Synopsis by Tracy Weisert
I was thrilled when commercial casting director Chadrian McKnight of HOUSE Casting agreed to speak at our Inside the Industry Seminar April 20th. I had only met him once previously but Chadrian struck me with his warmth, insights and love & respect for actors.
Here is Chadrian’s bio-
Chadrian heads the Los Angeles office of HOUSE Casting and has over 12 years of casting experience, including films with Kerry Barden (Pineapple Express, Peep World, Snow Angels), producing television workshops with John Levey (ER, West Wing, Third Watch), and more prolifically, commercials for Target, Lexus, Lowes, Carl’s Jr. Payless, JCPenney and hundreds more. In each medium the goal has been to find actors that are honest, natural, believable and when need be, funny. Chadrian constantly finds new talent by regularly attending Groundlings, Upright Citizens Brigade and Second City improvisation productions, plays, and actor showcases. He keeps up with the latest commercial, YouTube, independent films and new media trends as it relates to look and storytelling.
Here is a brief overview of some of the things Chadrian covered at our seminar-
Chadrian began by telling us of his background. Chadrian said, “I went to Tulane University in New Orleans and started in acting in classes, plays and children’s theatre down in the French quarter…but I was terrible at it. Then I followed a girl to Chicago and started doing the Second City program while working at the Board of Trade (my parents weren’t going to have the whole acting thing) and bar tending. Broke up with the girl (her parents weren’t going to have the whole acting thing) and unsure what I was going to pursue in life, I still stayed in Chicago for two years. It was random and I loved the city and the people, but it was definitely a random place for me, so I moved… However, while in Chicago, I had one line on ER so when I moved to LA I naively thought, ‘Well I’ll just make the producers aware that I am in town and ready to continue working that role’ [laughter]. Eventually, I did get an audition for one line as a different cop. I got it but they still made me audition over and over for any cop role until, finally, they just gave the cop a name and I didn’t have to audition anymore. I did eighteen episodes as that cop. I was in a great class and eventually got better at it all (acting), so maybe they took notice.“
He continued, “This is going to be very tangential speak. If you live your life the way you approach your acting, if you are trying to be as honest in your work, you should try to be as honest in your life. That is where you can get your practice as far as when you don’t have opportunities, you should be creating your own opportunities. When you’re not acting, you’re not in a play, you’re not in class or whatever, you should be out in the world trying to apply those same techniques because the way you listen, the way you are aware, outside of yourself, it’s about the other people, it’s about surroundings….All that stuff made sense. I know it starts to sound very cliché because it’s basics and 101 and things they teach you and you kind of just dismiss it. It should start to permeate into your life and you should take that into the world. That is kind of what started for me. It started to actually make my acting better and my life more nurturing.”
Chadrian told us how he began working as a commercial sessions director and subsequently worked for many casting directors in Los Angeles and New York. He said, “I had taken classes when I first moved to town (Los Angeles) and Iwas terrible at commercial auditions but I was determined to figure it out. I took classes with Mariko Ballentine. She used to work with Danny Goldman. I walked into Danny Goldman’s office and said that I wanted to learn how to run camera. Mariko was fantastic and at that time, it was a ¾ inch tapes. It was some serious troubleshooting and learning how to edit. She made me, for a month, just sit in there with her. She unplugged everything and made me plug it back in and learn everything. It was great!”
Chadrian continued, “Slowly, I just started running camera and running sessions and picking up a lot of things. I found that it made me better because again, like I was saying, it gets you outside of yourself. When you have a lot of free time as an actor, you just sit around beating yourself up wondering what you can do. This made me have to pay attention if I was going to help anybody in the room. In the three to five minutes we have to make you better, I had to be outside of myself. I couldn’t be lost in my own shit thinking about my day or why I didn’t get a certain role or whatever.”
Chadrian worked with casting directors Kerry Barden in New York and John Levey here in Los Angeles. He stated how his background as an actor really helped him run casting sessions and ultimately as a casting director. He said that he learned, “What a good company should be. It’s not that complicated. Be nice to everybody, don’t over-schedule, try to give them parking and be organized.” [laughter]
Chadrian’s casting office and his auditions-
“I love where I work because it is just me, Rachel and Grace, and we have this lovely side of Milk Studios all to ourselves, immune to gossip and other petty things that sometimes percolate at larger casting studios. We can shape the atmosphere in a way that is pleasant for actors, clients and ourselves.”
Chadrian continued, “Everybody still doesn’t know I’m the casting person. I have a weird name. People think I will be a woman [laughter] or if I’m in the lobby they think I’m another actor auditioning…I like to sit out in the lobby and watch and see who looks like their photos and see if I’m on track with my prepping or listen to actors and see what I can pick up about their personality that might make them better in the audition… but then I’ll listen to people that undermine the other actors and I take note of that. Again guys, be cool. Just do your work. We don’t need to hear your resume or what you are auditioning for in town while out in the lobby. Other actors don’t want to hear that. That’s just nerves and it’s nerves that undermine your own confidence and it’s nerves that have nothing to do with you getting the job. Certainly if you see somebody that you know and are catching up that’s different…that’s the nice part of being actors and you know you are going to be seeing people that are in your category but you can relax and not be competitive to a point that’s obnoxious. It’s nice to see friends in a supportive way.”
