Saturday, June 18, 2011

My Audition Routine For Commercial Castings

When I got to LA, I had quite a few commercials under my belt, but I knew I needed to find a way to get a leg up on the competition. After a couple of months of auditions, I had met a few of the bigger commercial casting directors. I approached a few during off hours, and offered to intern for them. I wanted to get a little “inside baseball”, and see what their job really entailed. I wanted to see their day was like, and from their perspective. I also wanted to see if I could watch some of the other actors audition. I figured that would give me an edge.

I was honest and up front with them, I said, “I’m not trying to get on the inside track for auditions with you, I want to learn how your work day goes.” “I’m willing to work for free for a few weeks, do whatever grunt work you need done, and run your errands.” One of them said okay, if I was would keep my mouth shut, and stay out of the way in the audition room. So I got run pretty ragged doing all kinds of things, but I learned more from the experience of being in the audition room than from anything else.

I was amazed to see how many actors would come in unprepared. Some come in that had no idea what they were really doing. Some were arrogant, or had chips on their shoulders. Some simply couldn’t hear, and react to, direction when it was given to them. Some were just plain too nervous, and would start running their mouths unnecessarily. Many of them had their auditions deleted from the audition tape, and they never even knew it.

Then there were the professionals. They were the ones who stuck out like sore thumbs in the bunch. They knew exactly what they were doing. They listened to direction, and were just “in the moment” being themselves. They were letting their individual personalities out, following direction, and being creative. Those were the ones the casting director wanted the clients to see. It was a real wake up call for me.

In addition to that, I had no idea what casting directors go through in a “normal” day. They are fielding phone calls from producers, directors, ad agencies, and clients changing up the copy. They are auditioning actors all day long, often without even getting a lunch break. There are calls coming in form agents, and even actors who are going to be late. They are also dealing with breakdowns for other jobs, and have to make preparations to cast those. Their average day is utter madness. By 4 pm, they are pretty worn out. I never realized how much work they actually have to do. I figured they just sit there and audition actors. Knowing all of this was very helpful, because if I went on an audition and the casting director was a little snippy with me, I had a little bit better understanding why.

All of this taught me how to be able to “read” a room better when I walked into it. I became much more sensitive to what they go through. Most of the time, they are friendly and supportive to us. But if I came in a room, and they had some kind of negative energy going on, I didn’t let it affect me personally. I became one of the pro’s who walked in the room, listened closely, made strong choices, owned it, was always polite, and left the room promptly. I didn’t want to be that “deleted” actor.

So, summarized, here’s my commercial, and/or theatrical audition routine: When I get the call from my agent, the first thing I do is make sure I don’t have another audition conflict, or any direct product conflicts. If I have anything else non-acting related going on, I cancel or reschedule it. I want to always be that actor that when they call me, I will be there no matter what. If you are late to an audition; the casting director will figure if you are late for the audition, you might also be late to the set. So unless you have a broken leg, or a family emergency, no excuses, be on time. If something like that does happen, call your agent right away. Most of the time, your call can be rescheduled if it’s a real emergency.

Just as a side note, when I got my first smartphone, I noticed that when my agent called me for an audition, and that the sides were attached, I didn’t see any attachment. I was going to call them, but I figured it would be best not to bother them until I was sure. When I got home, I checked the email on my computer, and there it was. I spoke with a few of my other actor friends about it, and sure enough, some brands of smartphones don’t show the attachments. So check it out on your computer first, before calling your agent.

I do get some rush call auditions, but most of them are scheduled for the following day, sometimes two. I don’t know how it happens, but auditions always seem to come up around rush hour. They’re at 9 am, or 4:30 pm, where you would run right smack into it.

It’s rare, but if I do get to pick an audition time range, I go for the earliest possible time. For some reason the early actor tends to have a better chance at booking the role. I think they may just get tired after seeing the same thing all day. Go for early if you can pick an audition time.

Most of the auditions are scattered around a 25 mile radius in Los Angeles. So no matter how centrally located you may try to live, you often still end up with a long commute. They are where they are.

