Room For Casting

By Dino S. Ladki

Dino S. Ladki is a private acting coach, a former casting director and an audition taping expert. Among his accomplishments as a CD are originating and heading MTV’s casting department (scripted series), two pilot-to-series projects for ABC / Carsey-Werner, the critically acclaimed independent feature films “The Lost,” based on the popular novel by Jack Ketchum, and “Baby,” an Asian gangland drama set in the mid-eighties. He has worked for Warner Bros., Universal Studios, Showtime, NBC, and FOX. Other projects include the independent film, “Harrison Montgomery,” starring Academy Award Winner Martin Landau and Melora Walters, and the Sony-Tristar feature, “I Know Who Killed Me,” starring Lindsay Lohan and Julia Ormond.

Welcome to part two of Advice for Casting Directors (CDs), the second in a three-part series that turns what is normally an advice column for actors into one for CDs . We do this in order to shed light on the avoidable difficulties actors face as they brave their way through the casting process (And, make no mistake, it does take bravery).

The first column, SIDES OF CASTING, tackled problems with “sides” (audition materials) and how they are marked and disseminated. This one is concerned with:

Behaviors in the Casting Room

To paraphrase the disclaimer I made the first time around: The “advice” (i.e. airing of grievances) herein is not meant to disrespect the hardworking, talented professionals who make up the majority of CDs, but rather, to let actors know that they are not alone in these frustrations and to hopefully be a catalyst for improvement.

I’d like to start this off with a quote from a Facebook rant recently written (08/2019) by the venerable actor Eric Roberts, an Oscar and Golden Globe nominee known for such classic films as “The Pope of Greenwich Village” and “Star 80” and more recent fare like “The Dark Knight” and “Inherent Vice”:

“Why, oh why do supposed casting directors (and there are only some who commit this offense) think it’s OK to destroy any chance the auditioning actor has of making the scene sing? Here an actor prepares, employing every method they’ve embraced, spending their time, making this page and a half their priority…They run lines with other actors, intelligent people who honor the meaning, flow and trajectory of the scene, this tiny slice of a script, of someone’s hard work…And then their opportunity to actually develop and play the role they’ve so invested in is predicated on a few seconds where a paid professional in a key position in putting together a show makes it impossible for the writer’s work to sound as it should or for the auditioning actor to seem as if he has any business being there. A scene is full of feel, eye contact, pacing and much more. Couldn’t “casting directors” have the decency and intelligence to refrain from flat speed recitation/ destruction of the lines with their eyes never leaving the page? Them losing all nuance in a scene serves only to lose great actors roles they are perfect for. If you’re embarrassed to read properly, please bring someone into the room who will hold up their end of the bargain.”

Some version of this is the most common complaint I hear from actors. There is really no excuse for this.

CDs: Trying to convey how one would play a scene in a film or tv show is hard enough to do in an office setting without the benefit of other actors, sets, props, costumes, etc. Why exacerbate this awkwardness with flat, or just plain bad, readings by you or your associate/assistant?

As one of the greats in the field of casting, the late Mali Finn, once said “…good acting isn’t presentational, it’s a give and take – and concentrating more on the other person than on yourself…haven’t you heard that acting is listening.”

When you are trying to find the best actor for a role, why on earth would you deny them this fundamental tool of their craft – someone to work off of, to listen to?

The plain fact is that some casting directors just have to be honest with themselves and admit that they are not good readers. And, therefore, if they choose to read opposite auditioning actors, they are not getting the best performance possible out of those artists. Ergo, they are not carrying out their job to the best of their ability.

I think one of the main reasons that directors and producers don’t say something about this problem more often is because they are simply resigned to the fact that ‘this is the way it is.’

Of course this does not apply to all CDs. Many are excellent readers. And I’m sure they are loved for this, not only by those who employ them but, of course, also by actors who actually have an ally to read with, a participant in their audition, someone who cares about them doing their best work.

Fortunately being a bad reader doesn’t preclude one from being a great casting director because there is such a simple remedy for this: Hire a stable of readers. Both New York and L.A. are crawling with talent who would love to do this. Georgia and Louisiana have lots as well. And many would happily do it for free. But, really, you should pay them. Minimum wage at least. If not, SAG scale. It’s worth it!

This would not only allow for better performances, better auditions per capita, but would also give YOU a lot more freedom of observation, the ability to see small nuances in a performance that you may otherwise miss.
If an actor like Robert De Niro can act with a cast mate in a scene when he’s off camera to help them give their best performance (which he does) then you can hire good readers for the same reason.

Frankly, I think a lot of the problems in casting rooms, including bad readings, stem from a lack of respect for actors.

When you hire an actor and write-up their deal memo, what word is there (?), next to the actor’s name…? As you know, it’s: ARTIST.

Actors ARE artists and should be treated as such. They’re sensitive. That’s why they get paid the big bucks (so to speak). Their sensitivity is what makes them good at what they do. They have complicated and fragile egos. Their performance can be affected by anything from a bad vibe in a room to being treated like cattle to the perception that the person in charge of hiring them clearly has no interest in them for the role they’ve just spent hours preparing to read for.

