Synopsis by Tracy Weisert
It is a rare opportunity to have a free Master Class with a currently working television director but we had just that on June 25 with, one-hour episodic director, Bethany Rooney, who was our guest speaker. In my introduction of Ms. Rooney, I mentioned her most recent directing credits- RIZZOLI & ISLES (TNT), SWITCHED AT BIRTH (ABC Family), IN PLAIN SIGHT (USA), and THE PROTECTOR (LIFETIME), with upcoming directing jobs on PRIVATE PRACTICE (ABC), 90210 (The CW), REVENGE (ABC), and Kristin Chenoweth’s GOOD CHRISTIAN BELLES (ABC). Wow! With Ms. Rooney’s very busy schedule, we were very fortunate that she could carve out time to speak to us!
Here is Ms. Rooney’s biography along with some highlights from our seminar-
BETHANY ROONEY began her directing career on the 1980’s iconic television show, St. Elsewhere, where she had served as Associate Producer. She has directed over one hundred and fifty episodes of prime-time network shows, including Grey’s Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, Brothers & Sisters, Castle, and Private Practice. For cable television, she has directed In Plain Sight, Weeds, and Drop Dead Diva. She is a member of the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences and has served on several committees for The Directors Guild of America.
Ms. Rooney brought along actors Katie Enright and Stephan Smith Collins who performed a scene for the audience. Ms. Rooney also assigned several audience members crew positions and their duties to execute as if on a working television set. It was great to then see Ms. Rooney “in action” directing- giving the actors re-directs from “matching” their physical placement and actions on the stage for the camera (i.e. -when during the scene they crossed their arms or legs during the scene, where they were standing or in what line they crossed the stage…) to their performance nuances. It was very enlightening!
Some of the camera terms Ms. Rooney demonstrated with the actors were-
- Banana: a curved path by an actor from one point to another which allows the camera to keep the actor in the shot
- Groucho: to begin to lean as one walks toward a seated position, bending over a bit as Groucho Marx always did
- Rock on: stepping on to the mark; best achieved by leaving one foot at the mark and stepping toward it
An actor asked Ms. Rooney how casting has changed since she started in the entertainment business. She replied, “The show I am currently working on is a good example and we’re going to start shooting on Monday. The casting directors are people that I have never met and didn’t know. That in itself is unusual after all this time. The other part that is different for me is that they try to encourage their directors to watch stuff online. They tape [auditions] and upload it for me to watch it. I don’t like that at all because I prefer to be in the room with the actors, so I can give adjustments and stuff. I always kind of throw them [casting] for a loop before we work it out to schedule a session. Another part that is different for me is that when I started directing, for a long time the director would say, ‘I want Person A, Person B and Person C’ and unless the producer really, really objected, the director got what they wanted. Now, it’s pretty much like the producer can veto me any time they want. I could fight for an actor, but with the rise of the writer/showrunner, they have the final call.” (Editor’s note-I personally then thanked Ms. Rooney for wanting to be in the room when we actors are auditioning because so many television producers sessions are “on tape for the producers” now and it was refreshing to hear that she still likes being in the audition room.)
Then an actor asked Ms. Rooney what qualities she looks for in an actor who is auditioning. She said, “It starts when the person comes in the door. I want them to come in the door and be present, be full, be happy and be joyous to be there to get what they love to do. I want to get a sense of them as a person. The exception would be if they’re coming in to do a scene where they’ve got to ‘break down’ and they want to do that first, then I‘m respectful of that. They’ve gotten ready in the hall outside, so they should come in and do that and afterward, I’ll get a sense of them. Then in terms of their work, I want them to be off-book if at all possible because I think not being off-book inhibits you and doesn’t lead to your best choices. Thirdly, I would like that you have made strong choices. If the actor is good and has made strong choices, I can always re-direct you. Let’s talk about that for a second. If some actors leave the room and think, ‘Oh…I didn’t get an adjustment’ or ‘I did get an adjustment. That means they hate me’… or whatever it is. Here’s the truth from my perspective. If you did not get an adjustment in the room, that either means that you were perfect and you got the job or you did not. It could be either way. If you got an adjustment in the room, it means from my perspective, you have the potential to get the job and I want to see if you can do what I’ve just asked you to do. So it’s a good thing to get an adjustment and it could be an even greater thing, if you didn’t.”
