An actor wrote me recently asking about preparation. This is a monster of a subject, and a lot of different facets of auditioning and acting in general come up when you address it. Every actor develops their own way to approach material, and that approach must be flexible enough to work for different mediums, directors, and genres. Usually time is a huge factor, and better actors learn to work quickly, but the process of auditioning remains one of the oddest forums for getting work there is. When you actually think of how little actors are privy to with each job they're interviewing for, you begin to look at it in terms of what you can control. Here are a few thoughts on preparation, based on what I've seen.
First of all, I think how you prepare all comes down to knowing yourself as an actor. What works for one person can be crippling to another, and I think you have to be ruthless about working out your own approach and trusting it. Are you the kind of actor who only finds the flow of a scene when you know it backwards and forwards? Do you get locked into playing it one way when you memorize? Does your work transform when you get it out of your head and into your body? It is all about knowing what works for you. Figure that out, and preparation will be the key to empowering you. I've become a strong believer in the value of preparation, and by that I mean smart preparation, because it's almost always a factor in casting decisions. Smart preparation means taking the material seriously. That can mean memorization, knowing the script very well, making smart character or scene choices to give story, or doing basic research (whether it be on a director's work, or the story's subject matter). For Part I of this thread, let's talk about preparation of the written scene, or more simply, memorization.
Memorization, or becoming off-book, is the most obvious part of preparation and every actor must find their own way of doing it. I come from a theatre background, where often the common belief was that being off-book for auditions made you look like you wanted it too badly. I heard that all the time when I was in New York, and I would guess that for a small percentage of situations, that might be true. There are even a handful of well-known acting teachers out there who will tell you that the words are completely secondary to the connection in the scene; that it's more important to be in the scene than it is to be off-book. I understand the concept, but I wouldn't recommend it for television and if you spend enough time on our side of the table you begin to see its drawbacks.
Connection is vital, no doubt, but we just don't get the whole scene when you're tied to the script. Acting for the camera is all about the eyes, and the continuity of an off-book actor will almost always be stronger than great moments broken up by looking down for lines. That's not to say that we need your eyes on the reader the entire time - quite the contrary, and I'll discuss points of focus in another thread soon. But continuity is crucial, and it's not enough for us to know you're a good actor even though we don't have the scene as much as we could. Directors like actors who put a lot of work into their material while remaining open to direction. A finished product that they can still adjust is always better than an audition that's neither here nor there. The fact is, most directors, and producers for that matter, know what they want when they see it and they don't take the time to pick apart why they respond to one actor versus another.
Of course, then the question becomes how off-book are we talking about? Word for word? Roughly the same? Well, here's where television and film are different, and where comedy and other genres vary. First of all, most actors know television is a writers' medium. Casting decisions in television almost always involve the writers, and the majority of those shows aren't as open to actors' embellishments or omissions as with film. Add to that the fact that most shows run on brutal schedules and it becomes obvious why they want actors who can give them the scene they wrote without too much direction or hand-holding. That means pace, and pace is all about being off-book. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, but generally speaking you don't want to give them even a suggestion that you might be that actor who can't get through a scene on-set because the lines aren't there.
Film is different. I think you always have to ask yourself how finished a script is. If you're getting sides that look like the twelfth rewrite and they're a month into shooting, do the math - they aren't looking for you to be #13. If you get an overwritten scene that 'll play much shorter once they rehearse it, you probably have a little more flexibility to make it suit your read. We all come across lines you just can't make work, and with most genres we won't care as long as you make it better. Just beware that any changes you make will have consequences in timing, and not all readers or casting directors will adjust on the fly. But in general, this ties into making it work for you and unless you're reading for a writer/director who is very particular about their script, go for it.
Which brings us to comedy. I have never seen a project suffer from casting someone who brings the humor. Some people are gratuitous with it, others are subtle, but directors want to hire actors who can give them something of their own when they need it on set. That doesn't mean they want you to rewrite the material, but putting your spin on a scene in a discriminating way (read: slight changes) can be gold. If you start to think of the process in terms of us seeing the same scene thirty, forty, fifty times...the value of a little extra humor becomes pretty obvious.
I'll be the first to acknowledge that there are no rules when it comes to this subject. Really great actor-directors will see through any amount of polish for the quality they want in a role, and for every situation there will be exceptions. Being very prepared should never be confused with being so fluid that the work seems inorganic. But I think auditions are about giving us an idea of who characters are in the context of story, and we want that as fully as possible - that much is human nature. At the end of the day, hard work is impressive - no doubt about it.
More later about other forms of preparation. Thanks for dropping by, and as always, if you'd like to send me any feedback or questions send me a note.