Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The Kominsky Method, a Terrific New Show on Netflix

My brother put me on to this this terrific new show on Netflix.  Oh, rats! I'm traveling! I didn't renew my Netflix account! Renew it, he said. I did. The show is The Kominsky Method, from creator Chuck Lorre and starring Alan Arkin as Norman, a newly widowed Hollywood agent, and Michael Douglas as Sandy Kominsky, a once-famous actor now making his living as an acting coach. Some of the show takes place in Kominsky's acting class and the banter between the two principals is clever and funny. Watch for appearances by Danny DeVito, Ann-Margret, Elliott Gould, and more. Check it out:

Acting Tips: Bryan Cranston on Auditions, Actor Jealousy, and Working

I'm a firm believer in learning something from those who are successful at doing it. ("Those who can, do," as the saying goes.) Actor autobiographies are tremendous resources of information on how an actor achieved success, as are the many bon mots that turn up in actor interviews posted online.

Very often, or so it seems to me, the breakthrough occurred not with some change in technique but with a simple change in the actor's way of thinking, as multiple Emmy-winning actor Bryan Cranston demonstrates in this slyly recorded snippet posted on YouTube.

Going into an audition to "do" a job rather than "get" a job can take a lot of pressure off of your performance and enable you to "let it go" when you finish the audition.

By the way, motivational coach/speaker Evan Carmichael posts the "Top 10 rules for Success" for various actors, which always have some positive takeaway. Here's what he posted for Cranston. It's well worth watching.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Acting Tips: Auditioning for Television

Note: I published this in October 2011, but I think the points are still valid so I'm reprinting it to move it up in the queue. Best workshop I ever attended. 

Hearing a drama coach tell you to have “the courage to take risks” and “make strong choices” – especially when spoken in the same breath as phrases like “create stunning, three-dimensional characterizations” – can be intimidating for an actor.  And much to the chagrin of many drama coaches I’m sure, “take risks” is too often interpreted as a directive to reach down inside yourself and pull out someone totally different from who you are. In short, to “act.”

That’s not it. Not according to Geoffrey Soffer, casting director for Ugly Betty and The Beautiful Life, who grew up in the business. I took notes during a workshop I took with him a week ago. The following is what I wrote down. Some of it I knew, some I suspected, and some was a complete surprise.

Film and television directors cast personalities (aha!) Film directors are looking for the perfect actor personality for the role.  Television directors are looking for the perfect actor personality for the role that also fits into the show. And if they’re casting a principal role in a TV series, they’re looking for a five-year fit so give them the whole package. They’re not looking for you doing Meryl Streep or Bruce Willis; they’re looking for you doing you – your talk, your walk, your look.

Is that limiting? No. Because we’ve all had the experience at some point of being flirty, giddy, jealous, sarcastic, devastated, generous, mean-spirited, pissed off, etc., etc., and when we audition we need to draw upon those experiences as the scene requires. That’s what makes a truthful performance.

Does being yourself take courage? Yes. I know a lot of actors more comfortable being someone else than being themselves, especially if the “risk” is that some casting director may say, “No, it’s not you I’m looking for.” If your personality is on the line, then it feels like personal, not professional, rejection. That hurts.

Know your type. When people meet you for the first time, they form an opinion of who you are before you ever open your mouth.  Find out what that is and then do that type better than anyone else. Take a look at Rosalind Russell in the 1934 film Evelyn Prentice (which I believe was her first film role.)  Instead of the brassy, pushy dame we love in The WomenHis Girl Friday, and Auntie Mame, we see an actress trying veddy, veddy hahd to be a clingy, simpering member of the moneyed class. It took her another five years in film to stop doing that and find her type.

Network. That doesn't mean running around introducing yourself and asking for a job. Since they’re casting personalities, you are auditioning 24/7. Get out where producers, directors, and other actors can see you. Go to film and theatre industry events: Screenings, film festivals, workshops, happy hours, receptions, parties. Look like a star when you go. Since you’re “on stage” present the most positive you in conversation.

Project a certain surety. This is a business and despite being referred to as the "talent" actors are low on the totem pole.  If you’re a sensitive type who seems to require a lot of hand-holding, directors will look elsewhere.  Soffer said that on the set of Ugly Betty what impressed him was that the actors came across as working with them, not for them. They came with answers, not questions. Project that.