“When you have those opportunities (to audition), don’t blow them up into these huge ordeals. It is like the lotto. You’re just walking into the 7 Eleven but with a different outfit on to buy a ticket. [laughter] I mean you still have to come in there and do the work. Learn your lines…even with the commercial stuff, you should be thinking about the script and making specific choices while you’re out in the lobby. (I guess we’ll get to the pet peeves question you had). Yeah, that drives me bat shit if I’m sitting there in the lobby and I’ve seen everybody on the phone talking or texting and they come in the room unprepared. They didn’t listen in the group explanation or look at the script and now wasting everyone’s time. In comparison, I noticed while working in NY that when actors there have an audition, they bring a mentality which is focused and disciplined (maybe a byproduct of theater). Now sometimes their execution of their choices is a little larger than necessary but that’s just a need for more opportunities to practice and trust that they can bring it down. I do feel most people here have some film training and are a little more nuanced for the camera. Overall, the pool of well-trained commercial talent do live here in town but, as a collective, L.A. actors can seem lazier so please do your best to shrink that perception.
Chadrian pointed out that, “If you’ve seen the facility (HOUSE Casting), it’s part of Milk Studios and it lends itself to ‘beauty spots’ and that’s great because they have the money and we’re good at it but it doesn’t always help me give friends and actors (not that you aren’t beautiful) opportunities. I’m not as apt to help people that think it’s just cute and fun to go do commercials because they’re bored, gorgeous or it’s just a way to make money. I definitely respect everyone but I really want to help the people who have put the time and the effort into their studying and that take this seriously, they really want to learn to do this because it is one more facet of their craft that they need help on. Yes, the majority of the “slice of life” commercials are just a look and people that are comfortable in their own bodies, which is a very valuable asset. However, the comedy and dialogue-driven spots require a more advanced skill set on top of look and comfort ability, so it’s fun to work with actors that have great potential to develop those skills or are already on their way.
The Pet Peeve and other questions from audience:
“Confirm with your agents when you get an appointment as quickly as you can because I don’t want to over-schedule. I don’t want you guys being there over 30-40 minutes if I can help it. It’s a puzzle for me to figure out a schedule so that I can have enough on the tape to cover myself for the producers and so that you guys aren’t there for hours. If I over-schedule and if I don’t pay attention to who is confirming and who is not coming and if I put it out there because I want a long lunch or something, then the next day I’m over-loaded in the lobby, people are getting parking tickets, the energy sucks and you guys aren’t in a good mood when you go into the room. It just doesn’t work. So the faster you guys confirm, the more I know that I have a certain headcount need and I can either replace the ones that cancel or not. That’s important. Please don’t dismiss that. I don’t use exclamation points. I don’t use CAPS. I don’t want to be the place screaming at agents. I don’t like any of that stuff. Yesterday though was a beauty spot, so that’s the thing that drives me nuts with a lot of models. They are off doing ‘their thing,’ they didn’t book out and they all went off to Coachella and they didn’t tell their agents. [laughter] I had nobody there in the morning and I was losing it, because now I had to overload the afternoon and then it was crowded and it drives us crazy.” Some of that could be how modeling agencies don’t send clients appointments until the end of the day but that’s a point of contention to be taken up with agencies.
- Always have a couple options with reading the copy.
- “When you come in the room for the group explanation, it’s very important to pay attention to the blocking. That is where the camera is and how we are going to service the scene for the people watching. To keep uniformity to it. Really pay attention to that, so you can work withinthat.” You are only as good of an actor as you are an interesting person. So if you are not boring and you can work and find nuance within the same direction that everybody is getting in the blocking and you can make choices that are still within the script (this pertains to TV and film as well) and that are specific to telling the story, then you’re on the right track.
- “Don’t use the same pre-life or button over and over.”
- “Have at least the first and last lines memorized if you don’t know all of it.”
- “Don’t worry about miming in my office. I hate miming.”
- “A woman or a girl auditioning should always have a hair tie or hair pin of sorts. Need to see your face.”
When an actress “just starting out” said that she gets nervous when seeing recognizable actresses in the waiting room at auditions for plays and commercials, Chadrian responded, “If you’re there and you see somebody with a name, that’s great! Good. That means that you’re doing well and you’re going to rise to the challenge and do the work even better. You’re going to kick it in. Let that adrenaline or that nervous energy serve you, instead of debilitate you. You’re going to have to find a way to stay present and make those nerves work for you in the scene if that’s what the scene is. If you shut down just because you see ‘a name’ or start casting it yourself while you’re in the lobby, ‘Well thatperson is going to get it…’ then you might as well leave because you’re going to do that subconsciously in the room. You’ve got to make choices and doing the work. It always comes back to doing the work. You have no control. I know you guys hear this all the time but it really is true. ALL you have control over is your choices and who you are as a person. Like I said, that’s what makes you an interesting actor which sucks because you have no control out there really. Enjoy doing the work but you want something at the end of the day, to feel like you’ve accomplished something with all the work you’ve put in, right? You want to see something… Well, you have to find ways out there to fulfill that, whether it is a hobby or whether it’s your own spirituality that will make you still a better and more interesting person….probably than the person that’s going to get the job that has a name, if they want a name. You probably are more talented than that. Again, it’s out of your control. You just have to do the work and find pleasure in that.”
When I asked Chadrian for any last “words of wisdom” he closed with, “Just be mindful and aware in the world. If you can just practice that when you get nervous in your life activities (dating, kids, other stresses) or find yourself ‘checked out’ in your car, find ways to bring yourself back to being present and aware of what’s going on in that moment, so that when you are in an audition or on set, you recognize that feeling/occurrence happening as it did in the car and you trigger yourself to get out of your head…it will eventually be an easier thing to ground yourself and come back to the moment in the scene. I guess it’s just one of many techniques that any good teacher, therapist, self-improvement coach, etc. could help with and apply to your life and thus your work when youdo have auditions or a job. Now you have a muscle to flex and keep you out of your actor head and more in touch with the character and what’s going on in the scene… Commercial or otherwise. We’ll leave it at that.”
Thank you Chadrian for your enlightening and fun seminar!