Friday, September 30, 2011

Film Auditions - Interview

Some actors are amazing performers. Yet, either they are the most unself-confident people during auditions, or they simply approach it the wrong way, following a logic that is not so obvious.
Although 80% of the time auditioning means doing a cold reading, interviews are also very common. Interviews are usually camera recorded. The interviewer will ask you to stand on your mark, look directly in the camera, and slate (i.e. say your name and the name of your agent, if you have one); after that, there is not a single rule to know what the casting director is going to ask you. Logic seems to tell us: "You're there because you're an actor, so they'll ask you about acting". Maybe, but most probably it's not what they want to know. Or, maybe, it's not all that they want to know. Most probably they will ask you about yourself, about your life, about your hobbies and interests, about your likes and dislikes; they might ask you to tell an anecdote, or a story about yourself. We cannot predict what the casting director will ask during the interview. Yet, there are some simple rules we can follow to give the best of ourselves in a situation that might seem discouraging at first sight.

1) Whenever you're asked to talk about yourself, don't talk about being an actor. Everybody knows you're an actor, or you wouldn't be there. What the casting director wants is to know you. So, the best thing you can do is talk about yourself and link your personal experiences with your acting career. The casting director, in that moment, is extremely interested in your qualities, and you must be able to showcase them as best and as genuinely as you can. A casting director thinks it is compelling to hear about the person, not just about the actor.

2) Always have something to talk about.
Have at least three talking points that best describe yourself as a person. The casting director needs to understand who you are. To help him through, you need to be able to describe yourself. Choose three things about yourself. You like photography? Talk about that. You love Tango? Talk about that too. Why do you enjoy these activities? What do they give you? What do they mean to you?
Have a number of topics and exercise yourself in becoming fluent when describing yourself through these points.

3) Maintain eye contact with the person you're interacting with. Even if your interview is being recorded, look at the interviewer, not into the camera. After all, acting means interacting with other characters and you never look into the camera (unless specifically required to do so, that is).
Keeping eye contact with the interviewers also helps you better understand their reactions. Do they look bored? Then switch to a different point. Try to understand what they are most interested in.

4) The questions you are asked can be interpreted. There is not a wrong or right answer. The answer you give tells something important about yourself. You don't want to give the casting director "too much", though. Casting directors don't like to be confused just as they don't want choice. If it happens, they might end up saying: "You have so many qualities. I don't know where to put you."
Bottom line: know how to filter. Give the best of yourself without being "too much".

5) Show your passion when describing yourself, your interests, and your goals. Show how committed you are. Reluctance is never a good choice; you need instead to convey self-confidence - not arrogance - when you speak, even when it comes to something you have never done before.

6) Don't talk about things you wouldn't do. You might be unfortunate enough and find out later on - or you'll most probably never find out; you simply won't get the part - that one of the things you said you would never do is actually one of the things you were supposed to do in the movie.

7) If you're asked to tell a story, be smart and know what you can venture into and what you cannot. In other words, be careful: steer away from politics and shun religion! Don't be critical over categories; the casting director or the people beside him/her might belong to that category, and they might take in what you say with a different filter. And, needless to say - mind the praeteritio - if it's not wise to be critical, it's even less to be derogatory against certain categories of people.

A brief summary:
Your qualities are what you get cast on and what you base the rest of your future career as an actor on. The casting director - or whoever it is interviewing you - wants to know about yourself, about your qualities. They want to know the person before they know the actor.
Whatever they ask you, you must have something to say; what you say must reveal something about yourself.
When you are yourself, when you wear your own qualities, then it will be easier for the casting director to give you directions, or to cast you for the role that best suits you.

*Most of these tips come from my audition classes notes in New York.
**A truly enlightening read on the matter is Michael Shurtleff 's Auditions.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Eyes Have It

