As actors we spend a lot of time obsessing about auditions – with good reason, of course. We are in the only profession that I know of that requires workers to go to job interview after job interview for much of their career. No sooner do you get hired for one job before you’re off to your next “job interview” to try to land your next booking. Your Uncle Kevin who works in accounting never had to do that!
The good news is with all that practice, we get pretty good at it after a while. There are some great tricks and methods you eventually learn to settle your nerves and just go out there and have fun, despite the pressure. And of course everyone should work on audition technique, practicing monologues and scenes in actor’s groups, and most importantly getting involved in some on-camera audition classes to hone and perfect the finer points.
But once you’ve gotten that audition slot and are heading to your appointment, you’re pretty much on your own. And let’s say you’re a diligent actor (I know you are!) who does his or her homework, learns the sides, researches the role, and does the scene work to get familiar with who the character is and what’s happening in the scene – then lo and behold you get thrown a different scene altogether. Or you get handed an additional scene after you nail it on the one you learned previously.
ARRGGH! The dreaded cold read!
I can’t tell you how many actors I’ve heard talk about how much they hate cold readings. Granted, it’s a challenge, but cold reads are very much part of the process. More importantly, they’re not going anywhere. It’s essential to booking roles to work out a step-by-step process for dealing with cold reads. You need a road map you can follow so you won’t feel like you’re flailing every time one comes along. Here are some things to keep in mind, and a plan for being the killer you are and killing it at the cold read.
1. Everybody Knows
The first step toward changing the outcome of the cold read is changing the way we approach it mentally. The fear and panic many people experience about cold readings – just look at the crumpled, quivering sides clutched in sweaty little hands at your next cold read! – must be replaced by something more positive. The first step toward changing your mindset is to remember a simple truth: everyone in the room knows what’s going on when you get handed sides you’ve never seen before. We’re all on the same page, so to speak, heh heh… (Sorry.)
So instead of approaching the cold read with a mental outlook like, “Oh god, what if I stumble over the words, what if I lose my place, what if…what if…what if…,” instead, just remember that the people on the other side of the table in the audition room realize exactly what they’ve just asked you to do. No one’s worried that you don’t appear to know the material because of course you don’t know the material! They’re not expecting a polished final product ready to submit to the Academy for consideration. Relax, and look at this like a fun opportunity to work on your improv skills and do some acting instead. There is no possibility of failure here. Whatever you bring will be your fresh, new look at the material; the key is to make sure you are relaxed and open enough with your instrument and your technique to be brave and make some interesting choices – and have some fun for goodness sake. The fantastic Bob Odenkirk of “Better Call Saul” and “Breaking Bad” fame says he actually looks forward to auditions because an audition means he “gets a chance to act that day.” A big part of the cold read that flies under the radar of many actors is that it is as much about seeing how you react and adapt to being given unfamiliar material, working with your reader or other actors, and taking adjustments you’re given. So right off the bat, a relaxed, engaged, and excited attitude is the way to impress. Go a little meta and imagine yourself showing them the creative actor they would be bringing to the set on day one and be the professional they would like to have on set to contribute his or her unique take to the project.
2. The Material
So, we’ve cleared our minds of negativity. Now it’s time to fill up on the new material. Most professional productions are going to give you 10 to 20 minutes to familiarize yourself with new sides you’re given, or they should. The one thing you DON’T want to try to do no matter how much time you have is memorize. This isn’t a test of your memorization skills, and trying to do so under these kinds of circumstances is worse than a fool’s errand, it’s detrimental to bringing your best acting because it steals your focus away from what you should be working on. You should be given some broad guideposts by the casting director, but mainly you should rely on your analytical skills to figure out the who the character is, what they want in the scene, where and when they are, where they just came from, and their emotional relationship with other characters in the scene. Start with the bare bones of it, and build from there.
3. The Space
A good place to start constructing the scene, especially given the time constraints, is the physicality of it. As you read over the sides, ask yourself where, literally are you, and where are the other characters? Say you’re in a scene in 1940s Kansas where your character has gone back home for a funeral and you’re speaking with your brother. Would you be standing? Seated at a rickety kitchen table on a hot summer day? What about your brother? Place him in the room somewhere. Breathe in that space, and the sensation of sharing the room with this other person. Picture details of the scene: is something cooking? What color are the curtains? Are they new? Old? Does your character remember them from childhood? Take some time during your preparation period to really dig into these kinds of imagery questions and visualizing the space your character is occupying. It’s already assumed that you’ll be referring to the sides during the read, so this exercise has the added benefit of putting you in a place where you’re more likely to be able to feel your way through the conversation with the other characters involved rather than freaking out about finding your place on the page.
4. Back to the Words and More
Now focus on the text again. You should by now have a sense of where the scene is going and what your character wants from the other character. But now is the time to take another pass at the words and try to divine what’s not being said but still being delivered in the words. What’s behind the words, in other words. This is a great opportunity to highlight pivotal moments that may not have anything to do with actual words – a pause, a moment for the penny to drop on some new information, an emotional beat shift, a place where your character’s tactics shift. Be aware of these spots in the text and think about how you might approach them. Another fun exercise is to take a moment as you scan the sides is to imagine what each character is leaving out. What we choose to keep hidden is often as or more important than what we say out loud. Think about how the things your character is keeping secret inform the way they are going after their objective.
5. The Essence
Okay, so, you have a familiarity with the sides and a solid picture of where you are in time and space. You’ve also got a grip on the emotional relationships you have with the other characters in the scene, and what your objective is. Now the important thing is to enter the scene with a solid sense of the emotional truth of the moment for your character. This will give you the freedom to make eye contact with your scene partner – when they’re speaking you should be focused on them, always – and to listen and react honestly. Treat it like a rehearsal where you have the freedom to try out different approaches. Even if every word isn’t perfect, even if you stumble here and there, as long as you’ve done your homework and you stick to the emotional essence of the scene, this step-by-step approach will ensure you can give the best cold read possible!