Again, the audition is a presentation of your personality.  The minute you walk into the room you have to be the one they want to hire. Walk in with a sense of belonging. Want to be there. Get pumped up.

Don’t bother auditioning for roles that are not suited to your type. You want directors to see you in roles where you are a possible fit, not wondering why you’re trying out for something so totally wrong for you.

If you’re given the sides beforehand, memorize your lines so you can concentrate on your actions and reactions.  Soffer says 98 percent of those auditioning don’t have their lines memorized and having to repeatedly look down at the script is the kiss of death.  Have the lines down cold and you immediately set yourself apart from the pack.

Arrive looking your best – the very best version of you. If you’re auditioning for a starring role, look like a star. If you’re auditioning for a character part, dress in context, but not in costume.

If you don’t get the sides until you arrive for the audition, at least the first 5 lines must be off book so step aside and memorize them quickly. During the audition, look up as much as you can.  The eyes are a window to the soul.  They want to see your eyes.  If it makes sense in the scene, try to use the script as a prop – i.e. as a newspaper, letter, grocery list, etc.  Do not, however, roll it up and wave it like a weapon or use it to punctuate your lines.

Be 100 percent committed to your take on the character. What jumps out at directors the most is the actor who says, “This is who I am and I can’t play it any other way.” (I was surprised when Soffer said that.)

Pick up the pace. Television has to tell a story in 23 minutes, 43 minutes. The words need to come much faster.  All characters have a sense of urgency.  Americans naturally talk fast.  Leave out the dramatic pauses. Throw away more lines instead of “acting” them. Come in on top of the reader’s lines. Directors are looking for a dynamic performance, more confidence, more personality.

Don’t play a role, play yourself reacting to what's happening. They’re casting a whole person. Give them you.

If there is humor in the script, be sure to convey it. Find at least four layers or “colors” of personality to play up in the scene – curiosity, warmth, humor, wit, whatever – four different sides to the character.  Find the comedy in the drama and the drama in the comedy. Your job is to convey as much as possible about yourself and your personality during the audition.

In developing the scene, consider all of the elements. Who are you talking to? Where is the scene taking place? What your relationship to the reader’s character?  How are you connecting to that character with your lines? What is your opinion of what the reader’s character is saying?  What changes during the scene?

As long as your relationship to the reader’s character feels real, just go with it. Don’t exaggerate your reactions. Keep it dialed down.

Directors are looking for storytellers. Make an emotional arc. If you start at one place emotionally, finish at another place.  If you’re going with a strong emotion, build up to it.  Don’t start with it and trail off.

Glitches to avoid: If you’re sitting during the audition, sit back in your chair.  Don’t do the audition leaning forward with your elbows on your knees.  If you’re standing up, don’t break “the wall” and advance on the reader.  Don’t roll your eyes; it feels false. If the scene involves another person coming into the room or something that changes the dynamic, you must react to that. If there is stage direction in the script that requires a reaction, include it. Otherwise ignore it. After your last line, stay connected to the reader until the casting director speaks. Don't give the impression you can't wait to have it over with.

That’s it. A concise summary of tips to get you in the door. This was time well spent.

Loving and Learning from Film

I'm one of those who thinks that to succeed as an actor you have to live, breathe, and love film. You should swoon over lighting and close-ups. Marvel at the honesty in a moment's expression. After awhile you'll get a feel for what makes a scene work and, if it doesn't, why.

I just finished reading author/screenwriter William Goldman's wonderful book Which Lie Did I Tell?, which is a sequel to his equally wonderful Adventures in the Screen Trade. If you want a behind-the-scenes look at how Hollywood works, from the screenwriter's perspective, these two are a great place to start.

Move on to Hollywood biographies and autobiographies. Budd Schulberg's Moving Pictures (and his novel What Makes Sammy Run?) Michael Caine's What's It All About? Alec Guiness's Blessings in Disguise. Michael Korda's Charmed Lives. So many others. Inspiring stories of struggle and providence and luck. I've read that Bette Midler is a collector of Hollywood biographies. So am I.

Tonight I'm indulging in two of my favorite films about the movie business. Robert Altman's brilliant 1992 film The Player and George Huang's 1994 film Swimming With Sharks. Huang's is darker and edgier. Altman's more fun. Gripping without ever making you dislike any one character.

If you haven't seen these films, here's a peek at both.

