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Interview With Holly Powell

Now Casting: What makes you call in a lesser-known actor: is it the headshot, the training, the agent or manager, or a mailing?

Holly Powell: The first thing I do is put out a breakdown and if an agent calls me that I have a really good relationship with and says, “You don’t know this actor, but you really should know him, he’s done this and that…” I’ll usually say, “Sure, of course.” So, initially, it’s an agent I trust doing their job and pushing an actor. 

The second thing is if I’m going to—for instance—cast a pilot and I’m looking for an unknown actor, I’m going to be much more open to submissions from actors themselves.

Then I look at the pictures to see if they’re even right for it. If they’re right for it and the picture grabs me, I’ll turn it over and look at the resume. If I’m casting a comedy I look to see if they have any half-hour experience; if they don’t I probably won’t call that person in. But if they look really right and they’re fresh out of college and there’s nothing on there, I might take a shot at it. I think it varies.

NC: What is it you look for in a headshot?

HP: The headshots that grab my attention are something a little bit off-center, that sort of captures you in a moment. I don’t really respond to the straight on, shoulder shots; they’re a little boring. It needs to be something interesting, or maybe a casual pose that shows your personality. And be relaxed and confident. I think a lot of that is through the eyes.

What really bothers me is when actors—especially women—do really glamorous shots, then walk into the room and not be glamorous! And it’s not to say that not being glamorous is a bad thing, but it’s not what I called the actor in for. Maybe I’m looking for a model or something really sexy. When a perfectly beautiful actress, who’s made herself glamorous in her headshot, walks into my room not looking like her headshot, even if she’s more naturally pretty, it’s not what I’m looking for. And she’s wasting my time. I would rather call that person in for something else. The priority is for the picture to look like you. That’s the biggest thing: to look like you. 

The other thing that bothers me is composites—I hate those! They’re more for a commercial casting director. It looks a little too green to go to a theatrical casting director and say, “Now I can look like this with a business suit, and look like this in a plaid shirt; with glasses, without glasses.” It might be necessary in a commercial sense, but it’s not necessary for me. You need that one good, all-purpose headshot that can go from comedy to drama. And those are hard to find. Sometimes it takes going to different photographers to really get it. Unfortunately, it’s expensive. But if you get the right one the payoff is huge. When casting directors are going through thousands of submissions, the picture is all you’ve got if you don’t have an agent pushing for you, so it’s got to be something that shows your personality. 

NC: How do you find new actors?

HP: Many different ways. I have a partner, an associate, and an assistant, and everybody is pretty much all the time going to Comedy Clubs, or movies or showcases, or that kind of thing. We are always out there looking around and scouting around.

But honestly, the main way is through a relationship with an agent I know, with them calling me and asking me to meet this person.

NC  It seems to me that an actor coming right out of college has a better chance of coming to you sight unseen without a connection or a relationship, whereas older actors would have to have someone recommend them to you.

HP: I think you’re right, that’s the truth of it. Especially when the kids are coming out of the League Schools and everybody’s running over to see the league auditions—Julliard, NYU, Carnegie-Melon, and all of that. They’re new in town, nobody’s seen them, everybody wants to see a fresh face, and casting directors are sort of anxious to get those people in the door.

When someone is a little older and has been around for a while, it’s a harder sell. The only flipside to that is when I’m looking for a co-star part that is written older and I’m not sure who’s willing to do those smaller parts. I’m going to be much more open to older actors.

NC: I think I know the answer to this already, but do you look at non-represented actors?

HP: Yes, I do. For the most part, we go through agents. It’s just the way it is. But interestingly enough, and for whatever reasons, last year on Eve, we Taft-Hartleyed so many people. It was usually always the smaller parts and we certainly always had to justify to SAG what we were doing. I know a lot of casting directors who won’t even see anybody who is not SAG because they don’t want to get fined. You really have to—you know the Taft-Hartley situation, right? The casting director has to prove to SAG that they auditioned a certain number of actors and then to say why this non-SAG person got the part. 

