By Risa Bramon Garcia and Steve Braun | Backstage!
Every pilot season we suffer. We suffer through the pressure cooker of casting a pilot. We suffer through this manufactured marathon called pilot season, as hundreds of creators and business folk scramble to make between 22 and 44 minutes of network broadcast television that they pray will be unique enough to catch the brass ring, doing whatever they can to be handpicked from a crowd of other desperately driven pilots to get on the air. The town goes insane, everyone drunk with hope and despair, everyone turning themselves inside out, as four networks and several studios try to cast 90 pilots at once. Each of us competing for actors, uncertain of what we’re really looking for until an actor’s slipped out of our grasp. Did we want him anyway? Was she even right? Will we ever find it again? We’re racing 100 miles an hour into a brick wall. It’s ridiculous. It’s counterintuitive. Often counterproductive. Always intensely frustrating. But every year we do it. Every year we’re hundreds of salmon swimming upstream.
Then you, the actor, walk right into this maelstrom. You enter a crowded audition room and look into the eyes of forced-friendly writers, directors, producers, and casting directors, welcoming you into their anxious but hopeful piece of pilot real estate. And there you are: “Hello, hello. Thanks for having me. Anything I should know? OK, well, let’s do it.” And you’re off.
But what happens so often—more often than not—is that you start the scene and gradually drift away. You disappear. And each time that happens, our hearts sink. In our Studio B, where we do most of our casting, the camera and the reader face a corner. And that corner has become a vortex, pulling you away from us, from the reader, from yourself, and into some blighted region of neutrality. You get lost in regimented choices you made that you’re now presenting by rote. Or you get stuck “in your head,” trying to remember your lines. Or you’re rendered immobile with fear or anxiety, making this “audition” the test of your talent. You forfeit your exceptional voice to a breakdown or to an idea you have of what a show creator or network might want. You vanish.
And your anxious, hopeful audience deflates. You see, each time an actor enters the room, they look to you with such anticipation that you’d think that you were carrying their souls. And you know what… you are. You are the possessor of possibility. If they hear their writing in ways they imagined, or in ways they never dreamed possible, their futures look like nirvana. But if you start acting all over the place, forcing a prepared performance, or if you disappear into that abyss, their dreams of nine years on the air are instantly dashed. They despair; their hearts sink. Or, alternatively, they get anxious, fearing that their prized pilot script might not work after all. They start drawing demented stick figures on their session sheet, ripping through the paper in frustration.
So, who has the power here? “Who can take a nothing day, and suddenly make it all seem worthwhile?” Truth is, you have incredible freedom. Ultimate power. But here’s the trick:
You must not take on their anxiety. Or their hopes and dreams. The stakes are high for them but that’s their drama. Nor can you bring in your own dreams of red carpets and six-figure salaries. Your job is to do such wonderful work that they believe they’ve seen the light. They are waiting to fall in love with you; they’re praying for magic to happen. You are in the driver’s seat. You can take them to the Promised Land.
Your job is to take a piece of untried material, just in its inception, and to be adventurous—to find where this story, where this character lives in you, to be so specific and personal in your choices that you own them completely. And then to engage fully with the reader. If that proves challenging, listen to Steve’s audio below: “The Gift of a Bad Reader.” You have to be so present and so committed that there is nobody else imaginable for this role—at least for your 10 minutes right there in the room (or as they’re watching you on tape).
Your job is to show up to collaborate. The creative team—as much as they love their show (and they will love it with the infatuation of a brand new love affair)—do not know what they want. They may think they do, but they really don’t. Hell, they barely know each other. The director likely just met the show creator. The casting director just met them all. They’re hearing the material out loud for the first time. They’re in early stages of pre-production while only weeks from shooting, with a crew they’ve never met. They’re only just figuring it out, needing that someone to show up in their full power. Maybe they just lost the hot TV star who took another pilot. Maybe the last 10 actors were invisible. This is your moment. When you’re able to offer your strong point of view, your rich emotional life, your deep engagement with the other character(s), it all begins to make sense to them in a way they never imagined but always hoped for. When you’re the actor who walks in (or tapes) and inhabits the role, you define it and it’s undeniable to everyone, and every producer and executive is there ready to take credit for you.
You can do that kind of work. In fact, you have to do that. You have to step up. The thing is, if the studio is going to put millions of their pilot dollars on you, and the producer, writer, show runner, and director have put their careers on the line, you have to be ready for prime time. You have to be that definitive actor who will help get their show on the air, a concern that nags at them day and night as they compete for one of the few spots available on the network schedule.
Ask yourself: How would Bryan Cranston or Frances McDormand or Mark Rylance read for a role. Would any of them give up their astoundingly bold expression? Would they do it exactly the same way they rehearsed it in their car? Would they disappear into the corner? Hardly. So neither should you.
We advocate for this at the BGB Studio. It is part of our audition revolution; we want so much for you to be courageous enough to walk into the room in your power, sharing your unique expression. Because even if you’re—dare we say it—“wrong,” you’re in the work. You’re someone who shows up with enough force as a fellow creative partner in the process. You’ve got a seat at the table.
Do the kind of work you’d be daring enough to do if nothing was on the line. And now do it with Olympic power. Everyone is waiting for you to change the room, change their lives. You have the power to do that.
Listen: “The Gift of a Bad Reader”
Be in the work with us at The BGB Studio for new classes in the studio and online.
Like this advice? Check out more from our Backstage Experts!
Risa Bramon Garcia is a director, casting director, owner of The BGB Studio and Backstage Expert. For more information, check out Bramon Garcia’s full bio!
Steve Braun is an L.A.-based acting coach, actor, owner of The BGB Studio, and Backstage Expert. For more information, check out Braun’s full bio!