Why You Didn’t Get Cast

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Buster Keaton and Donald O’Connor rehearsing in 1956

A few days ago, I had two conversations almost back-to-back. One was with an experienced and talented actor who believed they were getting the message that their career was over just because they were in a dry spell. The other was with yet another Bay Area actor whose career had stalled the minute they went AEA. While we talked about the many reasons why that happens, this actor said to me, “I want to see if I’m good enough to be an AEA actor.” And my heart just broke because, as someone whose life is always on the other side of the table, I know how seldom casting is purely about who’s “good.” I hate that experienced, talented actors can see whether or not they get cast as a measure of their intrinsic worth as actors.

So here you go, actors of the world. The pure, unvarnished truth about why you didn’t get the role.

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Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart performing Philadelphia Story for Victory Theater, 1942.

1. MOST COMMON: You’re just not right for it. I know this sounds like a massive, shit-eating cliche, but it’s absolutely the truth. A director walks into the room with a character conceptualized in a certain way, and is looking for the person whose type or energy matches the character. The truly amazingly badass Leslie Martinson of TheatreWorks taught me this years ago, when I was first starting out: Every conceptualized character has thirteen adjectives that describe them. Every actor has thirteen adjectives that describe them. Casting is about finding the best match. I pass over actors I flat-out adore all the time because the fit isn’t right. For example, a director might have Orlando conceptualized as a man in his 20s with a gentle, soft-spoken energy, while your audition presents a man in his 30s with a bright, aggressive energy. While your audition might be fantastic, you’re not going to be that director’s Orlando.

2. Your skillset isn’t developed. This is the second most common, and the one people like to think of as “not good enough.” That way of thinking is total bullshit. How do I know? Because year after year, I see actors grow and develop. I see actors go from maaaaybe having the skills to handle a small supporting role to being ready to carry a play in one season. Either they took a class that unlocked something, or worked with a director who stretched them, or went on a spiritual quest in the New Mexico desert, or had mind-blowing sex with Ian McKellen, whatever. But I see it happen all the time, because dedicated actors are constantly working on their skillset.

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Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, and Joe Melia rehearsing Too True to be Good at the RSC in 1975.

3. The role was precast. Some directors are superstitious and will read people for roles that are already cast. It’s unfortunately common for actors to commit to roles that they later bail on (a better-paying gig, a family emergency, a medical situation), and if you auditioned other actors for that role, you have some go-to options. One casting director told me she was so superstitious that she didn’t get rid of the casting data for a show until it CLOSED. On the flip side, lots of theatres are upfront about which roles are precast. Don’t let that necessarily discourage you. You may want to consider coming in for a show where your dream role is precast– you may end up playing that role after all.

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Claudia McNeil in A Raisin in the Sun, 1959

4. The role went to someone they’ve worked with before. This is incredibly common. You know an actor’s work, you have a shared language, you understand how to work together. A known quantity is less of a risk, even if the known quantity didn’t crush the callback like you did. The director knows from past experience that the other actor can give them what the work needs.

5. You’ve had a history of behaving unprofessionally. Luckily, this one is extremely rare, but it does occasionally happen. Violating your contract (coming consistently late or no-showing to rehearsals or shows, for example), treating fellow actors or crew disrespectfully, making unreasonable demands (such as demanding the theatre violate their contract with the playwright so you can change something in the script despite the fact that the playwright declined to allow the change, or demanding the day off during tech because it’s your one year dating anniversary), deciding closing night is the time for GAGS! and IMPROV!, badmouthing the show on social media (“This play is going to be total shit!”). Although I’ve seen every one of these examples firsthand, they are, as I’ve said, pretty rare. The converse, happily, is MUCH more likely to be true– that we take a chance on an actor unknown to us because someone at another theatre is raving about how awesome they are. And believe me, I’m not trying to imply that this doesn’t happen in the opposite direction. I know plenty of directors treat actors in unconscionable ways. But that’s an entirely different blog post. My point is that, in any theatre community, companies share personnel. While we don’t necessarily go out of our way to share that kind of information, the Literary Manager at one theatre is directing a show at another theatre. The actor at one theatre is the Artistic Director at another theatre. What happens in Vegas, so to speak, does not stay in Vegas. But be happy that the converse is also true and much, much more common– we’re raving about how wonderful you are to our friends at other companies. I’ve sent many a “heads up” email to directors to let them know that an actor new to them and about to audition for them is someone I’ve worked with and believe in.

