The Scorpion actor talks about his “crazy” audition for the show, a nightmare audition for the Farrelly Brothers and how he got cast in ABC Family’s Huge as a non-union actor.
The new CBS show Scorpion, about a genius named Walter O’Brien (Elyes Gabel) who assembles a team of equally brilliant misfits together to be the last line of defense against complex, high-tech threats, has been picked up for a full season, and actor Ari Stidham is incredibly happy about it.
Stidham, who plays the genius human calculator Sylvester Dodd, told me that the show is a “dream come true” job and he’s loving going to work every day. Hey, he’s working with Robert Patrick, what’s not to love?
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Scorpion airs on Mondays at 9pm on CBS.
Congrats on the full season pickup.
Ari Stidham: Thanks, dude. Thanks. It’s pretty crazy. This is the first time I’ve had a job go well.
How super excited were you when you found out that you guys were getting a full pickup?
Ari Stidham: I mean, you know, as happy as a man who just found out that he is, in fact, not going to be unemployed. It’s a dream come true. This whole show with these actors… it’s a cast of real professionals and people who know what they’re doing and we get to play pretend and have fun with each other and just be our awesome characters. I’m stoked to go to work every day. It’s a dream come true, it’s the best job.
With your character, with his issues, it could easily slide into some sort of caricature but you’re miles from that. How are you finding that balance where you don’t slip over to that?
Ari Stidham: That’s a high compliment, thank you. The caricature, I think speaks… I’m going to make a bold statement. I think that it’s a constant battle on TV to hide caricature because there are some pretty unrealistic jumps made, even episodes of Breaking Bad, where characters have learned things and it feels a little bit rushed and it’s not kind of true to everyday life because TV can’t be patient like a movie can. And certain storylines need to be filled and certain areas need to be told. And sometimes, honestly, it’s just that episode might not greatest episode of television there ever was, but they had to put something out that week. There are a lot of episodes that are like that. And that’s the name of the game with TV. So you’re up against it, fighting caricature and fighting playing broad because broad is easy and you can get it in teo takes.
I try and hold myself through my entire day in a state of play so that I know that when the cameras are rolling, it’s time for me to hone it in and be serious and take the moment seriously and kind of accept it as it is. I guess it’s like sort of a reverse method, but I really don’t even want to call it a method because it’s just like how I’ve decided to look at Scorpion specifically because we’re dealing with such intense stuff and you have to look at it honestly and say, “Look, if we don’t passionately do work in this room right now, people will die.” And so I just try and be goofy when the cameras aren’t rolling and playful so when they are, I can just kind of tell myself not to joke around and it’s a change. It’s almost like I want to be working now because I’m forcing myself to be goofy.
So I guess that’s how I answer that question because I feel like it can get caricaturey even easier if you’re not taking the work seriously.
Ari Stidham: Regardless of how I feel about this stuff… luckily it’s working, I haven’t had anything that I feel is too winky winky. But our show kind of has a wink so I don’t think our audience minds when we go there.
But I do, I try and be authentic. I think that it’s the only way that I can sustain a career and not become a character, I think. This is Daily Actor, so I guess I’m going to get kind of actory with it.
Ari Stidham: I have a big fear of becoming just a guy from Scorpion, even though I love being the guy from Scorpion and it’s the best job I’ve ever had. And I would be happy if I was just the guy from Scorpion, but it’s kind of like now it’s the beginning of my career and I don’t know is that’s something I can control this early on? Because if it is, then I kinda wanna control it.
And I think I just look at Scorpion every day as this gift of getting to showcase a new side of myself any chance that I get a scene that’s not something that I’ve done before. I get to discover new choices, I get to test myself and how real and honest can I make this moment? You know? Kind of like a challenge.
Absolutely. And I would think working alongside somebody like Robert Patrick, I mean, his career is just terrific. He’s been around forever. You’ve got to learn some things from him.
Ari Stidham: Yeah, more than a couple. And we also have a guy on set named Steven Bridgewater who Robert brought on and Bridge is an amazing acting coach, and he’s really helped me get over some anxieties that I have like basic stage fright stuff that I would white knuckle.
But, yeah, anxiety runs rampant in the entertainment industry. I don’t know if you suffer from it.
I completely do. But I would imagine that once you’ve been on set and around with the core group of actors, you would still get that sort of nervous energy right before a scene, but throughout the day, I would think, you’d be fine.
Ari Stidham: Yeah. And most days you can get through it, but it’s like if there’s a big day with a lot of genius dialogue it’s hard to kind of not stress out about it because you don’t wanna spend… the thing about TV, you only have 12 hours to shoot 11 pages some days, and that’s insane.
So the night before are you just going over the lines just like a madman?
Ari Stidham: Yeah. And I know that I’m only gonna have 1 or 2 takes. You really have to have your stuff ready on the day and if you’re not bringing your “A game” it slows everybody down, it really does.
What was your audition like for this show?