If the agent emails me the storyboard and script, I go over it and think of three or four different reads I might use, that may not be the first and most obvious ones. Then the next day I revisit them, and go over it again. How is the commercial’s message being conveyed? How do I fit into it? What is the product, and how are they selling it? If it’s a film, what’s the theme?

Most of the time, there are no sides beforehand. It is just a type they are looking for and I have nothing much to go on except for a time, and wardrobe suggestion. Often it’s just something very generic, like a construction worker, taxi driver, fisherman, or a dad in a polo shirt, etc.
Fine, I have lots of junk in the trunk, just in case they have gotten the roles mixed up. (It happens.) Maybe I might get to try out for a different role I think I might be better for, whatever it may be, I’m ready for it. I might also be able to get another audition for something else while I am there at the same facility I am going to visit.

Having various wardrobe changes with me, saved me numerous times. I also have plenty of extra headshots, different hats, and eye glasses, just in case. I’m ready to change it up completely if I need to. (If I do choose to wear glasses, I slate with them off, and put them back on for the reading. That way I can show them two looks.)

I make sure I am wearing no colognes or other heavily scented things, which some casting directors might be allergic to. Then I put on the most comfortable shoes I have, and suit up in my wardrobe for the audition. (Or I have it ready to do a quick change in the car when I arrive.)

I like chewing bubble gum. Always remember to take it out before you go in for an audition. Directors hate it when actors are auditioning and chewing gum. I got busted once, and that was it. I never made that mistake again. Plus, there was no place to spit it out, so I had to put it in my pocket. I forgot it was there, and my pocket was permanently gooed shut. What a mess. But it served as a good reminder.

I eat a small meal before I leave the house, so I’m not starving when I arrive. I don’t want my stomach to be growling. LoL. I have fluids like Gatorade, or bottled water, and some cough drops in the car for when I get there.

I leave early enough so that even with a traffic jam, I will arrive there at least 30 minutes ahead of my audition time. The same for call times on the set as well. Then I can get as much information as possible prior to my audition. They also might spring some dialog on me, and then I at least will have some time to work on it.

When I arrive, I take at least five minutes of quiet time just to gather myself, and calm down from the drive. If you like to say a prayer, or anything like that to help you get your mind right, then you have time for it then, and you can do so.

I stay away from drinking ice cold beverages, because it contracts, and affects my voice. I avoid anything with caffeine or sugar in it. Chocolate gives me a sugar rush that makes me appear to be nervous, so does caffeine. I avoid that, and any candy that is sour, or eating anything spicy before my call. My throat is part of my instrument, and I need to keep it in prime working condition. If anything, I take a honey cough drop 15 minutes before auditioning. I learned that one from a radio broadcaster.

I always go in way ahead of my call time, so I can gather some more information about the audition. I look at the casting area and size it up. I look at the sides for my part, and all of the other parts as well. If there is a storyboard on the wall I study that. If there are boards up for related spots they are casting, I study those as well. It gives me a better idea of the direction of the commercial campaign, and I might want to hint towards one of those.

If there is another spot they are casting at the same station, or another role I think I might be better suited for, I study that closely. I might want to wear an article of clothing, such as a mechanic shirt underneath my businessman shirt. Then I can easily transition in seconds to the other role if the opportunity presents itself.

I observe all the other actor types that are out there waiting to audition for my part, and try to speak with a few as they are leaving the facility. I try to gather any information about the audition that I can. Sometimes I need to talk with a few different actors to get some decent intel on the audition.

For example, how many actors are they auditioning at one time? How many times did they let you read for the role? Was it on camera? Is the casting director, or are the clients in the room? Was there a rehearsal before the audition? What did they have you do for it? Obviously, you are not going to get all that information from one actor, so I usually speak to a few, catching up with them as they walk out to their cars. This is why I need that extra arrival time.

I return to my car, digest all the information, make adjustments to my wardrobe, my look, and think about some different reads I might give. More often than not, I end up throwing all the reads out and go with something else when I get in the audition room. If my instincts guide me in a certain direction, then I go that way. But at least I am prepared to deliver something strong, if there is no direction given. Many times, there is none, and they want to see what you as the actor will bring to it. If they do give me some, I take it.

