Monday, January 20, 2014

Book Review: Confessions of a Casting Director

Book review by Pete Roche

There’s no business like show business, particularly when you’re just starting out.  Sure, other professions (medicine, law, etc.) may require massive outlays of time and money for training and promotion before one sees any return on the investment—but that’s presuming there’s any return forthcoming. 

Becoming an actor or actress is a crapshoot.  Even if you aren’t looking to become the next Tom Hanks or Sandra Bullock, you could easily sink tens of thousands of dollars into the process with no guarantee you’ll ever make a proper living from it.  If you can’t afford drama school or voice lessons now, the cost of transforming into Olivier could land you in the poorhouse.  And if you’ve already stretched your dollar as far as it’ll go, well, acting will most certainly and irreparably break you.

Hooray for Hollywood!

Fortunately, Jen Rudin’s got some pointers for the passionate few who are willing to roll the dice and pursue their dream of acting on Broadway or gracing the silver screen.  In her new book, Confessions of a Casting Director (It! Harper Collins), Rudin draws on over twenty years of experience working in several areas of the entertainment industry to map out the road to stardom (or modest success, at the very least) for aspiring thespians.

A former child actor-turned-agent, Rudin appeared in a bologna commercial on T.V. before winning small roles on Sesame Street and ABC’S Afterschool Special.  The native New Yorker performed Shakespeare in high school and college but, like most amateurs, had to hold down regular jobs as a bank clerk, barista, and Hebrew tutor to support herself.  Dressing as Dr. Seuss’ Cat-in-the-Hat at the 1995 Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade marked both a career high and low; Rudin loved playing the iconic character but realized her acting days were numbered.  Determined to stay in the biz, she channeled her energy into casting and started representing new hopefuls, eventually starting her own business in the late ‘90s.  Since then, she’s identified principle players for big-budget Disney films (Brother Bear, The Princess and The Frog) and long-running theatricals (Mary Poppins, The Lion King).  Rudin also cast the familiar “Can you hear me now?” guy for Verizon in the early 2000s.    

Rudin doesn’t mince words when it comes to discussing “seed money” for acting.  In her humble introduction, she confirms that her generous, supportive parents forked out ridiculous sums to put her through drama school, for which she remains grateful.  But not every kid who dreams of taking over for Cindy on The Brady Bunch or nabbing the role of Carol on Growing Pains can make it happen, despite her talent and ambition.  Rudin likens entry into acting to opening a cigar store, or to starting any business from the ground up; you’ve got to give to get.  She suggests that one serious think (and rethink) his or her goals—and assess one’s available capital—before pulling up stakes and relocating to New York or L.A.  Indeed, she warns youngsters to not head for the coast unless called for a particular gig. 

We get the low-down on industry jargon, with Rudin deciphering terms like breakdown, standby, swing, buyout, and Coogan account.  We learn the roles of agents and managers and the differences between them, and are taught how to prep for auditions with tips, hints, and secrets gleaned on Rudin’s side of the folding table.  She stresses the importance of selling oneself with quality headshots (no Walgreens prints, please), handsome (and honest) resumes, and deep knowledge of source material (memorize those lines!).  Addressing the ubiquity (and virility) of computer networking and instant-messages, Rudin discourages Tweeting and Facebook-posting about one’s work or business contacts, lest some seemingly benign comment come back to bite you.  Keep separate accounts for work and play and always be on your best behavior.  Everyone knows everyone in L.A., she says, and information—bad or good—can spread rapidly and irreversibly.  Use technology to your advantage, but don’t overstep your bounds.        

Rudin outlines the distinctions between auditions for commercials, television shows, and film.  She also provides separate chapters on TV / Film and stage acting, expounding on the differences between the two fields and mindsets and skill sets needed for each.  Reading for film is a “one-off” (albeit a one-off recorded for posterity), while theatre requires repeated performances on a nightly basis.  Commercials and TV spots are akin to sprints, whereas Broadway calls for marathon stamina.  There’s even a section devoted to voiceover work, a field that continues to expand in this age of computer animation.    

