(As published in BackStage / West; October 29, 2011)
By Jessica Gardner
Chris Game knows what you’re going through. The Los Angeles–based casting director has worked as an actor, director, writer, and production assistant and has been teaching acting for over 10 years. As a casting director, he uses all his experience along with his subtle humor to help get the performance he wants from the actors who audition for him. Humor also helps when you need to cast roles such as a diver who can do a triple lindy or a blind albino African American who can dance and play guitar — both of which Game has been asked to find. “I also once had to populate a Tibetan village within 24 hours,” he says. He has also cast national commercials for Harley-Davidson, Swiffer, Shell, Burger King, Dodge, Jeep, Chrysler, Wells Fargo, Beck’s, Lego, Oscar Mayer, and many other companies. His independent film credits include “The Good Humor Man,” “The Uninvited,” “Donner Pass,” and the upcoming “Scary or Die.”
ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
My background is in theater. I am a proud founding and active member of the Elephant Theatre Company. I even came up with the name for the company. I was reading a book on Sam Shepard at the time, while directing one of Shepard’s early plays, “Red Cross.” The book describes the time when Shepard was writing “Operation Sidewinder.”The play needed a giant rattlesnake from outer space. Their means were modest back then, so Shepard was going to scrap the play. Famed director and Bob Dylan collaborator Jacques Levy said something like, “Sam, if you need an elephant on stage, we’ll find a way to put the elephant on stage.” It became our name—and part of my ethos.I was just in a world-premiere play at the Elephant called “Love Sick”[extended through Nov. 5]. Yes, I really act, and I know how hard it is. I am also a casting director, acting coach, and teacher. Acting gives me the opportunity to say, “You’re welcome to come see whether I am full of shit or I can practice what I preach.” That element is thrilling.
I was thrown into casting. Over a decade and a half ago, I was a lowly production assistant, and that job was often abusive, grueling, and exhausting. It was also incredibly exciting and one of the most accelerated learning experiences I’ve ever had. At the time, I also co-wrote with my friend Mike Vaez and directed a play called “Half Way There.” I invited all of the producers and directors I worked for to the play. On opening night we were sold-out and got a standing ovation. When I returned to work Monday, I was suddenly seen in a whole new light. The producers and directors I had worked for as a P.A. began hiring me as a talent coordinator and casting director. I always say, “Make your vocation your vocation—before it is your vocation.” I did that, and my career was then handed to me without my having to look for it.
Nobody mentored me as a casting director. Everybody just expected me to know what to do. I had been directing for the theater for about seven years by then, so I had that part down. The rest I learned from on-the-job experience. I always say, “If you’ve driven through a shit storm, then you know how to drive through a shit storm.” To be honest, my style of directing and especially teaching is more influenced by Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin.
SHOW VERSUS SHOWCASE
The funny thing is, I am a casting director who doesn’t believe in auditions. I want to see you in a show, not a showcase. I love meeting talent in class. I love casting students when I can — but please note: The casting director does not cast the actors. The casting director calls in the actors. So the people who hire me are responsible for the final decision to cast the talent. Sometimes they may ask me to weigh in with my opinion. When this happens, having more exposure to your talents as a student of mine can be a huge deciding factor.If I can’t see you in a show, I recommend meeting me at a workshop studio like the Actor’s Key. Its setting is intimate and the talent is very well recruited.I was asked to describe what I’m like in the audition room. I asked my assistant, and she scrunched her face, grabbed her forehead, and replied staccato-style, with her eyes closed: “Sincere. Compassionate. Intense. Honest. Fast. Productive. Constructive. Loud.” (She said that one apologetically.) “Actor-specific.” I cop to that.I rarely read in auditions anymore, but when I do, I try never to read the same way twice. Be ready to fly by the seat of your pants. Get used to enjoying that sensation. Clock in like you already have the job, and if you f–k it up, you lose that job.
Photo by Jeff Game
USING BATMAN’S BELT
Casting commercials comes with unique challenges, the No. 1 challenge being the time limit. Commercials are 15, 30, and 60 seconds long. Our training as actors often hugely lacks any commercial training. Whoever taught us to act in a duration of three seconds or less? I teach audition technique, and I tell students I will give them a utility belt, just like Batman, that they can use on every audition.Actors often ask me what my best advice for auditioning is. I can’t give you an entire utility belt in one answer, but I’ll give you a clue: “Silent” and “listen” have the same letters. Or, as I joke with actors who know me better, “Shut up and listen!” Also, make the human choice and never concern yourself with what you think we want. You need to audition like, “F–k you! I dare you to pick somebody else!”
Act every day. Other artists practice their craft every day. Painters paint every day; writers write. This town is filled with people who say they’re actors and spend most of their time not acting. Fall in love with the craft of it. Your work ethic will get you more jobs than the actual work.