Ms. Rooney continued with, “I had an experience this week with an actress I knew personally that had asked me to bring her in, so I asked the casting director to bring her in. She came in and she looked different than I’ve ever seen her. Usually she has curly hair, but she always blow dries it straight. This time she left it curly and kind of Bohemian and wore a dress. She usually comes in all in black and I thought ‘Good for her. She made some good choices. She was good in the room.’ About an hour after the session, I got an email from her saying, ’Oh I’m so sorry! I was so nervous. I so blew it! I really let you down and I’m so sorry…’ and I’m thinking, ‘I brought you in and you did well. Don’t go there!’ Don’t go to that place! Don’t make assumptions based on your own insecurities. As it happens, the job had to go to a person of color because it was one of those positions [roles] that we could do that. Ethnic diversity is important and we need to do it, so she did not get the part. Someday I’m going to sit her down and say, ‘That’s not cool. You’re killing yourself there for no good reason.’ So I guess that’s part of the answer too. I want you to come in with confidence and knowing that you are going to do your best and when you leave, feel like you did do your best. You got to do what you love to do. Whether you got the part or not is not in your control, so don’t worry about it.”
When an actor asked about holding the sides [script pages] during an audition, Ms. Rooney responded, “If you feel like you need the pages in your hand, that’s fine. I mean, it’s sort of like a security blanket. If you don’t need it, don’t have it. If it’s a scene that you are doing emotional prep work outside, tell the casting assistant to come back to get you and that person will inform her [the casting director], so you’ll just come in and do it.”
An actor got a good laugh when he asked Ms. Rooney about her “pet peeves” and asked her to be honest with her answer. Ms. Rooney said, “If you’re coming in to read for a nurse and you wear a nurse outfit, I am so offended. I can’t tell you how many people do that. Do you think I can’t see you be a nurse without you having on scrubs, for God’s sake? [laughter] Now…on the other side of that, if you’re coming in to read for a businessman and you come in wearing jeans, flip flops and a t-shirt, I feel like you’re not respecting the process…so get in the arena but don’t wear a costume please. Also, I used to get up when every person came in the room and shake their hand. At this point in our world nowadays, that just isn’t done. So when an actor comes in and goes like that (extended her hand), I’m going to do it (shake their hand), but it feels a little uncomfortable because nobody else in the room wants to do it, so please don’t put any of us in that position. Also a pet peeve of mine…and it happened again this week. Somebody came in to read and they left the room and I said, ‘They didn’t really want to be here’ and everybody in the room agreed with me. He just didn’t put the effort in. He hadn’t made choices, he wasn’t off-book….and I‘m like, ‘Why did you come in? Why did you waste my time? Why did you waste everybody’s time?’ But I know if you’re a dedicated actor, how would you ever do that? But people do.”
With that said, when asked more about her audition sessions, Ms. Rooney replied, “Everybody gets a clean shot when they come in the door. Another thing about that I want to say is, I never look at resumes until after the session because I do not want to be influenced by how much experience you do or do not have. I think a lot of people are like that so please don’t like go crazy over your resumes and stuff. It’s not that big of a deal. The reason your picture and resume is there, from my perspective is at the end of the session, if we’re going, ‘Should we go with Person A or Person B?’ we can have your pictures to remind us and potentially at that point we look at the resumes and go, ‘Oh…they worked with this director and you know I can call them and ask her… [how they did, etc…]’ “
Another funny moment was when an actor asked about reading with a reader [whomever it may be] who either is not giving you much to work with during your audition or either was low or loud in volume and energy and should we compensate for it? Ms. Rooney said, “I think you have to be true to your performance and let the director take it from there. I really admire what you guys do in auditions because almost never, is the casting director a decent scene partner. [laughter] You’ve all done it and worked with it, you just have to create it from within, do the best you can and connect with them as best as you can.”
In closing, Ms. Rooney said, “I admire and respect actors – for putting themselves ‘out there,’ for being willing to face a life of rejection in order to express themselves creatively. And I could never do what you do. You’re so brave. I’m grateful that you want to act, and that I have the pleasure of dancing that creative dance with you. You act, I’ll direct. And we’ll have fun doing it!”
Below is information about Ms. Rooney’s and sitcom director Mary Lou Belli’s new book-
Directors Tell the Story, by Bethany Rooney and Mary Lou Belli (out August 1, 2011), called “film school in 320 pages,” teaches aspiring directors how to master the craft of directing with hands-on exercises, advice and interviews from film and TV luminaries. A companion website includes over 30 minutes of high-quality video demonstrating directing techniques and behind-the-scenes activity.