Check out the commentary and special features. You'll learn a lot. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Keep it Interesting

Actor story #1: Early in the filming of Stanley Kubrick's 1980 horror classic The Shining, Kubrick stops star Jack Nicholson in the middle of a scene, saying "No, this isn't working."

"What do you mean?" says Nicholson. "You said you wanted it to be realistic."

"Well...yes. But it isn't interesting."

Nicholson made it interesting!

Actor story #2: From Alan Arkin's wonderful autobiography An Improvised Life. Arkin relates how early his acting career he hit a wall. Nothing was working. He gets an offer out of the blue to join Second City in Chicago and decides to go, feeling he'd failed as an actor. Two years later he's back in New York and again submitting for roles. Only this time he thinks to himself, To heck with this! I'm tired of trying to figure out what casting wants. I'm just going to give them the most interesting version of me. Take it or leave it.

And he starts booking roles.

I've been thinking about these two stories this week because of a discussion I had in my drama class. I had re-taped a scene everyone in class had done weeks ago and the instructor wanted to know what I thought was working for me this time. Well, I said, what is really working is that this version is 100 percent more interesting than my initial take on it. And it was. I had taken a woman described in the script simply as "very frightened" and instead made her "unnerved" - a calculating woman whose criminal plans have gone off the rails and is now trying to avoid getting caught - and suddenly she was different from all of the other class interpretations. Suddenly she was...well...interesting!

As actors we often get into long discussions about being present, being specific, being believable and natural. We can parse a scene and say this is what my character is feeling and this is my relationship to the other characters and this is my objective and this is what the writer means to convey.  These are all important considerations. But while all of our thoughts can be reasonably reasonable, our performance can still be ho-hum. Standard-issue.

It all comes back to that old question: what is meant by a "bold" choice?  I think what it means is to find some small part of yourself in every character you play, and then to expand that small part into someone really interesting. Someone that elicits a visceral response from the audience.

If the script says your character is "(fill in the blank)" look the word up at  Here's what I found for "frightened."

There is no one way of interpreting the word "frightened." In fact, there is a huge range of characters here! Find yourself somewhere in your list and run with it.

Friday, September 7, 2018

Acting Tips: Finding an Agent in Los Angeles

Okay, you’re in Los Angeles and looking for representation, that key factor in getting a shot at roles in top-of-the-line film, television, commercials, etc. Thousands of LA actors are looking for agents, and even among union actors fewer than half reportedly have one. People in this business will tell you it’s hard to get an agent – especially a union-approved agent – and it is. That shouldn’t deter you. Many factors enter into an agent’s decision to represent you, including your age and type (and how often those come up in casting), as well as acting talent and experience. Don’t second-guess the agent, or yourself.

A terrific resource on the LA actor’s experience is An Agent Tells All by Tony Martinez, a long-time pro in the Los Angeles market. You can get it in hard copy or for Kindle and I recommend it highly. It makes sense and Chapters 7 and 8 speak specifically to this issue of getting an agent. You’ll find much more information there, including how to handle the all-important agent interview.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

What to send:  If you don’t have a referral, then you’re doing a blind mailing. You’ll want to include your headshots (I send mine unretouched), résumé (you can find appropriate formats online or in Martinez’ book), and a short, typed cover letter addressed to a specific agent (keep it professional).

Also include a demo reel with five minutes or less of your best acting in roles in which you are frequently cast. I send mine as separate clips identified as drama or comedy, rather than run them all together. Many agents will tell you not to send a demo, because if they’re interested they’ll ask for one. But Martinez points out that if the DVD is on his desk he’ll take a peek. Again, don’t second-guess the agent. If one picture is worth a thousand words, a clip of good acting is worth even more and gives the best example of what you actually look and sound like. An agent can always toss it in the round file if he/she is adamant about not looking at unsolicited demos.

That’s all you need. No gimmicks, no gourmet food baskets, no touting yourself as the next Meryl Streep/Tom Cruise. Avoid cuteness in the cover letter. This is a business. The only reason for taking you on as a client is if you have earnings potential. So ask yourself what kind of information the agent needs to determine your marketability. For example, in what kind of roles are you typically cast? You might point that out in the cover letter.

Where to send it: You’ve got your headshots, you’ve compiled a respectable list of film, television, and theater credits, and you’ve got clips you’re proud to show. Now you’re ready to start submitting your material to agencies. But which agencies? Not every agency is suited to your specific type and goals.

