CLOSE SHOTS: Anecdotes and Misadventures at Auditions
by Michele Deradune
"Everyone has the right to make an ass out of themselves. You can't let the
world judge you too much." -- Ruth Gordon in Harold and Maude
Getting lots of training in film acting is a good, good thing - no doubt. Yet no matter how many classes I take, it seems that nothing can really prepare me for something that appears to be in abundance in the world of auditioning and acting for film: mishaps that happen at the very moment we are "on" (or supposed to be!). At the time that they happen they often seem wildly maddening and even traumatic, yet looking back I find most of my own such experiences to be quite amusing. When it comes down to it, we all actors just have to be and do our truthful best, and let the chips fall where they may - and with any luck, a few will fall into some scrummy guacamole or salsa. [Scrummy is European English for yummy donchano?] Hey, and with effort, training and (hopefully) some talent, they do!
But don't get ready to read my Cinderella story - not yet anyway! However I thought I would share some of the misadventures I have had that in retrospect rarely fail to give me a laugh, grin, soft chuckle or bemused moan.
Okay, okay, I know you probably want to hear a "bemused moan" story first, right? Since it's pretty recent I'll start with one of those. True story, and-for better or worse-(okay, okay, worse) it happened to me. I got notice that I had an audition for a Big Studio film to be shot in Austin. When I got my sides (the portion of a script an actor memorizes for his or her audition, usually just a few pages at most), I learned that I was to audition for the part of a "fire and brimstone" judge who is "ranting and raving." Auditions have a way of tripping us up in ways we never thought about. This time is was because there were no lines written for this judge to rant and rave. There was a picture on the storyboard of the judge with gavel in hand and arms raised, (ranting for sure), and that was it. I was also able to discern just what I (the judge) was ranting and raving to and about: a young man I am sentencing to be executed.
I wondered whether I should write lines for the audition and figured I probably should, but got writer's block, or something opposite actually - that is, I thought of so many lines that could so in so many directions, that I was paralyzed with indecision as to just what lines to go with. In the end, I didn't really memorize anything. The day of the audition came and I donned my judge's robe (which was actually a choir robe) and carried in my 3-lb. rubber mallet, which I normally use for opening young coconuts, to the casting director's office. It was my gavel. My plan for the audition was pretty simple: I would sit in the waiting room 20 minutes or so ahead of time and get in character, readying myself to rant and rave, gavel flinging in the air, with hellfire and damnation seething in my veins. Sound like a good plan? Well, maybe not...
When I was called in to the audition room and the casting director saw my "gavel," she quickly rolled a portable file cabinet, covered with a tall stack of papers, to my side and told me to hit the gavel there on those papers, "but just don't hit it too hard." In fact, she mentioned it twice - not to hit it too hard. How could she know the state I was in? I was full of fire and damnation, heavy and passionate at heart, and, as she rolled the camera and said, "Go ahead," I looked over to the Reader (the other person that is - hopefully - there to read the other part when you read your sides at an audition). Must be the Meisner I picked up in my couple months of classes in that technique. I had come to expect the Reader to be there and to be giving me eye contact - something for me to respond to and bounce off of, as if s/he were the actual person I was sentencing to death and hated with all my guts. I looked over, and the Reader (who really is a great Reader normally) was not even looking at me. Not only that, he was most definitely busy looking at something else - a magazine or script, I know not. Underestimating the importance of his role, I'll bet he thought that as a Reader he was not required to be "present" since there were no words for him to read me. (I finally figured that part out later, haha.)
My heart stopped for a minute. He had to look at me! Suddenly I wasn't anywhere, because my (his) eyes were not there. Remember how I already got into character? Well, I felt a bit tripped up, but I was definitely in character - strong, heavy, angry and adamant. Before I could stop myself, or even think of stopping myself, I decided to pound down that gavel - as a judge would - to get his attention and make him look at me! Well, he did look at me - or my hand - for just a second, but the next thing I heard was the casting director reminding me that she told me not to hit the gavel down too hard. She had. She had told me that. Quickly we discovered that I had broken the plastic top of the file cabinet! She was very nice about it and insisted I didn't need to pay for it, but let's just say that at this point it was impossible to feel the audition was going well.
