Acting in soaps, improv on self-tapes, and how much chit-chat is okay in the audition room
I’m so excited to finally re-launch my newly improved blog and start things off by sharing my lunchtime conversation with casting director, Harriet Greenspan. With over 25 years of casting experience on films, television shows, soaps and kids programming, Harriet shares her vast knowledge about the field and how things have changed over the decades. We also discuss Slate Shots, postcards and which agencies Harriet takes her pitches from. It’s all here- dig in and enjoy!
So, how did you get into casting?
HARRIET: You know, like everybody else, I grew up wanting to be an actress, and wanting to move to LA. When I was growing up, I would read magazines about celebrities. Back then it was really about finding out about their life and their marriage and personalities. I loved everything about it. So my parents said to me, When you go to college, that’s where you’ll go. And I did. I majored in theatre.
How do you feel about that major?
HARRIET: I feel that if you have an agent and/or a manager it’s not necessary to major in theater. Perhaps majoring in film & television can teach you more behind the scenes, but otherwise, perhaps business or marketing would be better. You can always minor in theater or just be involved in the theater program. You can always take acting classes on the side and if years down the line you no longer want to act, you have something else you can do.
And then you found a job in casting?
HARRIET: I had an uncle that was a comedy writer and producer who helped me get an interview at an entertainment company for a receptionist job. While I was working there, the casting director quit mid-season and the assistant took over and I took over as the casting assistant’s job. I loved it right away. At the end of the season I decided to get a job in a casting office. I was offered a job at Lynn Stalmaster and Associates who did TV and movies. He was probably the greatest casting director of our time. I learned a lot from working there.
How was casting different back then?
HARRIET: Agents would come to our offices and pick up scripts so you would meet them and have more of a personal relationship with them. There were less agents, definitely less managers and only a few casting offices. We did a lot of lunches. It was a smaller industry, much more intimate. Everybody knew each other. Today, there are so many agents, managers and casting directors that we all know of each other rather than know each other. After Stalmaster, I worked at a network several years. Then I got a job working on a soap which was another amazing education for me. Soaps are very different. I figured it would be great, because soaps are forever. Well, they were!!! Then I started working on projects at Nickelodeon and other kids and teen projects. The rest is history.
How is casting for soaps different?
HARRIET: I think the acting pool is slightly different in the soap world. There are the recognizable soap actors with track records and reputations that have been on soaps that we were always trying to get on our show. Then there are actors that want to be on a soap because it’s steady work. Also, soaps are a great vehicle to discover a new actor, someone that does not have many credits but is talented. Soaps are also a great way to get acting experience because in the beginning of a contract you are heavily in the show. So no matter how many days a week you are guaranteed, you can always work more. It’s good experience for actors because you have to learn pages of dialogue sometimes the day before. (And today there are so many script revisions in TV that actors have to learn new dialogue daily on all shows). I’ve known actors that have been on soaps for a few years that have gone on to do prime time. My friend Mark Teschner has been casting General Hospital for many, many years. He gave many actors their first jobs that have gone on to do amazing primetime shows. Also, I’ve noticed in the last 10 years or so that soaps have been catering to the younger crowd. There a lot of teenage and young adult storylines. When I was growing up soaps were for our mothers but that has all changed. Also, the acting tone on soaps is very different.
AUDITIONS & SELF-TAPES
Actors really need to mold their acting for the show they’re auditioning for. I recently had an actor do an incredible self-tape. The acting was just outstanding. But unfortunately, it wasn’t right for this Syfy show.
HARRIET: It might have been just a type or look that they were searching for. But actors should do research on the writing, the producers and the kind of shows they’ve worked on before. Comedy can very much be about reactions and expressions. Sometimes you react before you open your mouth. Take a moment and react before you say your lines. Sometimes those reactions are funnier than your actual words. They laugh, the audience laughs, and then they laugh again. And of course, drama is a different medium. It’s all about the passion and truth. And then all those mediums in between.
A lot of actors worry that if they’re not signed with a big agency they’re not going to get auditions. Do you consider actors from all agents and managers?
HARRIET: Yes, I do. You can discover an actor anywhere. I work with every agent and manager. If we’re doing a pilot, the first thing I do is look through every submission and I see all the actors that I know are right for the role. That’s the first group. Then I bring in actors that I’m on the fence about because they might have grown as actors or maybe they look different from their pictures, pitches from agents, etc. Then I finally bring in everyone that I didn’t think was right but the agents really want me to see. Maybe, just maybe, I can find a needle in a haystack. And of course while I’m doing this I’m also watching all self-tapes.
