x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Sell yourself on the delusion that nobody else matters

The film industry's casting methods is nothing short of institutionalised humiliation.

For something that everyone in show business eventually has to deal with, you'd think we'd have come up with a better way to choose which actors should be hired for which roles.

The moment a script is written, either for a television show or for a feature film in production, the casting director scans the pages, lists the roles to be cast, and attaches to each name a short description. This is all posted on a password-protected website called, with unintentional psychological accuracy, "The Breakdown". Any talent agent in town who is not now, nor has ever been, under investigation for fraud (and believe me, that cuts a lot of them out) has access, and they scan their client list for some appropriate actors to fill those roles.

You have to marvel at the cruel efficiency in the system. By simply adding in a character - say, someone called "Sad Plumber" - wheels are set in motion to deliver to you, in a few hours, multiple human versions of whatever was described on paper. That's the thing about Los Angeles: it collects types of all shapes and sizes, both the beautiful and the ugly, because you never know what the writers are going to need. (Although to be honest, the beautiful people tend to work more.)

Describe a character as young, male, originally from Texas, and the next day your office waiting area is filled with young actors in identical jeans, boots and patterned cowboy shirts with snaps. Describe a female character as "brainy" and every single actress you see will come in wearing glasses and some kind of serious smelling cologne. They'll smile at you when you walk by with a single-minded determination to sell. Sell yourself, is what they hear in acting classes and audition workshops. Sell.

Once, years ago, during a late-night rewrite for a show set in a bar on St Patrick's Day, we wrote in a character dressed as a leprechaun.

The next morning it was impossible to get to my office without stepping on the tiny, delicate feet of dozens of surly midgets, all of whom apparently had a lot of history with each other.

That's to be expected. It's sort of institutionalised humiliation for the actors - you come in to read a few snippets of dialogue for a couch full of writers and producers, who pretend to listen and force a few laughs just to make this awkward, painful encounter slightly less unbearable.

But of course all of that false friendliness just underscores how creepy and weird the whole encounter is. The actors have to pretend that sitting out in the waiting area with a dozen or so other actors is bearable. They each file into the room to read for the producers, who by this time have heard the material a hundred times, who by this time hate the material, who by this time just don't have the energy left for even a friendly exchange.

In an effort to soften the edges of the process, many actors will saunter into the audition oozing a kind of charming friendliness. They'll make weather-related small talk (which, in a town with 350 days of sunshine a year, is very small indeed) or ask how everyone's doing, or ask a series of friendly questions about the script or the character - anything, really, to make the humiliation of waiting in a vestibule with 47 versions of yourself less crushing.

But because the people they're trying to connect with are writers, and writers become writers because in general they're bad at this kind of friendly, easy-going exchange, this isn't a great strategy. So you have a classic doomed relationship - one party is trying to be warm and engaging; the other is shrinking into the sofa.

Which makes the first party try harder, which makes the second shrink deeper. Nobody's happy, so by the time the actor actually gets around to reading the audition material, both groups are so exhausted that no one really pays attention.

"This is a pretty good metaphor for life," a friend of mine who is not in the entertainment industry said, when I explained the casting process to him.

"Because we're all auditioning, in some way or another, for everything?" I asked.

"No," he said. "Because the people who succeed are the ones who just don't notice the crowded waiting room, or the sofa full of stone-faced writers, or terrible odds in general. The people who succeed just don't get rattled."

"But they're delusional," I said. "Because there is a crowded waiting room, and we are sitting expressionless on the sofa, and the odds are truly astronomical. Getting rattled is the rational, healthy response."

"Who said successful people are rational or healthy?" he asked.

I'm still working on a reply to that.

 

Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood