Friday, September 25, 2009

Casting trick #4. Look at the resumes.

There's a story kicking around about Steven Spielberg which might be true, but even if it's not, it's pretty informative. The way I heard it, a woman approached him in a restaurant and told him he should audition her kids for his next film. He asked if they'd ever been in movies, and she said no. And he said, "I don't put people in their first movie, but I might put them in their second."

Welcome to Hollywood. You can't get work unless you have experience and you can't get experience unless you get work.

There's so much at stake when it comes to making any kind of production that most people are reluctant to take a chance with an unknown. This is true in every department, but today we're talking about actors.

I guess my standards aren't as high as Mr. Spielberg's because I will actually hire actors for their first job. But only on a couple of conditions. One is that they really do their homework, meaning they need to know how to act. The other is that they don't lie about it.

Which brings me to the point of this blog. Insist on your actors submitting resumes. And read them. Even if your actor doesn't have a ton of experience, a resume can tell you a lot about how to work with him or her.

So how do you read a resume?

First, I give it an overview. Just a glance will tell you not only how experienced your actor is, but what kind of acting he or she tends to do. There's a huge difference between the grammar of the stage and the grammar of a film, and stage actors generally need a little special care to make the adjustment to film. People with improv experience can usually improvise, but those who do it almost exclusively might not be as comfortable following a script verbatim. I don't care –– in fact, I prefer that my actors find the line that makes the most sense to them –– but there are some situations where a script has been through so many revisions, tests, animatics, and levels of approval that you can't change a single syllable.

Then I read. Usually from the bottom up.

The bottom is where actors put special skills. Someone who has a black belt in taekwando is probably pretty dedicated, whereas listing "likes cats" might mean he or she doesn't really commit to much. If I see a special skill that I know something about, it gives me an opportunity feel them out, to see how much their resume might be padded.

Just above special skills, most actors put their training. There are a lot of acting schools, each of which has a slightly different take on both the business and the appropriate approach to acting. I like seeing actors who have attended a variety of schools because it means they're probably looking for what works best for them. Call me a cynic, but I think finding the perfect acting school right off the bat is about as likely has finding true love with your high school sweetheart.

Of course, once an actor has done enough work to fill out a resume, he or she has probably learned the rhythms of an actual set and the shorthand we use to communicate, so that stuff is a little less critical.

Right above training, actors put their experience. They usually break it up into film, television, stage, and commercial, with the more experienced actors (or the ones who want to appear more experienced –– remember what I said about using special skills to see how much they might be padding their resumes?) putting the line "conflicts available upon request," which means, "I've done too many to list here."

It also means, "I'll audition for your Burger King commercial even though I shot a McDonald's commercial last month and if you want me I'm going to hope that nobody notices." This, by the way, is a really bad move.

One of the things I look for in the experience section is anything that might be interesting or relevant. Believe it or not, there are some directors whose work I really admire. If someone's worked for one of them, it means that he or she impressed that director enough to get the job. I give points for that.

I never take off points for working for a director whose work I loathe, by the way. Work is work, and it's certainly not the actor's fault if the director who hires him or her happens to suck.

All this takes me maybe a minute, by the way.

And what if your actor has absolutely no experience and absolutely no training? Well, unless you're dealing with a kid –– and I'm talking a kid under five or six –– that person has been up to something, right? Whatever that something is can tell you a lot about how to work with him or her.

A lawyer can't be a lawyer without learning to think a certain way. Just as a mother can't be a mother without learning how to deal with kids. Those things are relevant because they tell you how to communicate with them. If I find the perfect person for the role, I'm not going to make a silly detail like lack of acting experience keep me from working with them.

Spielberg has every right to hire only people who have worked before. But if we all did that, he would never have been hired for his first job.