Next I was told not to rant and rave, but just hit the gavel, lightly, and just bring order to the court. Oh my. All my being was enmeshed with fire and brimstone, hell and damnation, I just broke the casting director's file cabinet, and now I'm not to rant and rave at all. Did I hit the gavel lightly on the second take? Sorry, guys. For me, it just wasn't possible. With nothing but my way heavy gavel to communicate with, it was a bust. Pardon the pun. On the second take I looked over at the Reader, and he was still reading something. I wanted a pair of eyes to bounce off of, so I just looked at the Casting Director instead, who was standing near the camera and taping, but I was unnerved. Looking back, I ask myself, "What could I have done better in this situation? Why didn't I simply speak out to the Reader and ask him to please look at me?" Well, folks, that is what I will do next time. When I need something, I will ask. Pretty simple!
Here's another one. I had read the entire script for one audition and just loved the part the director was having me read for. It was for a streetwise but really quirky and interesting character with an amusing way of answering the phone that I just adored. Knowing I would be reading for that role, I could not keep myself from answering my own home and office phone the same way for a couple weeks before the audition. Oh man, that was so fun! It cracked me up sometimes the way people responded when I answered the phone (which I did with an attitude rather like a tough gal or moll). What made me laugh the hardest was when people just hung up on me, afraid to said anything to a dame in that kind of mood. I guess they figured I had PMS that day, haha. One of my oldest and dearest friends responded first with a long train of laughter. When I recognized his laugh I responded in my more usual cheerful voice, "Hi Frank!" but he followed with, "I can call you at another time if you like." Oh God, it was fun!
On top of that, in the name of the film was a food that I could not remember its taste. I knew that it was hot. Well, I was enjoying this role so damn much that I decided to go out and buy me some of this particular food. First I bought just one can. Loved 'em! Had to go back to the store for more. For several weeks I ate a can a day.
Got to the audition and got into a "new" situation. The camera filming my audition was to my left, and the director had decided to have me audition with another person, who was to my right. Like I said before, I have a strong "thing" about working off the energy in another person's eyes. Any energy, any eyes - but I count on having those eyes when I'm to deliver lines to another human being. Thus began my inner turmoil. What to do? My earliest film training taught me to speak to the fourth wall - an imaginary wall an actor faces through which the audience can see the actor's performance, and, in film, especially his or her eyes. If I played my fourth wall, I could not look at my co-actor's eyes - but if I looked at my co-actor's eyes, the fourth wall would see nothing but my profile at best. Another option would be to alternate between looking into the eyes of my co-actor and playing to my fourth wall. Yet for that I felt unprepared and more than awkward. What did I do? Well, I really can't tell you. My sense of befuddlement was so great that I have blocked it out. I really wanted to be that person, that role; I did not want to have to be trying to figure out something like an unsolvable math problem. Like many actors, when I am preparing for an audition I "see" the Reader sitting off to the side of the camera - so that the eyes I am looking at are already at my fourth wall. I asked JO EDNA BOLDIN about what to do in just such a situation when she spoke at a recent AustinActors.net meeting. She advised that, when in doubt, stick with the eye contact. I thank her for that, should I ever end up in a similar situation - though hopefully that will be rare. In fact, I am told that SAG rules do not allow casting directors to audition actors in pairs; that they must be allowed to audition one at a time. Phew!
Oh, and I got the part! But only in my heart. Someone else was cast in that role. I quit answering the phone with the script's quirky line, and I stopped eating my favorite new flavor, which will now and always remind me of "the one that got away." The broken heart we actors get from falling in love with a role and then not being cast in it is something that I haven't found a humorous angle too yet, but I love acting, and am reminded of the line of a song: "If it makes you happy, it can't be that bad. If it makes you happy, then why the hell are you so sad?" And yes. It does. Acting, and even auditioning, makes me happy. Call me crazy, but that's the actor's bane. Those of us who are not, or are not yet, on the Hollywood "A List," experience many more disappointments than triumphs when it comes to auditioning and getting to act in those juicy roles. Somehow, we find those fewer triumphs well worth the bits of our hearts that get torn out with the loss of each "loved one."