I make every effort to go into a room with nothing but a positive mindset. Anything that’s troubling me or negative, I push it out of my thoughts. I leave it at home, or in the car. To help me get into the right frame of mind, I say to myself, “I love, and approve of myself.” I repeat this three times. (And you have to really mean it!) As I do this, with my left hand, I tap my right hand area just above the thumb, right on the flat area where my hand meets my wrist. I just lightly smack it about six times with my left hand index and middle fingers pressed together. I learned this from a very close friend that is one of these “new age” types.

She explained that this is one of the body’s Meridian points. I thought to myself at the time, “Man this sounds like a pretty stupid idea.” But I went ahead and tried it at my next audition, and, as odd as it may sound, it helped me. I was always a bit self conscious, and it helped my state of mind. You have to learn to love yourself, and like who you are, as hard as that may be sometimes. So doing that is a part of my pre-audition routine. If there is something that I do, or try out and it works, I continue doing it next the next time at the callback. But I always go in ready to make adjustments. We need every edge you can get in this line of work.

When I get out of my car, I do some stretching up against it just like an athlete, or a jogger does. I want to get my body limbered up for a little acting exercise. I exercise my facial muscles and my voice a little also. Other actors parking and getting out of their cars nearby look at me and think I’m some kind of a nut, but I don’t care. I am there to do one thing, out shine the competition, and win this job.

When I do get in the room and sign in, I do everything I can to stay relaxed and focused until I get into the room. Sometimes we can be stuck waiting there to audition for as long as an hour or more, waiting for our call. I don’t get pissed off, or get an attitude about it. We are all in the same boat, some actors handle it better than others. As frustrating as it can be, I try to be disciplined, and just be patient. It is very hard, because it is almost always loud with all the other actors yakking away in there. Many are blabbing loudly into their cell phones, like this is some sort of a social gathering. It’s a job interview, and I treat it that way. This is all business.

About twenty years ago the “size sheet” appeared on the scene. Casting directors almost always have you fill one out before auditioning, and you give it to them with your headshot. It’s kind of annoying, because when you get a callback, they have you fill out the same stupid form all over again. The obvious things are on there, like your eye and hair color, weight, and various clothing sizes. Also your agent, your contact information, and if you have any conflicts on the product. Be honest about that one, you shouldn’t even be there if you do.

But at the bottom of the page there is usually this little box that says, “Are you willing to do extra work?” My advice is to don’t ever check yes on that one. Many times the producers want to hire you as a principal, but they know the rules, and might just use you as an extra on the job instead. (For more on this, read the chapter on unions.)

Sometimes for these auditions, we would end up sitting there for an hour or more. According to the SAG rules, if we are kept waiting longer than an hour, we’re supposed to be paid 30 bucks or some silly amount like that. But not many of us ever pursued it, because if you did…you probably weren’t going to get an audition for that particular casting director again. (And most of them know that.) So if they ran a little late, we just had to deal with it, and keep our mouths shut. This is not a battle that’s worth fighting, for thirty bucks.

Often when I am at my particular casting, they would also be casting two or more roles, or maybe even a series of commercials at the same station. I really liked the ones that would post storyboards on the wall for each one. It gives us a much better idea what the ad agency’s vision, or concept was. Many of them don’t, because some aren’t exactly sure what they even want yet. All of them would usually have a script for us unless it was just a “look” thing that they were casting.

I found that it’s important to study all of the roles I might be appropriate for, and even learn some of them, just in case. I can’t tell you how many times I was hired for a different commercial than the one I was actually there for. Especially at the callbacks, be sure to study all the parts. Often, after auditioning for the role I was there for, I would say, “I would like to give you a quick take on the other role for such and such”. Just don’t ever phrase it as a question. “Can I do it again?” Answer: “No.”

This one time I was there as a dad, and I saw they also were casting a car mechanic spot. That’s something I played a lot, so after the first audition, I pulled a blue mechanic hat out of my back pocket and put it on. I said, “If time permits, I would like to quickly read for the role of the mechanic”. It worked, and I got the role, so keep an eye out, and study the other things they are casting.

