By Scott McMahon
For any actor wanting to work in television, the normal progression of things is to get your feet wet by becoming an extra or background actor. These are the actors who fill in the background of a scene to make the whole experience seem more believable. These are the actors with no lines.
Now, there are times when working as a background actor, you can get bumped up to a “Featured Extra”, which means your beautiful mug is prominently featured on screen next to the actor who does have a speaking role. Working a day as a Featured Actor will give you a little more screen time and a tiny bump in pay from what a standard background actor earns.
Normally a production company producing a national television show will utilize a local casting company to handle the placement of the background actors on that given show. This casting company can be different than that of the casting company that handles the casting of the Co-Star and Day Player roles. However, there are times when the same casting company will handle both background and Co-Star casting. Sorry, did that confuse you? It did me and I just wrote the damn thing.
Anyway, if you’re just starting out, no matter what age you’re at, doing a few background acting gigs is a great way to see how a major production operates.
This will help you get comfortable with the pace and what each person does on set. Picking up the lingo and terminology is important too.
MOVING ON UP!
The next step as an actor in television is to land a Co-Star or Day Player role. These characters are usually vital in the setup or exposition of a scene. I don’t know if they are or not, I’m just talking out of my arse here, but it always seems like the actors that show up for a line or two, just spill out some kind of information that the main characters can react to in order propel the story along.
In most cities that are producing television shows, local actors who have representation by local talent agencies, may have an opportunity to audition for these Co-Starring or Day Player roles. This is true for big markets like Los Angeles and New York and also true for teeny-tiny cities, like Portland, Oregon where “GRIMM” is shot.
So, in the local acting community up here in Portland, “GRIMM” is a big deal for anyone to get onto the show. Prior to “GRIMM”, there was TNT’s “Leverage”, as well as, a few feature film projects that would came traveling through town.
In the world of acting, just to have an opportunity to audition for any role is a privilege. There are so many things outside your control, that all you can do is do your job. What is that job?
Our jobs as actors is to sell believability and help move the story along. Honestly, Bryan Cranston explains is so much better.
So, I’ve been fortunate to have a few opportunities to audition for the local casting company for “GRIMM”. I’ve gone up a for a few roles. I never got a call back, until I spent the money to have a one-on-one session with the casting company when they offered a special private session in their off season.
WHAT A CASTING DIRECTOR NEEDS FROM YOU
Normally when you enter an audition, there is always this uneasy tension in the air amongst the actors sitting in the waiting room. You’re brain goes through all these things, like, “Oh no, that guy is totally gonna get this part, he’s perfect. I’m too doughy, I eat way too many cookies.”
Sometimes, in order to ease the tension, I tend to talk to the fellow actors. But everyone is in their space, focusing on their work and I’m the jackass, going, “Hey, didn’t you work on that commercial, or hey, what agency are you with?” Anyway, I apologize to my fellow actors for being so chummy
Okay, so you get yourself together and go into the room to audition. Depending on the role you’re auditioning for, you must be prepared to walk in as that character, or be really good at turning it on right after you politely say “hello”.
Listen to the casting director for his or her specific directions and execute. Stand on your mark. Slate your name. Turn to the side. Turn back. Hold hands up to your face (sometimes they ask this). Then get ready to 3…2…1…ACT! Haha. Not really, but sort of.
One of the key things I learned was that even though the camera they are using to record you seems far away, the casting director has zoomed in close to your face. So, there is no need for big theatrical movements, as you’ll go off screen and look like a buffoon. Keep it small. It’s all in your face. Are you believable?
The other key note to remember, is to play your scene to the reader, whomever that may be. Even if the reader has to read off 3 different parts. Keep your focus with the reader. It’s all about reacting and not acting, so react to your reader and you’ll be fine.
With these simple fixes in my auditions I was able to get consecutive call backs for “GRIMM”.
What are call backs? After the casting director sees you for your first audition, she or he may ask you to make adjustments to your original choices. If that’s the case and you take directions well, then the casting director may say, “Thank you. You’re done.” Then you leave. As Bryan Cranston said earlier, you just have to leave, it’s out of your hands.
