Synopsis by Tracy Weisert
It was my pleasure to have Casting Director and Commercial Coach Killian McHugh speak at our free member Casting Networks’ Inside the Industry Seminar on August 23rd. Killian always brings out smart and talented actors who attend. He also got many actors up on the stage to read commercial copy. Here is Killian’s bio-
Killian McHugh came to Los Angeles in 1998 to pursue acting and actually booked the first job for which he auditioned! Since then, he has become a very successful actor in commercials. He began his career in commercial casting in 2000. Over the years, he has worked with just about every top casting office in the commercial industry as both a casting associate and as a session director. He has also worked with many of the top commercial directors in the industry as a camera principal, and through the casting process. In 2005, he found his home at Alyson Horn Casting ( AHC Inc. ) and quickly became her “ No. 1″ session director. In 2006, he founded Killian’ s Workshop. This series of commercial workshops is geared towards teaching actors the intricacies involved in having a career in the commercial industry. In 2010, Killian’ s workshop was voted best commercial workshop in Los Angeles in the Backstage West actor’ s poll and Killian was also voted best workshop instructor in Los Angeles from that same poll. He was also promoted from session director/ casting associate to casting director within the AHC Inc. organization. When asked about his philosophy and point of view with which he teaches, Killian responded “I am all about empowering the actor. I am not teaching people how to book a commercial, I am teaching them how to have a career. ” “Leap and the net will appear,” is his philosophy for casting, teaching and living.
Killian began, “I thank you. I know I got all your headshots. I’ll be taking the names of the people who didn’t come as well. [laughter] So…it sucks for them. Hi, I’m Killian from AHC, Alyson Horn Casting and I run Killian’s Workshop, so I assume you know that and you came here for information. Anyone have questions to start out with and then we’ll do a little thing. Anyone have anything pressing?”
[To backtrack a bit, during my introduction of Killian to the roomful of actors, I mentioned that I had just shot a national commercial with a well-known actor with whom I shot my first studio feature film with nearly 30 years ago. Also, the commercial’s co-directors who hired me, I hadn’t seen in years however this was my fifth time working with them and that I felt I had come “full circle.”]
An actor asked about improvisation when auditioning, to which Killian responded, “Let me start really quickly with what Tracy just said about this ‘full circle’ thing. Everything you do matters and I’m really adamant about that in my class. Everything you do matters and so this business, like all businesses, builds on everything you’ve just done. So somebody that you met three years ago could be writing a scene for you right now and you just don’t know it. There are a lot of times, as an actor, that we really feel that there are dark, dark days but somebody you met three years ago can be writing a play for you or a scene in a movie, etc, etc…or that person in acting class just started directing Modern Family. You know what I mean? That was a huge shock to all of us when they did that, so don’t give up, but understand that everything you do matters wherever you are…..on a set or in a bar and doing things. It all ties in there together because this city is really about connections and networking. I probably shouldn’t say this but I was at a seminar with Camryn Manheim years ago and this was when people went to Sky Bar and she said, ‘You’ll get farther at Sky Bar than you will at any acting class in this town’ and to an extent she was right. Don’t say ‘no’ to things. Say ‘yes’ to things. I’m not saying to go out drinking. [laughter] Go out and do things and network and build that repertoire because it does work. She (Tracy) worked with those guys (directors) five times. Our directors, when you do well, they want to work with you again and that’s a really big note. Conversely, when you don’t look happy on set and when you do kind of gripe and moan, they remember that as well.”
Killian then mentioned, “Improvisation…This is a real sticking point with me with SAG. (Screen Actors Guild) The improv situation is not going away. Our clients are not asking you to rewrite the copy. But they are looking for you to put a backstory to your work/role. They are asking you to think about the situation. If you come up with a funny button for the scene or make a bold funny choice and that allows you to shine above the other actors and book the role, the audition room is the time to show those skills! Being funny in the car on the ride home won’t help. If you see the finished product and you didn’t book it and they used your line, there is a process in place to protect the actor from that scenario. All of the casting directors got together this year and contacted SAG and asked to have a meeting so we could all be 100% clear about the Improv rules for commercial auditioning. No one in casting wants to take advantage of actors. We want everyone to shine, we want everyone to book and we want it to be 100% fair for the talent. SAG refused to meet with casting stating ‘We don’t feel a meeting is necessary at this time.’”