Ari Stidham: Oh, it was crazy. So it was a Friday night in March, I’d gone out for 2 pilots. One was called Cuz-Bros and nothing with that and then the other one, man, what was the other one called? It might’ve just been a callback for Cuz-Bros and I only had 2 auditions. Ok, well, I only went out on 2 pilots because Cuz-Bros happened and then I didn’t even get further than the 2nd round. I didn’t even place, basically. I was like, “Ok. That’s terrible.”
So mid-March, I get a call from my agent, “There’s this audition for 2 line part on this pilot called Scorpion. Justin Lin is directing it. It’s 2 lines. The casting director is Denise Chamian and I feel like you should go in on it.” And I was like, “Yes, I’m hungry for it. I will go.” I went in and did the bit, we had a brief chat, and I left.
And then Friday night, I get a call at 7:30 from my agent and he says, “Denise Chamian wants to bring you in on a series regular part for Scorpion tomorrow at 11. And if you get it, it starts shooting on Tuesday.” And I was like “OK, cool. Send me the sides.” And it was 9 pages of genius dialogue.
I knuckled down, I ran it with 2 friends. I got it and I ran it immediately with the friend I was with and then I left and I went to another friend’s place who was also auditioning for the part. And we ran it for like 4 hours.
I went home, passed out, I woke up, went directly to the audition. Read it in the car. Just running this genius dialogue till it was burned in my brain. It was the 500 thousand kilowatt scene and it was much more intricate than the pilot.
And I did the audition, I get in there, and it’s me and the casting director, somebody running the camera who’s holding her dog in her lap and it’s Saturday. People are here on Saturday cause this guy hasn’t been cast yet. It’s a part for a 35 year old African American man.
Oh, wow. Ok.
Ari Stidham: I have to bring myself to this. I have to be just real and honest and true as me because I can’t play a 35 year old African American man. They’re gonna look at me and be like, “No.” But she saw something in me so I’ll come in.
I read it and I got through once and she said, “Thank you,” which is the most vague thing and I’m probably not gonna get called back. Ok, cool. Thanks for seeing me. I left, I was bumming the entire day. Then at 7pm at night my agent calls me and says they’re gonna test you. You don’t have to audition, they’re gonna test your tape. I only got to do the scene once. They took the tape, put it to network, and they put it to the studio and then on Sunday I got cast. And then Monday I did the fitting. It was St. Patrick’s Day. I did a fitting, I did the read through, and then I came home and my whole world had changed. It was just like now I’m on a pilot and I’m a series regular working with Justin Lin. Getting direction from Justin Lin. There’s Bob Orci and Alex Kurtzman. From literally… I was shooting stuff with my friends with a video camera with my friends the day before I auditioned for Scorpion. Now I’m here? What the heck? How does this happen? It was crazy. I don’t know how else to explain it, it was just like dumb luck, man.
I don’t know about that.
Ari Stidham: It’s crazy.
Did you have the sides memorized when you were there?
Ari Stidham: Yeah. Yeah. Normally for auditions I go in knowing it cold because if I don’t I’m just gonna be not in it, you know?
You have a really great story about how you got cast in that ABC Family show Huge. You were a non-union actor?
Ari Stidham: Are you talking about the Bonnie Gillespie article?
Ari Stidham: I was non-union. I was 17 and a friend of a friend who knew me through improv reached out and said, “There’s this person, she’s writing a new show about fat camp.” She knew that I had gone to fat camp when I was 15. So she was like, “Would you mind letting her interview you to see what the whole experience was like?”
And so I check in with this girl named Savannah Dooley, who is Winnie Holzman‘s daughter and they together create Huge and were the head writers. And so we do this whole interview, she asks me about who I was, what I learned about myself at fat camp, all the stuff that I went through there. And then I’m like, “I’m an actor.” She was like, “Yeah, we’re doing a nationwide search, so when that happens just submit a tape.” And it was a pretty kind encounter. She was great. I didn’t realize how stoked she was on any of the stuff that I’d talked about, but she later told me that she was really jazzed on it. I kind of said, “That’s a cool thing. Maybe it’ll happen.”
And when the casting notice came out I was like, “I don’t want to submit a tape because if I just submit a tape I don’t know if it’ll get to her.” So I friended her on Facebook and tried to network through there. And then I checked out Actors Access and I got a ping like the the day I logged into Actor’s Access for the first time, I got a ping for Huge. And it was this part and I read the description and it was like… she never confirmed it, but when you read the description of the character and you look at who I was when I had that interview with her, it was just like the same dude. And so I was like, “I think I can get this part, but I’ve never auditioned for a TV show or anything before.” I was like, “I think that I’m really right for this.”
And I went to Actors Access and I cold called the casting directors and I said, “I know Savannah Dooley, I’m a non-union actor but I know you’re doing the nationwide search. I just wanted to cold call and submit myself.” And so they were like, “Yeah, come in for an audition.” And I went in and then I got a call back. And it was a pretty conventional testing. I got a callback for the producers, that’s when I saw Savannah again, where I met Winnie. And it was very just evident from that room that it was like I was the guy that they were rooting for, and then I got the part.