Take a look at actors such as Marlon Brando or Michael Caine. These are masters in the use of the eyes on camera. Actors like Jim Carrey, Hugh Grant, Mel Gibson, Henry Fonda, Robert De Niro, only to name a few, use their eyes as a powerful technical tool to deliver their characters' emotionality in subtle but powerful ways. Think of Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. Throughout the movie he is totally unable to maintain eye contact with the other characters. Or maybe it's an actual ability we're talking about? As he speaks, he will look anywhere but at the other character. His eyesight will shift from left to right in a restless way (just as restless as his character is, a restless bum trying to prove he is not a bum); he will look down as he speaks, then up, then blink, then look left; he will look down again and, suddenly and for the first time in the whole take, his eyes fix to the other character's eyes spellbinding the audience. This little trick comes from the assumption that people never look continually into each other's eyes as they talk. This is what some amateurish actors do, and the result (unless this is purposefully planned, of course) becomes a totally unrealistic way of delivering the conversation. Marlon Brando's genial skills did not simply stick to being truthful, but to adding that little thing that charmed millions of people and established him as one of the finest actors of the 20th Century and, definitely, a master in the use of the eyes on camera.
The importance of the eyes is highlighted especially in close-ups. Michael Caine created a very specific eye technique. Michael Caine never blinks (unless specifically required by the character). Blinking makes your character weaker, takes you off the pedestal and people won't listen to you. This is not, of course, a universal rule (no rules are universal); Hugh Grant made of blinking his trademark. You will never see Hugh Grant in a shot where he doesn't blink to exaggeration. Smart move for a number of reasons: he was the first to do it and, as such, everybody noticed it (and I believe that the only way to "make it" is to find an original way to be noticed); secondly, he is able to convey contradictions and idiosyncrasies by means of his blinking. Michael Caine warns actors never to shift eye focus from one eye to the other when shooting a close up. When looking at something, one eye always leads. Change leading eye and the camera will notice it. Another trick he discovered to make close-ups more effective: in close-ups, he will focus on the eye of the off-camera actor that's closer to the camera, using as his own leading eye the one that's furthest from the camera. This little gimmick enables the actor to have as much of his full face as possible in the shot.
Henry Fonda was well known for involving his characters' personas in a melancholic aura. It all starts from his eyes, which in close-ups always reflect a dim, sad gleam obtained with what he used to call "inky-dink", a tiny light the lighting guy was instructed to always keep up before his eyes in close-ups.

One crucial exercise for aspiring actors is to observe the way other actors use their eyes. It is all about acquiring awareness over this powerful tool and learn to use it in the proper way. But most important, observe people in real life situations. Observe them on the subway; observe the way a man's eyes shift from the newspaper to a beautiful woman sitting or standing right beside him. Observe the stealthy way he tries to look at her trying not to be noticed. Observe how, after a quick glance, probably at her attributes, he subtly looks around himself to see if someone noticed him looking at her, before he goes back to his newspaper. Look at how people look at themselves as they talk to each other at a restaurant. Look at how people stare in the void on the bus and how they get up ready to get off still staring in the void, until they are really forced to focus on the direction they are headed to.
As an aspiring actor myself, this is all I can do. Observe, remember, try it myself at home, and bring it to application when I'm shooting.
If actors use their eyes in the proper way, they don't need to pull faces. Pulling faces is a cheap way to let someone else know that we are feeling something. Pulling faces lacks spontaneity and it amounts to wasted energy, when everything can be obtained with simple and proper eye work. But like I said, no rule is universal: Jim Carrey is the king of pulling faces. He made it into a technique, a trademark of his own acting system, of his own persona, his brand. And, honestly, is Jim Carrey's pulling faces out of place in his movies? Arguably enough, not at all!!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011