But when I’m looking at the millions of dollars involved in a pilot, it’s going to be really hard for me to read someone who is not represented. I might. But if no one else, like an agent or manager, has taken a shot at backing the actor, I would be a little hard pressed to tell one of the networks I have full confidence that he or she could do the job. 

NC: How do you feel about casting director workshops?

HP: They can be very valuable for the actor but on a very limited basis. What you really get from a casting director’s workshop—those one-night things—is meeting the casting director and the casting director seeing your work. And that’s fine. But what you’re not really going to get from those workshops is much feedback. And there’s not really much teaching going on. It’s more about being seen. And that’s just fine.

That’s why I came up with the idea for my classes to be more about taking the actor through the audition process—the pre-read, the callback, the studio, and the network. And reading with the actor—because that’s what an audition is. The casting director reads with the actor. And in most casting workshops, the actors get up and read together, and that’s not what an audition is.

I don’t believe in ‘cold reading’. That doesn’t really exist in audition land. You usually get the material the night before. Sometimes you don’t because there’s so much rewriting going on, and casting will then throw you a new scene. So to be able to look at something quickly, make a fast choice, and go with it is a very good skill to have. It’s a skill you absolutely need. But for the most part, auditioning is something where you have the scene ahead of time. You read with the casting director instead of another actor, and if you’re going for a series regular part, you’ll probably have to audition four or five times with the same material before you get the part. That’s why I came up with the idea of my classes of taking actors through a series of auditioning steps instead of just the one-night with the casting director. But I used to do those one-night workshops and I’ve called people in from them. So they’re good for that purpose.

NC: What are the most important things an actor should know or do before walking into the audition?

HP: Before the audition, they should try to make sure they get the script, especially if it’s for a pilot. A lot of times for episodic casting you’re not going to be able to do that because they’re rewriting so much of the time. 

However, for episodic, you should do your homework and make sure you watch the show. You don’t want to walk into something you’ve never seen and don’t really know—particularly if it’s a comedy. How broad or how subtle are they playing it? You need to know if it’s one camera or multi-camera. If it’s a pilot, it’s a good idea to educate yourself as to who the producers are. Maybe they’re the people who do Law & Order, and knowing who they are and what they do helps you understand how to play it. It would be good to know their names. Who are you going in for? A lot of actors just walk into a room blind and don’t have a clue as to whom they’re meeting—and, interestingly enough, producers think they do. They should. It should be part of the business of acting to know whom you’re going in to interview with. If you were going to interview in a bank, you would probably know the name of the person you’re interviewing with. But actors tend to get more in their head, it’s more of a creative process, and they sort of lose sight of that side of it.

NC: My suspicion is, that most actors have never trained in that part of it, to begin with.

HP: That’s exactly right. And because they think it’s more of a creative field, it’s like the business side of it gets left to the agents and the managers to do. And I can tell you, it goes a long way if an actor I haven’t seen for a year comes in and says, “Oh, hey, Holly, how are you doing? I haven’t seen you in so long.” That’s makes a difference to me. I have cast people before, three and four times, and they’ll go, “Oh, nice to meet you.” I’m like, jeez 

NC: It’s a kind of training in and of itself. I’ve been guilty of that, where the focus coming into the audition is on the material, not on the people in the room.

HP: That’s because the actor is in a little bit of a bubble that way. You are. You’re busy concentrating on the character. That happens. The biggest problem really is when actors walk into an episodic room and they’ve never seen the show before. That’s a big one.

NC: It is very good to know who the people are in the room and start training oneself to do that.

HP: Because if you say, “Oh, yeah, they’re the people who do Nip/Tuck.” Even if you don’t know their names, it gives you a sense of the kind of shows they do. It helps you as an actor tone-wise to know what you’re walking into.

When you walk into the room—and I do this in my classes, I set it up where the rooms are, the producer’s room—the table with the chairs, and I have other actors come up and be the producers, so that the actors really feel they’re walking into the room. In that situation, there are so many do’s and don’ts. One is, you make sure you prepare outside of the room. So that when you walk into the room you don’t say, “Can you give me a minute?” And turn your back, take a deep breath, and turn around and say, “Okay, I’m ready.” Because that just screams that you’re green. And producers don’t want to see that process.