But then, you may get that magic call from your agent where they tell you, “Congratulations, you’ve gotta call back.” Call backs usually happen on the same day of your audition but they are held in the evening.
When you return for your call back, you’ll see the other actors who are competing to take your job. It is at this point you need sabotage and strike all of them down … Haha. Just kidding. My family is watching the CW’s “Arrow” at the very same time I’m writing this, so things are getting very dramatic.
Okay, back to the call back. Haha. I just did a double back.
Anyway, it’s show time! You enter the room and the casting director will be there with the episode’s director and/or producer. These are the dudes and dudettes that you have convince that you’re the “guy”. Even if you’re a woman, you still have to convince them that you’re the “guy”. Haha. Seriously folks. A new reader may be there too, so be prepared, as I was not. You’ll repeat the process of standing on your mark, slating your name, and get ready to go.
This new reader was this little woman who got so into the role of Detective Burkhardt that it completely threw me off that I started laughing. I know, what a dick? Awesome way to start off the call back. I regained my composure and just got back to the business of things.
We redid the scene and that was it. It goes by quick. I didn’t feel good about blowing it at the beginning, but the show must go on and I just got on with the scene.
I smiled and said thank you. Got to my car and immediately texted my wife, “I blew it.” Then she comforted me by saying “suck it up, I’m not living with a drama queen.” I’m sure most actors are like this, but you’ll mull over your performance all night long. Then you won’t hear anything the next day, so you know you didn’t get it … But this time I got a call.
“I’ve got big news for you.” That’s all you need to hear from your agent. When I got back into acting a year ago, I never expected much to happen, so anything and everything that would come along would be icing on the cake, as I just wanted to challenge myself to see what I was capable of accomplishing for myself.
I decided to take a moment and just simply enjoy the realization that I was going to be acting for a national television show. Honestly, the best part of all this is to tell your family that it’s happening. To share that moment with them is all worth it.
DOWN TO BUSINESS
My agent briefed me on what to expect and how the working procedure with a national television show operates a little differently than the normal commercial jobs that I had booked earlier in the year.
Several emails with several confidential documents needed to be signed and returned promptly. Items proving my legal clearance to work and promises that I wouldn’t share with anyone the details of the show until after I was deceased or at least until it aired.
Then the full episode script will be sent to you. (Sorry for bouncing back between the different possessives, way bad grammar, I know … but screw it! Let’s continue.)
So, you open the document and see on the front page the cast list. And there at the very bottom (haha) was my name listed amongst all the other cast members. I had flashbacks at what it was like to get casted in my school plays and see my name on the playbill. Of course I read through the entire script as soon as I got it, duh. It may be old bag for some seasoned actors, but I was gonna cherish this moment.
I was pumped up and ready to deliver my two lines good and hard.
A few days later, I got word that I was to report to wardrobe for a proper fitting of the standard police uniform. The wardrobe department was located on the bottom floor of the main headquarters of the “GRIMM “production offices. I arrived, reported to my contact, they were extremely organized and had my police uniform ready to try on. I forgot to mention that I would be playing the part of the “Officer”.
I went into one of the dressing rooms, tried everything on and walked out for them to check me. They made notes at what to fix or hem, took a quick digital picture and that was that. I have to mention that everyone was super sweet. The professional etiquette was outstanding. The production assistants (PA’s) got wind that I was at wardrobe and asked if I could drive over to the set to fill out some more paperwork, so I wouldn’t have to do it the day of my scene. Heck yeah, of course I would swing by the set.
I arrived on set and headed toward the production trailer. Before I could introduce myself, one of the PA’s said, “Scott?” What a way to make an actor feel like a rockstar. I walked into the production trailer and was greeted by one of the many Assistant Directors (A.D.s). Like I said, everyone is super friendly and cordial. They gave me another set of paperwork to fill out. I thought I was buying a house and setting up funds in escrow. I guess it was good that I was there a day early to get that stuff out of the way.
