Time is the enemy! When we set up Hubbard Casting in London in 1976, we had much more time and money (!) available to us. Now with film budgets under far more pressure there are more and more time constrictions. We have been forced to come up with a solution to actors being considered all over the world for parts: self-taping. The positive development that has influenced the simultaneous growth in numbers of actors to be considered for any one role is that there is much more of an international focus. Films have been enhanced by the growth of international audiences and their taste for more broadly based stories with multinational casts, so there is a greater chance of more actors being considered. The facility of self-taping cuts out so much delay caused by booking a live audition, when wanting to take a first look at an actor.
Once I have accepted your agent’s recommendation that you be considered for a role, self-tapes allow me to see your acting even if you are working in a different country or elsewhere in the UK, on a theatre job, another film shoot, or even on holiday. Several well-known actors self-taped behind their agent’s backs for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. It is worth chancing your luck by submitting unsolicited self-tapes. I do look at these, but make sure you are brilliant, if you want to catch and hold my attention. However you cannot ring to see if they have arrived, as casting directors do not have the time to respond to such requests. Similarly, if you have been rejected from an arranged submission, you just have to accept it. Do not attempt to open a dialogue about it. You may be called to a live meeting from self-tapes but actors are rarely cast directly from them. Sam Underwood is one of the exceptions we have just cast at the time of writing (summer, 2014).
Now, I may actually physically meet only three to five actors per character, but I like to be inundated by possibilities, and will publicise my search anywhere I think I may discover a new talent. But this itself can demand a big investment of hours, weeks, months. For a film with ten speaking characters, I can watch up to 600 actors on tape. Recently, I was thrilled to be asked to cast John Carney’s (director of Once ) Sing Street. With two Irish mid-teens at the centre of the film, my nets would have needed to be cast wide and deep for one of my favourite challenges: hunting the unknown. Regrettably, calculating existing commitments, I knew I could not afford to employ my usual tactics and had to decline the offer, because it would have involved a huge amount of internet searches and self-tapes.
Much of what I have to say about making self-tapes may seem plain common sense, but each piece of advice I give here is based on scores of bad examples seen in the thousands of self-tapes sent to Hubbards in the very few years in which self-taping has become the most prevalent form of first-level audition.
The simplest way of self-taping is on an iPhone – it is also very effective. Laptops’ sound reproduction is not so good. You can enhance the quality of the filming by using a camera placed on a tripod, but a friend filming you on an iPhone should really be quite sufficient. You should use a closed room, not the corner of a hall or passageway, which is more likely to pick up extraneous noise. If shooting for an American show, try to hire a room at Spotlight. They will put the video on a link for you.
Be off-book! No paper should be in view. Margie Haber in LA says you do not need to be off-book in the US, but you would have to be amazing not to be. She runs workshops in on-book auditions, but US auditions can be as many as up to seven a day, so it is impossible to learn that many for one day. You should allow at least one night to prepare. Form a group of actor friends to read in during preparation and filming, so you can support each other and know that at least one of them will always be available to work with you.
Remember to have the phone/camera mic as close to you as possible: a foot between your legs is ideal. We embarrass ourselves and the actors ramming the camera and mic close up, but it is the difference between being heard and not being heard. Casting offices are as noisy as chip shops. All four members of the Hubbard family have at least their associate caster working with them at any one time. In the summer of 2014 Amy Hubbard was casting the fourth series of Homeland and had just finished 24, so had a team of ten assistants whirling around the office. The actor on the tape needs to be heard above all that racket. It does not matter if your recording level sounds unnaturally loud – it can always be lowered.
Shoot from an angle that shows more of you, with your head and chest occupying the centre of the image – keep it close. It’s your soul they are after. A director may later call for an actor to reshoot the scene as full length. Try to shoot in daylight, but don’t sit in front of windows or all we will see is your silhouette. Filming on camcorders in electronic light is much less effective. Keep your eyes level with the camera. Looking down on the floor or the script will kill the opportunity. Do not look directly at the camera. You should look at your just-off-camera scene partner. If the scene demands physical contact, then you can use a certain amount of movement. Some part of the partner can be visible, but just indicate the action, do not try to be sensational. American casters never use any actors to read in – so your partner can sound very flat and you have to really energise yourself. Do not use any props apart from a cup or a cigarette. There should be no people in the background, or any children or pets anywhere in the field of vision. Do not use too much make-up. Electronic signals are hard and make-up makes you look hard and older.
If your tape has been solicited and sides have been sent to you to record, you will be handicapped in doing thorough character preparation, if you are not sent the script or given any other guidance. It never harms to ask for a synopsis of the whole story. You don’t have to shoot the whole scene. It will be clearly said to your agent or you how much dialogue is required. I am likely to edit tapes before forwarding them to the director. Don’t use showreel material in place of a self-tape, but they are a useful addition. Your showreels should only consist of clips from your films and TV productions. Do not use personally manufactured scenes. Look at other actors’ showreels before choosing your own selection. There should not be too many other actors in the clips, especially actors, who look like you – very confusing for us old dears!
Do not try charming the casting director by using moody talk or blathering on about what you are doing at the moment. Never bring your fears into an audition, live or recorded. Leave them on a coat hook before you enter the room or screen. Your spoken introduction on tape should simply give your full name, height, your agent’s details or whether you are representing yourself, the title of the scene and your availability for a live meeting and the shoot dates. If an accent is required for the scene, use it for your introduction as well, even if it is less than technically perfect because the effort made will impact positively on your performance. Do not read out the stage directions. Do not underscore the tape with music.
You must discipline yourself to closely examine the tape. In the first place you may have forgotten something essential. Ask a friend or friends to give their honest opinion of how well your tape serves the scene, and trust it. This will help you avoid subjective judgements such as choosing the tape most flattering of your general appearance, as opposed to what suits the character best. You can send two versions, especially if the scene is short. Do not announce differences between the two takes. Be subtle in your introductory explanation for sending two. In live auditions, I will always listen to an actor, who feels they have not done themselves justice, and would like to rerun their audition. But it is not always possible to get you back and there have been many occasions when an actor has thought that they read badly and got the part – you are your own worst critic!
Use a watermark app on your phone to protect the copyright of your self-tape. You may be the next big thing within two to three years, but in any case do not put your self-tapes on YouTube: that would be even more silly. Also, the script is not your property or the public’s. You are in a position of trust. The producers can decide against you no matter how good you are for indiscreet behaviour with scripts. I have seen uploads on YouTube before I can get it out to the director and that is where it ends for you.
Do not use an ordinary attachment to email your tapes because their downloading time clogs up our inboxes and slows up the casting process even more. Use web transfer services, e.g. Hightail, WeTransfer or Vimeo. Label your file with your name and the character you are playing.
Good luck with your careers!
Ros Hubbard was born in Dublin and ran a model agency there in the late 1960s. She moved to London and became ‘Queen of the Commercials, at which point her husband, John, joined her as a casting director. They went on to cast a myriad of films and TV dramas. The company expanded to include both their daughter Amy and son Dan. Ros and John now live in London but they call their real home Dingle, in Co. Kerry, Ireland.
First published in Actors and Performers Yearbook 2015, available here at 20% off.