Ari Stidham: What I love about Bonnie Gillespie was that she likes the hustle and I like the hustle too because it’s such a big part of the job. You have to be able to remember every casting director you’ve auditioned for. You have to remember the people you’ve worked with, remember the casting associates because they might be running the ship next time.
You have to remember everybody and I definitely don’t miss that being my normal, but it’s part of the business that I’m glad I’m acquainted with and I know that it helped me out because once I got in, and specifically once I met Bonnie, I started realizing I love casting directors. They just wanna find the right people. You know? I used to be so nervous and scared but then I realized they want me to be the best person for the part so they can say I found the guy and do well at their job. They’re just creative people looking for the right people. I think actors get really nervous about casting directors and I just love that Bonnie kind of squashed that for me. Do you get nervous with casting directors?
Holy crap, yeah.
Ari Stidham: Because they have so much power, but really you have the power to be the best actor possible. You have the ability to do it, you just gotta be the guy. You know? It’s simple but it’s so not simple.
You’re right. I find if I haven’t had a job for a while, I get even more nervous. And I think I probably radiate that out to the casting directors and whoever is in the room. Cast me please!
Ari Stidham: Isn’t that the worst?
Ari Stidham: There’s another casting director who really helped me out, his name is Jory Weitz. He cast Napoleon Dynamite, Nacho Libre, the Blade movies. He’s great. He really helped me with audition technique. Just any type of anxiety that you have about auditions, any type of anxiety that you have about performing, it’s like so powerful because if you use it and make sure you’re doing as best you can. The anxiety shouldn’t be, “Oh my gosh, am I going to be good?” The anxiety should be, “Oh my gosh, am I well-rehearsed? Have I gone over it enough times? You can use this to perfect where you’re at and give yourself confidence and you can say, “Yes, I am good. I shouldn’t be anxious now because I can do this.” Reach that place of I know my lines, I’ve hit my mark, I’m ready to be this actor.
It’s like if you show up to an audition as that guy, it’s not a big deal. You know? It’s like any other audition, this is my normal.
When I was living above my parents garage every audition I went on I was like, “Please hire me. Please hire me” I should’ve just been like, “I heard you needed an actor,” because that’s who I was on the Saturday I auditioned for Scorpion. I was like, “I heard you needed a dude to come in on a Saturday and learn 9 pages. I am that desperate.” Yes. It’s just saying “yes” to I’m an actor. This is one audition and there will be others. I don’t know. Confidence, anxiety, all things that I still struggle with even being an employed actor.
What’s the worst audition you’ve had?
Ari Stidham: I’ve had some auditions go very poorly. I had a nightmare audition that actually happened once. Ok, are you ready for this?
Ari Stidham: So there was a movie that was coming out and the Farrelly Brothers were doing it. They were making this movie and there was this post-apocalyptic part of the movie that was a through line. And one of the characters was this stoner high school kid who was really brash and sort of an asshole, like a Jonah Hill type of kid. It basically was a rip-off of a Jonah Hill type of kid. And I was like, ‘That’s what I need to be playing. That’s my niche. That’s who I am.” Even though it’s not who I am. I can play that guy, but especially me at 18 saying that’s who I am was so not who I was.
So I go to this audition and I kill it. I don’t know how I killed it but I really did a good job and they brought me back. And I was so confident and I walk in the door and I see my competition and it’s Haley Joel Osment. And I’m like staring at Haley Joel Osment. A person I grew up watching. It was the first time I’d ever have this happen and I was like, “Wow, that’s him. Wow, cool. And he’s definitely going after the same part as me.”
I sit down, he goes in, stays in for 25 minutes. And in that room are the Farrelly brothers. They’re in there. This is the last audition. And so he’s in there doing a chemistry read with a kid, and then this other dude comes in, a friend of mine who ended up getting the part, Adam Cagley, comes in and he’s at the audition too. And I’m like, “Haley Joel Osment is in there.” We’re both shaking our heads like we’re never gonna beat Haley Joel Osment.
I go in after Haley Joel Osment, I sit down, and when I sit down I sit sort of weirdly. My phone calls my agent, and so my phone is ringing while I’m slating and I sit down and I’m doing the scene and I hear, “Hello? Hello? Hello? This is Greene and Associates. Hello?” I was with Greene at the time. And it’s like clearly in the take. It is on speakerphone loud. And I’m just like, “Hold on one second, I’m gonna turn that off.” And I’m just like a mess. Immediately I drop my sides, I turn my phone off, I get back to the sides and I start doing the scene, and I do the first one and it’s literally half a page. I get through the first one and they’re like, “Thanks, have a good day.” And I was so mad at myself I never brought a phone into an audition ever again. So superstitious.
That’s a good sort of tip though. Leave your phone in the damn car. That’s a good one.
Ari Stidham: Yeah, it is.