What I Learned in Hollywood
by Neva J. Howell
Free Acting Class
10 Tips for Acting Success
This is part of my series on the creative arts and, in particular, the craft of acting for film, television or stage. I think I was born an actor. I know I was born a ham! I've lived in the Los Angeles / Burbank / Hollywood area three different times in my life, pursuing the dream. Over the years, I picked up some info that may helpful to aspiring actors who want to relocate to L.A. I hope you find these tips helpful.
1. Choose your acting classes with care.
A lot of the acting classes I tried out in Los Angeles (most will let you audit at least one free class) were structured to teach a specific way of acting, a specific technique based on this or that acting method. I found most of the classes limiting and some even damaging to my innate ability to bring a character to life.
Some acting classes are taught by inspiring, fun and talented actors who get a real kick out of helping another actor hone their craft. The best of these notice the way you approach your craft and work within what is already working for you, adding gems of wisdom and skill tools that help you polish your unique performance abilities. Some of my favorite examples of this wonderful kind of acting teacher: Stephen Tobolowsky, Lisa Dalton, Patrick Bristow, Mark Pinkney and Carly Rothenberg.
Some acting classes are taught by frustrated actors who hate what they are doing, don't want to be there and generate a pretty nasty vibe from the beginning. I'm grateful I walked out of a few of those classes, even after paying for them. This business is hard enough without taking abuse in the classes which should be nurturing and offering creative freedom for developing your craft. I won't name names or give specific examples but I'll just say I leave any class that doesn't feed me in a joyously freeing and creative way.
2. Improv gives the most bang for the buck.
Improv classes, with a teacher who is not invested in you becoming another whatever they are, is by far the best investment I made in my own craft. Improv taught me to go out on the tight-rope of my own imagination and risk falling off and going splat on the stage, which I did on numerous occasions. Improv taught me the importance of listening with your whole body and of respecting the other actors on the stage with you; in fact, looking to them for gems of inspiration for your own response in character and relying less on being in the mind and trying to "come up with something clever" on the spot.
3. Your real job, if you choose to act in Hollywood, is driving.
You get to work every once in a while but mostly, you drive. L.A. county is, I believe, about 55 miles wide. There were times when I had auditions about that far apart in one day.
I recall the day I decided to come back home to the south. I was driving home from an audition and had just passed that huge billboard that counts up the number of cigarette-related deaths in real time. If you are in Los Angeles, you've had time to sit and watch those numbers go up in traffic. I realized it had taken me an hour and a half to drive 18 miles. OK, I get it. I get what all the Hollywood Casting Directors had been saying. Driving really would be my main job if I stayed, unless I became one of the 4% of actors who made enough work to hire anybody to drive them around. Then, my real job would be riding or flying.
Hmmm, something shifted in me. I left tinseltown. I may go back for work in Los Angeles but I don't wanta live there. It's something I would never have known, had I not tried it. I may have wished to be there forever so I'm glad I went and saw what it was really like for me. Of course, the reality is that I still spend a lot of time driving, to and from auditions, here in the south. The huge difference is the scenery and, in most cases, the lack of bumper to bumper traffic for hours at a stretch.
4. Some Casting Directors are in love with Casting!
Some CD's are a joy to read for because they love actors, love the craft and truly want what's best for the project. They have vision and clarity around what is needed. These Casting Directors will give you all the information they have, about direction, style, etc. because they genuinely want to help you give the absolute best audition you can give. These casting directors get a gleam in their eye when they see someone come in who is prepared and bringing something unique to the character, and they will do all they can to nurture and support the actor thru the audition and call-back process.
Casting Directors I've met who genuinely seem to love what they do and love actors too include Mick Dowd, Kim Petrosky, Jo Doster (it's under the surface with Jo, subtle, but I see the gleam), Megan Foley and others. There are also directors who are obviously in love with the process and with their actors. I'm thinking of folks I've met or worked with including Tara Eden Michelle, Warren Marcus, Rob Underhill, Jon Burleson, Fred Savage, Justin Baker, Justin Scott, Margaret Betts, Katherine Dieckmann, Michael Tuchner and Michael Rhodes. I LOVE auditioning for these types of Casting Directors and Directors. If I had my time in Los Angeles to do over, I'd stay in touch with those types of CD's and directors. I'd forget the others, regardless of what they were casting.
5. Some CD's are jerks!
Some Casting Directors are just, quite simply, people who are inconsiderate, rude, even nasty ... and ... in a position of some power. If I had my Los Angeles time to do over, I'd refuse to audition again for some of the Casting Directors I met. It's hard to refuse when you are hungry so, like most, I took condescension and rude treatment that would not be socially acceptable in any other business interview. Of course, that isn't just true of Casting Directors in Hollywood; I've been treated very rudely by CD's in the south as well but I have to say, not as often.
