The oft unsung heroes of acting magic…


Recently, I found myself reading yet another article about the extraordinary actress Lupita N’yongo, the Academy Award nominated actress for her thrilling performance in 12 Years a Slave. There are many things about her (incredible talent and unbearable beauty to start) and her story that are exciting and inspirational (and while I have huge respect for all the nominees, if for some reason they give the Academy Award to another actress that night, I can imagine the screams of indignation from households around the globe will shatter glass) but there was something specific in this article that struck me that I hadn’t read before (read the full article here: Hard Work and Great Training of Lupita N’yongo):

Shortly after, Nyong’o’s manager invited Maisler [Francine, the casting director] to her L.A. showcase. That prompted Maisler to bring her in for an in-person audition that lasted an hour, one that Nyong’o alternately describes as “grueling” and “exhilarating.” Before she went into the room, Maisler stepped into the waiting area to explain that, because of the material, the audition would be unconventional. She wasn’t joking; the first thing she asked Nyong’o to do was perform the scenes on her knees. “It was a pretty amazing session we did, one that I’ll always remember,” Maisler says of the in-person audition. “I wanted to exhaust her emotionally. We did an improv, these things I just came up with off the top of my head, where I was the slave owner and she was Patsey. And she just broke down emotionally through the audition. When I sent that to Steve, he pretty much knew she was the girl.”

The article goes on and N’yongo describes her extensive preparation for the audition, as well as the continued audition process that she went through after this first in-person test. And yes, it is remarkable the commitment she has to the audition itself, and the true visceral understanding she has that even the audition is a chance to act at the highest, most rewarding level of artistry, combining talent with perspiration and inspiration…


What impressed me about that paragraph was the description of Francine Maisler’s work on the audition. How she put each actress through the paces, the improvisation, the challenge. How she worked with N’yongo (and ostensibly each actress to some degree, if not as fully as one would expect with someone giving as much back as she did) to exhaust her, to test her, to push her to the limit of what she could do. How Maisler herself became as vital to that audition being successful as N’yongo did. Because her commitment to not only finding the right actress but helping her be the right actress was clear by her willingness to get in there with her and work. I’m alternately amazed and appalled by the number of actors I meet who have a story that includes some kind of complaint that the casting director would possibly put them into such a situation: “Can you believe she made me do that?” or something like that. When most of the professionals I know would actually be thrilled to get that deep in the audition room and stretch their acting muscles. The casting director really doesn’t have to ask you to do anything…he or she could certainly just invite you in the room, have you do the scene as you prepared, and leave (and there is nothing wrong with that either…sometimes that’s all that is needed). They could let you do your one take and, even when they know they could offer guidance or adjustment, they could let you walk out the door. But when a casting director actually challenges you, isn’t it clear that (with perhaps some very unusual exceptions) that person is doing it because they want you to succeed? To be as close to what the director and other creatives are looking for so that you, like N’yongo, can do a performance, whether on tape or later in front of the whole creative team, that screams “this is the one”?

Sure, I have my share of audition horror stories. Embarrassments, snide comments, downright insults…it’s not always the most dignified process, and sometimes it’s downright humiliating. But for the love of whatever god you believe in, PLEASE don’t blame a casting director for asking you to push yourself. Even if it’s “just” a pre-read. Because that very person isn’t the gatekeeper, keeping you from the pearly gates of booking heaven. Sometimes, they’re the angel escorting you through them.

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