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Casting Basics: How to Prepare For Film Auditions

Updated on November 10, 2014

As any casting director will tell you, your actors, and their performances, are what sell your film (second only to writing). It is worth your time and effort to make casting a priority. In order to present yourself and your production as professional, the following advice gives you a well-rounded idea of what to do in preparation for auditions.

Joss Found What He Was Looking For in a Buffy

Joss Whedon Directing Sarah Michelle Gellar in Buffy: The Vampire Slayer (TV Series)
Joss Whedon Directing Sarah Michelle Gellar in Buffy: The Vampire Slayer (TV Series) | Source

Looking for more anecdotes from "the Boss", Joss? Check out his biography!

1) Know What You Are Looking For

As the director or producer, you should be beyond familiar with the script. Break it down and get to the heart of what each character should be going through emotionally. Or, as Joss Whedon would ask his writers, “What’s the Buffy of it” (a reference to Buffy: The Vampire Slayer), meaning what's the heart of the story. It becomes much more difficult to identify an actor giving you what you want if you don’t know yourself. With proper preparation on your part, deciding on an actor will be swift because you are already alert to what works and what does not. This discrimination also includes what is essential and what is not. For example, when they were casting for the Vampire Diaries, which was a series of novels first, the producers were looking for a young, blonde actress as their lead. However, the best actress for the part has dark hair. They even decided not to dye her hair in order to appease the fans, knowing that her performance would win them over.

It becomes much more difficult to identify an actor giving you what you want if you don’t know yourself.

Not Sure How to Prioritize When Evaluating Actors? Try this three-column list to help determine what is necessary, ideal, and/or preferable.

It Would Be Nice
MALE Late 20s/Early 30s
Caucasian/East European
Can do a British Accent
Brooding Demeanor
Dark, Short Hair
Is taller than the Lead Actress
Quiet Reserve
Ability to deliver sarcasm
Willing to do certain stunts
Has chemistry with Lead Actress
Willing to work for SAG Student Day Rate
Actor with extensive training
Notice how the "NEED" column has items that are non-negotiable, while the "WANT" are flexible requests. The "NICE" column lists preferences, but all items are not top priority, and can be addressed with "move magic" techniques.

Vampire Diaries Audition Videos

*This Vampire Diaries Audition Video is a great example of producers expressing what they were looking for, how they went about choosing actors, weighing the options, and finally making a decision. The actors’ reaction to the grueling process is also quite informative.

Check Out How The Casting Turned Out For Yourself

Open Casting Calls Are Easy To Identify By Their Advertisements


2) Decide: Open or Closed Auditions

Open auditions are where anyone can walk in and audition, making the process longer and the results greatly varied. Closed auditions, however, are usually by invite only, making the process a little more selective, cutting down on audition time and narrowing the results of candidates before auditions even begin. This decision will also help to determine how you promote your auditions. With open auditions, you can spread the word high and low, even helping to generate buzz for your project. Just be forewarned that untrained talent will flood your auditions from sources like Craigslist. If you contact local talent agencies directly, however, you can have agents communicate with talent directly and receive a higher quality turnout.

If you choose to go with open auditions, please give yourself enough time to see as many people as possible. You'll also have to be very strict with your time management. It is suggested that you start every audition with a stopwatch and commit to a "hard stop" at your chosen increment of time. Five to ten minutes is common for open auditions.

If you choose to host closed auditions, schedule times and stick to them. Make sure there is enough time to really listen to each actor. Since it’s not the hectic grind of open auditions, where you’re trying to see as many people as possible, consider scheduling actors every twenty minutes or so. This allows for five minutes of introductions, ten minutes of readings, and five minutes as a buffer between actors. If you feel like you want more time with actors, consider scheduling thirty-minute blocks of time for callbacks.

It is highly recommended that [directing] be a singular job. That is to say, the director holds no other job during an audition because an actor's performance is only as good as the director's ability to elicit it.

3) Make Sure You Have Enough Crew

Here’s what you’ll need:

  • 1 Greeter - Someone who sits outside the audition room, greeting actors as they arrive, having them sign in and fill out any necessary paperwork. This person is usually in charge of sidelines, taking headshots and resumes from the actors and attaching them to the actor information sheet, and answering general questions (e.g. "Where's the bathroom?"). *Do not make this your Casting Director, as you'll want your him/her inside the room as your liaison. Remember, the casting director is the actors' point of reference going into the audition, and should remain so until an actor is hired.
  • 1 Reader - Someone who sits inside the audition room with only one role - read the part opposite the auditioning actor. Ideally, this person should not be "acting", so as to not throw off the auditioning actor. *Do not make this your Casting Director, as you'll want him/her to be just as observant as your Director. Readers are taught not to make eye contact with the auditioning actor, again, in an effort to ensure they are not influenced nor distracted.
  • 1 Camera Operator - Someone inside the audition room whose sole purpose is to record decent video of the auditioning actor, including close-ups. If doing in-camera sound recording, this person will also be responsible for audio levels while recording (which means s/he should bring headphones and know how to work the camera for both video and audio recording). *Do not make this the Casting Director for the same reason above, but also, ideally, do not let your director be the camera operator either. If you are in a bind and cannot find anyone else, your director can do both. Just know that with each added role a person takes on, that person's performance in each role will erode.
  • 1 Director - Someone inside the audition room who is solely responsible for engaging and directing the actors. It is highly recommended that this be a singular job. That is to say, the director holds no other job during an audition because an actor's performance is only as good as the director's ability to elicit it. *It is worth it to establish the rules of conduct before starting auditions. Sometimes Casting Directors will interject, speaking directly to the actors, in an effort to try something different so the Director has something more to reference when reviewing footage. However, if you, as the Director, don't want anyone talking with the actors, best to make that known before it becomes a problem.