6. Conflicts. You may have been the best person for the role, but since you’re planning to be in Oklahoma for Baton Twirling Nationals during tech, they’re going to go with someone else.

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7. You tanked the audition. Oh, man, this one is a heartbreaker, and I see it all the time. It’s one of the reasons I tell my students that the best way to cast is to see as many plays as possible so you’re seeing actors in their natural habitat. Auditions are weird little creatures, artificial and forced. However, if we want to open our theatres to new people and new communities (and we do), we’re stuck with open auditions. Like standardized testing, which only measures how good you are at standardized tests, auditions often measure how well you audition and little else. While callbacks are theoretically meant to correct for that, you don’t always make it to the callback to show them. I’ve seen plenty of actors give me a crap audition and then give a beautiful performance in someone else’s play. They had a bad day, or memorized a new monologue they thought would be “better” for the role the day before, or were too nervous. There are a million reasons why a great actor would tank an audition. Don’t let it discourage you. Take an audition class or work with a coach if this is a common problem for you. Do what you need to do. But KEEP TRYING. Invite artistic directors and casting directors to see your work. Don’t give up! You won’t tank them all.

And that’s my main piece of advice: Don’t give up. If this is your dream, persevere! Nothing is insurmountable. FALL DOWN SEVEN TIMES, GET UP EIGHT.

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74 thoughts on “Why You Didn’t Get Cast

  1. Miss X the actress says:

    There have been many famous examples of actors who were cast against type, both in film and theater. You need to get away from that mentality of ‘We have a type in mind’, because you are missing out on some potentially wonderful actors giving memorable performances. I don’t buy into that whole role type. You all should definitely expand your horizons and try out for that role that doesn’t fit your ‘look’ or type. Often, directors that choose against type discover the best performers! Cookie cutter is verrrrrry boring. If you already have someone in mind, show common courtesy and respect and don’t waste an actor’s valuable time by having them audition or come back for callbacks.

  2. LeeLee says:

    thank you for that insight. 🙂

  3. Martha Ghio says:

    Such an excellent article. I especially can relate to the “bad audition” part–but not how you think. I LOVE to audition–and usually do fine. But this one role, that I SO wanted (and I HAD prepared–but I did try something new in my preparation that I won’t ever do again). Anyway, I totally had a melt-down during that audition. The casting people/directors were so supportive, told me they loved my “look”, just go again, etc.; but for whatever mysterious reason, I could not pull myself together for this moment. I know I would have done well had I been cast. I was perfect for the role–and the casting people were really rooting for me, they wanted me to succeed! But–it was my worst audition ever. Whenever I have been cast, I work really hard. I throw myself totally into doing the best I can. And I am proud of my work, and I think my directors, for the most part, would agree. But that one damn audition! So yes, going to see actors actually working. Major benefits. Meantime, back to work. Thank you!

  4. Avery Cochikas says:

    I’m new to acting(and in middle school) I auditioned for Disney channel(refer to #7), and I thought I did great, but AFTER I sent in my audition video, I watched it and it was terrible. Then for my 7th grade school play, I was SO excited, but since the last director had quit, the audition date changed to when I was supposed to be on a cruise(that I did NOT want to go on during school.). I ended up being an oompaloompa(AKA the worst role in the play).

    • pat delzell says:

      As a director, I would say that your experience as an Oompalooompa may open future doors for you! If your behavior was professional (being punctual, paying attention during rehearsals, trying your best, being cooperative and supportive with other cast members, following directions, and generally acting as a positive member of the group) then you will be considered for many more roles. Stay open to any role, no matter how small. Ensemble work can be more satisfying and fun than being a star.

  5. Ben Rollins says:

    Perhaps someone can answer a question for me. Why is it that, every time that I audition in person, I get the part – yet, every time I send in a taped audition, I don’t?

    • Hi, Ben –

      I think we have a tendency to look for patterns, but in our business, the pattens we’ve decided exist are usually no more than superstition.

      Here’s the thing. If the casting folks have chosen to see auditions via video, then that’s what they’re doing. Most likely, all the actors who are auditioning are doing the same thing. So it’s a level playing field. That means they’ll have to cast someone from video. Your chances are as good as anyone else’s.

      So, your belief that video auditions are somehow magically cursed for you will disappear as soon as it’s disproven, which it probably will be in time. And by the way, do you really get EVERY part you audition for in person? That would be an unheard-of ratio. If so, good for you. If not, it supports my point. There’s no weird magic going on. Sometimes you get chosen and sometimes you don’t.