Acting is an art that is constructed upon different details. One by one they are studied, developed, and made up. Sometimes they are the result of pure improvisation. These are usually the best ones because they spring directly from our unconscious. Then, they have to be put together, like shrunk. They are no more isolated, they must not be repeated mechanically. They must be applied to the acting, to the character. They must have originated from a feeling, and that feeling from an identification of the actor with the character. Before all this can take place, before details are applied or even thought out, they must be observed somewhere. Nature, daily life, the human psyche, these are the greatest sources an actor should take from. Observing the human nature, the human behaviours, even the simplest and less significant ones, can render our acting true. It is in fact in the simplest and less significant details that it is possible to distinguish the good actor from the approximative one. The good actor will take care of the minutest details regarding the personality of his or her character.
More generally, independently of the role and its characteristics, a character has to speak. A character has lines, and these lines make up dialogues, monologues, soliloqui. Acting includes moving as well as staying still, staying silent as well as speaking. One of the general patterns I usually notice, especially in non-talented actors, is the trend to stop moving and to interrupt an action they have been carrying on for a while when it is their turn to speak.
Let us suppose a scene requires an actress to cook. It is all happening in the kitchen; wife and husband are normally talking to each other. Often, so often the actor will break the action, he will suddenly interrupt it when the character has to speak his lines. So, the wife, who is cooking some yummy besciamelle, will stop stirring when it is her turn to speak. She will tilt up her head, look her husband in the eyes and talk with him. She will be emotional, sure, maybe she will cry, or maybe laugh, her emotions will even be genuine, maybe. But not true! This is not what happens in real life. How many times we replied to our wife, or mom, only to be told "Can you stop doing what you're doing for a second and answer properly?". Actions and words must be performed at the same time. Isolating what we are saying in such abrupt a way makes no sense. If we decide to break the action and retake it only when the line is over, there must be a reason, and a convincing one too. If there is not a reason, our portrayal of the action taking place in that kitchen will not be true. Breaking the action to add emphasis to the words seems to happen ever so often on the stage: the action is broken and the movement frozen because the character has to speak. What he/she has to say is too important to be ruined with action.
Different reasons can lead an actor to do this. Even involuntarily. One of them is that it is very difficult to perform two planned things at the same time. Moving our body, or a part of it (the hand and the arm to stir the besciamelle) following precise patterns of movement, while at the same time speaking out lines we have memorized requires an intense concentration and great coordinative abilities. Many actors are unable to achieve this because they believe that a line is much more important than a movement. So, they feel entitled to substitute the one with the other without apparent or convincing reasons. This can be done with classic dramatic characters like Hamlet, or Othello. Their words, their thoughts are sometimes of such an abstract nature - or, they are just so beautiful - that it would be just a shame not to isolate them. But it would not be possible to do the same with characters such as Stella DuBois, or Linda Loman. Do you fancy Algernon Moncrieff in Act I of The Importance of Being Earnest speaking without chewing and tasting with delight those cucumber sandwiches?
It is instead necessary to understand that performing certain small, minutely precise actions that belong to the character's daily life can be indeed a way to emphasize a word or a line. But in order to look true, blending actions and words must happen effortlessly. This can only be achieved through hours and hours of memorization (this is why memorizing one's own lines is the first, first thing to do before anything else. Memorizing the lines is the first nuisance we must get rid of). Once this is done, a good way to gain spontaneity and to learn to blend actions and words is by saying the lines (aloud) while actually doing some pieces of housework. Only once the lines flow out in the middle of the action without the need to think or to concentrate, only then can we say: "I'm ready to start taking care of the details, of the emotions, and of everything else".
Certainly, the action can be broken to isolate a line in certain cases. In the craft of acting, rules do not exist. Performers do take possession of certain conventions ruling daily life. As cinema and theatre portray aspects of daily life, then those conventions can also be applied there. Nonetheless, it is also necessary to consider that certain situations are not very conventional, and so are not certain characters, certain behaviours, and certain human reactions. So, the wife will be stirring patiently the besciamelle; in the middle of it all, her husband comes in the kitchen and says, out of the blue, "I don't love you". In this case, it would be pretty unconventional for the wife to ask, "Then why did we make love last night?" with a whining voice, and at the same time keep stirring the besciamelle without a wink. This would be the typical case where words would cut an action off for a valid reason. This is in fact a case where the performer should find a good and convincing reason to actually keep stirring the besciamelle! This is the case where who cares about the besciamelle! Who cares if it gets burned and the fire alarm goes off.
Anything and everything is possible. Unfortunately, though, without a most true and convincing reason the besciamelle, which needs to be continually stirred until it is ready, would brown and burn to no avail. And that would really be a shame.

Friday, September 9, 2011


If we look at experienced actors, we'll see how one of the secrets of camera acting is to low-key everything. If you don't, you'll most probably overact. Mind, physically low-keyed does not mean emotionally low-keyed.
Acting in a number of shorts movies, I often came to realize during filmed rehearsals how I often tended to give a single emotion (a moment of surprise, fear, or happiness) its own body or face movement. Result: I was overacting all of the time! When I say overacting, I mean either doing something unnecessary, or being "too much". So I learned to reduce, reduce, reduce, get rid of what is superfluous (sure, I decide what's necessary once I have more or less completed the work on my character), cut and make it lean, rather than fat and bombastic.
Overacting on long shots may still be acceptable, as it might still pass unnoticed. Close-ups, on the other hand, won't be that pitiful. In a close-up, the faintest movement will appear wider than it actually is; the slightest rocking of your head, which will not be seen in a long shot, will get your face partly out of frame for a fraction of a second in a close-up. Here is where I always try to clean myself of anything that might create disturbance. It happened at times I was into a scene with lines and one take was filmed in a long shot. Right after, for the following take, the setting, lighting and everything was changed to make it a close-up of me saying my lines. That's where I stop doing what I was doing in the long shot, if I realize that what I was doing might be disturbing here, or calling the attention off what I consider important in that close-up. Close-up also means: be mindful of your voice, volume and all. I learned to work in close co-operation with the sound guy (the one working with the boom).
Michael Caine has been a major source of understanding and inspiration in my gradual grasping the mechanisms of camera acting.