Speaking of self-tapes, how much creative leeway can an actor take in a self-tape? There’s a popular one that circulated from Dacre Montgomery of Stranger Things where he decided to do a dance instead of miming driving. And, at the end of his tape, he talked about why he loved the character so much. What do you think of that?
HARRIET: I want to say most of the time they should stick to the script and directions on the audition. Each casting director has different self-tape directions. If you think it’s a project that’s a little different, maybe take a chance. You never know. But I wouldn’t make that the norm. What’s very important is the beginning of the tape and how you can get our attention. On my show Knight Squad, we were casting for this particular role and the one person that stood out most was a guy that auditioned in his car. I looked at it and I thought, What the hell, I’m going to send it to my producers. What’s the worst they can say? And they loved him!
Was it a car scene?
HARRIET: It wasn’t a car scene at all.
“What’s very important is the beginning of the tape and how you can get our attention.”
So, I recently had an actor going in for a guest star audition and on her way there she booked another guest star for another show. I told my actor to mention the good news in the audition room especially since the resume didn’t say it yet. My actor was very hesitant. What do you think about that?
HARRIET: Hmmm! I teach a lot of workshops and I really work hard when I teach them so actors can learn more about this industry. In my workshops, I talk about whether to make conversation in the casting room or not. In my workshops, it’s more casual so we’re friendly and we talk and we joke. These same actors sometimes happen to come to my office to audition for a role maybe months or years down the line. They always say, Harriet was so friendly and now she’s so business like. When I’m casting a pilot or a lead in a movie, I see 60 or 70 actors per day so I’m working hard to see as many actors as I can. I can’t spend too much time schmoozing with people in the room. Just come in, give me your picture and resume, stand on your mark and audition. If you have any questions, ask them. If they wanted to say something quick about a booking and it’s only 10 seconds, sure, but anything beyond that they have to feel out the room. There are actors in the waiting room waiting to get in and the schedule is very tight. Plus, if an actor hears that I’m spending more time with one actor, they’re going to think I like that actor more. I’m just very sensitive to the actors’ feelings because I know how I would feel.
What do you think about Slate Shots?
HARRIET: I like them and I’ll tell you why. I want to see what the actors look like on tape. I want to hear their voice, if there’s any accent or speech thing. A lot of younger actors talk fast. So then they’ll often talk fast in their audition and they might eat their words. So mainly I like Slate Shots for younger people who have no tape on themselves unless they’re an adult and they don’t have a reel. It’s always tougher when you are older and don’t have tape on yourself.
Let’s talk about postcards. Actors love sending them. What do you think of them?
HARRIET: I have an email address. If anybody wants to send me a postcard, or an update, or a picture and resume they can. I think that postcards are a waste of money. I was working on a show for 7 months and in those 20 episodes, I got postcards for every casting director that’s had that office. They are no longer there. We move around a lot. I think 10 years ago they worked more effectively.
What do you wish you knew when you started in this industry?
HARRIET: I don’t have a lot of regrets. I have a lot of “I wish I knew then what I know now,” type of thoughts. Everybody has them whether they admit it or not. I wish I had more life experience when I started. I wish I was a little more street smart when I started. I’m very spiritual, so I know I’m supposed to be exactly where I am today to learn my life lessons. I was more of an A-type personality when I was younger. Not so much now.
Do you think a type-A personality is bad?
HARRIET: It’s not bad. It can be good depending how you channel it. Everything can work with balance. But an A type personality sometimes stresses about the littlest things, you know? I also wish I was spiritual when I first started out but I didn’t learn about spirituality until I was in my 30’s. I’m very grateful for my career. I’m grateful that I’m in the entertainment industry. I’m grateful that I’m a casting director and an acting coach. I love casting, teaching/coaching. I love the actors I meet. I love working with actors! I love discovering new talent. I love living in LA. And wherever I am in my life, I’m always looking forward to tomorrow, but I try to take one day at a time. Everyday is a new adventure.
WHAT’S FOR LUNCH
LOCATION: 12345 Ventura Blvd, Studio City, CA 91604
DISH: Poke Bowl
NOTES: Great restaurant with large menu and great food! Open-air, valet parking. Excellent for lunch or dinner!