      That’s not to say you can’t improve your taped auditions. Are you working with a coach? You should, especially when you’re not getting casting director feedback. Are you doing all the detective work, figuring out what the scene is about, what your character wants, and so forth? There’s always room for improvement. Just be patient with yourself and approach it like an artist.

      I speak as someone who’s been working professionally in theatre and television for several decades, and who has done a lot of auditioning. I even teach a workshop about it. I promise you, there’s no voodoo involved. You just haven’t booked a role via video YET.

      Michael Kostroff

    • Kacee says:

      It could be lots of reasons. I would examine your own situation using the points listed above- do you always know who you’re auditioning for in person, do you have a good known, reputation, are you making smarter choices in your in-person audition but not your taped audition, etc.? Most likely though, if I were to venture a guess, your acting style may not read well on camera. Acting for the stage and acting for the camera (even if the filmed audition is for the stage) are two completely different styles and brilliant stage actors just don’t work as well on film. Similarly, brilliant film actors don’t work as well on stage. If you’re seriously committed to auditioning frequently via taped auditions, I would take a class or workshop on acting for the camera.

  6. Marc Kevin Moran says:

    My name is Marc K. Moran & have been acting in various theatres in Denver for years & i am more of a character actor than a leading man& have been cast in some cool roles , i am not complaining but recently am going through a dry spell & have been experiencing the situation of directors at many of the theatres casting their favorites over & over again for roles i know i would be terrific in but dont get a chance lately. It is especially frustrating to not get called back . I feel i am at some kind of crossroads & as i am in my 50s & i have been told by a couple of people & feel it myself that i still look youthful, where as i have this commanding James Earl Jones like voice that people seem to be a little taken aback after i open my mouth to speak. I inherited my dads genes as far as looking young for a long time & know i have it in me to play cool character roles as i get older, its like i dont sound like what i look like. Does this make sense to anyone ?

    • Staci says:

      I relate. I’m 22 and a professional in the field. I have a hard tI’m being cast as characters within and without my type because I act and sound much older than I look. I very much look 22, but most people think I’m in my 30s when I’m speaking with them. THIS disconnect costs me jobs. It sucks knowing that it’s something I’m going to have to deal with literally until my late 50s.

  7. Staci says:

    I’ve been feeling like death lately. It seems like everything I’m perfect for, nail, and almost have, goes to someone else. I recently was called back for Sally in Cabaret, nailed the audition, nailed the call back, but wasn’t cast in the role. The person they went with cannot sing nor act the part (Not exaggerating, I know her very well). IT’S hard not to be bitter because this is just one of many examples. IT was fine for a while, but when I ask for feedback they literally say that I’m not doing anything wrong and they they would cast me, but just didn’t. Its enough to make me want to quit,but i love my career. But this experience is making me think scary thoughts and try to change everything about myself. BAlls, I even just dyed my hair red to try to abandon the old me. Its causing an identity crisis and I don’t know what to do.

  8. shannon says:

    OMG, so glad I read this. I thought maybe I was just being crazy or bitter. But they really do hire the same actors or from within the theatre. I swear! I had an AMAZING acting audition! The directors even smiled!! They ended up rehiring a regular actor from the theatre. WHAT..EVER! LOL I just laughed when I found out, cause I knew I did awesome at my audition.

    • Ric Forrester says:

      Sometimes it is difficult to tell whether the “inhouse” casting is a loyalty reward or a pre-cast role with the audition staff going through the motions. Either way, my belief is that it can potentially stagnate a company.

  9. Sophie says:

    So, I’m in a school play and I got the one part that I just didn’t want. It has to dance, I can’t dance and I just HATE the role. The person who got one of the parts I wanted just CAN’T act. This is my last play in the school and I’ve never ever had a role I wanted.

  10. hmmm. I’m not sure how I feel about this. One of the comments said something like, “many actors are cast against type”. In my experience, that’s only true if the actor is known to the people doing the casting and they just want to use that person. It’s a VERY difficult, uphill climb, this industry. It’s never a straight line. And, the preconceived notion of the casting people (as mentioned in Item #1) my be necessary to streamline the casting process for the people in charge, but it’s frustrating and defeating to those who don’t “fit the mold”. And, even MORE disheartening when you KNOW you’re right for the part, SO right, the rightest, and you STILL don’t get cast!!! And, someone who is only moderately right for the part, but has worked at the theater before, gets the part. I’m guessing the “known” for that director/production/creative team is better than taking a chance on unknown~

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