Monday, February 20, 2012

The Hunt - Part 2

Welcome back! Thank you for checking back in and forgive me for taking so long on this one. 

In my last blog, “The Hunt-Part 1,” I discussed my perspective on interviewing candidates for the restaurant business.  This got me thinking about my many decades on “the other side” of the interview.  I’m an actress.  I’ve been auditioning for roles in everything from commercials, to theatre, to TV and film, to live industrials, to student films, to web series…you name it….I’ve auditioned for it.  I started acting when I was a little girl.  In those days, all anyone had to do was start a sentence with, “Martha, we want you to pretend to be…..” and it was ON!  No fear, no reservations, so sense of rejection or imminent disappointment if I wasn’t doing it “right.”  It was just a fun game to play….and at that time in my life it always seemed to end well.  I often got the gig which meant I got to wear fun costumes, put on make-up and get a ton of positive attention and affirmation from strangers, friends and family alike.  It felt awesome, and I wanted more……

As I got a little older, I began to experience some rejection in the audition room.  Landing the part wasn’t as easy as it was before….the adoration of my peers and teachers was more difficult to gauge…..I started experiencing doubt in myself!  I remember auditioning for a huge show for the Disney channel when I was about 10 years old.   I knew that this was a BIG audition, as it was my third time to be called in for it!  For the first time, I began to understand what pressure meant.  My mom was nervous which, quite frankly, scared me.  As I sat in front of the green screen with a camera in my face, lights heating my hair, I distinctly remember feeling like I better not blow it.  The script was dialogue intensive, but without fail, I got through it all in the first try.  I confidently looked over to see my acting coach rolling her eyes in disbelief.  I didn’t understand why she looked so frustrated….I didn’t drop any lines, the director was smiling……and then she signaled to me from behind the camera…..I guess I rubbed my nose during the monologue.  Later she would tell me that by scratching my nose, it seemed like I wasn’t “engaged.”  My response was a simple yet quizzical, “ok.”  I would not come to understand what that meant until years later.  Oh, and unsurprised after witnessing my coaches clear disappointment, I learned I didn’t get the part.  That one left a mark, so to speak.

“Connecting,” “Engaging,” “Relating,” “Listening,” “Reacting,” are all words that are used by acting teachers everywhere when trying to advise young thespians on their craft.  Throughout years of scene study, audition technique, and cold-reading classes, I’ve learned the importance of “being in the moment.”  I’ve always been taught that in order to adequately portray a writers’ true will, one must be willing to actually BELIEVE his/her own circumstances when acting them out.  For me to do this properly, at least three things need to happen. 1) I need to “assign” certain real life experiences to the fabricated ones so that they have personal meaning to me 2) The other people in the scene need to BELIEVE too, 3) My environment needs to be one of trust and creative freedom.  The second and third ones are where I get screwed up….audition rooms are almost never comfortable, and with the clock ticking and people lining up in the waiting room, there is almost never time to express more than 90 seconds of creative freedom.  With that being said, being prepared is key.  The only things you can do to prepare are to “get off book” (ie; know your lines…and everyone else’s for that matter), and “know your beats” (understand the arc of the scene and when/where the direction changes).  Aside from those basic scene study lessons, there is not much else you can do to prepare.  There are probably close to 300 casting offices in LA alone.  Most actors are lucky to get into even half of those.  So, it’s safe to say that, fairly often, an actor is entering an unfamiliar space with unfamiliar people in order to deliver a relatively unfamiliar scene with a “reader” who is usually someone who will read the other lines with as much enthusiasm as Ben Stein in “Ferris Buellers Day Off.”  This can be both unnerving and distracting.  In a very short allotment of time, you need to get comfortable, focused and confident while delivering a freshly learned scene to a complete stranger better than you’ve ever performed it in your life…..mind you, all while “sucking in,”  “keeping your shoulders back,” and “angling to your good side.”  This is something I have yet to master!  My awareness of this fact is probably why I have had so much trouble with this process.

