Writers on the Web: Casting a Web Series, Part Deux

So you’ve hired a casting director or decided to cast your web series yourself, written some killer breakdowns, made your decisions about going union or not, booked your audition space, narrowed down your selects, sent out audition times and sides, and you’re ready to rock.

Now what?

(Check out Part One of my discussion on casting if you need a refresher on any of the above.)

HOLDING CASTING SESSIONS

Casting can be just as nerve-wracking for the producers as it is for the actors.  More so, actually, because as the writer/producer, your whole project that you’ve invested blood, sweat, and tears in is on the line.  (Well, hopefully not too many tears at this point!) You’re praying that each actor walking through the door is going to be amazing so that you have several people to choose from for each role.

The actors are, of course, also nervous.  This can sometimes create an uncomfortable and tense atmosphere in the room, which can prevent actors from feeling safe enough to give their best performances.

Recently, I was called in for an audition for a pilot.  The casting office was packed to the gills and actors spilled out into the hallway. They were running behind, which is normal, but to make up time, they were having actors audition at lightning speed.  It felt like a game of “How fast can we read this actor and shove them out of the room?”  I had spent time working on the scene for two days, taken time off of work (unpaid), drove in terrible traffic, had to park far away, walked a long distance, had to wait to go through security, waited in the hallway for an hour…and was in and out of the casting room in 30 seconds.  I barely had time to sit down before the camera was on and the casting director was reading the other actors’ lines.  Then a super quick adjustment, quick taping, NEXT!  The whole thing felt impersonal and I didn’t feel I delivered my best work because I felt so rushed.

Now, I could have owned that audition more and tried to slow it down to a less rapid pace.  But I honestly didn’t feel safe enough to do so because the atmosphere was so tense.

I recommend doing your best to cultivate an upbeat, calm, and friendly atmosphere in the room for each actor, no matter how far behind schedule you’re running.  Ways you can do this include:

  1. Scheduling enough time with each actor so that you can have a little chit-chat with each one and get to know them a bit before the reading.  If you keep your initial audition sides relatively brief (1-3 pages, depending on the role), that leaves a little time to at least say hello to your actors and make them feel at ease.  I’d say five minutes per actor is good, allowing for a brief chat, a reading, and an adjustment.
  2. Have someone running the lobby who can bring actors in the room and briefly announce their name to your creative team as they enter. When I first started acting awhile back, this was common, but now this small courtesy seems to be falling by the wayside a bit.  I think it adds a nice touch to introduce each actor who comes in the room, so they feel welcome and less awkward.
  3. Smile and approach each actor with an open and relaxed demeanor.  Even if you’re tired/angry/worried /running late/frazzled/on the verge of a nervous breakdown, don’t let it show.  Make the actor feel important and comfortable in your presence.
  4. No matter how their first take went, always be reassuring and positive.  An actor may feel vulnerable after the first read, looking to you for validation. I always say something like, “Good.  Let’s have some fun and play with it a little bit” or “That was great, thank you. Let’s try it a new way with a slight adjustment.”

Nothing can inhibit an actor more than something like, “Uh, I didn’t like the way you said this line, and you shouldn’t stand over there, I didn’t like that you crossed your legs when you sat, you’re not loud enough, and I didn’t believe that you were really in love with him, so you need to do it over.” Or “Can you, like, just be better?” (Yes, both actually happened.)

It requires a lot of courage to show your work for strangers to judge.  Remember how it feels to pitch or when you’re taking critiques—you want to show compassion towards your actors in the same way you’d want to be treated if you were sharing your writing.

woman casting papersWHAT TO LOOK FOR IN YOUR ACTORS

Just as you want to be kind and courteous to your actors, you should be looking for actors who are kind and courteous to you.  This is a job interview.  Do they show up on time or do they come in late?  Did they prepare for the audition or have they clearly never bothered to look at the sides? Did they dress appropriately for the character or all wrong? Do they have a grasp of the story and tone of the piece?

