Synopsis by Tracy Weisert
When I approached Commercial Director/Casting Director James Levine of Type Casting to be a guest speaker for Casting Networks’ Inside the Industry seminar, I was very happy when he said “yes!” I had experienced Mr. Levine’s great teaching previously as part of a well known commercial coaches’ class series with working Commercial Casting Directors. During that four hour intensive class, I found Mr. Levine (Leh – vīne) very actor-friendly and I learned a lot! Below is his bio-
JAMES LEVINE (Creator / Director / Executive Producer), a graduate of Emerson College, began his career in television (THE DREW CAREY SHOW) and commercial acting (too numerous to contemplate). He was a member of SECOND CITY where he honed his improv chops. James is also the Creator, Director and Producer of NNN Live (with Andy Kindler) which is currently being shopped by World Wide Pants. He has cast and directed many commercials and numerous short films, most recently directing spots for HP and the SOUTHWEST AIRLINES “Wanna Get Away” campaign. He is the owner of Type Casting, Inc., an LA-based casting company.
At our May 22 Inside the Industry seminar, Mr. Levine began, “Hopefully, what I can tell you is the perspective from all sides of the camera and that’s what I recommend that you get. Don’t just focus on what you are doing in front of the camera. Learn everything that is going on on the set and in the process. That will make you a better actor, alright?
I teach at a lot of places and whatever I tell you today is not the gospel. It’s just what works for me. It works for a lot of people that I have passed some of these things along to. You can try it and see if it works for you. You’re here today because you want to work, right? [laughter] You just don’t want to be my friend. I always start with what I think is maybe the most important thing that actors need to understand that they seem to miss…the thing that eludes them and maybe is the thing that most gets in their way. It’s that actors come into a room and they want to be “liked.” I know this because I was an actor for a long time. You can’t help it. You’re acting in front of other people instead of just in your living room because you want a reaction, you want validation and you need some response. That is sort of the nature and the essence of performance, so you can’t help it. You are coming into the audition saying, ‘I hope they like me’ instead of thinking, ‘What are we doing?’ That should be the only thing on your mind. ‘What’s going on here? What’s this material? What are we trying to accomplish? How do I fit in? How do I help realize this marketing strategy that I am going to be the end result of? Why is this funny? Why is this poignant?’ If you come in and that’s what’s on your mind, you are already going to be doing a better job and then I’ll like you, then everybody wins.
What I want from you is for you to make me look good. I want my client to think that I bring in nothing but great people and they have a hard time picking because all the people I bring in are wonderful. You made me look good. I like you now. [laughter] I’ll bring you in all the time. I don’t need any more friends. I have lots of friends. We don’t have to waste time when you come in with you asking me how I am doing and how’s it going today. That’s wasting time. Be professional, be friendly, come in and do your thing and get out. We have a lot of people to see. Commercial casting is a process of elimination. People don’t understand that either, you know? It’s a lot of stuff that, if you could really see it from the other side, you would understand better and would help you but you don’t have the opportunity to sit in on a casting session all day and watch what happens. I’ll try to help you with that a little bit.”
Mr. Levine continued, “The first thing that I want to do is, one, that we’re going to do this really quickly. The thing that’s really the most important, the most important element…actually let me back up a little bit. If you don’t worry if we like you, you won’t be nervous. That’s what you’re nervous about and if you want not to be nervous in your audition don’t worry. It’s not important if I like you, just do a good job and your nerves will go away. I promise you. You’ll be looser, you’ll be more relaxed and it won’t look like it’s your first audition. Now what’s essential for you as an actor in commercials is that you know what you do automatically.”
“Commercials are not a business of imagination. They’re not about range. Your other acting training teaches you how to play other people and commercials teach you how to play yourselves. Sometimes you have the opportunity to show some range once you know and we know you’re a good improv actor or you have some interesting range to you, sometimes you get the opportunity to show that but not often. Most of the time, what we’re interested in is your ‘automatic read-’ what happens when you stand in front of the camera doing nothing. What we think we know about you, okay? Whether what we think or what we know about you is accurate or not, is not relevant. It doesn’t matter. You have to know what we see, understand it and know how to use it effectively in a very compressed form, very quickly. Instantly. If you don’t know what that thing is that you do, you can’t do this [commercial acting] or if you’re misguided about what you think you do, you’re going to be spending a lot of energy in the wrong direction and you’ll be frustrated. You’ll be going to the wrong auditions and be doing the wrong things and you’ll wonder why you’re not working. Definitely know what ‘your thing’ is.”
Mr. Levine added, “If you’re in a meeting with an agent and they say, ‘What do you do? What’s your thing?’ and you say, ‘I don’t know. How do you see me?’, [laughter] then the meeting is over. They don’t want to have to figure you out. I don’t want to figure you out. We want to know that you know what it is you do and you’re bringing it. Just know how to deliver it.” As an example, Mr. Levine pointed to an actor and said “You say ‘I’m the ‘soccer mom’ and your picture says that automatically and we look at it and say, ‘Yes you are’ and yes that is and I know exactly how I’m going to submit you and great! Come on board. I’m short on soccer moms and we need you.’ They start submitting you and I see that submission when it comes in and go, ‘There’s a soccer mom. Yay!’ I select you and you come in to audition and all you have to do is show up and be yourself and you’re ahead of the game and you have a good shot at this commercial, instead of the person who wants to be something else who has misrepresented themselves with a different picture, sold that to an agent who reluctantly is sending them out for the wrong thing. You show up and I ask, ‘Why are you here?’ and you go home frustrated.”