Killian spoke of the importance of all actors performing live as often as possible. He said, “The more you do, the better you get. I do The Armando Show at IO West (Improv Olympic West) as often as they’ll let me and it’s really such a great feeling to be on stage and doing live things. The first time I did it, I hadn’t been on stage live in a play for like ten years and I had forgotten what that felt like. Immediately, I started tweeting and making it part of the class that you have to do live things often. We get trapped in our bubble, we’re waiting for the phone to ring and it becomes this dark, dark place. We forget that this is supposed to be fun and you have to do something live…often. I don’t know what your range is there, but try for it once a month because it reminds you why you’re here. A play, an improv show or anything but it has to be live. So practice, practice, practice and be a thinking actor.”
Killian continued, “In our world, it’s not the theatrical world. At the Groundlings, IO West, UCB (Upright Citizen’s Brigade) or Second City you can get up on the stage and you can do anything you want. Our world is acting not for art. We are selling things. The ad agency has come up with a concept that the clients have accepted, so your improvisation in my room has to based on what they are already looking for. It can’t just be, ‘I thought of a funny line. I’m going to say this funny line because I thought of it in the lobby.’ [laughter] You can’t do that. It has to be within the context of the scene that they have already created. That’s the thing that SAG is also getting wrong because they are not going to steal your (improvised) line or not going to steal your stuff because the ad agency is being paid by the client. They have to be the funniest people. Their script has to be the one that works because they are getting paid a lot of money for this concept. They want to see that you’re a thinking actor, that they are not going to have to feed you every line, that you will have thoughts if they need it on the day and ‘if’ is the key to that statement in the commercial world.”
- Networking? “Here’s what I mean by networking. What I mean is NOT going up to people saying, ‘I’m an actor. Here’s my card’ and it’s happy hour wherever happy hour is now. If it’s not Sky Bar, I don’t know anymore. [laughter] By networking, I mean, getting out there, meeting like-minded people in casual conversation when things comes up and things go from there. But if you walk up to me in a bar and say, ‘Oh my God. Here’s my card. I’m an actor…’ that’s going to bum me out. [laughter] Even on Twitter, when people say, ‘Please call me in…’ we can’t. It’s how you network. As I was talking to Tracy in the lobby, you say ‘Yes’ to everything. I say ‘Yes’ [to projects] when people ask me. I don’t really care what the project is as long as it’s watchable because I’ll be good in it, so there’s that. You know what I mean? [laughter] I say ‘Yes’ to lots of stuff because I was asked and you never know who is going to see it and you never know what is going to happen.”
Killian said, “That’s another thing that actors just don’t get, that when you’re in my commercial room, people are watching these tapes, the links that we send out. Huge people do commercials now. Gus Van Sant does commercials and Speck/Gordon. Huge people are doing commercials and they are watching you. You should remember that during that audition because I think people forget about that. They are just in the moment and thinking about themselves but also think about who possibly is going to be watching this because those people can change your life.”
- Acting reels on LA Casting? “That’s a very good point and I bring it up every time I come here. The answer is yes, we do watch them but here’s the important part. First, your reel shouldn’t be more than a minute. If you have a six-minute reel so, A. No one is going to watch that and B. It means that you don’t need a reel because you’re working all the time! It’s not supposed to be the whole scene that you loved so much. It is snippets of different jobs that we can see that you have worked. That’s for theatrical. We will click on it to see if ‘Yes, is he/she funny?’ however, now here’s the key. We’re only going to watch a minute and it is not good, we are not faulting you for being in a project that isn’t good. We are faulting you in not calling you in because you did not have the wherewithal to recognize that and you posted this. Now, we question your taste level and we can’t bring you in because it ain’t funny, you see, and you shouldn’t have put that up in the first place. Don’t put stuff up there just to put it up there. We can see that you move and that you have limbs. [laughter] It should be good stuff. It doesn’t mean it has to be a big-budget movie but it has to be good and watchable. We all have to start somewhere. That’s another point in ‘Keep doing things and saying yes,’ I get really angry when actors are snobby about doing a student film or things like that because student directors grow up to be adult directors. That’s cool! These kids at USC, probably their daddy is already a giant somebody. [laughter] I would do their films.”
“You have to be able to recover from your mistakes. Flubbing the line is not the way you lose a job, it’s how you handle it.”
“Cheat out towards the camera. You weren’t in the frame at all.”
“You have to figure out how to shine. We are looking for range.”
“ The actor interview are coming back. This is what I say in class. It’s called a ‘personality slate,’ so have one.
“Don’t move our furniture.”
“It has to read instantly. Your headshot is your calling card. It’s the main thing that gets you in the room. You can’t play it on the cheap. You have to do professional pictures. You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars. That’s not what I’m saying. It is the #1 thing that gets you in our room if we don’t already know you.”
