Behind the Breakdown: Casting from the Eyes of the Producers
By Ashley Bornancin, Career ACTivate Diagnostic Expert
As an actor, it sometimes feels like you are on a hamster wheel—submitting for auditions, going to auditions, booking or not booking jobs. Cycle, rinse, dry, repeat. But, as a content producer, you change the game. You decide what you role you’ll play, how you want to write and produce it, and of course, who to cast. This time, I got to be on the other side of the breakdown, and our takeaways were absolutely bananas.
My writing partner, Don DiPetta and I decided to take our career into our own hands this past year and while we still wore our “actor hats” we also took on our writer, producer, director and overall content creator hats, to create and produce our up-and-coming SAG New Media Series, “We’re NOT Friends,” and wanted to share some takeaways we thought you might find helpful along your journey as an actor.
As an actor, being able to go through this casting process opened my eyes to the difficulties and responsibilities that casting directors have to go through on a daily basis in making these hard decisions that most actors are generally unaware of. I truly respect the expertise required to do this professionally and urge actors to trust the decisions made by casting directors.
From 3,000 Actors to 130
Like any casting director, we released our SAG New Media series on breakdowns for our submission process. We knew that under the new media contract, there were going to actors who weren’t willing to work for deferred pay… but still received 3,000+ submissions on our 8 new characters.
You would think that with thousands of submissions we wouldn’t have time to go through each one… but as actors ourselves, we knew that there was talent everywhere…so one-by-one, we went through submissions all the way from top agencies like Paradigm and Gersh down to non-repped actors. Gersh’s comedy department even reached out to us to get our script.
To systematize it, Don and I would first separately go off of first impressions and categorize each person that just caught our attention off the bat (this is where headshots are so important and creating images that pop!) in our first, large group of considerations, narrowing down 1,000 submissions for a role to about 70 candidates. Then we would go through and really watch the slate shots, take a quick look at their reels and look at their other headshots. From here, we narrowed the pile to about 25 per role. Then we would go in and take a deeper look at their reels, watching more scenes and really analyzing if we saw them as the character or not, narrowing the pool to about 15-20 per role. Hooray!
After countless hours of doing this, we sent out our Eco Cast (self tape) request to our 15-20 actors per role.
What’s the Short List and How to Be On It
You always hear the need to be top of mind in the industry, and the way to do this is by networking and building genuine relationships that you hope to maintain throughout your career. Through networking, engaging with us on social media, emailing us directly, or meeting us in class or workshops together, etc., we already had our short list. It was incredibly easy to put together because we have such talented friends already, so we immediately had 5-10 people per role who we liked and worked with that we wanted to see. Our goal as actors should be to get on this short list!
Dos and Don’ts In the Submission Process:
- Your Headshot is Your Calling Card
- Submit a killer headshot. This is the first thing that should catch our attention when scanning through hundreds-thousands of shots. It was amazing to see how many people were submitting amateur photos, or good headshots, but that clearly weren’t right for the role.
- For example: It is so important to BE HONEST with your age range. We had a ton of actors who were late 30’s-40’s submitting for young 20 somethings. We also had a handful of females who were submitting for male roles (READ the breakdown!).
- When I say “killer headshots,” I really mean KILLER. Branding is HUGE. The more you are able to show us that your brand matches the role from the start, the more likely we are to bring you in–I HIGHLY suggest you attend our upcoming Career ACTivate Training Event From Passion to PROFIT (click on the link to get a comp ticket!) if you need any help with this.
- Reels: Showcase YOUR work, not others!
- Your reel is part of your brand, and should therefore match the essence and product you are sending to us in your headshot. Don’t submit a quirky photo with an incredibly dramatic reel.
- Stop starting your reels with long montages with music. We want to see you act, get straight to the good stuff!
- Stop putting SO much of other people in your reels. Start off the top with material of YOU; doesn’t need to be long at all, just good audio/video, we don’t want to wait to see you act. We don’t want a whole long take of you walking around. Cut out those long beautiful shots, get to the good acting stuff!
- Slate shots: Spend the $5 and Reap the benefits
- Slate shots are the 5-7 second clips that you can attach as part of your headshot that casting can see right from their breakdown thumbnails without having to click on your profile individually. Actors with slate shots DO go to the top of submissions; with that being said, make sure your slate shot matches the essence of what your headshot is telling us. If you are submitting for a fierce politician, make sure your slate shot matches that. Actors with a slate shot + reel are at the top of the submissions, followed by actors with reels only, then actors with slate shots only, and then lastly, actors with no slate shot or reel.
- The Early Bird Gets the Worm… But really.
- Send in audition tapes early! It’s amazing how many actors wait until the very last minute. If you send yours in early, there will definitely be some sort of subconscious priority given.
- If you have special skills that fit that character, write them in the notes! We will read them!
- Pitch when you are RIGHT, not when you CAN
- Don’t pitch casting for multiple roles per project. In our case, it made us think you don’t REALLY think you’d be right for a particular role and are just spaghetti flinging. BE THE SOLUTION TO CASTING’S PROBLEMS!
- When you do pitch, BE SPECIFIC. I actually loved when actors would take the time to find our emails and pitch the specific reason why they were right for the role with a clip for us to watch. (My thought, “Wow, you took so much time to help us find a solution to our casting problem, of course if I have the time I will bring you in!”)
