Self-Direction and Becoming Comfortable In Your Own Skin

YoungKnight

Ultimately, what those casting are interested in is how you would animate this spot. How would you color it? How would you play with the phrasing? How well would you adapt to making changes and applying direction? And where would you put an interesting little twist on the read? (Again, I’m stating the obvious, but this is what the job entails.)

Far too many talent assume those auditioning them know what they want and will instill every nuance and turn of a phrase into the voiceover’s cherub mouth. Au contraire. In reality, it’s more likely they have a firm grasp on what they don’t want rather than the other way around. 

The moral of the story: Don’t expect much direction. In fact, it’s more than likely you may not receive any at all, regardless of whether it’s the audition or the session itself.

The only direction you are likely to get consistently is, “Just be yourself.”

I realize this flies in the face of common thought and possibly everything you’ve ever been taught, so it might be a rather bitter pill to swallow, but that doesn’t make it any less true. Frankly, this could account for the great struggle so many talent face—they simply can’t get past initial confusion established with unrealistic expectations of the business. If you still harbor this misconception, it’s imperative you confront and conquer the notion that the knife cuts both ways: You must learn to self-direct as well as take direction if you intend to work.

It’s a very vulnerable proposition, at first glance, simply to be yourself, especially if you’ve gotten very comfortable playing characters or if you’ve created your own performance persona that you assume when you’re acting—something that’s equivalent to a veneer. It’s a default that talent ultimately come to rely on so much, that they may even utilize it to substitute for true skill and freedom in performance.

This veneer can give way to whole careers, frankly, if they are palatable and appealing and suit the needs of most productions, commercial or otherwise. But I digress….

“What are they getting at?” you may wonder. What does she mean, “Be yourself?! I’ve spent the better part of the last ten years trying my level best to become someone else! And now she’s telling me ‘be yourself’? Well, who the hell is that?”

I mean, let’s face it—you’re used to you. You’ve been with you your whole life. It’s the same old thing to you. You may not seem all that dynamic or interesting to you.

Although common thought often defines an actor as someone who is trying to be someone else, in truth, the job of a talent is to portray a personal viewpoint thoroughly, and to service or further the overall story in an imaginative way. That’s it.

Of course, this may mean you’re required to assume a viewpoint very different from or even in complete opposition to your own—this is assuming you are capable of, or even interested in, doing so.

You may feel the need to exaggerate your delivery when you first start to audition, just to differentiate your performance from yourself. It’s possible that, after years of acting training, you’ve become far more comfortable playing through a character and feel too exposed to play yourself. Or you may affect your characters in some way in an attempt to make your performance more interesting. You’re trying to make it feel like you’re at least doing something, because being yourself seems too flat, bland, or effortless. And in this way, you will attempt to show everyone within a mile of you that you are at least working very hard. (The best students often do this. They are used to working hard, and they’ll exert more effort if it kills them.)

The problem with all that effort is no one wants to see you working. Ever. In fact, the less we notice you acting the more effective you’re likely to be. Granted, you’re not as likely to get noticed right away or even acknowledged for your efforts, if you’ll pardon the expression. But this is precisely the attribute that will inevitably make you a very valuable player.

As long as you keep making yourself available to the work through auditions, you will inevitably establish a solid body of work. The more you expose yourself to commercial work, the more you’ll develop your comfort zone within the medium. The text won’t seem so foreign to you, but more like an extension of your own thought. Once you have mastered the styles to some degree, you will discover who you are best suited to play type-wise as well.

Commercial work tends to refer to types more than other forms of media, simply due to the fact that it is a mass medium. Therefore, you are probably going to hear mass media references, such as “funny, yet real type… like Jason Lee.” Or,  a “refined, high-brow like Stockard Channing.” They may say, “cutting-edge, youth-market with lots of attitude like Thora Birch in GHOST WORLD,” or maybe even “a lovable, funny guy like Andy Richter.”

If you don’t know to whom they are referring, you need to study pop culture more closely. In the meantime, I suggest you Google whoever it is they mention in the specs, or look them up on IMDB.com (Internet Movie Data Base). Even after the audition and the reference can no longer serve you on the piece you were auditioning for, you still need to know who they’re talking about. Besides, the reference is likely to surface again at some point. You need to man yourself with as much knowledge as you possible can.

HERE’S A HOT TIP: Unless, the specs of the audition or booking explicitly state to do so, you are never expected to give an impersonation of the actor referenced for the audition. Instead, give yourself three to four good descriptive words that best describe the actor mentioned and in their most notable role or style, and play the description as full as you can. You always have to ask yourself how you would play it. Not how would that actor play it. There’s a feel those auditioning you are trying to achieve, rather than an impersonation. Otherwise they would have had a call for that actor specifically.

For example, on a recent audition the specs read as follows: “If this character were a hybrid, she would be the perfect cross between Patricia Heaton and Megan Mullally.” (In case you’re at a loss as to who either of these women are: Patricia Heaton played Ray Romano’s wife on “Everybody Loves Raymond,” and Megan Mullally played Karen on “Will & Grace.”) Both women are quick-witted, the best friend, neighbor or sidekick, one’s a bit more wacky, while the other a bit more wry/sarcastic. That gives you plenty to play right there.

Every job is unique and has its own set of demands. The specifics (known as specs) vary from one production to the next. But by and large, they are looking for someone comfortable in her own skin.

You are expected simply to “be yourself.”  Wonderful. You can do that without hardly trying!

Copyright © 2009 by Kate McClanaghan, Inc. All Rights Reserved