The other thing that a lot of people get thrown off by is when you walk into a room and see a producer or director you know and all of a sudden you’re chatting. You’re going, “How’s the baby?”—All that stuff. And then all of a sudden they go, “Okay…” And you’re thinking, “Oops, I’m supposed to start! Uh, oh! Oh, no, I was so prepared outside, I was really in the headspace and now they’ve thrown me.” So you have to—without being rude, but friendly—just say, “Hi, how are you?” Look at the casting director, indicate you’re ready, do the scene, and chat afterwards. Walk into the room like you own it. It’s your three minutes; it’s your time. Walk in like it’s your part. 

If a chair is sitting there, don’t ask them if you should stand or sit. You make that decision. If you ask, they’re usually going to say, “Go ahead and do whatever you want.” And by asking you’ve already given away some of your power. The other thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of times the chair maybe moved over to the right where another actor has put it out of their way. The next actor will come in and sit in it figuring that’s where the chair’s supposed to be. Don’t. Command the space. You decide if you want to use the chair, and where you want it. You decide what you’re going to do rather than asking the producers what you should do. 

And then, don’t shake hands with everybody. Producers really don’t like that. It’s fine to say, “Hi, how are you?” being nice and friendly and all of that stuff, but they have twenty actors waiting in the lobby and they want to get on with it. So don’t chitchat for a long period of time. After the initial, “hi, how are you doing?” you pretty much should look to the casting director and ask, “Am I reading with you?” or “Are you ready?” Or nod to them to let them know you’re ready. And get on with it. And then if they want to chat afterwards, then you’ve already auditioned and that’s fine. That gives them room. It’s fine to say, “Would you like to see anything else?” And sometimes that will open it up to where they may direct you. 

If you get through almost all of the audition and you feel you’re off-track, do not ask to start over again. They don’t want to see that. If you’re into it a little bit and you’re off base, ask, “Can we back up a little bit?” or, “Can we back up a few lines?” But if you get all the way through it and ask, “Can we start over again?” They’ll usually take a deep sigh and probably say, “Oh, sure.” But it’s not something that they like too much.

NC: Does that equate with being on the set and having to do lots of takes when they don’t have the time or money for that?

HP: That’s a really good example of an actor having done that, leaving the room and the producers saying, “Well, I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to get through it because he’s going to want to work it too much. He’s too needy.” And it does send that message. That’s going to be too painful to have you on the set.

NC: So really, when you walk in there, there’s a double thing happening: whether you’re right for the role and whether you’re right to work with.

HP: I had one producer one time say to me, “Holly, I only want to hire good citizens.” And I thought that was hysterical. I had never heard that before. But I completely knew what he meant! He wanted someone who was going to show up, be nice on the set, do his or her job—he didn’t want any angst-ridden, oh-my-God-hundred-take actor. I understand that. And so many things happen in the course of trying to make a show that you don’t want to be handholding an actor. And, honestly, their feeling really is, if you can’t do it there are a million people lined up who can.

NC: It seems like—as I was taught—when you’re on a set and you do a take and there’s no comment, it means you did it right, you move on.

HP: And that’s why, if you do mess up, which everybody does from time to time, that it’s better just to say, “Can we take it back a little bit?” They understand that part. They understand that mistakes happen. Now, look, if you feel completely awful after you’ve gotten through all of it, you could say—it depends on how badly it went—you could say, “Gosh, I really didn’t feel good about that. Do you have time for me to do it again?” And usually they’ll go, “No, no, that was fine, that was great!” Thinking, “Get out of the room.”

NC: And it’s giving up power too.

