Thursday, March 26, 2015

Dealing with the Casting Interview

Actors have all been through this at one time or another: casting liked your résumé, looked at your reel, and thinks you might be right for the role. They called you in, you killed the audition, and got a call-back. Maybe two. At some point in that process, you may have heard the phrase that strikes fear in the heart of many an actor: “Tell me about yourself.” (What?!)

Let’s face it, a lot of us got into this business because our own lives didn’t seem nearly as interesting as the roles we hoped to play, so “Tell me about yourself” sounds like a trick question. You feel like Meg Ryan in the 1989 film When Harry Met Sally, where she says "telling you the story of my life wouldn't get us out of Chicago." Besides, what else do they need to know? They can see you’ve got the experience and can do the role, yes?

True, but acting in a film or play is a team effort and if you’re going to be spending a significant amount of time with the rest of the cast (more than a bit part), then like any employer they’ll want to know what kind of person you are, how easy you are to work with, how well you’ll fit in. 

I’ve been researching the Casting Interview this week because I’ve been blind-sided a time or two by an interview that I wasn’t prepared for. Here’s what I learned:

Preparation is key. Think of it as a conversation, not a speech. When you get a call to audition, try to find out as much about the casting director and his/her agency as possible: what other films/plays they’ve cast, who starred in them, and how well they did at the box office. An internet search makes that part easy. If you also know someone who’s worked with them in the past, call and ask what that experience was like. See if you and the casting director have some common connections – people or work or experiences – that you can bring up at the audition or in the casting interview.

Once in the room, you can’t just stumble around and repeat what you have on your résumé. You need to let your personality shine. Be warm and polite, relaxed but with lots of energy. If the CD seems in a positive mood, try to mirror their posture, breathing, and personality. 

Ask questions. Even though the interview is ostensibly about YOU, use what you’ve learned about the CD’s work to get them to talk a bit about themselves and reminisce. Success in acting often depends on the connections we make and the relationships we develop with others in the business.

Prepare a few anecdotes about yourself and choose one or two that seem consistent with what you know about the CD’s background and personality.  The following questions can get you started.
  • As an actor, what is the biggest risk you’ve taken that you feel has paid off?
  • Of what accomplishments are you most proud?
  • If you could play any character in any film, who would it be?
  • What is your favorite television show?
  • What books/plays are you reading? 
  • What are your goals as an actor? 
It might be a good idea to prepare a one-sheet computer document, with your anecdotes written down and a blank space to fill in information about the CD. Something you can customize, print out, put in your pocket, and scan just before you meet with casting. 

As actors, we are often advised to tell ourselves, “I’m going to like this person” before we walk into an audition.  But I think that just as important to making a good impression is thinking, “I like myself.” Scanning the one-sheet and reminding ourselves over and over of our life goals, the risks we’ve taken as actors that have paid off, the accomplishments of which we are most proud, and the things we love about this business, can put us in the right frame of mind for conveying the kind of person we actually are.

Finally, as you get up to leave, say “Thank you for seeing me.” And if you have their email address, follow up with a brief message thanking them again and touching on some point they made in the conversation that you found useful and/or memorable. You’d be surprised at how seldom anyone hears a “thank you” in this business so a little sincere gratitude goes a long way.

Monday, March 23, 2015

If I Could Remake a Movie, This Would Be It

I've been thinking about some of the great women's films lately. Films like Two Women, which won an Oscar for Sophia Loren; The Women, Clare Booth Luce's tour de force comedy, which has been made three times, and others (it's a short list unfortunately.) One that's often overlooked is MGM's 1951 Westward the Women, starring French actress Denise Darcel as a prostitute trying to turn her life around and Robert Taylor as the man charged with bringing a wagon train of women from Chicago to California's Sacramento Valley to marry lonely ranch hands.

I don't know why the film wasn't a hit. Maybe it was the poster art that has Darcel in an off-the-shoulder blouse - a la Jane Russell in The Outlaw (and that she doesn't actually wear in the film) - that makes it look like a standard-issue oater. Maybe later viewers linked it with Here Come the Brides, a rather awful TV series that ran for three seasons from 1968 to 1970, about a shipload of marriage-minded cuties that sail round the Horn to Seattle. The series, as I recall, focused as much or more on the guys.

But Westward the Women is a gritty pioneer saga and one of my all-time favorites. Produced by the legendary Dore Shary and directed by William A. Wellman, who had previously directed such films as The Ox-Bow Incident, Battleground, A Star is Born (which he also wrote), and Across the Wide Missouri, it is the women's equivalent to John Wayne's Three Godfathers, Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, and with maybe a touch of Henry Fonda's My Darling Clementine. It's a classic.

To begin with the women are believable types: prostitutes and widows, young and middle-aged, plain and lovely, American and immigrant. They are women with not-so-rosy pasts who are
willing to face a trek through dangerous territory for the chance at a better life. Along the way they face dust storms, hostile Indians, flash floods, rattlesnakes, and abandonment by most of the cowboys charged with seeing them safely to California. Women die along the way, one is raped, a child is killed, a child is born. But through it all they learn to pull together and regain their self-respect.

Wellman worked hard to make this a believable story. Before filming, he took the scores of actresses who would make up the cast out into the desert for three weeks and taught them all to credibly shoot a gun, crack a whip, drive a team of horses, change a wagon wheel, and more. Costuming (outside of promotional photos) was utilitarian and authentically of the period. Filming was dirty, sweaty, and grueling. But the result successfully captured the conditions on the California trail and what women went through in moving west.

It's a terrific movie, with a sweet ending. Maybe now is the time to tell this story again.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Robins have arrived.

There is nothing like a taste of warmer weather to get a person moving. Here in the East the winter cold and snow have been brutal, and I’m one of those people who - if I can’t get out - pace like a caged tiger.  No point in trying to get any work done.  As soon as the snow goes away and I can get out, I sit down at the keyboard.

“Options,” as hockey coach Herb Brooks used to say. It’s important to have options.

The warmer weather was heralded by robins and the appearance of my little scene in Season 3 of the Netflix hit series House of Cards, playing North Dakota Senator Ann Wallace opposite another robin, series star Robin Wright. It’s television at its best and I was more than happy to have a small (very small) role and to see my name in the credits. 

It’s the opening shot of Episode 2. Long-time New York actor David Little is to my left. 

Now on to my continuing class with Helen Hayes Award-winning director Serge Seiden at The Studio Theatre, which is turning out to be terrific, a midsummer play in the role of a daffy old witch (What fun!), and a wealth of possibilities, including a call-back on a feature shooting in New York, and in talks for a big-budget feature shooting later this year on the West Coast. Welcome Spring.

As Senator Ann Wallace (center) in Season 3, Ep. 2
Robin Wright