In recent years, booking an acting job is quite like pooping diamonds…..meaning, it’s a sheer freaking miracle!  With the transition beginning between television and internet, a sustained decrease in box office and DVD sales, and all of the other economic horror of the last 4 years, studio budgets have been slashed and movie production, overall, is down considerably.  Because of this, movie actors are being offered TV Series roles, TV stars are being offered “guest star” roles, and all of us who were doing “guest star” roles are now doing “diddly squat.”  Shit rolls downhill, right?!  So, when I get the chance to audition for a “series regular” role (ie; a contract job), I do more than prepare…..I panic!  I also tend to over-think it.  For example, last year I was called to do an audition for a contract job on a soap opera.  I was so excited!! First and foremost, in this particular field, I felt some confidence knowing that I had worked well in this medium before.  I felt this gave me leverage.  In addition, I was skipping all the pre-reads, and going directly to read for the producers (the EP, the casting director and the Network VP of daytime programming would all be in attendance).  In this particular scene, there was a passionate kiss at the beginning of the scene, however, based on my past experiences of auditioning (with a reader), I was completely caught off guard when I walked into the EP’s office and saw one of the show’s veteran cast members waiting there to read with me.   My immediate thought was, “Oh shit! Do I make out with him or not?”  It felt inappropriate at the time, given that this was not a screen test.  I’ve heard countless horror stories of actors trying to make out with casting directors during auditions, so I wasn’t sure what to make of this kind of situation…..I was a seasoned soap actress (ie; I’ve made out with plenty of hot guys), he was a soap icon, and here we were sitting in front of one of the most famous show runners in the history of daytime television.  What do I do???  Well, I ultimately skipped the kiss which, turns out, he went in straight for.  The result; a very awkward mouth-dodge that most definitely was the WRONG CHOICE…..Ugh! Idiot!  I just kept saying to myself throughout the remainder of the scene “Idiot Idiot Idiot!!! Why didn’t you kiss him?!?!?”  Needless to say, the rest of the scene was far from “engaged”!      I, of course, was met with some choice words by my manager on my way home.  “They said you didn’t kiss him, and it was weird!?!” he said dumbfounded…..I just shook my head in disgrace and called it a day.  Lesson 1: “Be in the moment!” – Do the kiss!

Steve Jobs was once quoted as saying that “There are two types of people in the world; Creators and Destroyers.”  Now, as an actor, I can confirm that we “Creators” need constant affirmation.  Therefore, getting feedback is important.  When you open yourself up to feedback though, you have to be open to it being negative while still being able to learn and grow from it.  This is where the “Destroyers” would enter while self-righteously declaring, “You’ve got to have thick skin if you want to be an actor!”   Yes, that sounds so easy….but it just isn’t.  When you decide to try to become an actor, you have to find a way to reconcile that YOU are the product you’re selling.  This means that, when people don’t like the product (ie; you) or worse, they think it (ie; you) are deficient in some way, you have to be able to take that feedback and use it to “improve the product”(ie; yourself).  This is the fine line where negative feedback can feel very personal.  For example, I once went in for this TV guest role of a woman with a secret addiction to pain killers.  Her secret was discovered by her brother whom she hated.  The actual audition scene was where she fell apart….exposing her shame and guilt and disgust with herself.  Needless to say, to me, the thought of doing this part was probably equivalent to the characters’ need for her drugs.  I WANTED this part!  I put my whole heart and soul into this scene….I hired a coach to help me work it out, and I knew without question that this particular role fell squarely into my “sweet spot.”  When I entered the audition room, both casting directors complimented my prior work at my former job, so I knew they knew me already.  At that point, I felt very comfortable.  In my opinion, I was about to audition under the very best of circumstances.  When I finished my audition, my immediate thought was, “I nailed it!”  I was elated! The look on their faces seemed to confirm that they were “stunned” by my performance.  Well, not so fast!  Less than an hour later, my manager called me with the news!  They thought I was “over the top” and “they didn’t know what happened to me since they had seen me last.”  Now, I don’t know whether it was right or wrong of my manager to tell me this in so much detail.  However, what I do know is that this particular feedback scarred me both personally and professionally.  It made me realize that, perhaps, I was not as self-aware as I had always thought I was.  Maybe, I had gotten stale.  Maybe, they didn’t like the way I looked now?  It destabilized me…..literally knocked me off my feet.  Lesson 2: “Be in the moment” – Don’t overthink it!

