The Casting Trap

027 2A note on casting today, again following some interesting discussions.

Every actor wants to know why they can’t get a gig and there’s always a very specific reason why you can’t and don’t and it all depends on the gig you’re trying to get.

Most of the time the reasons why you don’t get the gig are out of your hands. Some of the time, though, they’re not. Obviously if you give a wooden and contrived performance in the audition, you’ve shot yourself in the foot. Easy fix there is to get some actor training. But what if you give a perfectly believable performance and still don’t get the gig? If it happens often enough over a period of time, you’ll start to think you’re a bad actor, which, if you have trained and learned a solid technique, isn’t the case. Let’s look at the reasons why then.

First of all, let’s look at TV commercials and demystify “type”. Type is not a dirty word. It’s a method of relating very quickly to an audience. What the casting people and the client are looking for is type. Let’s take an example. I recently went for an ad with my 6 year old son. I was to play a Dad and he was… you guessed it, my son. So what the casting director and the client want to see is a “typical” father and son pairing. Why? No, it’s not because they lack imagination. They are thinking of their audience. They have a 90 second ad (if that), and in that 90 seconds they need a very large audience to relate to what’s happening in the ad. They need recognizable characters. As such they are looking for the average or typical mean of the father/son pairing. Now I’m not a typical Dad. I don’t tell stories by sitting on the bed with a book all that often. I kind of leap around all over the place and play it out. My boys aren’t typical boys. They cook meals and light fires at the age of 6. So me and my lad had to, as best we could, try to be as typical a father and son pairing as we could be. We didn’t get the ad (partly as well because the boy had to be 7) but we did our best.

So what’s typical? Typical is the middle ground where there is nothing extreme on either end. Not too big, not too small. Hair not too long, and not too short. It’s an image of a grouping of people, say, accountants or teenaged girls. It’s “middle” in your society. Ironically, and this is a bigger argument for another day, it is the media that partly dictates what typical is by presenting the typical notion of father and son, husband and wife, or whatever it may be, to the audience repeatedly. The more you see a type on the TV over and over again, the more you’ll envisage that type when someone asks you to “imagine a typical father and son”.

So if you went for an ad and didn’t get it, it might have been because you weren’t quite typical enough of that character, or someone else who went was more typical than you in the eyes of the casting director and the client. There’s not much you can do about that except to try to be as typical as you can. You can practice it if you like and some people become very good at being that “typical guy” or “typical girl” and get quite a lot of ads. If you look closely enough you will see the same heads pop up repeatedly over a period of say 5 years. Then those heads will be gone because they will have gotten too old for that type. Then they pop back up a few year later because they have become typical of a new age-range or type. While you’re in a transition phase of type, it’s very hard to get ads. It’s also hard to get ads that are casting to type when you just aren’t a typical looking person. That said, there will also be ads that will require anti-types, but its not typical… pardon the pun.

Have a think about what age you are, your size, your shape, your facial hair and ask yourself if someone was to look at you and name your type, what would they say? If they say you don’t seem to have a type, you probably won’t get too many TV ads, and that’s ok too because there’s other stuff out there and you’re just a different kind of actor. I’ll get to that in a minute. If they say, you look like a bank clerk or, you look like a young fella who you’d see in the pub watching the match, or you look like the girl next door, or you look like the secretary to the president, keep an eye out for those ads and apply to audition. Pick three types that others tell you suit you. Your agent, if you have one, should be sending you to all of those that suit your type. Remember that your types will change throughout your life. If you’re 25, you won’t be playing grandads of young children just yet. But one day you will. The actor’s career is as long as his or her life.

So then we move onto TV series. If you’re auditioning for a soap, once again more than likely its going to be about type. You’ll be asked to play the typical lawyer or typical cop or typical taxi driver or typical drug addict in your culture. Again, casting people will mostly be looking for the actor who looks most like the type they’re after. I found it very hard to get work in Australia because the typical Aussie is bronzed, blond and blue eyed. I have red hair. I’m never going to be cast as the “typical Aussie larakin” which was the description of about 80 percent of the roles out there for young men. However, I then moved to Ireland and walked into 4 TV commercials in a row because of my typical Irish looks, much to the consternation of the poor Irish guys around me at the time. For mass produced soap opera TV series, pretty much the same rules apply. Again, these shows are aimed at a mass audience of working-middle-class home viewers who prefer TV to theatre and even cinema. They’re looking for instant recognition and connection between the viewer and the character. They don’t want the audience to have to do any “work”. In a TV soap, the description will be very much to type, even down to the general bracketing of antagonist/protagonist, that is, goodie/baddie. But once you have the role and are working on it, you will find more complexity through your own characterization once you apply your technique to it. The character will also have objectives and feelings, which leads to a more satisfying characterization too. On the surface, however, the character will seem like a cliche. The skill in soap acting is to take a type of say, “ditzy blonde” or “local taxi driver” or “the town policeman” and do something interesting with it.

