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Commercial Audition Tales with Casting Director Karen Armstrong

CAT ELLIOTT
DECEMBER 8, 2021

For this installment of Commercial Audition Tales, we caught up with someone who has cast spots for an impressive roster of big-name clients, such as Dell, Wells Fargo, and Virgin Voyages. Karen Armstrong took time out from a number of projects in the works to talk with Casting Networks and share some tales from the commercial audition room that she’s acquired along the way. And Armstrong’s stories are not only entertaining — they also provide some valuable lessons for actors to keep in mind before their next commercial appointment.

 

Thanks for taking the time to share some stories that provide a behind-the-scenes look into the world of commercial casting, Karen. What’s one of your best tales from the audition room that you can share with us? 

I’ll start with one from a commercial session that started off completely normal. I was having a great day of casting — everyone was following directions and I was seeing some wonderful people. Then a gentleman whom I’d never met before walked into the room. Instead of delivering the audition copy, he started doing a magic trick. At first, I thought I was getting punked because it was so completely out of left field. The role for which he was auditioning was not even close to being a magician. Then he proceeded to light his wallet on fire. We were in a very small office, and I could feel the heat of it from where I was standing. I started to worry about it triggering the fire alarm sprinkler system in the building, which would not have gone over well with the landlord. I kept trying to shut it down without being rude, repeating again and again that we needed to move on and start the audition. My assistant eventually came into the room to say that we needed to take the next person, and the actor was like, “I’m ready now.” But by then, he had already burned a bridge with us. No pun intended.

 

[Laughs] Wow. It’s remarkable that the actor felt it was appropriate to start off his audition with an unrelated magic trick.

Yes, I think it was his way of trying to promote himself as a magician. It’s a funny story, as well as a good reminder for actors to stay focused when they’re in an audition. Each appointment is essentially an interview for a specific job, so you don’t want to start chit-chatting with casting about any sideline gigs. Keep in mind the essentials. You want to do your job, be friendly, make a good impression, and leave the session when it’s clearly over. 

 

That story comes with a great teaching moment.

My next one has a takeaway, too. I was once running a session in which the clients were in the room for the first round of auditions. I was very specific with the instructions that I gave to the talent, but actor after actor came in and didn’t follow them. It wasn’t a matter of the direction being too complicated — the gist of it was to hit a mark, say the line, and look at a certain spot. No one was getting it, though, and I started questioning the reality of what was happening. I began to wonder if I was communicating something completely different than what I thought. Then after the same thing happened with seven different people, an actor came in who took the direction and nailed it on the first try. We were like, “OK, so it’s not us — somebody got it.”

 

It sounds like it would’ve been disconcerting before that eighth audition, wondering where the disconnect was happening with the first seven people you saw. 

I think the actors who weren’t able to follow the instructions must have been caught up in their heads. You know, you may be nervous in an audition or worried about some aspect of it, like if your clothes or hair is right. But don’t let that distract you from listening to instructions so that you can implement and execute them for your performance. And if it’s a matter of not understanding, always ask. The moral of the story is to leave at the door whatever’s bothering you that day and be present in the audition. The casting director is always rooting for you to do a good job, but if you can’t follow directions during the session, we doubt your ability to do so on a set where there are many more moving parts.

 

That makes sense. And before we wrap, do you have one last story to share?

I’ll tell you about a callback session I held in which the clients didn’t want to be in the room. They asked to be in an adjacent space where they could watch the audition on a monitor so that they could have privacy when conferring with one another. So I set that up and then brought an actor into the audition room for his callback. When he walked in and didn’t see any clients there, his demeanor instantly shifted. My guess is that the actor thought I was wasting his time, but regardless, he became rude. “The clients should be here so I know what they have to say,” the actor informed me. Little did he know that they were watching and listening to him the entire time from the other room. His performance wasn’t the issue during his callback — it was his attitude throughout it. So he sank his own ship, and there was nothing I could do to help him. The clients told me to never bring him back again, and I haven’t. So that’s another thing for actors to keep in mind. You should always put your best foot forward no matter who you think is or is not there.

 

Armstrong’s commercial audition tales come with some solid advice for actors, and the casting director shared a related word of encouragement for them before the interview concluded: “With our current climate of Covid and self-taping, casting directors make themselves available to answer questions now more than ever,” she noted. “We want to empower you to be the best you can be.” 

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