“You shouldn’t have 13 pictures on LA Casting. It tells me that you don’t know who you are, who you’re selling and who you are selling is you. You should have 4-5 max of different shots but all in the same vein of who you are. Like if it was a clothing collection, each piece is different but they all tie together in the same collection. That’s what your pictures should do on LA Casting. We have to see that you’re this person all the time. If people put a thousand pictures up…’Now I’m going to be everything…’you’ve said that you’re nothing, so I’m going to have to skip you and go on to somebody else.”
“I hated getting headshots as an actor and it showed.”
- Bookings and Avails?
“I teach a very successful class in that people book a lot, so this next statement is going to sound contradictory to that but you can’t judge your acting career based on your commercial bookings for the true theatrical actors in the room. Some people just want to book a commercial because they live in LA—and that’s awesome! But for people who have aspirations beyond the commercial room, you can’t judge your acting life on booking a Jack-In-The-Box or a Pepsi (commercial) because there are too many factors involved. You should and could judge it on your callback ratio and avails. Bookings are awesome and I teach a class where I want everybody to book and I spend all day shouting these bookings out on Twitter, so that’s a really great gauge if you’re a big booker but when you don’t get it, don’t beat yourself up about it because the last three campaigns they had an African-American woman. They have to have a Hispanic woman in the next one or a Caucasian woman or an African-American male, etc, etc…because that’s just the way this industry works in the commercial world with the demographics of it all. You can’t book it but you can gauge, ‘Am I getting callbacks?’ or ‘Am I getting avails?’”
“Does everybody know what an avail by the way? Should we start there because a lot of people don’t? An avail is a booking but you may not get a check. [laughter] Really…I know that people get frustrated with avails but that means you have done every single thing that you can. An avail is the director is saying to the clients, ‘Here you go. (after the callback process) Here are my two. You can label her ‘first choice’ or label her ‘backup.’ It doesn’t really matter to me. I am going to put them down on the table, you go back to your client and I’ll see you on Monday and whomever shows up on set, shows up on set and that’s great.’ So an avail means that you booked it but you won’t get a check maybe unless you get called and they say the actual word, ‘Booking.’ Don’t be bummed about that and understand what that means. You did it! You beat out everybody else and now some person in a cubical in Iowa is saying, ‘Well…she looks like the girl who jilted me at my prom…No, I like the other one.’ [laughter] That’s where it comes in about the acting talent as well. Somebody somewhere else is picking. An avail means that you won, so that’s a really, really good thing.”
In closing, Killian said, “This whole business is subjective. The next person that comes in next month, could say totally different things than what I just said. They’ll be wrong but…[laughter] I’m just saying they could because the whole thing is subjective. People ask me what I do for a living as a casting director and I say that we’re professional Mean Girls. That’s my job. That’s what we do. We judge for a living. It’s awesome! [laughter] It’s so great but here’s the thing. Here’s why we’re not so mean in casting. When you see us frustrated, please hold a good thought for us and maybe say thank you as you leave the building instead of being snarky.” Killian then told of several actors who came up to him outside his casting office and asked if this was the place as he was standing with the address sign right above him and said, “This is very important. Come in and read the signs. Actors do this all the time and ask, ‘Why was that lobby girl so awful?’ It’s because you’ve just asked her where the restroom was and you’re the 60th person who has done that and there is a sign that says restroom that way. (He pointed) You know what I’m saying? Come in, read the signs and be a thinking person. Don’t make it all about you. Of course it is about you and the choices that you make, and you want to book this job but understand that you’re there for twenty minutes. Actors think that it only exists when they’re in that building. We have been there since 9 o’clock and we’re going to be there until 8 o’clock, you see and a whole bunch of stuff happens in between. You have to understand that when we’re snarky or when we’re just at our wit’s ends because seriously, 60 people have asked me where the bathroom is and I’m standing next to a sign that says, ‘Restroom.’ That’s really weird and it doesn’t happen in other places where you go to interview. It’s just that your senses are so heightened and you want to book this job, so logic goes right out the window because you’re only thinking about this job… ‘I gotta book this. Oh my God, this means everything to me!’ No it doesn’t. It is an Arby’s commercial. It does not mean everything to you. You do not have Arby’s on your vision board… [laughter] so stop acting like that when you come into our office. You’re totally blind to everything else. If you drive home every day, that means you do understand addresses because you find your way home every day. You can do it! If you can drive in LA, you can find the restroom in my office. On your own. (Killian is laughing….) Shall we end on that note because I really like that one?”
Thank you Killian! Your seminars are always very candid and insightful with many laughs thrown in.