The A.D. gave me the massive call sheet. This definitely wasn’t a small indie production, there was so much information crammed onto both sides of the legal sheet that I knew I was gonna hold onto it for a keepsake. Honestly, I have no idea if I’ll ever get an opportunity like this again, so why not enjoy it?
I made sure I had a good night’s sleep and prepared myself for an early call time. Since I visited the set the day prior, that issue of wondering where iI was supposed to go was not a problem. Of course, I arrived early and was ready to ACT HARD.
I met up with the PA that I had met the day prior and she directed me to my trailer. A trailer, haha. Not a separate trailer, but a room within the gigantic trailer that was parked. And there in all of it’s glory, dangling by the threads of the gray duct tape was my character’s name: ”Officer”. Haha.
I walked into my trailer and placed my bag in the room. Then I walked over to makeup to get done up real pretty before I put on my uniform.
Again, everyone was super polite and welcoming. And there I was sitting next to Bitsie Tulloch who plays Juliette on the show. She was sweet. While I was sitting there getting made up, another PA popped in and asked if I wanted anything from the breakfast truck? I offered to go get it myself, but everyone was like, “no problem, he’ll grab food for everyone.” Sweet!
By the time my makeup was done, my breakfast burrito had arrived. I told the PA that I’d be waiting in the trailer ready to go when they needed me.
I hung out in my trailer getting a quick bite and getting dressed in my cop outfit. Then a knock at the door. “We’re ready for you Mr. McMahon.”
I walked out and followed the PA toward the vans that were lined up to take cast and crew to the location site. A group of background actors were lining up to get into one of the vans, so I got in that line. The PA grabbed me and said, “No, your van is over here”. She escorted me to another van where I jumped in, followed by David Guintoli, who plays the main character Nick Burkhardt. A few other people cram into the van and off we go to the hospital set.
We get to the set and I am approached by a new PA who proceeds to direct me where to go and where the green room is located. This PA was there exclusively for me. I must have had that lost puppy look. Actually, I’m positive that they deal with enough Day Players that they know how fragile we actors are and that we need to know where to go when we arrive on set, as everyone else seemed to know what was going on.
I arrive at the green room, which was a separate room where a couple of those fold-up canvas director chairs were setup, and just hang out until further instructions. That’s when the PA grabbed my attention and notified me that the cast was running lines with the 1st A.D.
All the actors for that scene were gathered in a circle, so I just hung out on the side, waiting for lines to come up. David delivered his lines, I reciprocated and that’s when everyone turned around to look at me, as they had no idea I was even there or who was actually playing the “Officer”. Haha.
The rehearsal ended and David was the first to welcome me to the set. Then the 1st A.D. then the director. Way cool.
After that, the director ran the blocking of scene with all of us and that was that. The actors left the set to go hang out in the green room while the crew began to set up the lights and equipment.
Back in the green room, the sound guys came in and wired everyone with wireless lavs and did this really cool trick that I hadn’t seen on other sets before. The transmitter device was attached to my ankle and they ran the wire up my pants, through my shirt and up onto the attached lavaliere. I’ll keep that technique in mind when I do my next indie project.
Then the prop masters showed up and set me up with the police belt and gun. How friggin’ cool. Then we waited.
Whenever you work on any set, you bond very quickly with the other cast or crew. It’s the one industry that always feels like camp. I love having the opportunities to meet so many unique people. That’s why this industry is so great.
Anyway, it was obvious that David, Bitsie and the other actors, Tim Griffin (up from L.A.) and Julianne Christie (down from Seattle) had already bonded over the past few days of working together. I just hung out chillin’ ya know? Then David invited me into the conversation by asking genuine interest questions about Portland, etc.
Before you know it, we’re just people hanging out having conversation. My wife thinks David Guintoli is hot, so I was sizing this dude up … but I have to say, he’s quite charming and extremely personable. So, yes. I was very impressed by him.