Now, the next thing that many actors will come up against in Hollywood is “the callback.”  Being called back to audition a second or third time can mean only one thing.  As Sally Field so proudly declared while accepting her Oscar for “Places in the Heart”, “You like me! You really like me!”  The downside to being called back is that you inevitably get your hopes up.  This has never been truer for me than it was for the 6 consecutive weeks I was called back for a network drama.  As you see on TV, there is a new episode produced for these dramas every week for nearly half the year.  I had been bugging my manager to death trying to get me in to read for this particular one, and finally they called!  I remember specifically it was for the role of the victim who was being held captive in a closet by a deranged killer, and their only form of communication was to be made through an intercom.  There were two audition scenes, and they were intense.  The scenes called for the victim to try several different manipulative tactics to persuade her killer to set her free.  Now, this particular audition room was big, and as opposed to the usual 2 or 3 people, there were no less than 15 people in the room.  Lucky for me, I prefer a larger audience… keeps it less intimate, therefore, it’s less intimidating for me.  I felt good about this one! Flash forward to my manager calling to say they loved it, but they decided to go with someone else.  Obviously, I was terribly disappointed, but by this point in the game, it wasn’t a shock, and I was just thankful they didn’t hate me.  As luck would have it, they called me again the next week.  New role, new episode.  This time, I would have to play an upscale call-girl who was ultimately revealed to be the deranged killer of that episode.  Again, I had a good audition. Again, I didn’t get the part.  This cycle went on for four more weeks.  The last of the 6 weeks, I must admit, I was a bit exhausted by the process.  It was clear that they liked my work which is the very best thing an actress can hope for (and I was incredibly grateful for that reality)!  However, it was also clear that they didn’t ever ultimately choose to cast me.  This was the first and ONLY time that I was ever disappointed by getting called back so much!  It almost sounds ridiculous as I type this, but the feeling was very real.  While, perhaps, not rational, it felt like a tease!  In week 6, the final role was for a foster mother to a 10 year old blind boy.  I told my manager that I felt silly going in for a role that was clearly going to be cast with a more mature actress.  At the arguably still ripe age of 31, I didn’t feel like this was a role I could realistically play for a network audience.  She actually agreed with me, but she encouraged me to go anyway.  I knew it was the professional thing to do, but I had been so disappointed in my lack of ability to seal the deal, that I was ultimately losing my confidence.  I decided I would go anyway.  I arrived to a waiting room full of people that were at least a decade my senior.  I felt at that moment that my instincts had been right.  I actually considered leaving so as not to embarrass myself with an audition that was clearly out of my range.  However, I decided to stay and give it my best shot!  Low and behold, THIS would be the one I would book.  I seriously could NOT believe it!  It just seemed so unreal!  I was so relieved to have finally been chosen.  I had one of the very best weeks of my life that week shooting with such an amazing cast and crew!  It was a struggle to land it, but it was so worth the wait!  Lesson 3: “Be in the moment” – and always show up! 

Much like getting called back over and over, you never know if the work you’re doing today will lead to other work years from now.  In the entertainment industry, one of our “secret handshakes” is the “5 block rule.”  This rule applies to the idea that when you are headed to an audition, you should make a special effort to be very pleasant to anyone within a 5 block radius of the audition room.  The idea is that you never know who you may meet, or share an elevator with, or who may actually be the person deciding whether or not to hire you.  Therefore, it’s a good idea to be “your best self” within earshot of your audition destination.  The same idea applies to every single second you are on tape or film.  You never know if a scene you may be shooting today will be the ultimate “audition” for something in the future.  For example, I was recently temporarily cast on a soap opera to fill in for an actress who was extremely ill.  Now, the unusual thing about this particular “casting” is that I never auditioned for this role.  I can humbly say that while this may be the norm for many, more experienced actresses, this type of thing had never happened to me.  I had never been offered a role without an audition.  While I was at work at my restaurant, my agent called me to ask if I would consider dying my hair for a role that may only last a few days.  Of course, I said yes….to me, that’s a no-brainer.  When I asked what it was for, she became vague….not wanting to get my hopes up.  I could tell something was in the works, but I wasn’t sure what.  Then she asked if I had any pictures of myself with dark hair.  Knowing I didn’t, I told her I wasn’t sure.  I needed to check and get back to her.  I quickly called my sister-in-law who I knew was a pro at digital retouching and photo-shop and asked her if she could make my current headshot have brown hair.  In a flash, it was done, and I sent it to my agent.  It was then, that she told me what it was for and that the people in charge over there had decided to just offer me the job.  I was elated!  I seriously couldn’t believe it.  I couldn’t believe that they could feel confident in me simply from an altered picture.  It was only later that I learned that they had all sat down together to watch a scene on my reel (shot 3 years prior) where my character says goodbye to her dying father at his bedside.  I vividly remember shooting that particular scene, but it never occurred to me that at that moment I would actually be auditioning for a role that I would play 3 years later.  This was one of the highlights of my entire career! I was, and still am, a bit overwhelmed by that particular casting process!  Lesson 4: “Be in the moment” – It may count later.

