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CLOSE SHOTS: Musings on the Wild World of Film and Actors Who Get the Parts
by Michele Deradune
Condensing down some of my notes and integrating what I have learned over the past six or eight years from various acting classes and interviewing and reading interviews of Casting Directors, I have stumbled on some interesting statistics. How about this one:
According to those who ought to know, 50% of success as a film actor is who you know 30% is whether you look the part.
What is astounding to me is that that leaves only 20% to actual acting (or auditioning) skills. Hey, I'm just tellin' you what I've been hearing and reading. As much as this makes it look like acting skills are not a very high priority when it comes to getting a part, the fact is that training with competent acting coaches is essential for learning to act professionally. Acting classes are also one place we get to actually work on scenes without having to audition first - and since hundreds of people are often auditioned for one role, and we don't get opportunities to audition several times a day nearly five days a week like some LA actors, this makes classes even more essential for those of us in local markets such as Austin.
I love acting classes and would love to take them all the time. To me good acting classes are one of the perks of being an actor. It is also one of the best ways to work on getting that 50% - knowing people, and them knowing me on a much more intimate level than most other circumstances offer or allow. And it is in acting classes that we learn how to audition professionally. Want a juicy role? Better come off as a professional at those auditions. Looking the part and knowing people may be the most helpful percentage of how to get the part, but even actors who never audition well (such as STEVE BUSCEMI) need to know the proper etiquette for auditions. The acting world has its own rules, and it's much better to learn these rules in class rather than by screwing up big-time at auditions. The learning, networking and sheer enjoyment of good acting classes may only seem to be 20% of the formula, but they are truly essential for 99.9% of us.
Not only that - and this one really gets me - according to some top people in the business a number of the A List Actors in Tinsel Town - the biggest box office draws - are also some of the worst actors on the set! Like Ed Johnston, an LA Casting Director (whose casting credits include The Trip to Bountiful, Tin Cup, The Apostle and Secondhand Lions) told actors at a workshop he gave here, "The movie stars are the worst ones." He told us about how they often needed so much coaching on the set to "make it real," etc. Strange, isn't it? Maybe the movie stars that are not great actors on the set have charisma but not much talent. Or maybe they just never got good training.
Okay, so Mr. Household Name who can't act, what I'm asking myself is: How did he ever get the part?! And if he can't act, how in heck did he get a LEAD role? Well, let's look at those numbers again. There are some caveats I should add here: actors that are really HOT looking between the ages of 18 and 28, like movie stars, often can get a part without much talent beyond their talent to look good.
And then there's what I could call the DUSTIN HOFFMAN caveat: If you know the right people or have an agent that really believes in your talent and charisma, and is willing to go that extra mile for you, you could get the part even though you don't look the role. Once in a while an agent will send a "Ringer" to audition for a role. What a Ringer is, is someone that does not really fit the part as described in the breakdown given to the agent by the casting director - but the agent feels a certain talent in her/his agency could pull it off brilliantly and possibly better than the actors who fit preconceived notions. When casting was being done for that classic '60s film THE GRADUATE (where Mrs. Robinson, a woman in her thirties or forties - ANNE BANCROFT was actually about forty-five at the time this film was shot - seduces a young man of twenty-one). The casting director and/or director was adamant that what was needed for that role was a tall strapping jock-type with WASPish good looks. DUSTIN HOFFMAN's agent could see him in that role even though the casting director could not - and pushed for Dustin to be given a chance. Wow, Dustin was not any of those things - and as a matter of fact, he was thirty years old and the part called for a considerably younger guy. However his agent could just "feel it" that Dustin had the star quality and the talent and could really see him in that role. The doors were not open to even allow Dustin to audition for that role. His agent pushed for him to get that chance. He finally got that chance, and his agent was right. He was a brilliant choice for the part. That film made him a star. In DUSTIN HOFFMAN's case, it was 50% who he knew (his agent) and 50% talent and skill that got him that role.
Theatre is a wonderful thing for actors in many ways. HEATHER COLLIER was an agent in New York and LA before making her home in Austin. She is not an agent now but working at Austin Circle of Theaters (ACOT) and pointed out in a recent workshop that actors who cannot afford acting classes would do well to do theatre. Even if it doesn't pay it is almost like getting free acting classes. Hmmm. I thought she had a great point there. DONISE HARDY, (a Casting Director out of Castingworks LA who relocated to Austin over five years ago after casting in LA and who continues to cast in LA from time to time as well as here in Austin) attends almost every play in town. Being in plays is a great chance to be seen by Casting Directors. From what I have been able to gather, most of the top CDs whether in Austin, LA, Chicago or New York, do indeed go to a lot of plays with those free tickets hopeful actors send to them. However my advice is: Don't be in sucky plays. If it is really a loser production and in a facility your own mother would hesitate to attend that may not be the way you want Casting Directors to see you.