I felt I was selling my soul every time I did an audition where the CD obviously had better things to do than help me give the best audition I could for them. I would hope I would not repeat that pattern now, if the situation faced me again. Be respectful or I'm outta here. It's a weird attitude when their job depends on finding the best actor. I can understand a casting director getting jaded over time because there are plenty of actors who are rude and condescending as well but if ya get jaded, get out.
7. Some Actors Are Jerks!
Of course, that rudeness door swings both ways in the audition room. I've seen actors be rude to CD's too, wanting to push the envelope on how much time they were given, trying to talk their ear off beforehand, pestering them afterwards about what they thought, sending a deluge of headshots thru the mail (headshots that end up in the trash can, by the way) or worse yet, dropping headshots by the casting office every other day. I've seen actors plead to do the audition over and over and I've seen actors come in altered by something, probably to calm stagefright. Don't pester CD's unless you want them to dread seeing you coming. Worse yet, rather than dread seeing you, the CD may decide not to see you at all.
7. As a Rule, in Casting, There is Zero Empathy.
Most CD's I read for did not care if I had to take three busses, had a terrible cold and didn't have money for supper. I don't blame them. If they cried with every starving actor who has a sad story, they'd never get any casting done. I get it. And ... it can feel as if they are callous and uncaring.
In auditions, an actor needs to bring it, every time, or skip the read. There is also little if any margin for error. Flub the first take? Sorry. It's probably your only one. And if you did fine with the read but didn't take the tack the CD knows the producer or writer or director is looking for in the project, you may never know. I did have some CD's that were kind enough to redirect and allow for trying it again but not many.
8. Casting Directors are people, just like you.
The best CD's have a true eye for not only talent but the right talent for the right role. Casting always looked a little like doing a puzzle to me; all the pieces need to fit to make the total picture come to life. Yet, human beings are just that -- human. A CD can have a filter that blocks some talent, just like any other person can have a filter that blocks some information. Shock of shocks, they don't always see the talent in front of them clearly. You can nail it and still not get submitted. I know this because I've done some intern work, reading with actors for commercials.
If the CD doesn't like what they see in the brief pre-audition phase, they may not even turn the camera on for the audition. I'm sorry. I know this is not generally known, or at least I never knew it before I did that internship. Even if the camera is rolling, if the CD doesn't like what they see in the entirety of your audition and the way you behave yourself on exit, they may delete your audition after you walk out the door. I am thinking of one man who ... well, he had talent but he was so very hyped up that he couldn't leave afterwards. Kept talking and explaining this or that about the audition, til asked to leave. His audition got deleted from the tape.
Every role that a Casting Director casts puts their job at stake so I understand they only want to submit the best. I understand deleting troublesome actors and those who flub badly in the middle, on a day when you simply don't have time to retake. On the other hand, as an actor, it rankled because I know too well that actors put so much time and money into driving to all these auditions. The thought that their audition would never even be seen was upsetting to me.
6. Casting Directors don't really cast you.
Even when Casting Directors do see your talent, and want you to win the role, they only get you thru the first level of auditioning. Although a good CD may have the ear of the director/writer/producer, they don't untimately hire you in most cases.
I've noticed that the ones that have cast a lot for the same director seem to be valued more, like Jane Jenkins with Ron Howard, and are given more leeway in hand-picking submissions. Jane has done so much excellent big feature casting in Hollywood that directors may just tell her to bring him the right people by now.
If I had it to do over, I'd focus on casting directors that have develope a long relationship with the directors I wanted most to work with and nurture those relationships more. Maybe the main thing to take away from all this is that you won't have it to do over so why not do it the way you want to do it now, offer respect and professionalism at every audition and require that same respect and professionalism back from Casting Directors, Producers, Writers and Directors.
9. The Writer's sister or the Director's brother may get your role.
Nepotism is alive in Hollywood, just as it is in every other business on earth.Relatives and friends of those in power do sometimes get the role. Quite honestly, if I had a relative who wanted to get into acting and I had a chance to give them a leg up in a small role, I'd probably do it any time I could without jeopardising the integrity of the project. In addition to nepotism, Hollywood is a NETWORKING town. It really is who you know and who knows your work. A recommendation by someone who knows someone who is working on a project that interests you is worth it's weight in casting gold.
That's about it for now. If you've been to Hollywood, like me, and have some tips to share, let me know. I am happy to add content from others who have valuable insight into the business.