By the look of Sunday’s Oscar telecast, life had returned to normal in Hollywood. The red carpet was packed with stars, publicists and the media, while the Dolby Theatre was at capacity to celebrate this year’s victor, Everything Everywhere All at Once. The only visible person wearing a mask was Jessica Chastain.
But when it comes to auditions, it’s as if the industry remains gripped by the pandemic. Actors are still expected to produce (and pay for) their own tapes and send them off to casting directors, who are expected to sift through hundreds of auditions for every role they are attempting to fill. As actor Michael Gaston (Mayor of Kingstown, Five Days at Memorial) tells Deadline, “Now that we’re in a less dangerous phase of the pandemic and things are quote unquote getting back to normal, our business has decided for us that we’re going to stick with this pandemic model, even though that’s not the reason anymore.”
We checked in with six working actors in various stages of their career — Regina Taylor (CSI: Las Vegas, East New York), Jules Willcox (Servant, The L Word: Generation Q), Antonio Jaramillo (Chicago Med, Mayans M.C.), Presciliana Esparolini (NCIS: Hawaii, All Rise), Rose Abdoo (Hacks, Ghosts) and Gaston — to see how they are coping with the new normal.
In their own words, the actors describe how they’ve been forced to embrace the process, what kind of money they have invested, and how they feel about claims that someone, somewhere, is actually looking at their tapes.
Self-tapes have been a mixed bag for me. If you’re talking about film and TV, that is the medium. You’re seeing how people are on film. But I miss the interaction of being in a room with the director, producer, writer. There’s certain chemistry that can happen. You can feel another person’s presence differently by breathing the same air. It has a lot to do with how you work together personally. If you’re just talking about how that person picks up on camera, that’s something different. I like being in the room because different things can happen in terms of that exchange between two people.
I’ve spent a lot of money on self-tapes. How some people can do it just by themselves, I find really fascinating. That’s not me. Some people record their voices so they don’t even need a person reading with them. I have a place [she pays for] that does Zoom auditions and they do it really well. They have the whole setup. It’s all professionally done. I try to turn in something that’s really good-looking. I think there’s an advantage to that. Some people say you can film self-tapes wherever and it’s really all about your performance. But I like to see if I can have it look good, too. I think there’s an edge to that.
Sometimes, even in person, they don’t let you get all the way through the audition. So I imagine with the tapes, they don’t necessarily watch it all the way through. They see what you might be giving in the first few seconds. I have to be optimistic about it.
I’m 30-some-odd years into my career. Auditioning was how I saw my peers. We would see each other in the room together — not just the casting people, but I would see the people that I’d come up through the business with. That’s how we were in contact. If you hang around, we can go get a coffee. Stuff like that would happen all the time. You come to where we are now and nobody ever sees anybody anymore.
Now that we’re in a less dangerous phase of the pandemic and things are quote unquote getting back to normal, our business has decided for us that we’re going to stick with this pandemic model, even though that’s not the reason anymore. So, we are still isolated. I had my first in-person audition the other day in three years and of course, it was theater. They’re much more interested in what you look like, your whole body, how you move through space. I literally burst into tears before I could start speaking my lines. It was overwhelming. I just was like, ‘I’m sorry guys. This is not the emotional place I imagined beginning my audition today, but I’m a f*cking mess. Gimme a second.’ I didn’t get the job, but I’m not pissed off that I didn’t get it. I got what I had bargained for. I felt like I was with my people, however briefly.
This accidentally exploitative system that is literally not costing [casting directors] anything is to have as many people self-tape as possible. They don’t want to give this model up. What is being asked of actors now … to just get your friend to read with you? Who the f*ck are you talking about? And how dare you assume that I can just impose on my friends to do that? Some of us are much better and more at ease asking our friends, but that should never be the unpaid, potential employee’s responsibility. And we are dealing with studio executives and network executives and producers who don’t know [what’s going on at the casting level]. This isn’t what they do. They don’t realize what they’re sacrificing. This isn’t the perfect system yet and how could it be? It’s only been around for three years.
I have decades-long friendships with casting folks who I’ve depended on for notes and guidance throughout the years. I rely on their professionalism and kindness to get the best and clearest shot at these parts and genuinely feel like they want me to be the one to solve their casting problems. Most of us who’ve been doing this for a while can say the same thing. It’s one of the best parts of the job But, when others simultaneously tell me they “love actors” AND they are seeing a couple hundred tapes for each part because of the self-tape system, I do the math. You’re seeing 200 people for each part and they each do 6 minutes of material? That’s 20 hours of auditions per role. Often for parts that already have offers out to stars. You’re watching all of all of those? Please. That’s what you call “love?” Huh.
Because I am bicoastal, I was already self-taping, so it wasn’t a big change for me. I booked some of my biggest jobs on self-tapes. My first recur was a self-tape that I did with my mom over Thanksgiving. Actors are creative people. I was using my iPhone to document my life already. I think the only thing that I wouldn’t have bought normally was probably the mic, but I don’t usually use it. I just use my cell phone. And then I bought the backdrop, which is a blue piece of paper from Samy’s Camera, which was like $40 for a big roll. That was paid off after the first job I booked. Luckily I had a pod of other actors who I work with and trust and we could read for each other and tape with each other. But there have definitely been ups and downs. There are just times when you can’t find a reader, and I’ve absolutely had to record myself reading the other lines. I’ve ask friends to FaceTime to run the scene. You have to be able to adapt.
