Robyn and I just attended actor auditions for the upcoming San Diego 48 Hour Film Project (our seventh year!) and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. As an (ahem) actor myself the past year and a half, I have a great reverence for the audition process. So I thought it would be a sadistic kick to have other people audition for ME, just because I claim to be a filmmaker. With no money, glory nor (possibly) even parts with which to tempt these brave souls, I still couldn't resist the arbitrary authority of an auditor. For three and a half hours, I sat in judgment of 59 (!) total strangers while they made themselves vulnerable for my amusement and criticism. That kind of power--false though it may be--freaked me out. It also felt totally natural. Within a few minutes, I was calling out "Beautiful. Thanks. We'll call you!" like I'd been doing it all my life.
When we arrive at the Actors Workshop Studios, a sea of nervous-looking individuals in the hallway parts for us to enter the room. I keep wondering how I wound up on this side of the door. The room is arranged like a theater, with raked movie-style seating on one side, and a shabby-but-not-chic living room on the other, complete with couch, lamp, coffee table. In addition, a microphone hangs from the ceiling (it's off) over a blue "X" on the floor.
Robyn and I are not shy about sitting in the first row, but later it means that we can't so much as scratch our noses because limpid-eyed, please-love-me actors have their eyes trained on us all day.
I learn a few things in general. I learn that people get very jaded about auditioning, judging from the nonchalance when Duane says "Please begin by slating for us." Before this, I didn't know that means "State your name, phone number and agent contact for the camera." (There's no camera.) Most of the actors, from pre-teens to grannies, casually hand over their expensive-looking head shots and resumes in a manner suggesting a long history of same. I don't see anyone shaking or sweating. Many have the dead-eyed look of someone attempting to break into TV and film acting from total anonymity in San Diego. Meaning, they've been on dozens of auditions, and they'll go on a dozen more before they get cast. They'll keep making this choice, even though it might be like slamming their heads into a wall.
I wouldn't be so cynical except that I see my own frightening metamorphosis in that room. When the auditions begin, I swear I will make notes only on the performance. But there are so many of them, and they come so thick and fast. After about five actors have paraded through, I am reduced to a horrible shorthand next to their names: "Tall, thin, quirky." "Short, bald, older." (I can't quite bring myself to write "old.") "Tiny, perky." "Big ears, nice hair." Later, my summations grow bolder: "Vampirish." "Looks like he's in the mafia." "Silver fox." "Shaggy, in a cute way." "Sleek, booted, cat-eyes." "Blond and blowsy." And Robyn's favorite: "Skinny, belly, skunk hair." What chills me about my instant assessments is realizing how directors must do the exact same thing with me. And I can't bear to consider what I look like in three words.
What You Gonna Do In Those Shoes?
A preponderance of the young women teeter in on hoochie-mama heels. Some of them are baring a lot of flesh for 10:00 in the morning, though I don't see any cleavage, just legs, arms and bellies. A few are actually sparkly, like they're heading to a club after. The men have fewer ways to go wrong, especially since not shaving is now a style choice.
It's The Terror Of Knowing What This World Is About
I'm fascinated by the choices people have made with their material. I mean, I guess Shakespeare doesn't make sense when auditioning for a contemporary short film, but I hadn't realized so many people would be quoting movies. We get Erin Brockovich and Hitch twice each, plus Good Will Hunting, 25th Hour, Contact, Donnie Brasco, and Legally Blonde. There may have been other movies but some people, inexplicably, don't name their sources. One girl does a monologue about buying Cheerios, about which I note "sounds like she's making it up," and I turn out to be right. A few times I write "Hard to care about." It astounds me that people can't recognize when a monologue is, simply, boring.
Or totally inappropriate. The second auditioner is an attractive man, but his monologue details the gang rape and murder of a child, delivered in a cool, deadpan style that fills me with revulsion. One dude (about whom I've written "Dressed as waiter") has chosen a piece in which every second word is "f@&%." With each repetition, he advances menacingly towards our seats, spewing saliva. Under "Hair: Wet or greasy?" Robyn asks me to write "Yikes." One lovely, well-coiffed gal snaps open her phone, from which she reads Elle Woods's Harvard graduation speech from Legally Blonde, hesitating over each line. When asked about her interesting choice, she tells us with no embarrassment that she just found it out in the hall. One teenage boy recites Queen's "Under Pressure" like it's a sonnet, while I feverishly pray for him to finish so I can stop wanting to poke a stick in my eye.
"We Are Defined By The Choices We Make."