We got talking about an independent film that David and Bitsie had made prior to either of them landing the roles on GRIMM. It was called, “Caroline and Jackie”. David was explaining that he was involved in the casting process of that film and I asked him, what was the biggest thing that he learned from that experience. David’s reply was “That you have to be real effing good at what you do. You just have to be 100% believable in your performance.”
TIME TO ACT
The call for “First Team” was on! Show time.
The scene involved David’s and Bitsie’s characters discussing something with Tim’s and Julianne’s characters. Then David and Bitsie leave Tim and Julianne and approach my character who standing guard in front of a hospital room.
David would spiel off a few lines of dialogue to me and I would reply and that would be that. That would be my job for the day.
The crew setups the master shot which is on a steadicam. The steadicam operator swings past me and takes position behind me.
Okay. Time to act.
I’ve seen this happen to other actors who were day players on other television shows. They’ll deliver all their lines with the back of their heads to the camera. I had no idea if this would be the only shot they would be using, and I wasn’t about to blow probably the only opportunity I had to be a national TV show. So, I was thinking, “Oh shit! I’ve gotta do something”.
I delivered my first line to David, then sort of fudge my direction so I would look back toward the camera, as both David and Bitsie were looking in that direction anyway.
We did a few takes like that and director didn’t correct me, so I thought, “Cool. I may have saved my 2-seconds of fame.”
But then the director wanted over the shoulder shots done for David and me. Sweet! I couldn’t believe it, I was actually getting a medium close up on this scene. I made sure I performed the scene the exact same way I had been doing it in the master shot to help NOT screw up the editing phase of things.
We did the scene a few times and that was it! The 1st A.D. announced that I was wrapped and everyone clapped and shook hands with me. I returned the police belt to the property master and the sound guys removed the wireless mic system and I was off.
David took the time to thank me and hoped that we might work again, seeing that I played a cop and that I didn’t get killed off, so maybe there’s a slim chance that I come back.
The PA escorted Bitsie and me back to the van. Drove back to the trailers and got dressed in my civilian clothes, signed some more paperwork and said thank you and goodbye to the crew.
It was such a dream to have this opportunity. I had watched the show for the past 2 years, so I had seen both David and Bitsie be Nick and Juliette on our home television screen, but to have them performing those characters right in front of you, and especially when David looked right into my eyes and delivered his lines … well, it was surreal.
It was early enough in the day, so I thought I’d stopped off at Voodoo Doughnuts to get a box for the casting directors and my agency.
I stopped by the casting office to say thank you and to let them know that the experience on set was as amazing. I’d be remissed if I didn’t mention that the hardworking people over at Cast Iron Studios, especially Eryn Goodman have been tremendous to work with here in Portland.
Then I stopped off at my agency and celebrated over a big fat bacon maple bar. My agency is Option Talent (OMM Talent), and the man himself, Dennis Troutman, has gotta be the hardest working agent in town and boy am I lucky to have him in my corner.
A few days after I had worked on “GRIMM”, the Rose City Comic Convention was happening and my daughter really wanted to meet David Guintoli. David happened to be appearing at the Comic Con, so we headed on over. My family and I waited in line, approached David and he immediately remembered me and as he was on set, he was very personable and sweet to my little girl. Of course, he was a perfect gentlemen and told my family that it was a pleasure to have me on set and they hope to have me back.
All in all, that was cool to share that moment with my family.
In the end, Portland is a small market, and I may never have an opportunity like this again … so I made sure I soaked it all in and simply enjoyed it.
I know this post was epic and it is unlike my normal posts which are about helping filmmakers become entrepreneurs. If you’ve managed to stay with me through this entire blog post, then you deserve a gift of some sort. I can only offer you a FREE GEAR GUIDE. What’s this? Well, if you want to know what equipment I used to make a feature film with no crew, then check out the FREE GEAR GUIDE.
P.S.S.S. If you stayed this long and are still interested what the scene looked like, then be my guest and torture yourself with the acting demo reel of yours truly
Scott McMahon is the founder of Arrowinn Entertainment, an independent entertainment company and The Film Trooper Academy, a website for helping filmmakers become entrepreneurs. Scott recently made the film The Cube.