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Why Casting Directors Will Never Tell You What They Really Want (and Why That’s a Great Thing)

“Oh my god. If I have to go through another horrible headshot session and deal with more terrible jokes and awkward silences, I’m going to jump out that window.”
Samantha looked at me, “Well that’s harsh, Martin. This isn’t their fault, it’s yours.”
She was absolutely right.
You see, I made a simple error when I posted the job description to find a new photographer for our team at City Headshots, and now I was experiencing one of the worst series of interviews and test shoots I’d ever been through.
What was the error, you ask?
Well, it could be summed up in this single sentence I added to the job description:
“We’re looking for a photographer who is funny, outgoing, and engaging. A big plus if you can tell jokes throughout the shoot.”
Why was that simple sentence such a huge mistake?
Because it got me tons of submissions… but every single person told me exactly what I wanted to hear.
“I love shooting headshots and I make the experience fun and engaging. I’m very outgoing and I like telling jokes.”
Even though almost everyone said things like that in their applications, almost none of them were actually engaging. They all adjusted their camera settings silently while I stood there in front of the lights awkwardly wondering what they were doing.
And they told jokes like, “a man came home one day to find someone had stolen all his lamps. He was delighted.”
(To be honest, though, that’s a pretty fantastic joke.)
Anyway, to cap it off, after a long day of interviews, I wound up choosing someone I thought would be okay, but they ended up not being a good fit with my team, and I had to let them go.
So why am I telling you this story?
Because believe it or not, it’s the exact same thing with casting directors.
They will never tell you what they’re really looking for because if they do, they’ll make the process of narrowing down actors for the audition incredibly difficult for themselves because everyone will try to change themselves to be exactly what they’re looking for.
Just as I don’t want to hire a photographer who pretends to be outgoing during the interview (and is actually shy and reserved during real shoots), a casting director doesn’t want to accidentally hire an actor who seems to play a character well in the audition, but is not naturally that character — because they know it will come out later on set.
Keeping the specifics of what they want hidden accomplishes two things:

  1. It lets them find actors who naturally fit the bill. When an actor’s brand is aligned with a character perfectly, magic happens on set and the performances that result are vastly superior.
  2. It also allows them to be more creative with casting sessions. Sometimes a casting director doesn’t know exactly what they want, and they just hope actors will show them interesting versions of the character so they can pick the one they find most intriguing.

In my case, I believe that had I not posted that “funny, engaging, and tells jokes” detail in the job description, I would have opened a wider net and might have brought in someone who, though not funny, was something else — such as nurturing, relaxing, and calming — and a person like that could have been a great addition to our team!
Casting directors won’t tell you what they want because they hope you’ll simply play your brand — or in other words, be yourself.
The more authentic you are, the more likely you’ll intrigue the right casting directors and stand out to them.
Remember: You’re not trying to stand out to everyone, just the people who are already looking for someone like you. By playing yourself, you’ll stand out to the casting directors you’re meant to work with and you’ll book the jobs you’re perfect for.
Casting directors are trying to help you by not posting too many details.
A simple two-step process to be more authentic in auditions:
Here’s a super quick process you can use to instantly be more authentic in auditions. By following the two steps below, you’ll come up with three words (called your pride words) that will help you feel way more grounded before each audition. Not only will you perform better, but you might also even start enjoying the audition process!

  • Step 1: Take a moment to think about someone you deeply admire and respect. Ideally, you should know them personally. Come up with someone specific before moving onto step 2.
  • Step 2: Now that you’ve thought of them, what are the three personality traits you most deeply admire about them? Are they confident? Strong? Intelligent? Funny? Loving? Take a few minutes to think and then write them down. Be sure to only come up with three words.

Congratulations! Those are your pride words.
Now, next time you’re about to audition — whether for self-tape or in person — close your eyes and deeply experience each of those three words one by one. For example, imagine “confidence” and feel it. Then imagine “intelligence” and feel it. And finally, imagine “loving” and feel it. Do this for your own words, and when you finish, open your eyes. You’ll feel way different, and you’ll be ready to knock that audition out of the park.
By following this super simple process, you’re using a psychology technique called projection, which allows you to immediately uncover the traits within yourself that you’re most proud of.
Every actor has three pride words, and discovering and using them will help you feel more grounded and in control — so much so that it’s even possible to minimize nervousness before big auditions.
In fact, by getting clear on his pride words, one of my private coaching clients landed his first-ever role on Broadway — something he’d been trying to do for seven years without success — in less than four weeks of working with me.
It’s funny how at the end of the day, being a great actor is not about trying to be someone you’re not. It’s not about trying to get out of your own skin and play a completely new character.
The real reason casting directors will never tell you what they want is because at the end of the day, standing out is about owning yourself and being truly proud of who you are.
Being a great actor is about using your authenticity to bring a character to life in a way that only you can.

Related articles:
Get To Know the Casting Director: Ellen Chenoweth
Get to Know the Casting Director: Jason Harris
Get To Know the Casting Director: David Rubin
Get To Know the Casting Director: Elizabeth Barnes
Audition Advice with Ani Avetyan
Martin Bentsen uses “outside the industry” hacks to help actors book more work. He’s helped over 6,000 actors with their careers and headshots since 2009 and his photography studio City Headshots is ranked #1 on Yelp. He’s taught marketing to actors at NYU, The New England Theater Conference, The Actor’s Green Room, and numerous other major venues.
Want to start booking more work by thinking strategically? Check out his completely free mini-course called The Practical Performer.
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Martin Bentsen has used “outside the industry” hacks to help actors book more work since 2009. He’s helped over 6,000 actors grow their careers through his 1-1 consulting, digital courses, demo reel production and actor headshots.   His photography studio City Headshots is ranked #1 on Yelp and Google and he’s spoken at NYU, The New England Theater Conference, The Actor’s Green Room, and other venues.   Want to book more work by thinking “Outside the Industry?” Download his free Actor’s Toolkit and start creating new opportunities for yourself.