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By David Vando

Surviving the Casting,
Winning the Call-Back

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Ten lessons from a seasoned pro who has been an actor, agent, and casting director.

Debra Hall is vice president of Barbizon International. Hundreds of thousands of students have passed through Barbizon's doors, many of whom will try their hand in the modeling or acting business. Debra's keen eye for talent helped launch the acting careers of Chyler Leigh (That 80's Show, Not Another Teen Movie) and Paulo Benedeti (The Bold and the Beautiful). As creator and producer of the hit teen television series Hall Pass, Debra worked with major stars including Britney Spears, 'N Sync, the Backstreet Boys, and Mandy Moore. After serving as the beauty and fashion editor for 16 Magazine, she helped write the best-selling book The Complete Idiots Guide to Becoming a Model with Supermodel Roshumba Williams. Debra has also won an Emmy Award for Kids Health Works, a Discovery Health Network program that teaches young people about personal wellness. She spends all of her time now using her experience and expertise in the business to help Barbizon students around the world understand the industry from every angle.

I've been in and around the modeling and acting business since I graduated from Barbizon Modeling School when I was 16. Since then, I've had the great fortune to be on all three sides of the casting process; as casting director for the national television series Hall Pass, as an executive with Barbizon, and as talent, during my up-and-coming years in the business. I use the word "fortune" because the experience that I've gained by understanding the world of castings from every angle has been invaluable as my place in the industry shifted and grew. Here are 10 lessons worth sharing.

Perspective: The Casting Director

When casting for Hall Pass, the first thing I did was send character breakdowns to Barbizon and all the other agents with whom I wanted to work. (Character breakdowns let agents know what casting directors are looking for.) I basically needed seven fun and fashionable actor/model types, male and female, all ethnic backgrounds, who looked like they were in their teen years... but who had the maturity level to speak with celebrities.

Lesson #1: It can be beneficial to be older than you look.This is especially true for young children breaking into the business, because a kid who is, say, 7 years old but looks 5, will probably be able to handle the lines better. It can also work in your favor when your looks cross traditional ethnic borders. "Fez" on That 70's Show is a foreign exchange student, but from where we don't quite know. This adds comedic value but also makes him appealing to a broader audience.

Lesson #2: If you want to cross over from modeling to acting, take some acting workshops. I sifted through head shots and comp cards. I narrowed it down to about 100 models and actors, and they were invited for an audition. I had each candidate improvise a TV show opening, and act out a scripted comedy skit with a partner. I quickly realized that many of the models who looked great on their comp cards couldn't act. They were immediately eliminated. You will be competing for parts against people who live for this stuff, so you want to be as prepared as possible. And remember that your head shot or comp card is sometimes sent ahead of time, making it the first impression a casting director will get of you. Always put your best foot forward on these materials.
Paulo Benedeti (Antonio Dominguez, The Bold and the Beautiful), and Chyler Leigh (Tuesday, That 80's Show) were destined for success.

Lesson #3: Dress and act as if you've already gotten the part and it will be easier for the casting director to picture you in the role. Another note on appearance: It was easier for me to relate to the actors who were dressed like the fun, fashionable teenagers I was seeking. I also eliminated anyone with multiple piercings and weird tattoos. I'm not passing judgment, but when you want your cast to appeal to as big an audience as possible, you need to take these things into consideration.

Lesson #4: Mastering the art of the call back is crucial. The people I really liked were called back, and those who made the final cut were those who impressed me even more the second time we met. Since there's obviously something the casting director likes about you, wear the same hairstyle, makeup, and fashion styles that you wore to the initial casting. When saying hello, be sure to include something like "It's nice to see you again." If you are asked to perform, show the same level of personality and enthusiasm that impressed them the first time, then go beyond what you gave before.

Perspective: AGENT

In working with the models and actors who have come through our Barbizon Schools through the years, I've noticed that the ones who are most likely to succeed have several things in common: Most important: They are enthusiastic about the business.

Lesson #5: Show business is competitive, but don't let the competitiveness interfere with your enthusiasm for being part of it all. Not everybody is going to love you, but that's okay. Each and every rejection is a chance to learn. Since no television show lasts forever, and no commercial runs indefinitely, there is always the need for a fresh supply of talent. As long as you keep at it, you could be the next big thing.

Lesson #6: Having love and support from your family can give you strength, which, in turn, can increase your competitive edge.Those destined for success almost always have strong family support. I can't tell you how many parents drive hours to bring their daughters to Barbizon classes, and then wait all day in the reception area until it's time to go home. They bring books, paperwork from their jobs, laptops, knitting — whatever! They recognize the need to support their child emotionally, financially, and in every other way, and they put their own needs aside to do so.

Lesson #7: Educate yourself both formally and informally. Successful people also understand the need to develop their talents not just by doing, but by watching others as well. If you long to act on sitcoms, watch them religiously to get a sense of dialogue, pacing, and blocking. If you're a drama queen (or king), park yourself in front of programming like E.R. and the Soap Opera Network. If modeling is more your style, watch the international runway shows and lots of commercials; you'll be surprised how many skills you can absorb. This, coupled with formal training, can set you up for real success.

There are no shortcuts to making it in the business. Even that famous story about Lana Turner being discovered while sipping a soda in a drug store is not exactly true. Don't turn down any castings. Even if you already know you won't be available the day the job shoots, go to the casting anyway. The more castings you experience, the better you get at them, the more professional you will become, and the more likely you are to start landing roles.

Perspective: TALENT

I was on a commercial shoot when another actor was giving everybody a hard time. He was being rude to the makeup people, demanding of the caterer, and disrespectful of the director. His attitude kept everyone on the set on the defensive, and we couldn't wait to finish the shoot.

Lesson #8: Be kind and professional in your dealings with people. There is an old saying that I just love: "Be nice to people on the way up, because you're going to see them again on the way down." Make some friends along the way because you never know when, and in what capacity, you'll be working together again.

Lesson # 9 : Unless you�re advised otherwise, play it the way you think it should be played. When you arrive at a casting, there's usually some waiting time. In addition to running your lines, use this time to think about some of the subtleties and nuances of the character. I'll never forget one of my first castings. I was up for a national Swiss Miss Hot Cocoa television spot. I was directed to deliver the lines while sitting in a chair sipping imaginary Swiss Miss from a ceramic mug. So there I was, sipping and acting, acting and sipping, all the while sitting with my back straight, knees together, both feet on the floor. Who drinks hot cocoa like that? I should have curled up in the chair and wrapped my hands around the mug as if I were using this wonderful, magical brew to warm my body and soul. If I had done that, the part would have been mine.

Lesson #10: There is always going to be someone more popular, or more famous than you, and someone less so. Just give every casting, every booking, everything you do in life, your best possible shot.It can be intimidating to work with those who have achieved more fame in the business than you have. When I did a television interview with the Backstreet Boys, I decided to use the opportunity to grow my own skills instead of shrinking back under the sheer magnitude of their celebrity. And don't look back. Ever. Always look ahead.

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