Trust your instincts, they will guide you. If you feel you are better suited for another part, you might be right. Plus, it gives you a chance to get more time in front of them. I found out that with many of these commercial campaigns, they only have a vague idea of what they want. If you walk in, and give them your interpretation of it, and nail it – you’re in. Some other spots are cast in stone, they know exactly what they want. If you can walk in the room, and be that image of what they had in mind, you’re probably getting that job.

I don’t want to create any kind of negative energy prior to going in for my audition, but if someone is overly loud for an extended period of time in my audition group, I will ask them to please tone it down a bit. I’m here trying to get a job. I try not to do this unless it is absolutely necessary, because some actors I’ve met at this level, have a real chip on their shoulders and don’t care about anyone else but them.

Most of the time, I tune it out any way I can, and stay focused on the job at hand. I use my mp3 player if need be, to white out some of the noise. The music I play is something instrumental so I can still stay into things, and not be overly distracted by it. (Back in the day, it was a CD player, and before that a cassette player!)

Other times to get away from noise, I will just walk away to the far side of the room so I can be alone. Even if everyone else in the room is loosing their heads, keep yours on. I don’t talk to the other actors, unless it’s a scene that needs to be rehearsed with a partner. Try to find a compatible one. As far as chatting with other actors, other than perhaps a quick reply to a question, that’s all I want to do. During my pre-audition routine and warm up I don’t want to talk. I don’t want to be rude to my peers, but I don’t want to be distracted, loose focus, or my concentration either.

If someone does want to talk with me, I just politely explain that I am focusing on my audition right now. I will be happy to speak with them afterwards. Some actors cop an attitude about it, but I am there to work. I move and find another seat if I have to.

Inevitably, at many auditions, you will hear someone loudly boasting about all the wonderful jobs they have done, implying how great they are and that you don’t have a chance against them. Some of them are just knuckleheads, but others are trying to get inside your head. They try and get you depressed and/or thinking that you can’t win against them. It can get to you if you allow it in. Don’t fall for that crap. It’s usually their intention, or they just need some attention, because they are probably weak themselves. Many of these characters can talk a big game, but in reality they probably haven’t done much of anything. Don’t let those big egos get to you in there. It affects your confidence, and your audition.

I’ve seen a lot of mind games, and attempts to intimidate others going on in the waiting room, especially at callbacks. Some actors will try to psych you out in the waiting room, and they love trying to do it. Some even get off on it. Unfortunately there are some people like that when you get to the professional level.

Other times it’s done in more subtle ways with things like glaring at you, or just body posture. If you are sitting there all nervous about it, and someone else is sitting there confidently, relaxed and ready to go, that’s not good for you. I admit, I have been in both of those seats. Solutions? The same as before, I turn on my mp3 player, or I go to another part of the room to get away from it. Mostly I just try to tune it out however I can, and get my focus back on.

I pay attention to the two actor’s names that are on the sign in sheet just before mine. Then I know about how much time I have before it’s my turn. It’s part of being ready, and prepared. I don’t want to be surprised, and not be ready to go in, when my name is called.

I’ve learned to breathe through my nose, and not through my mouth as much as possible. A doctor explained to me many years ago, that more oxygen can get to your brain that way. This helped me with auditioning a lot. I breathe like this until it is time to speak. As simple as it may sound, it takes some practice to do it. Normal breathing helps you to be more relaxed.

One way I learned was bicycle riding. I would close my mouth and breathe only through my nose. It’s hard at first, but if you practice it enough, you can master it. Many professional athletes do this to build up their cardio, and endurance. It’s a way to give your body more strength when you need it. Breathing normally under stress is a skill that takes a lot of work to master. Relaxation and breathing exercises help to keep my body centered, and grounded.

When I know it is about five minutes before my audition, if I’m sitting, I stand up and move around a little bit to get the blood moving and flowing throughout my body. Otherwise, I go into the audition a little flat, and with less energy, and by then it’s too late. (It happens after you come out of the room, and it’s not going to help you very much then.)