Okay. Here's another funny one. In my role as the cheating wife of a small town Texas judge in SNAKE TALES (1999), the script said I was to bend over to get cookies out of the oven and my husband was to "pat me on the butt" as he delivered a line. The first time he and I rehearsed that scene before the director, my screen husband didn't touch me. When we finished the scene I turned to him and said, "Aren't you going to pat my behind?" and he looked embarrassed and flustered. It felt really funny saying that to someone I barely knew, and always makes me grin when I remember it.
Then there are other memories, fun and/or funny, I just can't describe. You had to be there. Like the time the entire audition was to do the "Funky Chicken" to rap music. Or the time I did a voice audition as a cartoon Armadillo. The first role I ever got, in a school play, was that of Yankie Doodle Dandy. The other lead was shorter than me, so I had to be the boy. (By the way, I think it looks really sexy when a shorter man is with a taller woman. What's the problem?!)
Did anyone else see OPRAH WINFREY's story on the Biography Channel? The first time she was asked to host a talk show, she balked. In fact, she began to cry. She wanted, she said, to be a TV news reporter, not a talk show host. Wow. And look at her now. Soon after she began hosting talk shows she took to it like a fish to water, and now she is something like the most successful woman in television and loving it. Isn't that cool? We should always remember that sometimes our disappointments really are blessings in disguise. (For instance, if I had gotten that one role I mentioned then I never would have gotten the starring role opposite GERARD DEPARDIEU in his next English-speaking film. Nah, just kidding, haha.) Hey, but starring with Gerard IS on my list!
One of my favorite auditioning stories happened right here in Austin some years ago. I have it from an impeccable source. An actor came here from LA and got an audition. When the camera started rolling, the Reader was not looking at him, as if he (the actor) did not even exist. So the actor from LA decided to get the Reader's attention. He unzipped his fly and pulled it out. (Really, true story!) He was auditioning for the "bad guy." And guess what? He got the part! Not for the bad guy though. He got the part for the "good guy." True story! Well, folks, one never knows what to expect at an audition, except one thing: Expect the unexpected. And that includes you too, Dear Readers. <Grin>
I'd like end this month's column with a note of CONGRATULATIONS to all those involved in the production of TOM'S WIFE, an independent film shot here in Austin (using mostly Austin actors) and written and directed by ALANA CASH, which was awarded the SILVER REMI AWARD at the April 2004 HOUSTON WORLDFEST (a big-deal international independent film festival many of whose past award winners have gone on to become Big Names - check out their really cool intro at www.worldfest.org). This is a prestigious award. Talented actors in the flick include MEREDITH MAY, KIT WANNEN, SHASTA LUSK, CAMERON A. CASH, MAMIE MEEK, DAVID BLACKWELL, PHILLIP AYLIFFE and more. Here's toasting y'all - can't wait to see it! When will be the Austin Premiere?
Some exciting things are happening this year. Stay tuned.
Michele Deradune is a film actress and voice talent represented by CIAO! TALENTS out of Georgetown, Texas (just outside of Austin). Michele played the role of Mel, the cheating wife of the judge, in the low-budget movie SNAKE TALES, directed by FRANCESCA TALENTI and filmed in Austin, which was awarded "BEST INDEPENDENT FILM COMEDY" at the Gene Siskel Film Center, Summer 2001 (TV and cable rights purchased by Warner Bros. Television). It won at least 7 other awards around the world (Audience Award, Best Screenplay, Best Music and others) and was honored at an International Film Festival that same year in Bollywood (Bombay, the Hollywood of India), by being one of only four U.S. films selected for screening at the festival, sharing the marquee with such heavyweight hits as CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON, CHICKEN RUN and a CLINT EASTWOOD flick. You can check out Michele's video and voice demos online by following links from her website: www.Deradune.com.