Monday, May 25, 2009

Never underestimate some of the things actors will do to get a role.

I once had to cast a commercial that involved a comic misdirection: The spot featured an older man, and based on what he was saying on the phone, his kids imagined he had found a new love. The "reality" was that he'd gotten a dog.

There could be no misunderstanding what was required by the script. The stage directions explicitly stated that the man would call the dog over to him. Still, in order to find the best possible actor, I decided to eliminate non-dog people. Rather than ask whether each actor liked dogs--when you ask a question like that, there's only one answer you ever get--I figured out a more oblique approach: I asked each of the men auditioning the name of the first dog he owned. And just to be safe, whether he was allergic to dogs.

The man we eventually cast was great in the audition. His first dog was named Jerry and no, he wasn't allergic. But when he showed up on set and had to interact with the puppy, he froze. The poor man was terrified.

Silly me. It didn't occur to me to ask the actors whether they were afraid of dogs.

The puppy wasn't stupid. She figured out pretty quickly that even though the man was calling her over, he really didn't want her anywhere near him. Ultimately, I had to take the man through deep breathing exercises to help him deal with his fear. Then I had to smear his pant leg with bacon grease in order to coax the puppy to come over. The performance we finally settled for was disappointing, both on the part of the man and the puppy.

Why am I telling you this? Because some actors will do just about anything to land a role.

It would have been best all around if the actor had declined to audition when he realized he'd have to work with a dog. But I'm sure the allure of starring in a regional phone commercial was just too great. He convinced himself that he'd be able to overcome his fear, just as the woman who landed the role of the cowboy in another commercial I directed figured she'd have time to learn how to ride a horse like an expert between the time she was cast and the day we started shooting.

Over the years, I've developed some techniques that help flush out the liars. I've learned to bring a dog to the audition for roles that require interacting with them. And when it's impractical to have a horse at the casting session, I'll ask questions that only an experienced rider should be able to answer--for instance, about the his or her favorite type of saddle.

But there's another form of duplicity that in some ways is more insidious than claiming you can speak French, rappel down a mountain, or swallow fire.


I can't tell you how many actresses (and actors, too) have come on to me in the hopes of landing a part. Some have gone so far as to... well, I'll let you use your imagination. Let's just say that for an average-looking, kind of scrawny, balding, middle-aged guy, I'm incredibly sexy.

Only I know better.

I know that some actors will do whatever it takes to land a role. And I know that once they've landed it, it falls to me to get the most authentic performance I can from them.

Someday, I'll write a blog about the particular system I've developed for casting. For now, though, suffice it to say that as much as I love to believe that the Victoria's Secret model really would love to meet me for drinks afterward (and yes, this really happened on a beer commercial I directed), the reason I'm in the room is to determine whether she's going to create the most convincing portrayal for the role.

If she is, sure I'll go meet her for a drink. I mean, I'm not an idiot.