Make It Your Own... But Not Too Much

by Casting Director Justin Radley, CCDA

          “Didn’t you read my treatment?”

          “They hardly even used the script!”

          “Why was everyone so over-the-top?”

          “You did get the latest script I sent, didn’t you?”

          It was an ambush.  The director and producer had me on speakerphone so they could take turns firing verbal blows at me.  Very efficient. 

          Now I don’t want to give the impression that getting yelled at by clients is a regular occurrence for me.  The majority of directors and creative individuals with whom I’ve had the pleasure to work and collaborate in the roughly 15 years I have been casting have been courteous and professional.  I can think of only two occasions in that time when a client was so fired up that voices were raised.  This is one of those times.     

          Apparently the director and producer had decided to watch the casting session with the agency creative team, which is unusual for first calls but not unheard of, and the director was embarrassed that the casting session didn’t play out the way the creative team had envisioned the concept of the spot.  Not even close.  Swing and a miss.  Big time.  Of this, they were making me painfully aware.

           As the verbal lashing continued, I reached for my morning coffee and sort of zoned out, trying to recall what could’ve caused things to go so horribly, horribly wrong.  The director’s first of the many queries in his line of…  uh…  querying echoed in my head, Didn’t you read my treatment?  …my treatment…  my…  treat…  ment…  Hmmm…  I think I’m onto something.

           The director’s treatment, which was the primary tool used to convince the agency creative team he was the best guy to direct the campaign, stressed that casting was THE MOST IMPORTANT ASPECT OF NAILING THE CAMPAIGN.  It said it in various ways at least six times.  A key part of assembling the perfect cast, according to the treatment, was to find the best undiscovered improv talent out there by tapping into all of the major improv troupes in town.  He said we would find all of the undiscovered talent Lorne Michaels hasn’t yet found.  Although the task sounds daunting at first, there are so many talented comedic actors with amazing improv ability who audition for commercials that Lorne Michaels likely knows about them from commercials before they ever have the opportunity to grace the SNL stage for an audition.  (Beck Bennett, Kyle Mooney, and Kristen Wiig, among others, all used to come in for commercial auditions.)  It was the next line of the treatment that triggered the perfect storm of miscalculations resulting in my morning pummeling:  The director promised that his casting director wouldn’t bring in anyone seen in comedic commercials all the time.  Ok.  Sounds good on paper.

          And that’s exactly what we did.  We reached out to the comedy troupes and brought in a whole new crop of improvisers -- a bunch of that undiscovered talent the treatment talked about.  As the treatment instructed, we let them take the script and “make it their own,” which is another way of saying to let them improvise in the audition.  We let them do their thing.  Not only did we let them fly off the rails and completely go off script to show how skilled at improvising they were, we let them do extra takes to show how funny they could be.  At the time I thought those extra takes were comedy gold.  They had everyone in the office laughing.  It reminded me of a late night improv show I saw at Second City in Chicago many years ago.  The problem was, those extra takes had very little to do with the script at all.

          When a director says he wants a skilled improviser in a role, the majority of the time it’s to enhance the material that is already on paper, not to completely rewrite it.  The skilled improvisers we see in comedic commercials all the time know this.  It’s why they’re in commercials all the time.  They understand how to take the skills they have developed over many years on stage and translate them to an audition for a thirty second commercial.  Commercials are like mini movies.  They tell a story.  They have a beginning, middle, and end.  A director wants an actor who knows how to load that thirty seconds with as much story as possible – through character, action, and relation to the world around them in the scene. 

          Improv teacher and co-director of LATheatresports Paul Hungerford explains, “When actors hear the direction ‘make it your own,’ they often assume it means to find comedy in the material.  That can certainly be true, but what an actor also needs to keep in mind is the only way you’re going to get to that comedy objectively, is to remain true to your CORE -- Character, Objective, Relationship, and Environment.  Remain true to your CORE, and you’ll always have a point-of-view.  You should ask yourself, ‘How do I feel about what’s happening in front of me?’ Whether it’s a relationship with another person in the scene or with the product in a commercial, know how you feel about it before you walk into the audition room.  If you don’t have a clear point of view, you’re neutral, and neutral is death in a commercial audition.” 

          Aha! The auditions were funny, but they didn’t have a clear point-of-view relating to the product.  Sure, those extra funny takes can show a creative team who would be best for the behind-the-scenes internet video about making the commercial, but in order to figure out whom to cast in the primary role of a major campaign, they need to see what that actor can do with the script.  No matter how funny and talented those actors were, the agency creative team wanted to see them execute their comedic skills within the framework of the scripted campaign they had worked very hard to create.  The campaign was probably several months in the making, including tests with multiple focus groups and repeated revisions based on client feedback during the lengthy approval process.  When the creative team sat down to watch casting with the director, they couldn’t understand why the casting director basically tossed their scripts out the window to put on a comedy showcase.  They looked to the director for answers.  He, of course, didn’t have the answers, but he assured them that he would have them soon…

          “Helloo-ooo??? Are you even listening to us?” And now we return to the regularly scheduled oral assault… 

          “What am I supposed to tell the agency?!”

          “Ok, guys, this is what we’re going to do:  Tell the agency it was a case of simple miscommunication on my part, and I’ll take full responsibility for the misunderstanding.  Also, point out that there are plenty of great actors from the session who should still be considered for callbacks, and we’ll have them stick closer to the script in the callback.”  It was that easy.  Not really.  This happened about ten years ago, so with the fog of time and pride in between the actual event and me, I’d like to think that’s exactly what I said to diffuse the situation that day.  I think what I really said was along those lines but probably not as measured as it sounds here.  I mean, I was getting yelled at by a director and producer at after all.  Ultimately, they cooled down enough to talk through it so the director could report back to the agency creative team with a plan for moving forward.  We did another day of casting and stuck with the scripts, letting people “make it their own” only by adding a button or something on the front end to create a little backstory. 

          The callbacks ran smoothly, and the agency and director ended up being thrilled with the guy they booked for the campaign.  (In case you were wondering, the guy they booked came in on the first day of casting – the day that everyone thought was so horrible… He was the second guy we saw.) What did he do that made him stand out? Did he do an improv comedy showcase for them in the callback? Not at all.  He brought his own personality to the role, which took it in a direction they hadn’t imagined.  The character was written as a very high-energy, over-the-top, wacky character, but the actor had a very natural dry, laid-back delivery.  He didn’t change who he was to accommodate the script, instead he played the script with his usual delivery.  You might even say he made it his own