Ten top tips - Les Chantery
Actor, NIDA acting coach and founder of The Actors Station, Les Chantery shares his ten top tips for film and television auditioning.
Les Chantery has taught Acting since graduating NIDA in 2003. He works with the NIDA Full Time 3rd year students in Screen Testing and Auditioning. He has worked for the NIDA Open Program for over ten years and also taught at ACA, AFTRS and 16th St Studio. Les is a highly sought after acting coach, with clients recently booking work in many U.S and Australian film and tv projects including Thor 2, Lion, Ghost and the Shell, Love Child, Home and Away, Rake, Neighbours among many more. He recently launched hi s own studio, The Actors Station, where he runs screen testing workshops and classes. www.theactorsstation.com.au
1.OPPORTUNITY NOT AUDITION. The word ‘audition’ can conjure up all sorts of negative connotations such as being evaluated; competing with other actors; and having to prove yourself. Or you can also view this process as an “acting opportunity”. This is a chance to act - even if it’s just for five minutes in a casting room. For that five minutes you are the character and the character is you. Our brains are very responsive to the semantics we use and when you consider the idea that you have an acting “opportunity” instead of an audition, it can keep you feeling expansive, brave and playful. We will all hear the words ‘action’ and ‘cut’ when we are in the room, so why not embrace what happens between those two words from a place of creativity and daring. Most of us got into acting because we loved being human beings in circumstances that weren’t our own. We wanted to explore what it is like to want, to think and to feel things from another person’s point of view. When you embrace each audition as an opportunity to get a sneak peek into another human’s perspective (and not just a time slot to try and get a job) then at least you are enriching your empathetic and artistic self. Bottom line: You can have twenty auditions a year or you can have twenty opportunities to live in someone else’s shoes.
2. FEEL YOUR FRAME. Most screen auditions are framed in a ‘mid-shot.’ When you consider that an audition is really just “life in a mid-shot” you can start to make emotional and physical choices within that frame that will support the situation the character is going through. More often than not when we go into the casting room we are asked to stand on a taped mark on the floor or to sit in a chair. Many actors feel unnatural and constricted within this prescribed set up, however if you begin to explore the way that simple adjustments with your eye line, volume and physicality can enrich your “life in a mid-shot” you will find a freedom and vitality within this very specific technical parameter. For example, if you look at Anthony Hopkins in the movie Silence of the Lambs, he is often framed in an extreme close up. He barely moves his head at all within this very tight frame, yet his work is alive and dangerous because he understands how to use his eyes to communicate the volcano of thoughts and feelings he is having internally. Jump in front of a camera and practice eye lines, gestures and little movements to begin understanding how the camera perceives you in this mid-shot.
3. MAKE IT MATTER. Allow the character and story to matter, not the audition itself. Auditions can often come to us at the last minute and with very little time to prepare. Or sometimes we get given an audition for a project we don’t really care about or even necessarily like but we audition for it just because want the job (and sometimes only for the reason that its a job!) In these situations many actors learn their lines, make choices and do all the right things to prepare. But the character and the situation the character is going through doesn’t really matter to them. Getting the job is what really matters more. When this happens we can fall into the trap of “playing the idea” of the scene. That is, we say the lines and emotionally react in the way the character would in the situation but it’s really just a ‘representation’ of it all. George Bernard Shaw said “The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place”. And many actors in auditions are only giving an “illusion” of human behaviour. So in your preparation find ways to care, really care about what the character is going through. Establish an empathy with their ordeal and create a way to embody their needs and concerns. This way you will communicate from a place inside you that is truthful and purposeful, not just the “idea” of it all. When you sit in the waiting room and think that there is a situation on the other side of that door that you need to go in and deal with (the character’s situation) then that incites a motivation which isn’t just about wanting to go in and be approved of as an actor.
4. GET TO KNOW THE GENRE. These days with many viewing platforms to choose from including Netflix, Amazon, Stan, Foxtel etc. there is more television content being made than ever before. We no longer live in a “one style of acting fits all” industry. It’s not enough to just “play the truth”. Prior to the audition we have to investigate what “world” we are entering. Is it a sitcom, procedural, drama, fantasy, doco-drama, horror-mystery, single camera comedy? As actors we have to adjust our “performance” level to meet the genre. For example, a very different energy level and size would be required if auditioning for the sitcom FRIENDS in contrast to an audition for the HBO mini series TRUE DETECTIVE. So do some research around the production company, writer and network to get clues about how to “pitch” your work for that world.