Lastly, as those of us in the industry know all too well, looks DO matter!  This truth isn’t always as sinister as one may initially perceive it to be.  While I’ve spoken of my “weight issues” and “age issues” and how they’ve affected my employment in the past, it is also true that sometimes booking a job can rest on something as trivial as height, eye color, or hair color.  For example, when a casting director has already cast the lead female role, and I go in to read for her “sidekick”, it would stand to reason that I should not look the same as the person playing the lead.  If she’s blonde, I should probably not be blonde.  The same is true if the male lead has been cast, and he happens to be 5’ tall…..the woman they cast opposite him will likely not be 6’ tall and tower over him….and so on and so forth.  I recently had an experience with this.  After I finished that job where I had to dye my hair brown (it had, by then, faded to red), I was called to read for the lead role on a TV movie.  I felt that the audition had gone well, but I was second guessing myself as most of the girls that were waiting to audition were blonde (as is often the case with lead female “heroine” roles).  I was secretly pining for the blonde hair I had forfeited only weeks prior.  I knew that this would likely keep me from being considered for this part.  I was shocked to learn, later that day, that they wanted me to come back….but for a different, more “character-y” role.  This was a thrilling surprise, and I was so grateful for this consideration!  It is often times that the “character actors” get the best material anyway….the one liners, the funny reactions.  I rarely get called in for those types of roles, and since the movie was a comedy, this part had a ton of funny material.  I went back in, rolled up my sleeves, and threw down as much “hyper giddiness” as the role had called for.  We all had a good laugh!  In fact, I was blushing all the way out to my car!  This particular audition tickled the little kid in me.  I knew that no matter what the outcome, I had had a great day that day!  Obviously, I was beyond excited when I learned that I got the job…..and I was informed it was in part because I was a red head.  Since this was kind of an ensemble cast, my red hair weighed in on the decision so as to give all the different actresses a clearer identity.  We all had a distinct look, and with this being my first comedic role, I really felt like I was playing a completely different character than I had become accustomed.  So, Lesson 5: “Be in the moment” – Just go with it!

So, in my many years of working to master the craft of acting, I have also had to grow to respect the audition process.  Make no mistake; these are two completely different skillsets that are only related in the fact that an actor must nail the audition to be considered for the job.  In my opinion, they are unrelated in every other way.  I’ve met hundreds of actors, like myself, that are hard-working, empathetic, relatable, and direct-able, but they simply have a hard time jumping that audition hurdle.  If you suck in the audition room, you may not necessarily suck at the role.  If you nail the audition, you may not necessarily work well on set or in a group once you have the part.  While I believe it’s an imperfect process, it IS the process.  So, I must continue to work at it, suck it up when it goes south, be grateful when all the elements come together to make it work, and try, try, and try again.  As Michael Jordan so eloquently said, “I can accept failure, everyone fails at something. But I can't accept not trying.”   

So, a final lesson from “his airness,” “Be in the moment” – Just Do It!

xo Martha


  1. Thank you for your honesty! I actually plan to forward this to an actor friend who does alot of local theater.

  2. I really enjoyed reading your blog. Very interesting to hear what you go through as an actor auditioning for roles. I enjoyed watching you on Days. Good luck in your future auditions.

  3. Great stuff! I really enjoyed reading your personal perspective from a world that I'm unfamiliar with. I can imagine that the constant "evaluation" of putting yourself out there and how you handle the "result" can be difficult.

    One thing that comes to mind is that 50 different casting directors may choose 50 different actors for the same part. It's not always up to you even if your audition was flawless.

    Break a leg in the next one!