes”. Your quotes are the amount of money you have earned for individual acting jobs, but when negotiating a series deal, the only quotes that really apply are if you have booked a pilot or series before, or if you have “tested” for a pilot before. ( Example: If you have tested for a pilot before and negotiated the contract to be $30 thousand for the pilot and $15 thousand an episode, your quotes will be 30/15. It is normal for your episodic price to be half the money you made on the pilot.) If you have never “tested” before, you probably have “no quotes”.
The Business Affairs lawyers at the Studio will be making your deal with your Agent, Manager or Lawyer. Technically, a Manager is not allowed to negotiate, so if you only have a Manager you will need to bring on a Lawyer or Agent to close the deal. They will have to structure a contract that includes your pilot fee, your episodic fee if picked up for series, and what “bumps” you get in salary over probably a 5 year period. (Sometimes merchandising, size of trailer, loop days, etc will be negotiated here.)
The amount of money that the production has budgeted for each part will determine if they can afford you or save money on you, and it is your Agents job to get as much money for you as they can regardless of your quotes! This process can often be very contentious to say the least, so it is in the actor’s best interest to let your negotiators do their job. And the actor should concentrate on their job…being consistent in the next audition. The talk of money can lead to big dreams for the actor, and I have talked to many, many actors over the years who know they blew it in their read for the Studio because they were thinking…”If I get this job, I can buy that car!”. So it is imperative that you have your mental focus on the scene…not money.
When your deal is closed, you will go over to the Studio that is producing the pilot (Warner Brothers, Disney, Universal, Paramount, Sony, 20th Century Fox, etc.) and read for the Head of the Studio for Television Programming, the Head of Casting, the VP’s of Comedy or Drama Development, among others. Along with your Producers, you could have 10 or more people in the room. You will see in the lobby the other actors who are “testing” for your part and possibly actors reading for other parts. It’s not uncommon to have you sign your contract right there in the lobby, so make sure you get there early so you can read it over and make sure it is correct. Then get into a corner and begin your concentration and focus on your job as an actor.
There is generally no chit chat when you walk into the Studio read…just “Hi”, read, “Bye”. Make sure you take a moment when in the room to locate who you will be reading with and take your 5 to 10 seconds to focus yourself before starting. When you leave the room make sure you don’t leave the building until told you can leave. It’s possible you could be “mixed and matched” with other actors reading other parts. It is at this point that the Studio Executives and the Producers will decide if they want to take the final step of “testing” you at the Network.
TESTING AT THE NETWORK
You will be going to the Network that has bought the pilot, (CBS, ABC, NBC, FOX, HBO, SHOWTIME, CW, USA, etc.) and if you didn’t sign your contract at the Studio, you will need to sign it here. So again, get there early so you can have done with that piece of business… and then go into a corner and focus.
The room at the Network could have at least 20 or more people in the room. You will have added the Head of the Network , Head of Network Casting, VP’s of Drama or Comedy Development for the Network… plus all the Studio Executives, your Producers and the Casting Director. The “test” is sometimes held in a screening room or room designed for these reads. It can have a bit of a “theater feel” to it, so resist the impulse to become “theatrical”. Remind yourself this is for Television, let the Casting Director be your barometer, and be consistent.
In the lobby you will see your competition of 2 or 3 other actors, so make sure you stay to yourself with the mental focus of an athlete. This can be an intimidating room to walk into, to say the least, but you must enter the room with confidence. First impressions are everything here. They will be spending a lot of money on this project and want to make sure that you are an actor who is confident, consistent and stable. They can tell all of those things just by the way you enter the room.
It is not uncommon to have you read with the star who has already been cast instead of reading with the Casting Director. Or after your individual read they may “mix and match” you with actors for other parts. The goal here is to see if you have any “chemistry” with the other actor. So by all means, connect with the other actor and don’t worry that it may be very different than all those past reads with the Casting Director. You now have another actor to play off of, so go for it!
The Network Executives have the final say as to who gets the part. Your Producers and the Studio Executives have already signed off on you by bringing you here. They have brought the Network a few choices to choose from, and hopefully a choice will be made. However, it happens more often than you realize, that no one is chosen and the Casting Director has to go back to the drawing board!
Remember that the Casting Director has pressures that may be as mundane as making sure there are not two blonde actresses in the show or that the supporting actor looks nothing like the lead actor. Or pressures more complicated like trying to please their Producers, the Studio and the Network who can’t agree on choices for the cast. So the next time you walk into the audition room and you get that dirty look from the Casting Director, it may not be about you! Remember to control only what you can control. Your unique choices. So if in their opinion you are not “right” for the role, you will be remembered for future projects because you gave such a prepared audition.
Demystifying the 4 steps to casting a Series Regular role on Television is key to conquering the audition process. And understanding what part of the process you have control over and what part of the process you don’t have control over is imperative. It is not the actor’s job to worry if they are too old, have the wrong color hair, don’t have enough experience, are the wrong skin color, etc, etc, etc. It is the actor’s job to make unique choices, be prepared, confident, be consistent and be mentally focused.
Now you can walk into the next audition room with confidence…because knowledge is power!
Want to learn more? Upcoming events at Holly Powell Studios include:The 4 Week Audition Workshop: March 10th, 17th, 24th & 31st, 7pm-10pm & The Audition Seminar: March 20th 2pm-4pm. Visit www.hollypowellstudios.com for more info. About Holly’s class, Men in Trees Star Seana Kofoed says, “There’s a great class with Holly Powell in Los Angeles, she walks you through the four steps of testing: Pre-Read, Producers, Studio, and Network. I think the more we can arm ourselves with what each step is about, the more at ease we’ll feel. It demystifies it, which is exactly what that process needs. Bring it down from the epic to the mundane.”
Photo by Susan Sheridan