20 Film Audition Tips from Casting Director – Donna McKenna


YES! You read that right.

We have 20 golden nuggets of advice that will help you rock your next film audition. These 20 simple yet vital points, are brought to you by renowned Casting Director – Donna McKenna.

Donna McKenna, CSA – Is an international award winning casting director and producer for independent feature films, shorts and web series. To date she is responsible for casting over 56 projects. In 2015 she was awarded the Casting Award of Merit at the IndieFest Film Festival for casting the film Leaves of the Tree which stars Eric Roberts, Sean Young, Federico Castelluccio and Armand Assante and was filmed on location in Texas and Sicily.

#1. Make smart, real, fun choices and bring a little of your personality into it

Donna2You don’t have to go too far to make a smart choice.  For example, you don’t have to scream to be angry. You can slam your water bottle on the table, or your expression can show how angry you are. You don’t have to be big, but build the character. Especially if you only have a couple of script pages. Interpret what is going and keep the choices real. We make independent films. It’s very real. Think about every day, and incorporate that into the choices you make.

#2. Listen and react!

Reaction and listening are really important. Don’t worry about getting the words out. I can tell when an actor only cares about what is in their head. Sometimes I put a new line in the script and have the reader say it to see if the actor is listening and reacting to the crazy line I put in there. I think being in the moment is very smart.

#3. Come in and have fun

Show us that you want to be there. Have an energy as you come in. I can see if you are happy. I can see the fire in your eyes. The passion.

#4. Know that Casting Directors are routing for you

I love actors, and I am cheering for you. In fact, most of the time I give the full script to an actor so they have more to work with. Especially if they are in three or more scenes. I also have the director give director notes, and that goes with the script. So if you come in and follow what has been said and give it a lot of thought, you have a great chance of winning.

#5. Research who you’re auditioning for

I always tell actors to find out who they are auditioning for. You can find anything about people online. Their interests. Then you can get a sense of the energy in the room and what we like or don’t like. It will give you a sense of what you’re coming into. It helps to take the nerves off. I’ve been getting a lot of calls lately that make me excited, where actors say they did this and it really worked.

#6. Keep nerves in check

Donna3I always say not to be nervous. Of course that’s easier to say, and even I am nervous because I want my actors to do well. I literally say prayers that every actor comes in and does well and feels confident. I want actors to be calm and know they did a good job.

And I tell actors – go out after the audition and reward yourself.  Have that ice cream, or cocktail, or cake because you deserve it. You worked hard. Don’t’ say should have, would have, could have.  Many people think they didn’t get the part, and when I cast them they’re surprised. You don’t know. So try to not be nervous.

#7. Rehearse on camera

Tape yourself before you come in for the audition. And put on the wardrobe you want to wear. Don’t wake up and throw on clothes and be unhappy with what you are wearing because I can tell. Wear your clothes and do the scene a couple of times. See what you liked, and didn’t like. It works. I’ve been getting a lot of calls that this works and it makes me happy.

#8. Be real and comfortable

It isn’t a matter of what you look like – it is a matter of how you feel. For actors it is stressful enough auditioning, so put in the work so you feel comfortable. I always tell girls to watch that your hair doesn’t hang in your face. I got to the dollar store now and get the hairbands and leave then on my desk because so many girls have their hair in their face and we can’t see them. For indie films you don’t have to be so camera ready. Be real.

#9. Dress right for the part

I put in the audition invitation what you need to wear or don’t. Like if the role calls for lingerie don’t come in lingerie, come in yoga pants. Don’t wear anything flashy. Stay true to the character. Even if it calls for flashy you can be subtle about it. And if you aren’t sure – ask. But use your common sense. If the role is for a secretary, don’t ask if you should come in business attire because of course you should. You wouldn’t come in jeans and a t shirt. Sometimes people come in and they are dressed so wrong for the role, and you may get a team member who can’t picture you beyond what they see. So go ahead and look like the role. Try and stay true to the character. Don’t come in costume, but looking the part does help. I was casting nurses for a movie and all four candidates were amazing. One came in with scrubs on and I liked that she went that extra mile.

I heard this once and really like it…

You are the artist. You hold the paint brush. I am the blank canvas. You paint me the picture.

#10. Be off book

Memorize the script. You can keep the paper with you, but be off book. Every scenario is different with casting directors. I love improv, so I want you to be off book so you’re familiar enough with the scene and will be comfortable enough to improvise.

#11.  Win over the room

I tell actors all the time – you aren’t just auditioning for that one role. I keep you in mind for future roles. Yes your goal is to get the job, but your bigger goal is to leave a lasting impression on me as to why I want to bring you back in.

#12. Be nice!

DonnaThis is a big one. I tell actors in my classes – You don’t get a job because of talent alone. I cast on 50% talent and 50% personality. Especially because I go on location a lot and I am in charge of everyone. I have to make sure I’m not bringing a crazy person on location.

