Auditioning + Auditioning in Mandarin04.08.11
So I just got back from an audition for a BBC show -- short scene, just a few lines. The thing that was a little different for me was all the dialogue was in Mandarin and I typically don't audition for those types of roles. The main reason is because I'm not fluent in Mandarin. I will say that I used to study Mandarin (I had a tutor for a couple of years) and actually achieved some degree of fluency -- at my height, I probably could talk to someone who I was familiar with (e.g. my Mom) for like 45 minutes or an hour. My vocabulary was limited, but workable. My Mandarin now is pretty rusty.
Anyway, so I got an email from my manager yesterday afternoon that I have an audition this morning and can I go? (And yes -- that's literally the turnaround time -- the next day. I sometimes get a day or two -- but lately it's been the next day which is pretty tough if you're traveling or whatever else.) I get the sides and they're in Mandarin (just pinyin, not the actual characters.) By the way, this blog post is going to be about my process for prepping for auditions which may be incredibly boring so if that's the case, well, I'll just forewarn you and you can decide whether or not to keep reading :)
I email two people -- my friend Ana to help me to understand what it is I'm saying (she's fluent in Mandarin) and my friend Kate to help me prep for the audition. (I typically either use Milton -- my acting coach of many years, or Kate -- a director friend of mine who I trust very much -- to help me prep.)
So start off with Ana and she covers off her best guess as to what it means. (she doesn't know for sure because it's in pinyin without the accent marks -- so she's making her best guess.) By the way, I used to like to try and memorize the text early -- figuring if I memorize it, then I'll be able to layer stuff on top of that more easily, etc. I think this is actually wrong. I'm reminded of a story that Tony Gilroy tells on the director's commentary of "Michael Clayton". In the early scene where Michael Clayton goes to the rich guy's house in Westchester, the rich guy (Dennis O'Hare) -- has a pretty high strung, emotional scene. Tony Gilroy did a lot of takes apparently -- maybe 25-30. On the commentary, he said that he told Dennis that he may want to save something because of how many takes he was doing (and presumably he would save a little when the camera wasn't on him.) Dennis said that he couldn't do that -- he had to do it full out each time. I'm of that opinion now. I think it's a lot muscle memory and, well, I'm a believer in doing it full out. I think doing it half-speed hoping to memorize it just ingrains bad habits. That being said, doing it full out requires a lot of energy so I have to really be smart about how I practice. I have to take breaks if I'm tired, stagger when I'm practicing, etc. (e.g. don't go 2 hours straight; work 15-20 minutes; do something else; come back)
Anyway - then I meet up with Kate (this is all over Skype by the way.) So I have a tiny amount of back story from the sides and the pronunciation of the words. Then it's figuring out as much around the text as possible. There are whole books devoted to this so I won't go into all the details -- but I think it's largely figuring out what to do beat to beat. I will say that this is not what I do well. That's one of the reasons why I go to someone like Kate or Milton. I feel like it's a reasonable thing to say that I can execute what they tell me (not always on the first try, but I get there with some speed) -- but that actual creation, I'm definitely not as facile with. I think it's also harder when you're trying to create that character / scene for yourself as opposed to for someone else.
It's thought to thought. "I feel ashamed." "I'm lucky to be alive." etc. So I'm taking the Chinese, layering on top what I'm conveying / meaning, layering on top some physical action / beats that Kate suggested -- and good to go, right? Well, I think it is slightly non-trivial to execute on it. Just a lot of moving parts. It also takes me a lot of effort just to memorize dialogue. It's not bad for me if I'm memorizing actual dialogue -- back and forth with another actor. I think there's something about that back and forth that helps me -- and also it's easier for me to react off of another actor rather than try and build something solo. She's also adjusting me on each read through telling me what's working, what's not -- which takes are good etc. It's usually you hit a take and she's like, "That's it." -- and then trying to do that with some consistency.
By the way, we had to start late because obviously other people have schedules too :) -- but now it's probably 1130pm, I'm kind of tired, and I'm weighing how much to keep working versus going to sleep. So what I decide is to work until I feel reasonable about it, go to sleep, and then work it 2 more sessions in the morning. I had a morning meeting with a startup so I worked it before I went to that and then after it when I was in the parking lot. I think doing it in lots of different situations just helps build that memory.
Ok - so the actual audition room. Very efficient office (it's a great TV office actually) -- just one other actor when I get there, they move very quickly etc. Audition rooms are always a little tricky because I generally like to focus on my material and not socialize. I used to like to socialize because I was so nervous so that helped me calm down. Fortunately, I don't really get too nervous (just a little higher energy) so I like to try and mentally get to the right place. I'm also reviewing my material to hopefully hit the things that I'm supposed to hit.
I get called in and the casting director makes a little chit-chat about my white shoes and otherwise we get into it. Steve Martin in his book, "Born Standing Up" -- has a great passage about the first time he went on the Tonight Show. I'm not comparing myself to Steve Martin or my audition to the Tonight Show -- but it just resonated with me. I remember going in. I remember talking to them. [something happens] I remember leaving. I remember going to my car. It's a borderline alien abduction sequence. It used to be completely like this. Now, it's a little less so -- but definitely I walk about saying, "Oh, I wish I did XYZ." -- but you do your best. I guess it's sort of like you're prepping as much as you can, you get in the room, and hoping it coalesces and that preparation (as much as you could have) speeds you through.
One note -- TV is tough. I should say auditions are tough, but that's always the case. The dynamic is also different in L.A. versus NY. I remember in NY, I would go to a casting director's workshop -- do a monologue or scene -- and actually get called in afterwards with some regularity even though I really had an almost empty resume. I got to L.A. -- and wow, these folks out here are like audition in a can. They come in, know every which way to greet the person, nail the audition, get out -- and it's like, "Wait, what happened?" One note on that though -- I've taken a ton of audition classes, hired people to coach me 1:1, etc. And I have gotten better. But there's really nothing that beats actual auditions to get better (and then reflecting on what you could've done better on your preparation and in the room.) It's a big reason I'm writing this now. I'm trying to really hone down in terms of what I like about my process, what I want to improve -- just everything soup to nuts. I hope where I'm at (or where I can get to) is that I'm good enough to be in the mix. Other folks will no doubt give a better audition -- but a lot goes into casting, including just how you look and what your vibe is. So I'm hoping I reach that threshold where I'm in that mix and then the other factors come into play.
One other note -- probably 15-20 names already auditioned when I got there so maybe 20-30 total actors for this role? Rough. At this point, I'm not getting out there 20-30x/year so it's definitely, statistically, going to be a real slog.
So that's it -- I feel like I do have some process down, I work as best as I can to prep, and I'm getting better from time to time. And the times I have gotten feedback (met the director later socially, an official casting workshop from like ABC/Disney, or even when the few offices I do know keep bringing me back) -- I mean, those are all positive signs. Hopefully one day that'll translate into a role, building my resume, more roles, more opportunities, etc.