One guy mimes playing basketball throughout his monologue, which he clearly can't do in real life, and it makes him forget his lines. A bunch of the girls choose monologues that build to crying, which after a while just sounds like a lot of high-pitched whining I can barely hear. I cringe when people grimace, look at the floor, stuff their hands in their pockets, fold their arms over their chest, play with their necklace, or a dozen other things I know I've been guilty of when I'm auditioning. A few people space totally and ask to start over or even go get their script, which Jeff and Duane are super-nice about. One gal says "Someday..." and then blanks, gets out a little slip of paper, turns it over and over in her hands like it holds the secrets to the universe, chokes out "Someday..." again, goes back to fondling the paper, and finally says that's all she's got. She does fine after a brief foray into the hall, and afterward my heart breaks a little when she says as she's leaving "Sorry about that--my nerves really got the better of me." You and me both, darlin. You and me both.
It's A Living
One guy refers to the star of One Million Years B.C. as "RAYkul VELCH." A guy who looks like he might offer me some cement shoes incorporates a filmmaker's ringing cell phone into his monologue: "I thought I told you not to call me here!" During a sweet-faced blond girl's monologue, I jot down: "Sounds like Arnold." (Schwarzenegger, that is.) The producers ask auditioner Randy "So, who did you play on Scrubs?" "A urologist," he smiles. "I can TOTALLY see that," I purr, for absolutely no reason. It gets a laugh.
They Take The Cake (And The Knife)
A woman with long, straight iron-gray hair storms the room. She doesn't have a monologue (though the audition notice reads "Prepare a one-and-a-half minute monologue") but says she and her son are "professional actors" with SAG cards. She hands over their head shots and announces "I can do crazy. I can do drunk. I can do homeless." The producers ask to see the son. He shuffles in and he is Giant Viking Baby Head. His name is Daeg ("rhymes with leg") and he must be about 17, but he has long, straight whitish hair and a face--will you believe it?--exactly like those cherubs in Renaissance paintings with pillow lips and puffed rose-pink cheeks. He looks like a walking Hummel figurine. He stands there sullenly with his hands in his pockets while his mother says "Daeg is only interested in very specialized roles this year. Like...mentally handicapped. Or...over-the-top gay." Daeg doesn't speak, and also has no monologue. We all stare at them while they tell us how professional they are and what they expect from us, and eventually they leave. I'm really excited to work with them.
Does He Sing And Dance...In A Loin-Cloth?
Nicola repeats the Hitch monologue we've just seen, but no matter, because I'm not really listening. He has a Russian accent, shiny black hair, dark, twinkly eyes and a killer smile. He oozes confidence and...wait, where was I? Oh, right, Nicola's audition. After he departs, Robyn and I lean over to the producers and ask if his info is available. "Oh, you like him for your movie?" Jeff asks sweetly. Who said anything about a movie? I was wondering if we could cast him in a more personal production we have in mind, perhaps as "Towel Boy." "It says he's 6'2" and 200 pounds," Jeff reads. "Yeah, he is." I say, and Robyn cracks up. The producers are tickled by our objectification and mention it repeatedly during the session.
We Can't Find His Facebook Fan Page
There must be some secret known to genuinely good actors that it's a wise move to show up last for an open call. Maybe because you can make the final impression. In any case, the last three actors rock. One older woman playing a Katrina victim, a tall, quirky guy who charms my socks off with his masterful, hilarious I Hate Hamlet monologue, and (eeeee!) Michael Zlotnik. I know, the name is not exactly mellifluous, but it doesn't matter because he is the cherry on the sundae. And the Saturday. Dear Readers, there is NOTHING that Michael Zlotnik can't do, and I say this after only five minutes in his presence. He begins with a monologue from Clifford Odets's 1937 play Golden Boy (after which I lean over to Robyn and circle this title several times) which is classy and smart. And then he nails it. I mean, we've been there for over three hours and he makes me spill my coffee. (I don't actually have coffee, but I totally would have spilled it. And where was the coffee? We were starving!) When he finishes, he asks "Would you like a comedic one?" Yes, thank you. He pulls up a chair, bows his head, and when he looks up he's Billy Crystal in Analyze This. Hilarious. Great accent. Timing like a vintage Rolex. "Want some Shakespeare?" he continues. "That and much more," I murmur. The producers--giddy with low blood sugar, no doubt--ask if he can sing and dance. He kicks the chair away and launches into a rich baritone "Don't Rain On My Parade" with a shuffle-ball-change around the room. Well, I might actually be making up that last bit, but believe me, it was impressive. I turn to Jeff and whisper "I. WANT. HIM." I may have to wrestle some other teams for his services.
We're supposed to e-mail Jeff and Duane if we like someone, and they'll release their contact information. This hasn't happened yet. Somehow it reminds me of asking boys to dance in the junior high gym at after-school mixers (yes, Virginia, they used the word "mixer" when I was in junior high) and that's not a memory I'm eager to revive. I think I'll get over myself, though, because a surprising number of these actors were impressive, and it can't hurt to put them on retainer. In the meantime, though, I've been feeling like the universe is a bit out of balance, so I've decided to go audition for something at the Old Globe. That oughta put things right again.