It’s making me more consistent with my auditions because I’m watching them back. That’s been a really valuable thing because I’m thinking, “Oh, this works. This doesn’t work. I’m gonna try this next time.” Before it was so mysterious. You go in, do the work and then leave the in-person audition with this feeling of how it went. And that wasn’t always representative of how it actually went. You’d be like, “Oh my God, that’s the worst audition I’ve ever had.” So I think I’ve learned a lot. I’ve worked consistently through the last three years of self-taping. I’ve gotten good feedback from casting directors, and that has helped, because that’s the one thing I think people want, that reassurance in the room that they’re hitting it.
All of the responsibilities have been put on the actor. Before you were sent an audition, you would look at the material and invest your time and energy into the material. Then you were given a time to go into the office. Now you’ve got to find a reader, set up a camera, have perfect lighting, a quiet room. If you can’t do that at home, you go and pay $40, $50 at a place. There are many places, but personally I don’t think there’s a lot of great places. There’s only three for me, and one of them is really far in Santa Monica, so I don’t really go to that one — I’m in Pasadena. The other ones are in North Hollywood. And you can’t always find a spot. You check their schedule and it’s booked and they have one at 9 a.m. or one at 5:45 p.m. for 15 minutes. There are a lot of actors trying to get in.
It was hard finding the time slot to do it, so I started doing it at home. But then I had to call someone to come into my home and they’re not always available. And I don’t have an amazing backdrop. I use natural light in my dining room or kitchen. I don’t have any special microphones because it’s too much to put on the actor. And then sometimes they ask you to dress the period. Oh, okay, sure. I’m going to go get an outfit for the audition, record the whole damn thing and edit it for you. Why don’t I just produce the film and then see you at the wrap party? It just becomes nonsense.
“Sometimes they ask you to dress the period. Oh, okay, sure. I’m going to go get an outfit for the audition, record the whole damn thing and edit it for you. Why don’t I just produce the film and then see you at the wrap party? It just becomes nonsense.”jaramillo
My biggest concern is that they’re not being seen. Looking at the numbers from before, I would go in-person and out of 10 auditions, two would turn out to be jobs. Now I can send in 20 tapes and maybe one will turn out to be a job. And I’m going, wait a second! I don’t think they’re being seen — and if they are, it’s maybe by some associate or a young college graduate who is going through the initial scanning of the tapes. And if your tape makes it to the next pile that the casting director will see, then good luck. I don’t know what their perception is. Maybe they think I don’t have the perfect backdrop, or the lighting’s not perfect. Or, oh God, they can hear the cat. And sometimes they send you 10, 12, 14 pages and for the next day, but they’re only going to see half a page. Then why didn’t you send me half a page?
Even before the pandemic, especially if there was a project in New York or a theater gig in New York, they would have us put ourselves on tape. But when the pandemic hit, it was the right thing to do. If we want to keep the hamster in the wheel going, these are the adjustments that we all have to make.
Initially, at least for me, it wasn’t terrible. You could go to the SAG office, but I think those offices get filled up very quickly. Especially for television, there’s a very quick turnaround. Sometimes they want it the same day or the next day. I have an [taping] office that I love to go to. I don’t mind putting the investment in if I know I’m getting a little bit of coaching, if I know it’s going to look and sound good. I don’t do it all the time, because then it becomes an affordability issue. There have been a couple of Zoom sessions where I’ve actually seen the face of a casting director so I can connect with them. But those are sort of few between.
They started to sort of ease the rules and regulations around Covid. As long as we were Covid-free or we had our boosters and all that, we were going to all go back to meeting our casting directors in the room, right? That hasn’t happened. We are rarely ever given the opportunity to send in our tape, have the casting director look at it, and then receive feedback. I’m having to self-direct. Am I in the ballpark with this audition? You don’t know, so you’re just going in blindly. Sometimes they do provide the script, but most of the time they don’t. A lot of the time, you’re just going in based on the brief description that they provide.
A lot of actors spend money for their auditions. I want to believe that casting directors are watching. I have to believe they’re watching, otherwise there’s going to be an uproar by the actors at large.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Now that I’m 60 and 32 years in the Screen Actors Guild, I want to be a person who is always willing to learn a new skill. Before the pandemic, I was a person who considered myself very technologically challenged. I didn’t know how to run my phone. Now the ease at which I put the phone on the tripod and set up the lights and do my thing …. it’s made me feel like I learned a new skill.
Listen, I love casting. I am from the Bryan Cranston school of, “This is my chance to act today.” I love going in and meeting directors and getting the feedback. But sometimes, if I get an audition from my manager and I’m in the mood to do that at eight o’clock at night, then I get to do that. I don’t have to be at a casting office at 11:30 a.m. So for me, there has been a certain amount of freedom.
And then, there’s a weird thing about self-taping that reminds me of why I was attracted to this business to begin with. It’s the creativity of setting up your own tape. I was very lucky to have had a guest spot on Grey’s Anatomy before the pandemic, and I noticed their lighting. My husband is great; he rigged these lights with PVC pipe from Home Depot. I tried to mimic the kind of lighting I had at Grey’s Anatomy. Other actors were saying, “Oh, you have to paint a whole wall” for a backdrop. I had a blue blanket from when I was very sick in 2011. I had cancer and I took my treatment at the Disney Cancer Center. My sister was visiting from Michigan and she got me this blue blanket. It’s such a good color. So I threw this stupid blue blanket that I used to use in the chemo room over a screen to make the perfect backdrop. Between the lighting and the blue blanket, I was so proud of myself.
There is another reason that I like the freedom of it. I have a 95-year-old mother in Michigan. Every single time I go visit, I get an audition. So the whole family gets involved. My brother-in-law has a vintage tripod and he MacGyver’ed the cell phone holder from the car on the tripod. He gets me construction lights out of the garage. My sister got me parchment paper to put over the lights. My mother’s rooting around in her closet for things I can wear. That’s how I booked Ghosts.
I looked at my IMDb. The last seven jobs I’ve gotten have been off of self-tapes.