Instead of artists, unfortunately, some CDs view actors as vapid fame seekers. While those types do exist, in this day and age, they are the vast minority. If fame and money is all one seeks then reality television is now a much more succinct route. No, the majority of actors are artists trying to express themselves through their interpretation of the written word.
So be kind. Be respectful. Give them space. I hear so many stories of the opposite.

I can recall one in which a client called me sobbing because of the way she was treated. I had to talk her off the roof (so to speak) for a good half-hour. In this case, in addition to general rudeness, what happened was, as soon as she had uttered the last word of her audition – without a second of delay, the CD dismissively said ‘thank you.’ They might as well have barked: NEXT! You can imagine how that made this actress feel after all the work she put into her reading. And, not that it should matter, but this was a person who was starring in a television series at the time and was represented by one of the ‘big three’ talent agencies. Perhaps her youth made it easier to treat her that way. Though, of course, that should have no bearing on the matter. Millennials and Gen Z-ers are people too. Again, there is no excuse for such behavior. It’s just plain rude.

Now let’s pick-up on the point about giving actors space. Too many casting offices are overly restrictive when it comes to this. Often they require actors to perform their auditions seated, even if a scene calls for standing – or vice versa, standing for scenes that are better suited for sitting.

I know of one office that goes a step further. They require actors to look directly into the camera for all auditions, no matter how many people they’re supposed to be talking to. AND they tell the actors that they are very tightly framed, face only, so they should refrain from moving.

The latter is especially ridiculous for two reasons: a) because actors are trained specifically NOT to look into the camera, so this makes them work against their instincts and b) body language is perhaps the most important tool in an actor’s arsenal. Denying them use of it is like tying their hands behind their back.

If you don’t already, you should adopt the oft used expression “the space is yours.” Offer actors a chair but let them know that they don’t have to use it. Give them room to move around, pace if they want to. Whatever they need to feel it. It will only make their audition better.

Another thing you can do to get better performances is – and I know this is groundbreaking – GIVE. THEM. DIRECTION.

Actors LOVE direction. Give it to them and they might just show you what you’re looking for.

OK fine, if they’re really not right for the part and/or aren’t very good there’s no need. But if they are right, and they do have talent, but they’re missing the mark. Tell them. And encourage directors/producers to do so as well.

Inappropriate transparency is another problem.

What I mean is office situations in which actors can hear other people’s auditions through the door. Or they can see/hear your assistants checking the availability of other (often more famous) actors for the role they are about to audition for (I mean really, people?).

Both of these things can seriously mess with an actor’s head. I know sometimes it cannot be avoided but if you’re working in a permanent space you should consider sound proofing and/or an office rearrangement.
I know a lot of people will say that actors just have to deal with these things. Well, guess what? They do deal with them. But that doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t fix these things if they are able to.

Again, actors are sensitive to their environments. Fostering a quiet, non-mindfucking one is to everyone’s advantage.

Which brings me to long wait times.

Actors sometimes have to wait in excess of two hours past their designated appointment time to be seen. I know that this can sometimes be unavoidable. But you have to understand that actors show up ready to perform. Sitting in a chair for over an hour can drain that right out of them, making it very difficult to present the best they have to offer. Not to mention the fact that they have lives; other appointments, other auditions, jobs they have to get to.

There are basic steps one can take to avoid this:

a) Don’t take phone calls during casting sessions. And if you’re running a session for directors/producers, discourage them from doing the same or engaging in long chats between auditions.

b) Be judicious when “cutting sides” (picking audition scenes from the script). Don’t issue copious amounts of audition materials, especially on short notice. Auditions shouldn’t be memorization contests. You can easily weed out the best candidates for a part by using one or two short scenes.

c) Don’t overbook. Two actors per time slot should be sufficient to keep a session moving without having to wait around for actors to show up.

d) Don’t make actors wait while you take lunch.

Which reminds me:.. I shouldn’t have to say this (but apparently I do): Do not eat during an actor’s audition (and don’t let directors/producers do so either). It’s impolite, unprofessional and lays bare the lack of respect you must have for them. Somehow I don’t think an actor enduring such a thing will deliver their best work.

Lastly, a note to those CDs who are in it for the power trip. Those who like to lord over and intimidate actors; treat them like second class citizens, not say hello; tell them they shouldn’t say hello, not give them eye contact, etc. (until the actor become famous, of course, then it’s a whole different ball game).

If you don’t love (or at least like) actors then you are committing malpractice everyday because, first and foremost, you are supposed to be their shepherd, their guide, their champion – not simply a talent agent who runs casting sessions.

If this is the case, I can’t imagine how you could enjoy your job. Not enjoying it leads to many of the behaviors we’ve just outlined. So give it a good hard look. You might be better suited to another line of work. Perhaps producing. You’d probably fit right in.

This concludes part two of Advice for CDs. Next time we’ll talk about self-tape auditions and how they are issued.

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