To me, theater acting is much easier than film acting. Much of this has to do with the fact that no camera is showing me in close up and registering the look in my eyes and every facial nuance. Theater acting close up - even the best of theater actors - looks and even sounds fake on camera. Why? Because the players are acting. Really acting (for lack of a better word) - and projecting for that back row. For theater an actor can "cloak" herself or himself inside the character being portrayed and that "other person" can simply take over. Don't get me wrong. Theater actors have to learn the command of many important skills to do their job and do it well, and theater is a wonderful thing. It is a genre unto itself and essential as an art form in my opinion specifically because it is live. However it is important that theater actors get some film acting training if they want to go for film roles as well. There is a definite switch in gears between theatre and film.
The best way I can explain film acting - as opposed the theatrical acting - it is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but I'll try. Good film acting is not acting. Theatre acting is acting. One of the Cardinal Rules in film is, "Don't get caught acting!" Yes, in film we are doing some pretending. We are portraying others who may or may not be people with whom we identify. But to be a good film actor we cannot "cloak" ourselves inside a character and project (which is acting); rather, we have to find the same or parallel feelings and attitudes within ourselves, then feel and be it - not in an exaggerated way, and not projecting to an audience in the back, but intimately - and in a way so vulnerable that we allow the camera to look inside our very souls as if the camera were not there at all (combining a sort of pretending with being real).
A theater actor may or may not get paid, but if the play is entertaining or moves the audience the actors get a big lift from the applause and cheers of the live audience. A lot of theater actors say they love the theater the most exactly for this reason. For just a few moments after every good play with a decent sized audience the performers feel a sort of high that might be compared to how movie stars must feel with all the praise and adulation they often get. It's heady stuff. There are plenty of other reasons that many actors prefer theater to film, not the least of which is a passionate love of the craft and that magic one feels in the creative process. Many theater people feel theatre acting is a superior art over and above film acting.
Speaking of styles of acting, have you ever noticed how some really big TV stars will try to become movie stars - and for a number of them it never works? Conversely, movie stars usually have no such risk taking on TV roles. If they are popular on the big screen it appears to be a given that they will be a hit on television as well. It's like they're amphibious. These are some subtle but significant differences. Some TV stars with huge followings are simply people that people want to watch on TV and just don't want to watch them to star in the movies so much. I think they simply want to see them "smaller" - on the small screen or in smaller roles on the big screen. Take Valerie Bertinelli, a TV movie queen, or Susan Lucci, the glamorous soap opera queen. They rake in the ratings on TV and are all but total flops in the big screen - as least in leading roles. WOODY HARRELSON (who has a personal website along with his significant other by the way: www.voiceyourself.com) first became well known with his character on CHEERS. He went on to star in films that were box office hits and returns to TV whenever he likes - charisma intact before, after and back again.
A lot of people say that what makes a star is a certain Presence. One is simply born with it or not. Now here's another curious one: MADONNA. She obviously has star quality and presence as a singer, dancer and celebrity. Shoot. The paparazzi practically give her the Jackie O. treatment. Some people say the reason she flops so badly in films is because she can't act, but I have another theory. I think it is like the difference between being a TV Star and a Movie Star. MADONNA has got Presence - just not Starring in Film Presence (unless it is a musical - where she did quite well for instance in EVITA).
As a budding consultant for international celebrities my advice to MADONNA is this: If you want to be star in a non-musical film that will be successful, try a made-for-TV movie. Or consider something a little different. Maybe you'll be hot in a show like SEX AND THE CITY or even could rival OPRAH on a talk show. It could happen! There are some things we can pull off and some things we cannot. It's just one of those "certain somethings" that can't seem to be either created or destroyed. Think ROBERT DOWNEY, JR. This guy must have been a literal WRECK while making some of his films, but he's always got that Movie Star Appeal no matter what. It's just the way it is.
Most my life people have been telling me I seem like a movie star. Maybe I have that certain "thing" it will take. I'll never know which kind (film, TV or other) until I get my own percentages rolling along, eh? Movies, independent films, TV movies of the week, sitcoms, talk shows? Hey, I'm game! Hey, and I can act (er, be real) too. It's tough to get any real breaks - even small speaking roles in paying jobs are not in abundance in A-Town. I can't complain though. It is a joy to feel a passion for something I love to do. I love it and I hope I'll be here to stay whether I ever get that Big Break or not. Shoot. Just being on the set makes me feel somehow like I'm home.
Hey! THANK YOU all for reading my column this month. I know a lot of you are actors just like me, and you believe in yourselves, just like me. I love ya! BREAK A LEG, guys! If you're reading this a second time - yes, I did change this article. You're not crazy. I forced myself to proof it when I noticed all the typos that were in it. I just hate proofing my own stuff because I cannot seem to do it without rewriting the article. So, well, here's a rewrite (smile).
Until next month - acting, pretending or just "being real" - take care!
Michele Deradune is a local Austin film actress represented by Liz Atherton at Ciao! Talents. Please check out Michele's video and voice demos online by following links at the top of the page at www.Deradune.com.