Mr. Levine added, “Don’t try to be someone else because they are already doing it and doing it better. They are already doing that. You have a unique essence about you that’s your thing. You have to figure out what it is and embrace it, then other people will want to be you and do your thing when you’re working all the time!”
He, then, did one of my most favorite and valuable interactive exercises with the entire room of actors. Mr. Levine had us each come up on the stage and announce what “our thing” was and had the roomful of fellow actors agree or disagree objectively with “your immediate response to this person.” After that, we showed our headshots to see if it was the same response or not, saying, “Is that correct? Is that what this person is? Does this picture say that? I want this process not for you to take this as something critical, but I want you to see is how a group of people perceive you instantly. That’s all that matters, alright? In this 30 second or 15 second form, when you come across us for 2 seconds or an instant, how we perceive you? What happens? What connects in our mind? Whether we connect that to a product? Whether we aspire to be that person? In the end, commercials? What are we doing here? We’re moving product. That’s what’s going on here. We’re trying to get you to part with your hard earned dollars.” [laughter]
The other thing to do, too, is watch TV. Do you go past the commercials? Study the commercials. Watch them carefully. Watch what the trends are. Squint your eyes at them and project yourself into them and say, ‘Yeah…that’s me. Yep, there’s another one. That should’ve been me. I could’ve done that. That’s me.’ You know why because when you come into an audition, you look at this script and you look around the lobby and go, ‘No, they are going to get it. That person is going to get it.’ They will. If you look at this script and go, ‘That’s me. I see me in this. This thing’s shot, done, on the air and I’m in it…’ you’ll walk into the room that way and if you see it first, then I’ll see it. If you don’t see it, I won’t. If you’re not having a good time, I’m not having a good time. If you want to get out of the room fast, I want you to get out of the room fast, alright?” With the headshot exercise Mr. Levine added, “When you’re looking at these pictures, be me and be specific.” It was very fun, enlightening and we all learned and laughed a lot!
Some examples from various actors were-
With a man who thought he played soldiers and cops, Mr. Levine said, “Quirky public social worker.” When another man said, “Warm and witty, one of the guys,” Mr. Levine said, “I need more specific. Dad. Are you a blue collar Dad? What are you? I want to make a point here, so you all come up this way too. Be specific. Warm and friendly are not specific things. Those are personality traits, not character types. They are not ‘specs’. You have to think of yourself as a spec.” When a woman came up and said that she was the “I’m the upscale Mom slash business type” and the attendees disagreed, Mr. Levine said, “This is a really good category and you’re missing it if you don’t know that you’re this. It’s a very good category and there’s a small pool. You’re ‘yoga Mom.’”
Yet more- In Italics are what the actor thought they played, then Mr. Levine’s input.
Business executive / “More urban professional.”
Young girl next door/ “Yes, you are!”
Friendly college student / “Young light beer guy.”
Scientist and brain surgeon / “Is that what you go out for? CEO!”
Friendly trustworthy Grandmother / “Yes you are.”
Teacher / “Yes. You are a ‘STAND BY ME’ kind of teacher.”
I’m the boss / “You’re the hard a** boss.”
Doctor or lawyer / “Ethnic professional”
Sassy, quirky best friend / “You are.”
Smart college student from China / “Yes!”
Elderly man and happy Grandfather / “There you go.”
When aon actor said, “Sweet best friend”, Mr. Levine said, “Artsy ethnic Mom. It’s vague because you don’t know. Also, quirky 1st grade teacher.”
After our fun (and, sometimes, raucous) exercise, Mr. Levine continued, “It’s about maximizing the small amount of time you have when I do call you in, alright? When you come in, read everything before you ask anything. That seems obvious, but too many people ignore that. They come in with their mouths open asking questions before they’ve hit the sign-in desk. They are asking questions, but they didn’t read everything.”
When an actor asked about going off the copy and improvising a bit in an audition, he had a great answer. He said, “Ask (the session manager), ‘Can I play with this?’ and they might say, ‘Yeah. Go for it!’ or ‘A little’ or ‘No, stick to the copy.’”
In commercial auditions –
- “We do not want to think of you as an actor.”
- “I’m not asking you who you are. I’m asking you what we see.”
- “Don’t fool yourself. This is marketing.”
- “Don’t start doing anything more on the slate than I asked for.”
- If you are not professional, you will not end up on the tape. Part of my job is to protect my client.”
- “Default to ‘real’- subtle and natural in commercials.”
- “Just like your type, embrace your age. You are always in an age range and demographic in commercials”
- “In callbacks, wear something close in the same realm (as you did in the first audition). We’re not calling back your sweater!”
- “Your job is to take direction without ego. Your job is a professional direction taker.”
- “Confidence trumps talent. If you have a moderate amount of talent, but a lot of confidence, you’ll get it.” (the commercial)
When an actor spoke of what she saw as her ’handicaps’, Mr. Levine said, “You said ‘handicaps.’ They are your ‘advantages.’ Lastly, he said, “Do this because you enjoy it. Have fun. Then you will be free of everything you think is working against you.”
Our seminar with James Levine was a ball where I learned quite a bit and I’m sure other actors would agree! Thanks Mr. Levine! He teaches at both TVI and Act Now.