If you're a relative unknown, Martinez suggests trying for a commercial agent first, since it can be easier to get your foot in the door with an agency there. I think that's a good strategy if commercials is one of the gigs you're looking to book. Once you have a commercial agent and start having some success, then you can look within that same agency for a theatrical agent.

SAGAFTRA posts lists to their website of union-franchised agencies all over the country, and those from the AFTRA side typically have coded indicators as to what kind of performers they’re looking to represent (children, adults, comedians, ethnic types, etc.) or projects for which they’re frequently submitting (commercials, daytime drama, foreign/international, and so on). See below. Start your search there.

AFTRA Specialty Codes for Talent Agencies
Another strategy is to make a list of strong supporting actors who are in your age range, but not the same type (you don’t want to be in conflict with an established client). Look up each one on IMDb. Are they getting more work? What kind? How often? If you’re impressed with what you see, find out who represents them (if you've subscribed to IMDbPro you'll see the agency). Note the agency’s ratio of clients to agents; more than a hundred or so could be a red flag. This is a business for them AND for you. You want an agent who has the time to work with you to build a lucrative career for you both.

Referrals: If you can get a referral to an agent, open your cover letter with that. It has to be genuine because the agent will check. It can be a referral from those inside or outside of the business as long as they know the agent personally. It can be a referral from the agent’s assistant, if you two have developed a friendly relationship. Martinez says that a referral from an acting teacher only counts if the teacher is willing to pick up the phone and call; in other words, put their reputation on the line for you. If they’re not willing to do that, leave teacher referrals off. That makes sense to me.

When to submit: Tony Martinez says agents are always looking for new faces, but the best months to make contact are April, May, and June, after Pilot Season when agents are catching their breath and looking for new faces to fill holes in their client base. Avoid December, he says. Not only are people distracted by the holidays but they’re beginning to look ahead to Pilot Season and what that will entail.

Send out 5 headshot packages a week (one a day) until you sign with an agent. Again, be sure to address your materials to a specific agent by name. Here's why: I - like most actors - get spammed from time to time with emails from small agencies saying they’ve seen my clips on Actors Access (or some other site), they loved what they saw, and they’d like to have me come in to discuss representation. If the email doesn't open with “Dear Kathryn” I delete it. An agent feels the same way.

So, yes, address your materials package to a specific agent if you want someone to actually look at it. If you don’t get a response within four to five weeks, feel free to then send your materials to a different agent at that same agency.  Never to more than one agent at the same agency at the same time.

What helps to set you apart: A professional attitude (positive, friendly, cooperative, workmanlike) and a unique look that people remember. You don’t have to be drop-dead gorgeous or have rippling muscles to be a successful actor. Consider that Mark Rolston, Zeljko Ivanek, Jayne Atkinson, Roma Maffia, and thousands of others who don't look like Julia Roberts or Chris Pine nevertheless have fantastic acting careers.

Another thing that helps is comedy experience, particularly ensemble sketch comedy and Improv, because these showcase your acting skills and how you work with others. There’s lots of work for someone who can make people laugh, so if you’ve got it, flaunt it.

What to do while waiting to be signed? Keep building your experience and sending out résumés. If an agent says no but stay in touch, then STAY IN TOUCH! Send regular updates on the work you’re doing. Don’t assume he/she is just brushing you off. Their needs may change over time, and you will doubtless be getting better.

If an agent just says no, consider that there are lots of reasons why an agent may pass on you that are unrelated to your acting ability. Your age, type, and experience may not be in sync with what the agency is casting at the moment. They may already have too many actors on their rolls who are similar to you (which is why you research an agency and its client base first). There may be little chemistry between you and the agent (hey, not everybody clicks), in which case try another agent at that same agency.

Believe in your talent. Legend has it that an agent once brushed off a potential client, saying “Who’s gonna hire a 4 ft. 11-inch character actor?” A reasonable thing to ask you say, unless of course the young actor is Danny DeVito.

That agent lost A LOT of money.

Learn more in Tony Martinez’ book An Agent Tells All. It’s a gold mine of useful and important information.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

So....Tell Me About Yourself!

In Los Angeles and still transitioning, but what an exciting time!

This morning I was scanning YouTube over breakfast and came across the Small Market Actor channel and some wonderful advice on how to respond to the dreaded "Tell me about yourself" question that often crops up in an audition.

I wrote about this topic a couple of years ago, but this is so concise I'll let Kurt tell you himself.