However, for something a little more clever and sophisticated, the characters will be more like real people rather than types. Types are not real. They are a general representation of what the median accepted image might be. Brian Cranston’s character in Breaking Bad was not a typical drug pusher cooking meth. He was a family man and school teacher with lung cancer who found a solution to his financial problems. He is not typical; that is, he is not general. He is specific. Look closely and so is every other character in the series. Characters in more sophisticated TV shows and film are usually “multi-layered”, meaning they have more than one facet to their personality. They’re the best cop, but with strange methods… and an alcohol problem… and a Desert Storm Vet… and gay (True Detective). They’re never one thing. It’s this kind of acting that requires highly skilled approaches to complex characterization. Why? Because type is absolutely useless in these scenarios. How can you play a “gay type” with all that other stuff going on? This of course is where highly advanced training is required too. It’s these kinds of roles that are usually filled by actors like Brian Cranston or Daniel Day-Lewis or Phillip Seymour-Hoffman or Eddie Redmayne, because their own type, that is the type that is them in life, is irrelevant to the character and the performance. They become a vehicle for the telling of someone else’s story and lend their body, voice and psychology to them.

And this is the trap or paradox of being an actor. Of course the actor who is an artist wants to play the complex roles because they are challenging and they put their skills to the test, but it is very difficult to convince anyone that you can transform into character unless you can somehow prove it to them, which is a Catch 22. In this era of showreels, 98 percent of the showreels that are sent to me to look at are basically that actor playing towards their type, trying to sound convincing and “showing emotion”, which is often general too. This might get you the odd casting for ads and TV soap, but it’s not going to help you get near those big, complex projects and series. You have to work and work and work and eventually someone in a position of power will get the sniff that you are the kind of actor that you are, but it’s very difficult to get there.

As such, when an actor of this calibre doesn’t get a gig that is cast to type, it’s because their very essence as an actor is constantly looking deeper than type. It’s their natural instinct to look for the other facets of character that make them real people rather than cliches. But sometimes we have to look at the project and the genre we are auditioning for and be realistic. If it’s an ad and they’re looking for the typical Dad of a young kid, you have to try to find that. It’s the job.

So when you’re going for an audition, make sure you look at the project and be honest about what it is. Get to know the casting director too. Going for an audition for an ad or a soap  is a totally different ball game to going for an audition for a complex role in a new major TV drama or movie. Read it carefully. And read between the lines. If it’s the former, be aware of what the type is an how you can serve that type and be recognizable as that to a mass audience. If it’s the latter you need to apply your technique. Tick the boxes. Explore all the layers and facets that are apparent in the character. Have the accent perfect. Be prepared to audition rather than “screen-test”. That is, be prepared to be the artist in the room who is contributing on an equal level with all the other artists in the room, including the casting director, who yes is an artist in their own right too.

If you don’t get the gig, consider that you might have just as easily fit the type they were looking for as well as 10 others, and it was a bit of bad luck you weren’t picked. As long as you do your homework and serve the story of the project, whether its an ad, a soap, a drama or a movie, you’ve done your audition well.

Remember also that there’s no such thing as a crap project. Just because you might prefer complex drama to soap doesn’t mean a thing. Millions of people are entertained by soap opera on TV sets all over the world every day and those shows employ thousands of actors (including me on two different occasions in two different countries). You’re an actor, so be prepared for the fact that there are many genres of entertainment out there. If you’d prefer not to work, fine. But if you want to work and hate action films for example, you’d better be pretty well off to turn down a couple of million bucks if you get cast in the next Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtle movie whatever madness is coming along next. It might not be rocket science acting wise, but it’s a business and if that business wants to employ you, be prepared to swallow your pride and do the job and do it well. Once you’ve banked your millions you can start being picky and choosy. I’m encouraging you here to drop your ego. The guy who sits at home and watches Home and Away is just as “right” as you going to the theatre and watching Othello, which to him might be equally as painful as Home and Away might be to you.

Read your audition carefully; the brief, the script and look at the angles of what it is and what it’s going to look like once it hits the screen.

Cheers. D.