- Social Media: How to get jobs beyond the photos of your breakfast
- Social media can have a big effect on getting auditions, etc. And not just your following. Social media, used correctly, can help you stay top of mind in the eyes of casting, writers, producers, showrunners, etc. For example, there were a number of our friends who reached out to us, congratulating us on our series, liking our Facebook posts or leaving a comment on how they could help, etc. One of our friends, Kimberly, had just commented on one of my posts on Facebook and it made me immediately think of her for a role. We sent her the sides and she ended up being cast in the series, out of the 1000+ actresses who had submitted.
- NOTHING is personal. Sometimes it’s hard to explain why an actor/actress isn’t right for something, just keep in mind that although you may feel like you are perfect for a role based on the breakdown you read, the producer and/or writer can have a very clear vision of what they are looking for beyond what was written on the breakdown.
When the Majority of Actors CHOOSE to Miss the Opportunity
So remember when I said 3,000 people submitted total? After all the work we put into hand-picking actors of all types and ethnicities, with any number of credits, some represented by big agencies, some without representation, nearly half of the actors WHO RECEIVED THE AUDITION never submitted a tape.
This frustrated us because that opportunity could have been given to another actor who would have actually submitted an audition tape. We understand that our deferred pay series may not be as appealing as the big time auditions, so we weren’t TOO surprised, but if you aren’t going to go to the audition – why submit in the first place?
What WAS cool was that there were a number of our actor friends (with huge TV and film credits, with whom we loved working) who were overjoyed to work on our material, who were emailing us individually asking to read the script and send in a tape, who followed up with us on where we were at in the casting process, if we saw a fit, etc. And when it came down to it, we still had to really analyze who would be right for each role, because we had about 5-7 wonderful audition tapes each of actors who could have easily played those parts.
A big thank you to all who:
– Sent in their tape early
– Worked really hard on the material and truly made it their own
– Were communicative during the process, responded to emails in a timely manner and respected deadlines.
– Were interested and saw the potential of our baby.
– Were genuinely excited to also put their heart and soul into our project.
After re-watching tape after tape though, it became obvious who just WAS that character. These actors ironically generally ended up being the ones who sent in their tape early, who (for the most part) HAD credits and who were very responsive and proactive.
This doesn’t surprise us though. Someone who takes their craft seriously and who sees this industry as a business will treat it as such, and the more professional you appear, always trying to improve your craft and product, the more the industry will cater to you, and the more people will want to work with you.
I truly believe that if you are a cool person to work with, casting will WANT to try to find a role for you, even if it’s not right at the time. We have so many actors we just WANT to hire but we know they’re not right—right now—but they are definitely in the back of our heads for future roles.
If this casting journey has taught us anything, it’s that we have so much respect for casting directors and what they do. It is such a huge responsibility to find those truly stand-out actors for those break-out roles and casting directors aren’t given enough credit.
As actors ourselves, we hope our take-a-ways from this process can help your mind and heart feel more settled in trusting the whole casting process. We aren’t going to be right for every role, and even roles we think are PERFECT for us may not fit us beyond the knowledge that we have. But it is important to remember that if we keep creating and producing quality work, keep honing in on our business skills and craft, and start seeing our journeys as long-term careers, it will pay off.
But really… why wait to be cast?
What may be even more important to keep in mind is that you have your own unique voice that no one can take away from you…so while you are hustling from TV to film to commercial auditions… pick up your pen (or computer or smart phone, who uses pens anymore?) and start writing your own part. After all, huge stars (Mindy Kaling, Lena Dunham, etc.) have been born from writing their own roles, and it would have been such a shame if they hadn’t shared their gifts with the world. Don’t let your life go by without sharing your gift, whether someone casts you or not.
-Ashley Bornancin, TV/Film/Voice Actress & Writer
Co-Creator of “We’re NOT Friends” & Diagnostic Expert at Career ACTivate
Karl Steudel says
Hi Ashley, With ADD and a busy schedule, I found myself reading your entire article! well written, and thanks for the Slate shots and Social Media tips especially. They caused me to take some action on both those fronts, best, Karl Steudel, Fellow Actor.
Jonathan Regier says
That’s a great article Ashley!!! You are a rockstar 😉
Aubrey Cooke says
Great great tips Ashley! Its refreshing hearing this information come from someone so young in the industry. Its very helpful and inspiring all at the same time. Keep crushing it! Totally going to use the Slate Shot suggestion!
Bonnie deGrood says
Hallelujah! You completely took the guess work out of how this works. AND you’ve re-iterated a couple of things that I’ve heard before, which solidifies it in my mind even more. It all makes better sense now.
Thank you so much for your wisdom, and encouragement, and, mostly, for taking the time to spell it out for us. Great article!
David - Intense says
Great Job Ashley in offering a very powerful and real insight into your entire process of selecting true talent and producing a Hit TV Show. You know that when the Director calls Action it takes more than just a smile and a little talent. As you point out you need great photos and fantastic material in your reels. I can see why your show is already on its way to success. Keep making things happen and keep sharing as it helps us all!
Arielle & Orli Gottesman says
Thank you for sharing your informative perspective! As a Hollywood mom of two , this takes all the guess work out of getting it right. So appreciative of your sharing your insights!