The Importance Of Listening – On-Camera And Off!

Acting Is Listening

One of the fundamental lessons for newbie actors to learn is of course the importance of listening. Focusing fully on the other person or people in a scene with you and reacting in a genuine way to the energy as well as the words they give you on stage or on camera is the essential heart of what acting is.

And for veteran actors, casting directors, and instructors, an actor’s inability to listen is one of the biggest giveaways to let them know this person is inexperienced or has some work to do in terms of their education. The joke describing the stereotypical selfish and clueless actor reading over his script is, “My line, my line, my line…then you say some stuff, then it’s my line again…” 

But you know all this, if you are reading these pages. 

However, did you also know that not listening will also betray you as a selfish, unprofessional and clueless actor off-camera? As important as listening is to your performances, it is at least equally important when you’re trying to build your reputation and book work.

Here’s how: 

On paying attention to casting notices (listening)

If there’s one thing that drives casting directors bonkers it’s when actors show up without having read the casting notice. Guys, really, it’s only like a few lines – take two seconds to familiarize yourself with the project you’re reading for. Have some vague notion at least of the genre, type of piece (comedy or drama or both) and what kind of character you’re being asked to read for. Yes, of course the character breakdowns are often hastily thrown together by harried assistants who themselves might not have much more of a clue than you. But if you at least have read the description, and learned the sides, you can use your imagination and intelligence to form some coherent questions you can ask the casting team or director if there’s still something that’s unclear before you read. Doing so will not only give you a better read all around, it will show the decision-makers that you are more than just another pretty face, and that you are a thoughtful actor who does some research and actually thinks about what you’re doing, rather than just spewing out meaningless words. 

On honoring the details

Look, we all know you have range. But when they said they needed someone to play a fraternity guy and you show up looking clearly closer to 40 than 20, spilling out the top of a pair of skinny jeans and sporting frosted tips and crow’s feet, you’re not doing yourself or the production team any favors. And not just that – pay attention to the details of the casting notice. Even if you do have the age range and the general look, if you are missing key criteria from the character’s description, you have no business being there. If it says you must speak fluent Japanese and you think, “Well, I’m the right age and look, plus I’m a very good actor – maybe I can get away without that,” you’re wasting production’s time. There are horrific stories of actors who have tried to take this “faking it” attitude even further, resulting in hours or days lost on set as the actor struggled to ride a horse or play the guitar convincingly. Don’t be that guy. 

They listed it that way for a reason  

As you, in your enthusiasm to get out there and tackle the world and audition like crazy and book work consider the possibility of faking it, “Hey, how hard can juggling be? I’ll just go down there…” consider this: the director and producers and writer have been working on this piece for a very long time. They have been thinking about it from every angle, considering all the various characters and the story and the setting and every single bloody shot they’re going to capture for a very long time. If they asked for someone who could ACTUALLY juggle, they did so for a reason. It wasn’t a whim. If it says “fluent in Japanese,” then they damn well actually need someone who is fluent, not someone who reads manga every now and then. Yes, there are often character traits listed in breakdowns that the production team is willing to play with. Hair color, weight, height, age, even gender sometimes – but when it comes to these specific details, if you try to fake it you’re just going to embarrass yourself and you’re going to waste people’s time, and that’s not good for you either.

Throwing it against the wall

There is among some actors a sense of brazenness when it comes to auditioning, a sense that you should try to throw everything against the wall just to see what sticks, as you never know what might result. Casting directors have told me horror stories of wildly unqualified actors crashing auditions they weren’t invited to and making an ass of themselves and generally wrecking everyone’s day. Don’t be that guy, especially when it comes to these kinds of detailed casting notices, and here’s why: you may think, “Hey, this is a big, busy business. There’s a million casting offices out there and a million auditions. What’s the harm if I roll in and give it a go for this role as an aboriginal native of Australia even if I can’t play the digeridoo like the casting notice specifies? The worst that can happen is I don’t get the job, right?”

Well, if this were happening in a vacuum, perhaps. But this is actually a much smaller business than you may think. And guess what: if there’s one thing people in show business like to do more than anything it’s talk. And talk and talk and talk. You don’t want to develop a reputation for it’s being that actor who is a liar, because CDs will share those stories and you will find yourself uninvited to auditions. You don’t want to be known as the guy who swore up and down he was a skilled horseback rider, but once he showed up on set turned out to be terrified of horses and forced production to shut down for a day while a replacement could be found. That is what will REALLY stick to you and will follow your reputation around. 

On the other hand, DO do what they say

Conversely, if a CD or an agent asks you to record a self-tape, friggin’ DO IT! If someone invites you to a callback, friggin’ GO! It’s amazing how many actors can be so blasé about these sorts of things, especially when they spend half their lives bitching about not booking work. If someone asks to see you for a role, they’re looking for a reason to cast you. Don’t deny yourself opportunities.

Know thyself

Finally, yes, of course there is leeway when it comes to casting. There are possibilities of tweaking some things in terms of a character if the right actor comes along, even if she doesn’t necessarily fit the original character blueprint production came up with. If the notice says 25-35 and you’re pushing 40 but young-looking and the character fits your style, go for it. But use your common sense. And really pay attention to every word in the casting notice. You only need to piss off a CD one time to damage your reputation. That’s not to say that CDs are petty creatures who are going to instantly decide against casting you because of some minor faux pas committed in the distant past. But we all know how important first impressions are. You don’t want your name to put a sour taste in their mouth before you’ve even opened your own mouth to share your amazing acting skills! 

Now get busy practicing your juggling and Japanese while riding horseback for that next big audition!     

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