I look for a private spot and stiffen up each limb of my body really hard for a few seconds, and let it relax. I focus and think about that body part as I do this. I feel the muscles tense up, and then relax them one at a time. It helps to get my blood moving. I do this with each body part, my arms, my legs, my hands, my feet, my neck, and my abdomen. Then I repeat the process up to three times. It takes me two minutes maximum to complete this.

I also do some facial exercises to limber up my face, like making different expressions. Warming up my face is important because usually the audition involves expressions of some kind. I limber it up like I would before doing any other exercise. I stretch my lips a little, move my tongue around some, and limber up my jaw bones. People do give me some strange looks, but it’s what I like to do before going in. I look a little strange anyway.

Nobody can really see what you are doing, if you are discreet about it. You don’t need to move from a standing, or a sitting position. When I can, I prefer to stand. I find that doing this relaxes my body more, and I am more prepared.

When my name is called, I walk in confidently, set my briefcase inside the door, and head straight to the mark unless otherwise instructed. I don’t look down to see it, I can feel where it is based on the room, the set up, and the camera’s position.

They sometimes offer me a little direction, prior to an audition. I listen to it clearly, and give the logical analytical side of my brain a moment to digest it fully. That allows me time for my creative intuitive side to be freed up, to come up with something. But I have to listen clearly and absorb the direction. I take a moment to let it sink in and process it. Sometimes that is easier said, then done. Like I mentioned, so many actors aren’t able to hear direction, and act on it, in stressful situations. I give my brain a second to catch up to my body. I don’t ever rush it.

When they ask me to slate my name, I say it clearly, and with moderate projection. It does not tail up in pitch, or down, it is just a clear confident statement of my name. I am proud of who I am, and what I am doing. Without being asked, after a second or two, I turn right to profile one beat, then left for one beat, then back to center, and hold. A mistake I saw many actors make was to beam a fake smile or some other stupid expression after the slate. I just hold it with a look of confidence, but not arrogance.

The camera person will usually stop us after that, and then queue us to begin the reading. It gives the impression that I have been there so many times, that it’s a reflex.

There may be some direction before or after I slate also. I do the same thing, listen and absorb it, so I can follow it. I at least use it as a guideline. I may need to just toss out all the reads I had planned up to this point, but that’s okay. I was prepared a certain way, but I am ready for something else completely different if need be.

Sometimes when we are standing there on the mark, they will ask us if we have any questions about the audition, right up front. I am usually ready to go, but if I do have one, I ask. Sometimes I am not clear on something, and I ask. Better now, than screw it up and regret it later.

If they ask me if I would like to do a rehearsal first, unless I am feeling unclear on something, usually I say no. Unless I am feeling uncomfortable with my choice, or there are other actors auditioning with me, and I want to get a feel for blocking the scene, our timing, and chemistry, I will say, “No, I prefer to get right to it.” I came in that room ready to go, and I want to if I can. I keep my focus better if I can get right to the actual audition straight away. If I am with a few other actors I try to give them a nod to, “Let’s just do it.”

I find that my first take is almost always better than my second one in an audition situation, so I don’t want to burn a good one up, and loose it as a rehearsal. When I’m working on the set, of course, that’s a totally different situation.

I try to give a read that is not just a safe one, or the most obvious choice, unless I’m otherwise instructed. Most of the actors I saw audition, would take the safe or obvious read. I want to stand out from the crowd. I usually go with my first instinctive feel on it. I try to dig deep for a risky and different one that the others may not have thought of. More often than not, my first impression it is the best one. It took some experience to get there, and just trust my instincts.

When I finish the first read, if I have what I feel is another good take on the spot, or other spots, I say that I would like to do it quickly another way if time permits, and then I pause for reply. If it’s a no, I thank them and leave. If it’s a yes, I do it to it. If I get a chance to do a second read, I make the most of it. Often I will get some direction, casting directors and directors love an actor that can take some direction. If there is none, I try to have something completely different ready for them. Our job is to roll with it.

After I am done, I thank them for their time, and leave, (Not forgetting my briefcase on the way!)When I do leave, I try to let it go. This whole thing is now out of my hands. I did my best under the circumstances, and that’s all I can expect from myself. Even if I feel I made a mistake in there, I need to just let it go. It is time to focus on the next audition.

