Fear and Loathing at Auditions

Fear and Loathing at Auditions: Surviving and Thriving When You’re on the Spot

“Anything that gets your blood racing is probably worth doing.”  – Hunter S. Thompson

Do you guys ever have that dream where you’re pushed out onto a stage or in front of a camera, given assurances that everything will be fine, ‘don’t worry, it’s all good,’ but then once everyone’s looking at you, you have NO IDEA what your lines are? Or even what play or film you’re in?

That, in a nutshell, is The Fear. 

When author Hunter S. Thompson talked about The Fear, he was referencing a state induced by ingesting illegal substances, sleep deprivation and paranoia as a result of many recent illegal activities. The person is then seized by an almost paralyzing panic that instantly freezes the brain’s ability to process and triggers the fight or flight instinct. 

Although for us actors The Fear isn’t brought on by substance abuse – good lord, let’s hope you’re not trying to act while you’re under the influence – the moment can be remarkably similar. If you’ve ever gone up while in the middle of a stage performance or frozen in the audition room, you know The Fear. 

And for a lot of actors, it can be especially debilitating when it comes to auditioning. I meet so many gifted actors who are amazing when they’re in class or in a show, but they just Can. Not. Audition. They can’t overcome their nerves enough to let their talents shine through for the casting team to see, and thus they have a hard time getting cast. So here are a few tips and thoughts on overcoming The Fear. While not every one of these will work for everybody, here’s hoping you can use some to help you out next time you audition!

1. Breathe

There’s not an actor alive with even minimal experience who is unaware of the importance of breathing. However, it’s amazing how many people go into the audition room gulping down little shallow breaths that never penetrate to the bottom of their lungs. This screws you up in a few ways: 

    • your body holds onto that tension you’re feeling instead of being released on the exhale
    • your brain isn’t getting enough oxygen so you have more trouble thinking clearly (‘line!’)
    • your voice tightens up and you don’t sound like you naturally would.

The result of all this, as you can imagine, is a less-than-ideal audition. So one first step every time you audition is to find a corner where you can close your eyes and take some deep breaths. Moving around helps too if you’re able, even just pacing or hopping from one foot to the other. Better yet, carve out a few extra minutes before you even go to the audition to do a few push-ups or jump rope a bit. Bonus points if you can make time to go for a short run. Any physical activity not only cracks your breathing loose from that tight-chested tension you’re trying to avoid, it also releases endorphins and helps you to relax. 

2. Prepare

The better you know how to so something, the more relaxed and the less fearful you are about doing it.  So, know what you’re doing before you walk in to the room to put your guts on the line for the casting director. Yeah, of course there are times when you get your sides late the night before and you don’t have a ton of time to learn them cold. But ask yourself this: the last time you had a really fumbling, awkward, “I just forgot everything” audition, did you REALLY put in all the time you could have working on the piece? Now, no CD in their right mind expects us to be off-book cold for a ten-page scene if we just got the sides hours before. But if you want to do this acting thing, you should be prepared to take every moment you have to really lean into the piece to the point where you not only know the character you’re playing, you know the scene. That way, if you do flub a line or have to refer to the sides (which is generally okay!) you should be able to stay in the moment and improvise something that fits with the rest of the piece in order to get you on to the next beat. The worst thing for CDs is an actor who just stops when things get crunchy with their lines and says, “Sorry, can I start over?” Sorry, but 99 times out of 100 you’re immediately taken out of the running at that point. Prepare yourself to the point where you can at least wing it and stay in the scene if things go south. A second part of preparation, and thus part of helping yourself to be relaxed enough to avoid The Fear is to prepare some clear choices. You should have your own ideas about this character, not just be going by rote off the breakdown. Here’s a dirty little secret most CDs won’t tell you: the majority of character breakdowns are written by CDs or their assistants – and they may very well have no damn clue as to what this character should be. Make up your own mind how you’re going to play it, make some bold and distinct choices, and roll in with your head held high. I promise that you’ll get more callbacks and castings if you do it that way rather than meekly playing the paper-thin character description you received, in the safest, most “correct” way possible.

3. Psych 

I’ve got a few things under this heading and “psych yourself up” is certainly one of them, but it’s likely the least useful. 

  • But do remember this: you’re doing this whole acting thing presumably because you love it. Acting is acting, and as actors we all know we have a bloody metric f**k-ton of fun doing it. As Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul’s Bob Odenkirk says, “An audition is a chance to act that day.” What more can you ask for than a chance to show off these skills and talents you love so much? Play! Enjoy it! Life is short – have fun!
  • I don’t remember where I picked this up, but I love it for auditions, especially for newer actors. A big thing that gets in the way of letting yourself really shine when you audition is your mind is on what you might get if you get cast – or what you might miss out on should you not. How may auditions have we collectively screwed up because we REEEEEAALLLY wanted that role for whatever reason? So this trick is to find a reason you DON’T want to get cast. It might conflict with another opportunity, it’s not your favorite role, it’s a long drive to set or the theater – whatever. This isn’t to suggest you should be negative going in, just that a momentary mental flip like this can allow you to remember that life goes on whether you get the role or not. It’s a way to take your head out of that “desperation” space that stifles your creativity. Desperate is not pretty, as they say, and that goes for actors as well as dates, haha. 
  • Remember who and what you are – and same goes for the people on the other side of that table. Any CD that isn’t a complete psychopath will tell you that they hate it when the actors come into the room groveling and shaking in their boots before the Powerful And Mighty Casting Director. Stop it. They are people too, just like you. And just like you, they are people who have a passion for all things acting. They love the work, they just happen to be coming at it from a different angle than you. Apart from the delusional power-tripping nutbars who make up .01 percent of CDs, they’re just like you and me. They don’t want to be worshiped or treated like foreign potentates you must not make eye contact with or address directly. Don’t be afraid to crack a smile or say hello or give them a little joke before you get into character. Don’t go nuts or anything, but remember that it’s tense on that side of the table too, more often than not. Their jobs are riding on this too, you know? So another psychological spin trick to get you in the right head space is to imagine that it’s not their job to make you relaxed before you begin your read – think rather about it being YOUR job to help THEM relax, so they can see just how right you are for the part! 

What we do is physical, mental/emotional and psychological, and if you aren’t in balance on all of those things, you put yourself at a disadvantage in an already tough business. So cut it out! Also check out NYCastings for all the latest auditions, and get yourself out there early and often and make it happen for yourself!


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