Friday, March 03, 2006

New (Same) Tricks

Not a bad week, all things considered. The pressure is easing in some areas but ramping up in others. Just trying to hold it all together for the sake of those around me.

Got to audition WITH Cherokee for a spot the other day for the first time in, like, years, so that was a treat. Also had a job on Wednesday which was good. It was "just a demo" for a national brand, but any union work is good work. It was also my first time working with another talent from my agency with whom I don't agree on nearly anything (though I don't think they know it, despite our having known each other for over a decade). Aside from a somewhat abrasive personality when they're not around those they care to impress (including other actors), they're positively effusive in their glad-handing when they're around anyone they think can help them in their careers. There are a few notable others in Chicago who really stand out in that way, and I'd get irritated at them if I wasn't also somewhat shamefully amused. They're their own worst enemy and can't see it. Their superficial charm must be transparent to nearly everyone, their eagerness to please reads as desperation (a career-killer that), and their idea of self-promotion (to advertising professionals mind you) begins and ends with harrassing their targets with an array of useless name-imprinted tchotchkes.

But, I guess they think it works for them. Anyway...

I had an on-camera audition Tuesday that was this week's educational experience. I'd call it "teaching an old dog new tricks," but the fact is it was an old trick I'd simply stopped practicing. The audition was for a state lottery and, for those who don't know, lottery commercials are generally slim pickings — they generally only air in one state, and usually only for one cycle, but they require just as much energy (if not more) than national spots because they're often about super-excited people who've just won a buttload of cash.

So anyway, my agent calls me up, gives me the casting specs, and I sort of groaned inwardly because they wanted a very specific talent. I'm not going to say what that talent was, but imagine, for instance, that the specs called for someone who can do sign language. Now, I actually took a class in American Sign Language years ago (true) but usually when casting directors are looking for a particular talent, they're looking for an expert — someone who's actually deaf or has been doing ASL all their life. And, most often, they can find such a person (which is also why, unlike theatre, it's usually useless to pursue on-camera jobs calling for a 40-year-old if one is actually 25 — there are plenty of 40-year-olds in the available casting pool, and you'd better be stunningly better than all of them in some way in order to change the client's mind about who he thinks he needs).

The reason I groaned, though, was because the person casting the spot was one of those who almost never calls me in. Now, although I think the benefits of being exclusive with one agent in Chicago outweigh the bad points (I started my career in L.A., so it's what I'm most comfortable with) here's one of the bad points: If, for some reason, you make a bad first impression with a casting director (as I apparently did many moons ago when I was still wet behind the ears), and assuming that particular CD is not one of the more generous ones in the city who actually call an actor for auditions ten or more times before giving up on them, what's going to happen is the next time this casting director calls you in, it will generally only be because your agent recommended you, or you have a specific talent that disqualifies most of their regular pool (or both). Now, because you are exclusive with your agent, you're among the first people s/he calls when the CD gives them an "empty" slot to fill (the CD basically says "Send me these 15 particular actors [they name them], but because we need actors with such a specific talent, it's going to be a light day, so add to your list one or two others you think would be good").

OK, so now you're going in to see a casting director who's not thrilled about you, your audition is at the end of the session (making it much more likely that you won't be seen by the client), and, as often happens, you also have to follow a bunch of presumed experts at exhibiting a particular specialized skill. This is not a recipe for success. In fact, my experience has been that the casting director often simply feels that their first impressions of you were correct — you're underwhelming. Yet again. What a surprise.

But what else are you going to do? Sure, you can tell your agent you refuse to see the casting director unless it's under circumstances that are more favorable to you. That's certainly valid, and I'm all for empowering actors to do that if they think they have the equity to spend with their agent. It is, however, a "special order". That is, you're setting yourself up to be a custom job when it comes to casting, and the agent must now remember somehow "Evan will see Casting Director X all the time, but he'll only see Casting Director Y if he's in the first ten slots and only if there's no sign language involved." That's too much work (again, speaking only for myself). Following the path of least resistance, I only turn down an audition if I have a product or scheduling conflict, or if the specs are grossly out of my league. In ten years, I think I've only turned down maybe one audition for that last reason, and I'm really only allowing for the possibility — I don't actually remember doing so. Ever.

So there I am. Unenthused about the waste of time this audition is costing me, but hey — I chose to do it, so shut up already, right? Well, lo and behold, it turns out that I actually pulled off the "special skill" at least passably well, and (gasp) the casting director let me know that the experts s/he had called in were generally unable to handle the copy well. And, in this particular case, the copy turned out to be more important to the client than the special skill. So, in the end, I was actually a viable choice for the client, and the casting director got to see me Not Fail. Which, of course, is actually what I hope for every time I go into one of these situations. When you're stuck at the bottom of a well, you don't focus so much on the light at the top as on clawing yourself up to the next level.

But, as I thought about this afterward, I realized that I knew this already. These sorts of auditions are not that much unlike what every audition used to be for me when I was starting out as a total unknown (not that I'm now a renowned talent or anything — it's just that I've actually managed to fool a few casting directors into not calling me in last for a change). So yeah, I guess I've gotten soft. I guess it's time to remember the old tricks and practice them as much as possible.

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