In my last casting blog, I discussed Chaldea audition briefs. These are particular to each character we cast and include information about the character, such as the character’s backstory and motives, as well as “sides,” which are sample lines from the script for that character. Once audition briefs are completed, we begin the audition process. In this blog, I’ll discuss the process we used for casting characters for film (as opposed to that used for casting voiceover characters).
For Season One, we identified around 30 characters to audition. In addition to preparing the audition briefs, we grouped the characters into pools based on gender, ethnicity, and age, generally defined as broadly as possible. Gender options for our series were, of course, male or female; ethnic options were mostly Caucasian and Middle Eastern, but we also had a few African and Asian roles. For age, we grouped by either young adult or older adult. So, our pools were various combinations of these three tags, such as “young adult Middle Eastern females” or “older adult Caucasian males.”
Armed with this information as a guideline, our casting director grouped our characters into batches. For example, she began with the Middle Eastern characters; later, she grouped the Asian characters together, and so on.
After identifying the first batch of characters, she sent the audition briefs to various agents, beginning the formal process of auditioning for those roles. The auditions process went through the following steps.
Post-audition briefs. This is the process of getting the word out to actors about various roles being cast for a production. In our case, our casting director would send out audition briefs to talent agencies, and the agencies would forward the briefs to actors they deemed appropriate for the roles.
Video auditions. For the first round of auditions, actors submitted video auditions. They could use the audition brief and record these at home, or they could come into the casting director’s offices in Seattle or Los Angeles and have their auditions recorded there. Also, some talent agencies are set up to do this. However it happens, the video auditions would be gathered by the casting director and posted to a private website for my viewing pleasure.
Review of video auditions. After hitting a critical mass of video auditions, I would be notified that they were ready to review and provided a link to review them. I shared this link with my creative partner, Steve Conard, and sometimes with a couple other trusted colleagues, and we would compare notes about who we thought was appropriate for a role and who wasn’t. Getting a new batch of video auditions to watch was always a great way to begin a morning. Sometimes my wife would join me and, coffee in hand, we’d watch, discuss, watch again, and so on. Steve and I liked to do this both separately and independently. We would send each other our comments, but we wouldn’t read the other person’s comments until we’d sent our own. This way, we each received uninfluenced feedback. And it’s amazing how often we would agree. When we didn’t, often we’d learn an interesting observation the other one picked up on. But at the end of the day, the only decision to make was which actors to see again in person—that is, callbacks! After getting feedback from Steve, I would send an email to our casting director, listing who we wanted to see in a callback audition, and, by omission, who we didn’t.
Callback auditions. Armed with our feedback, our casting director would set up the callback auditions. For her ease (and mine), a large number of these would be grouped into a full-day experience. These were always held in her office here in Seattle or a space designed for such a purpose in L.A. (technically, in Studio City). Imagine a medium-sized room. One half of the room is a space for the actor to perform. Along the opposite wall are places for Steve and me to sit, plus a video camera with a camera operator, and a reader. The reader reads the lines in the script that don’t belong to the actor who’s auditioning. And the entire experience is recorded.
For Chaldea callback auditions, the experience went like this: first, the casting director or someone who works with her would bring an actor in and introduce him or her. I would introduce myself, welcome the actor to the audition, and very briefly introduce everyone else in the room. I would then explain that everything would be filmed, and I at last I had one question to ask them before we began. After making sure the camera was running, my opening question was “What do you find interesting about [the character he or she was auditioning for]?” This question begins the journey of connecting with the actor while providing me insight into the actor’s choices for the performance, how much the actor has thought about the character, and how excited the actor is about that character.
I would try to get through the welcome and this question quickly. Often actors are rehearsing before they come in, and I wouldn’t want to take them out of character for too long. I wanted to keep the energy high and moving right along.
So, immediately after getting a couple sentences of feedback, we would begin the audition. Simply, this is the actor performing the lines. I wouldn’t give them any information about props, blocking, other characters, or what I have in mind. At this point it isn’t about me or Chaldea; it’s about the actor. We’re in this magical window where the actor knows very little about the story, and the world if full of possibility. It’s a chance to see what the actor brings to the character without any preconceived notions or direction.
After running through the sides—that is, the portion of the script provided to the actor to use in the audition—it would be time to see how the actor responded to adjustments. The actor made a bunch of choices about this performance, and now it was time to see if the actor could adjust to me changing those choices. Good actors adjust easily and even enjoy the challenge of it. Sometimes I find it difficult to come up with a good adjustment, however, so I prepared for this ahead of time by identifying ahead of time two or three different choices an actor might make. When the actor auditions, chances are that I can tell which choice the actor made. Whichever choice it was, I then ask the actor to perform the lines again but with the other choice.
This is probably best explained by example. In the sides for the role of Balathu, an Akkadian warrior, Balathu shares a scene with another soldier, a subordinate named Ubar, who has written poetry for their commander, Sarva. When Jake Ynzunza auditioned for the role, he made a very logical choice: to play it as if Balathu was protective of Sarva and perhaps a bit jealous of Sarva’s attention to Ubar. It was a good choice, perhaps even the right choice, but it was my job to throw the actor a curveball and see if he could adjust. I asked Jake to run through the scene again but this time to act as if he were Ubar’s “wingman.” “Instead of being jealous,” I encouraged him, “act as if you are rooting for your buddy to get laid.” Jake immediately understood the difference, responded perfectly, and ultimately got the role. (It also helped that Jake is six-foot-seven and built like a warrior!)
Casting decisions. After directing all the callback auditions for a given role (which usually took at least two sessions—one in Seattle and one in L.A.), we were able in most cases to make a final decision on casting and move on. In perhaps 10% of the cases, we would need to ask for more options. In another 10% or so, we would make a decision but something would go sideways in the process of signing the actor up—for example, the part might call for nudity that the actor hadn’t noticed (or maybe was in denial about). Then we’d have to start all over to audition that role. But about 80% of the time, we’d find someone we were thrilled with, offer them the role, and get them signed.
Of course, we have several “batches” of characters going through the process at the same time, offset by various stages. By the time we were doing callback auditions for the first batch of characters, we were being sent video auditions for the second batch. Suffice it to say that once the Amey René Casting Machine started cranking into high gear, the process absorbed much of our time.
We didn’t mind, though. We were watching accomplished, talented actors bring our characters to life. And that’s a pretty darn fun way to spend a workday!
Peter D. Adkison
December 21, 2016