Rudin stresses punctuality and organization, and encourages tryouts to convert their cars into mobile offices and dressing rooms.  Know where you’re going beforehand and dress appropriately.  Program those directions in the GPS (if you have one), bring an emergency change of clothes, and stock up on snacks.  You’ll be spending lots of time in your automobile, especially in N.Y. and L.A.  Be willing to wait.  Don’t nag receptionists, don’t “stalk” the sign-in sheets for your competition, and don’t distract others.  You wouldn’t want your concentration broken, either.        

The book is an indispensible tool for parents of prospective actors.  Rudin gives the run-down of what to do (and what not to do) for your budding Brad Pitt and Amy Adams, and admonishes stage moms (and dads) to consider the welfare of both child and family before making drastic decisions.  Show biz can kill marriages.  Brace yourself for long days and boring nights.  Be ready to drop everything at a moment’s notice to race to that important call-back, bearing in mind you might have to drag your young actor’s sibling along or shuffle the other kids’ schedules.  Buy camping supplies and inexpensive frying pans for quick hotel room meals.  Let your child “work” without butting in or monopolizing the director’s time.  Consider hiring teachers or “babysitters” to join junior on the road.       

Confessions also makes a terrific (and portable) guide for extras.  Cleveland has recently become a hot-bed for major Hollywood productions (Spider-Man 3, The Avengers) and critically-acclaimed indies and art pics (Welcome to Colinwood, American Splendor) thanks to its ability to double for big, bustling metropolises and poverty-stricken slums, (and courtesy big tax breaks for filmmakers).  Midwesterners now have much better odds of scoring that coveted walk-on part in a movie, but they’d do well to heed the advice Rudin imparts to would-be careerists auditioning and reporting to a set for the first time.  She doesn’t specifically address etiquette for extras, but the standards are the same.  Be professional.  Present your best self.  Don’t ask for autographs or seek photo opps with celebs; you’re all there to work.  Save that enthusiasm for the production and release it in your performance.        

Rudin’s anecdotes, explanations, and nuggets of sage wisdom are down-to-earth and are piecemealed in easily-digested prose (the book features several handy checklists, bullet-pointed reminders, and intriguing sidebars).  She keeps it “real” and doesn’t patronize or preach, coming across like a friend who just happens to be in the biz rather than a snooty clipboard-toting exec with one hand constantly poised over the buzzer or hammer ready to bang the gong, ending your career before it starts. 

One suspects Rudin wouldn’t have written her field guide if she didn’t really want to help.  After all, she’s been there:  Early childhood head shots show a bespectacled, slightly awkward pre-teen Rudin in the ‘80s, looking eager for that pivotal part.  Later photos (circa 1995) reveal a metamorphosed Jennifer, sans glasses (and, we guess, following a couple years with braces on her teeth)—and hey, she’s cuuuute (nice to know we weren’t the only one who took a little longer to transform)!  Moreover, Rudin’s candor speaks volumes about her intent, not to mention her willingness to open up about fledging insecurities.  To that end, Confessions will engage even those folks who have no desire to connect with movies beyond their local Redbox or Regal Cinema; it’s a 200-page peek behind the scenes.          

The book features a forward by funny girl Janeane Garofolo, who wishes she’d had a how-to book like Rudin’s back in the early ‘90s, when she started out on The Ben Stiller Show.  The actress shares a couple career highlights (and one “epic fail”) while recounting her own path to glory.  Her least favorite auditions?  The ones that never happened.   

“Do everything in your power to optimize your chances for success,” Garofolo writes. 

“It’s a large school of fish out there, and they all want to be caught.  Show business is not a meritocracy.  You need this book.  Absorb the information until it becomes habitual, reflexive.  Learn it, utilize it—or become a common turd polisher.”   


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