You can also add:

  • 1 Casting Director - Someone inside the audition room who calls for the next actor outside, receives the paperwork from the greeter, and introduces the actor to everyone in the room. This role may not be necessary if you're working with a skeleton crew. If this is the case, then make sure your greeter is prepared to take over these responsibilities. Beyond the basic responsibilities, the Casting Director will also act as your liaison, handling the minutia of arranging, coordinating, and finalizing the casting process. A Casting Director can help shape the environment of your casting process; making it fun or intense, making it fast-paced or intimate. Finally, as stated above, a Casting Director can also help make the most of your audition time by speaking directly to the actor to change things up.
  • 1 Producer - Someone who will manage the auditions, whether by keeping track of time, monitoring the demands of the actors (affiliation requirements, schedule restrictions, etc.), and/or ensuring the set up is to everyone's satisfaction. Producers are often responsible for making sure food is available, both for actors and crew. They also confirm location availability and communicate directly with the location contact. If a producer is not available, this responsibility can fall to a Casting Director or the Director, which happens more often than not in student and independent productions.
  • 1 Boom Operator - Someone who is dedicated to recording the actor's audio. As mentioned above, most camera operators simply record with the microphone in the camera. If the camera does not have a built-in microphone, you can either record audio from a boom connected to the camera, or you can find a sound mixer who will record it separately. The latter is not recommended, however, as you'll have to sync your sound before you can review your footage. It's tedious and unnecessary.

PLEASE NOTE: For open auditions, you may need more greeters or production assistants to help wrangle the line of people. This often happens with national auditions, like American Idol. With every nuance of your production, you’ll likely add another person in the room. For example, if your actor is required to sing, you may need an accompanist.

Jared’s Audition for Supernatural

See How The Casting Turned Out For Yourself

*Jared's Audition is also a great example of an actor who comes prepared. He’s thought about his cadence (the rhythm at which he executes his lines PER line), his body language (notice the use of arms in the second round), and eye contact (he often looks unwaveringly at the person he is talking to, while talking or listening, but looks away to indicate the character is thinking about what he wants to say next). The setting is pretty typical, though - the actor seated in a chair, or given the option to stand, and a take without a hat blocking his face; a reader exclusively working with the actor, the voice of the director, and a camera operator who knew to zoom in closer on the actor’s face. It seems simple enough, but it doesn't take much for the mishaps of the crew to make the actor's performance look subpar. Poor camera work will make the actor look bad. A distracted reader or director can throw an actor off his/her groove. Even outside noise not monitored by the greeter can be distracting.

4) Provide Actors With a Script Before Auditions

Actors like time to prepare. Their skills take practice. If you want to see their best performances, then give them every chance to do so. Some actors aren’t very good at cold readings and can feel resentful if it is all they are afforded. Proper preparation not only prevents poor performance, but it also gives the director freedom to listen to what the actor brings to the role based on the actor's preparation. If a full script is not available, then be sure to make sides available. Sides are scenes from the script the actor can rehearse and read on camera.

It is the prerogative of the director, however, to determine how much the actor knows going into an audition and/or a role. If you'd rather do a little character workshopping rather than a reading of the film's material, then let the actor know what you'll be doing and what to expect. For example, when Joss Whedon was casting Summer Glau as River in the TV Show Firefly, he wanted to see her express the nuances of a psychologically unstable but incredibly intelligent girl within the context of an interview/interrogation that might have taken place at the government facility where her character was being manipulated.

One of may favorite acting instructors, Galina Boulgakova, would often refer to this as 'playing with an actor's package': detailing an actor's situation, objective, and obstacle, and then letting the actor figure out how their character would go about achieving that goal. A director still has the ability to tweak as the performance continues, of course, interjecting as the scene plays out. But it also allows departure from the direct interpretation of the script.

5) Think of EVERYTHING Before It Becomes a Problem

Then make sure everyone knows it before auditions commence. Address, phone number and name of the greeter (not someone who will be IN the audition room), directions, parking information, how to find the room, how much time will be allowed in the audition room, whether or not sides will be provided, etc. Consider this written communication a pseudo-call sheet for actors. This seems like a logical step for hosting auditions, but inevitably something falls through the cracks. Best to address what you can long before an actor is calling from across town because your directions didn't include an address that would have helped confirm it was on Route 1 on the East side of town, not the West where s/he is.

Communication also includes physical signs to help guide the actors from the front door to the audition room, signs to help keep actors quiet when outside the door, and any documentation you may need. Typically, actors fill out an actor information sheet which helps to clarify availability, affiliations (SAG, AFTRA, etc.), food allergies and body dimensions, which the Art Department will be grateful for in the early stages of pre-production.

Looking for more advice for how to host professional auditions? Check out How to Make the Most of Auditions, advice from a casting director on using auditions to your advantage.

Also check out How to Make a Great First Impression on Your Actors During Auditions, which outlines what to do inside the audition room.


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