Just don’t ever try to “crash” a casting. Even if it looks completely disorganized, and you may think you can slip in unnoticed, they will find out later on from the tape. They also keep records of all the actors they are seeing that day. Asking to audition is okay, but crashing one really pisses casting directors off. I did it a few times at the nonunion and union level, and burned myself with a few casting directors as a result of it. Don’t crash, you will get busted and not even know it. It’s not worth the risk to your reputation.

When I get back to my car, I relax and process the whole thing for five minutes before starting it up to leave. I treat myself to something nice if I have the time. A decent lunch, some coffee, or just chill out in a relaxing spot for a little bit. It takes the edge off, and reduces stress a little. Then I head home, and try not to dwell on the audition, as tempting as it may be. What if I had done this? Or if I did that? Or, I should have done it this way…let it go. There’s nothing we can do about it, and beating myself up for a bad choice doesn’t help. Maybe it wasn’t a bad choice after all? Sometimes I think it was…and then I get a callback.

I try to keep things in perspective. There is no way to really predict what you are going to be asked to do in most any audition. Every one of these auditions is different. Even after auditioning for 1000’s of these, I can say that with confidence they are never the same. I can’t advise very much on the actual “acting” part for you. You need to find a good, and reputable commercial and/or acting teacher to get as much acting training as possible. Keep in mind that auditioning for commercials is an art form in itself. Film and theater training don’t help us much here.

All we can do is be as prepared as possible, know our material, be confident, ready to improvise, and make changes on the fly if we need to.

I hope some of this helps you out a little. If you would like to read the balance of this chapter, and the rest of my recently published 240 page book, titled, "An Actor's Face, Audition, Casting Advice, And Anecdotes From A Working Actor". It's available for $5 at the Amazon Kindle book store.

It is filled with lots of practical advice, casting, and auditioning tips for working actors who want to book more work. Also for actors who are making the big move to NYC, or LA, to pursue their dream as an actor, as well as for people who are thinking about breaking into acting.

At the end of the day, earning a living as an actor boils down to one thing: winning the job. I give you info about increasing your odds, and putting yourself in the best possible position to get hired.

I earned a living for 2 decades as an actor, and I share it all in there with you. From ways to audition better by being more prepared, to gathering information that will help you get the edge on the competition, and book more jobs. I discuss common sense ways to acquire the best possible tools at the lowest possible costs. Things like how to have the most effective headshots, resumes, websites, and optimizing everything else including your online presence. I share low cost ways to get experience, and training. I mix in a few of my personal acting, and casting anecdotes. I priced this book low, because I would rather you have the extra money for things like good headshots.

For more information, visit my site,

Shannon Ratigan

Copyright © Shannon Ratigan All Rights Reserved.


kaymac said...

I am a theater actress and have been called in to audition for a commercial tomorrow. It's my first ever so this blog entry was very helpful - specific and personal. I am guessing that if those qualities 'read' through your words on a blog page...your auditions must have similar outstanding qualities!
Thanks much!

starving_actor said...

Hi Kaymac, Thanks for those kind words, I really appreciate that. I hope my post was of some help, and best of luck on future commercial auditions.

curious george said...

So I'm writing this paper on the difference between acting in commercials and acting in other more traditional media (drama, films) and I found that there's almost no study done on it. Zero. Nada. I'm beginning to think that there is NO substantial difference only minor ones. But the fact that while the goal of commercial is in a way very different from other media (explicitly trying to influence or manipulate the audience towards a certain behavior, usually buying) and the fact that it's less than 30 seconds long, there's got to be some difference. Any advice on how to go about this research? At the moment, all have are from anecdotes from actors in commercials and stuff from psychology of advertising.

Chloe Zimmer said...

Thank you for this personal and vulnerable view into your experiences as during these acting auditions- you have helped a lot of young actors gain some courage - and brought humor into it as well!

Unknown said...

You have an impressive amount of commitment to acting. I think that is a very important part of becoming successful in this industry. It takes some serious preparations to have a breathtaking audition.

Unknown said...

Acting is an simulation of an action produced in the mind or had taken place already.
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