5. TAKE IT FOR A TEST DRIVE. Studies show that when we attempt a task a second time, we are better at it. No big surprise here. Many actors however first attempt the character they are auditioning for in the actual audition room in front of the casting director. It is extremely helpful to have a play of the material you've been sent with another actor and to actually have them film it for you- even if it’s just on your phone. Watch it back and get a sense of what is coming across on camera and what adjustments may need to be made to your performance. The camera doesn’t lie. It’s just metal, plastic and glass pieces stuck together. So this is the most objective view of your work you can get. Your living room is the perfect place to test drive choices and moments. Keep what works and adjust what doesn’t. Word of caution: try not to get too rigid with the choices you make at home. This test drive process is just to get some insight into what is happening on camera. When we are in the audition room we must be prepared to further adjust our choices- or even throw them away completely- and be flexible with new direction given to us from the casting director.
6. ASK ‘SO WHAT?’ On a recent trip to LA and NYC I spoke with many top casting directors about the things they look for from actors in auditions. My final question to them in our meetings was a hypothetical: “100 actors audition for you. 98 of them are great. But the truth is they will leave the room and you will think ‘Yes, they were great! But…so what? And only 2 of these 100 actors will really have an impact on you and potentially book the job. What are these 2 actors doing to avoid the So What?”. The response was that those 2 actors had things such as: energy, charisma, personality, vibe, uniqueness. In other words, what stands out is what you “personally” bring to the character. The human qualities that they can’t get from the other actors coming into the room after you. So explore ways to put your own unique stamp on the character. Many of the casting directors referenced Jonah Hill as an example of an actor who in his early days of auditioning always brought his specific individuality to the character. He didn’t always book the job but he was always memorable.
7. BOOK THE ROOM, NOT THE JOB. Many actors get an audition and become solely focused on booking the job. But when you think about your career as a continuum and auditions are opportunities to have casting directors become familiar with you and become fans of your work, then you will have career longevity. They will bring you in constantly to read for different roles and projects. Many casting directors say that even if you don’t book the job you go in for, if you do a great audition they will think of you for other things. See the casting director as your ally and someone who is there to collaborate with you. Your overall experience in the room with the casting director is as important as the job at hand.
8. PREPARE BY PRIMING YOURSELF. ‘Priming’ happens when we are exposed to things which can influence our emotions and behaviour. For example: the pep talk a sports coach gives to a team before a big game to get them psyched up and “in the zone” is a form of priming. Before an audition many actors get a surge of adrenaline and nerves. This is our body preparing us and it is often an involuntary response which can either assist or hinder a performance. But many studies show that we can deliberately affect our own mood and sense of confidence by doing certain things to activate strong positive feelings. For instance when you listen to certain songs, look at particular images or even replay memories of times when you achieved really positive results in a situation, these can stimulate our body’s sense memory of these powerful and positive feelings. Amy Cuddy has a TED talk on Power Poses which is another way to boost yourself into a state of readiness before an audition. A pre-audition priming ritual is a powerful way to get yourself “in the zone”.
9. REMOVE THE REWARD. A famous experiment known as “The Candle Problem” by Sam Glucksberg deduced that when we are presented with a creative problem to solve we often perform worse when there is an incentive or reward attached to solving it. Psychology is showing that when we are motivated by a reward we tend not to create or perform to the best of our abilities. If you think about an audition, it comes with a built in incentive/reward: “If I perform well, I get a job in a film or tv show.” But this very concept means we may take less creative risks so we can try to get it ‘right’ in order to get the reward (the part in the film or TV show). A very simple trick is to ask yourself the following question before an audition: “If there was no job on offer here, in fact the casting director was not even going to watch me perform this, would I still make the same choice?.” If different choices and possibilities emerge in your mind then consider embracing them instead of the choices you first made because the latter choice is your free and irreverent artistic self coming through for you.
10. FIND THE FUN. Part of our job requirement is to audition. This part of our process is not really going to go away anytime soon. So unless we find the joy, the fun and play in auditions we will begin to resent and be in despair of them. The actor Matt Damon talks about his audition for the film PRIMAL FEAR and how he was so desperate for the part that he was stressed out. Edward Norton on the other hand shares how prior to his audition for the very same part he was sleeping on a friends couch in LA and that he found the whole audition process quite funny and amusing. Ed Norton got the part. We have to have fun and play again. A renowned psychologist Stuart Bowen describes PLAY as “an absorbing activity that provides enjoyment and suspends self consciousness and a sense of time and makes you want to do it again”. So ask yourself: how would I handle and prepare for this audition if my only sole purpose was to have FUN!