Ever heard this? --
"There is no script."
"Nobody has it. That's what they told me."
I'm sure a lot of you have. Then you find yourself sitting in the waiting room next to someone with a copy of it, bound by their agency's shiny document cover.
Or they're saying--
"They didn't email it to me until late last night."
Quietly, I'd like to elaborate on what is a very common situation. The fact is, unless there is an issue with original material, or the script is being kept under wraps by the studio, there is almost always a way to get it. If it's out there, you need to read it. If you want to have any idea how to approach sides you've been given, you need to read it. You have to know that the field is not level if you have no perspective of the project as a whole, or how your character fits into it. You need...to read...the script. Let me explain...
First of all, what's it like to audition when all you have is the sides? Typically, you will always have questions - everyone has questions - about your preparation. You bring your instincts, common sense, intuition, and methodology into preparing material, and still you have no idea how that will align with the director's, or producers' for that matter. If you only have the sides, you must make a judgement call on what the tone is, how your character fits into the bigger picture, and how relationships progress. You are going off what you envision, but basically you are working in guesses. A lot of guesses. You prepare the best you can and hope it works, because the alternative is to ask a million questions before you start and risk having your brain rewired as a result. This is acting in a vacuum.
Most of the time, what you pick up from reading the script is crucial to how you approach your sides. Page count is critical, for example. Next time you get sides, think of what it means that a scene is on page 15, let's say. It will most likely be a set up scene. In television, set up scenes are de-emphasized and often contain a fair amount of exposition. They need to be easy and fluid, even though the instinct is sometimes to make more of them. They provide relief to later scenes when a character is challenged in some way, and you have to see them as an opportunity to show that character in relatively normal circumstances. If it's a lead, know that we probably have to be in their corner by this scene - how does that change your approach?
Another scene on page 99 will be all about the journey this person has been on the last 99 pages. Is the final act a slow train pulling into a station or a fireball hurtling towards us? If you don't know how we get to that point or what the movement of the piece is at that page count, you're guessing a hell of a lot. Of course many other things appear when you have a script and there are a million scenarios to discuss, but hopefully you get the idea.
If you think of things from the other side of the table, think of how invested a director is in getting the story right. That means knowing a script backwards and forwards - storyboarding, setting up locations, shots, etc. All of that is the subjective framing of what you bring to the role. You will never know exactly what they envision, but you have to know they approach casting as a way to get great ideas - to see things in fifty ways that might not have occurred to even the best directors. Actors help directors more than they know, and the process can be invaluable to them. Your insight on how a script might work, how a story could be stronger, how a character's arc could be more interesting - these are all things you get from knowing a script very well.
There will always be talented, smart actors up for the same role you are. There will always be actors whose resumes are stronger, and whose auditions are more polished. You don't have to be any of the above to be the one we respond to most. You just have to be the actor who makes choices that are informed and true to what you envision. That comes from reading the script, twice if need be. Regardless, the one question you don't want to be asked right after your audition is--
"You didn't get the script, did you?"