I tell people – when you walk into the building, that is where the audition starts. I often have eyes all over the place because I can’t have a disruptive person on set. There was a girl when I did a SAG workshop who was in the elevator with me and she didn’t know who I was. After chatting with me, she said, “I hope they like you.” And then she said I should come sit by her. She had no idea I was teaching the workshop, she was just nice. I call her my elevator girl because she was so kind.

I also like when actors recommend others. Say you can’t do the role but know someone else who would be great. That is nice to share.

Being mean doesn’t work. I was in the bathroom at the audition hall once and I heard two girls chatting about another actor they both knew, saying, “Oh did you see that girl is out there auditioning. Let’s make a pact that if one of us gets the part, and she does as well, we will make her life miserable on set.” —Really? I knew who the girls were. I knew their voices from their reel. I am the one who called them in. And I did let them audition, but I wouldn’t cast them.

It happens with parents of kids too. A lot of times I audition the parents as well as the kids and I can’t hire a kid if their parent is problematic, even if I’m not hiring the parent because they will also be on set. It breaks my heart, I feel bad for the kids, but that’s why everyone must be kind to one another.

It is a small industry and we all know each other. On the set, your PA is going to be the director one day.

So stay true to yourself. Have integrity and be nice.

#13. Know that casting is a puzzle

Casting is putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Every part has to fit. Say I cast you as someone’s best friend, but then the other person gets a big Hollywood role. Guess what. I can’t cast you anymore because the two of you fit together. It is all part of a puzzle, and many times actors don’t realize why they get a part or don’t. So you can’t take it personally.

#14. Don’t let the reader throw you

My readers are always someone in the cast, or I call in one of my friends who don’t need to audition for me or impress me, and the reason I do this is because I want the actor to do their best. I get calls from a lot of actors who I audition saying they had fun and the reader was amazing. I want the reader to bring out the best and I call in favors to make that happen.

But when I did use readers I didn’t know well, I felt as if they were reading to impress me instead of being there for the actor. When this happens, when a reader isn’t helping you out, make them give something to you. Look into their eyes and shake their hand when you walk into the room. Make a connection. If they still don’t give you anything, imagine that they are giving you every piece you need. I know its tough out there, but it is your room.

#15. It’s okay to say NO

If there is something in a script that you don’t like – be honest about it. Don’t come in and audition and get us excited about you and then when we call to give you the role you say you didn’t like the role or didn’t relate to the character. Be honest up front. I give the entire script as often as I can so that the actor knows what they are getting into. I lay it out so there are no surprises because there is nothing worse than getting excited about someone who then doesn’t want the part.

#16.  Learn the biz

For new actors, if you haven’t been on a film set yet, Google film terminology and learn about all the terms you’ll hear on set so you know what it means. Like striking and hot set. It makes you appear more professional, and it makes the crew members happy.

#17.  Keep it professional

You don’t want to be overzealous or over friendly. I had someone follow me into the bathroom once to leave a headshot on the sink. I know actors are passionate – but when I gotta go, I gotta go. Keep it nice and professional.

#18. Submit appropriately

Make sure you follow the directions on a breakdown. Lately I have been asking actors – Please do not contact the producer or director even if you know them. I do this because I’ve been asked to place that note, but also to see if you can take direction. It’s my first sign of if you’re paying attention. If you can’t follow the breakdown and take direction, why would I want you on set?

I did a casting for Japanese actors and got a lot of blondes submitting.  The director even had Japanese interpreters in the room because she really wanted authentic Japanese people. She was matching up a family. Submitting appropriately matters.

And if it says “name only” – that means I need to be able to go up to twenty people in NYC and say your name and have them know who you are.

#19. Network

Be on NYCastings. I love this site because you can put your reel up, and so many pictures. I have cast many people on there.

And do monologue slams. I love them. I used to not like monologues but I do now. They paint a picture. I love when actors do originals too. I am a judge now at Manhattan Monologue Slam.

Networking is important. So continue with NYCastings, FiLMAGON, and the other networking groups.

#20. Stick with it!

No matter how tough it seems, hang in there. Your time will come when it is supposed to come. If this is what you really want, and you are passionate about it, the puzzle pieces will fit eventually. Sometimes it takes me a while to cast someone who has auditioned for me. It may just be that I haven’t found the right part for that actor yet.

BONUS TIP: Rock it actors.

Three cheers to Donna McKenna for these brilliant points.

In addition to casting and producing, Donna tours the globe teaching film and acting classes at many renowned schools as well as the SAG- AFTRA NYCAP program. Thru out her career she has been extremely successful casting numerous actors from her acting workshops and has been responsible in helping hundreds of new actors becoming SAG Eligible.

Donna is a proud member of the Casting Society of America, an elected board member on the Suffolk County Film Commission and a jury judge at many respectable film festivals.

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