Also, another reason I like to have a quick chit-chat with each actor before the audition is to get a sense of what it’d be like to have this person on set for hours, days, or weeks.  Do they seem personable, friendly? Or are they closed off, or rude?  (I cast a short film once and called in an actress that I was really excited about from her demo reel.  The first thing she did upon entering the room was wave around the sides and say, “What is this? I don’t get any of this script.” Needless to say, she did NOT get a callback.  After the audition, she also subscribed my personal email address to her monthly promotional newsletter, which I quickly unsubscribed from. A double-whammy of bad impressions.)

Look for actors who are excited about your project.  If it comes down to deciding between two actors, and one’s a slightly better actor than the other but is standoffish and difficult, and the other is not quite as good but is enthusiastic about the project and pleasant, the choice is easy.  Always go with enthusiastic and pleasant.

Lastly, it seems obvious, but make sure each of your actors is available for the shoot!  If they have a day job, ask if they can get the time off to shoot in advance.  Ask about their availability for table reads and rehearsals if you’re having them (this is on you to have these scheduled in advance so you know what to tell the actors.) There’s no point casting someone who isn’t going to be available when you need them.

A SPECIAL NOTE ABOUT NEW MEDIA

Something else you may want to consider when casting is your potential actors’ “digital footprint.”  Just as if you were casting for a studio feature, you would want to cast actors who can draw an audience, you want to do the same in new media.  The goal is to get eyeballs on your content in terms of views.  If you cast actors that already have a fan base online, you can find yourself with a built-in audience upon launching your series.

After your auditions, look up each actor you’ve downselected and take a look at their online presence.  Have they appeared in other web series (particularly recognizable or award-winning ones?)  Have they themselves been awarded or nominated for awards? Are they on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Pinterest?  How many friends and followers do they have? Do they share and Tweet often?

It may seem awkward at first, but it’s important to ask actors during casting:

  •  How often do you use social media?
  • If you’re cast, would you feel comfortable sharing about our series to your network online?

And especially if you want to do a crowdfunding campaign:

  • If cast, would you feel comfortable sharing about our crowdfunding campaign online to your social networks?

If you don’t feel comfortable asking in person, you can always have them fill out a little information sheet that they hand you along with their headshot upon entering the room.  (That’s the other thing. Make sure they hand you a headshot. Every actor worth their salt knows they should show up with a picture and resume to an audition. It’s silly not to.)

Back on point–I’m not saying that you shouldn’t cast the best actor for a role just because they don’t have a huge online presence.  Sometimes it’s obvious who the best choice is, and you should go with your gut.  However, since you really need a team of enthusiastic people to help you get the word out, I feel it is an important consideration for new media projects to have the most talented and social media-connected group around you that you can gather.

cast photoCALLBACKS

Let’s say your initial auditions have gone swimmingly and you have several actors you’d like to call back.  Here’s where things get more interesting.

For callbacks, you want to have your actors read longer, meatier scenes.  The emotional scenes with range.  I highly recommend asking the actors to come memorized to callbacks.  I always send out my callback sides several days to a week in advance.

This is why: if you’ve given actors say, five days advance notice about the callback (which is WAY more time than they would usually be given if auditioning for a TV show, and more than enough time to memorize), and they still show up at the audition unprepared, they’ve told you everything you need to know.  You gave them ample time to show up memorized and they didn’t. There’s no point in casting an actor that isn’t going to follow your direction.  It’s just like dating—you need a way to weed out people quickly to get down to those who care and are willing to put forth effort.

Another reason to have the actors memorized at callbacks is so you can easily do chemistry reads with the other actors.  It’s hard to pair actors up and evaluate their chemistry with each other if they have their faces buried in the sides.  I always encourage actors to hold the script in case they forget a line, but to be as off-book as they can be.

After callbacks comes the fun part—choosing your cast! Upon offering the role to each actor, I always reiterate the shoot dates by phone and email and confirm they are still available for any table reads or rehearsals.  Actors’ schedules change in an instant with bookings, callbacks, and auditions, so you need to stay on top of it.

Now that you’ve got your cast in place, you’re ready to move to the next step.  If you’re funded, you’ll be moving further into pre-production.  If you’re not funded, you’ll now be able to move forward with a more solid support system for crowdfunding. Congratulations!

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