HP: Exactly. So it’s really better to not make excuses. I have heard so many excuses. And the worse thing, before you start, is to say; “I didn’t get the material until this morning…” I get that so often! And then the producers are looking at me. And I’m mad at the agent because the agent was supposed to get it to you. And then I don’t know if they’re telling me the truth or not! And believe me, I’ve caught people in complete lies about it! Because they just are making excuses for themselves. And they kind of want to be, “You know, I didn’t get this material at all, but I could be good if I just had more time with it. Just think how great I’d be!” Most of that doesn’t work. The excuse stuff is just a really bad idea. (laughs)

NC: Is there anything an actor should be aware of when that camera’s running about how things appear in the room and then how they appear on the camera?

HP: Well, my best advice is that you should not worry about the camera. The camera is usually in the room to capture what you’re doing in the moment. You shouldn’t be playing for the camera. You should be doing your normal audition with the casting director and with the producers. It’s usually more of a fly on the wall.

Now, the difference is if you are coming in for episodic television. For all of our small parts, we put people on tape and show the tape to the producers. So that’s a different story. That is  bout making sure the camera shows you in the best light possible. And we’ll have the casting director sit pretty much right in front of the camera so the eye line is really good. We’ll try two or three takes to get the best one. Then we edit the tape down and show the actors we like best to our producers. That’s how we cast the smaller parts on our shows. For the big guest star parts we have actors come in to read for the producers.

But if you’re coming into a pilot audition and there are four or five people in the room, and a camera is just sort of sitting in the back, that’s really there to document it for somebody who’s not there. So there are different scenarios.

NC: What’s the most effective way for an actor to stay in touch with you?

HOLLY POWELL: I like postcards; they work very well. The thing to be careful about is if you’re going to write me a note instead of a postcard, don’t say, “Thanks for the audition for Eve. Great to see you, Sally. ”Sally who?

I can’t tell you how often I get that! I’ve maybe spent five minutes with this person and now she thinks that I know her for life. And, you know, I might or I might not remember you, but you have to give me a little more information. Your last name is a really good idea. And maybe even “Eve for the part of ‘girl in bathroom’ just remind me a little bit more. That’s why a postcard with a picture is best—I’m so much better visually with a face, I can remember the name when I see the face.

Don’t call the office. If you really feel that something is really, really right for you, then call my assistant and say, “I think I’m really right for this. I’m not represented.” But don’t just say, “Can I speak to Holly?” That’s not the way to do it.

NC: Would you describe the best audition you ever saw?

HP: I was casting a Movie Of The Week several years ago—I can’t remember when—and, as usual with Movies Of The Week, the networks always want a ‘name’ in the leads; at least one, probably two. And, when working at CBS years ago, I learned how to make those ‘name’ lists. So I was making the ‘names’ list for this Movie Of The Week and, at the same time, having auditions. Again, this is because if the ‘names’ pass, you still have to put someone in front of the cameras. 

And I brought in Hillary Swank, who I had cast a couple of years before in a series, which was sort of the first thing she’d ever done. She wasn’t a ‘name’ at all at that point, she was just a nice, struggling actress, and nobody knew her. She came in to read for the lead in the show and just blew away my producers. I believe the network was NBC, and we kept saying to them, “We’ve found this fabulous girl, please don’t make us hire a name.” And for weeks they’d say, “No, no, no! You’ve got to get a name!”

And every time we brought Hillary back, she just kept hitting it out of the ballpark and, in fact, she kept getting better and better. And finally, NBC—I think we had to troop her over there—had to make sure she was going to be, you know, good. And she won it! She stayed strong throughout that process and really, at the end of the day, they realized they were getting the best actress for the part instead of a ‘name’ who might not be right for it. And that was certainly very satisfying for me in that I didn’t have to back down and cast a ‘name’. And she just got better and better. A lot of times that process will just make an actor fall apart.

NC: Can you tell me a little bit more about all of that process?

HP: Worse case scenario: there was an actress that we flew in from New York—we had put her on tape, really liked her read, decided to fly her in and test her at the network—and I brought her into the room and she couldn’t get through it. She could not get through it. So she went back outside and we, literally, did that eight times. She could not get through it. And it was so awful. She was finally just sitting on the floor outside of the network room and, at that point the head of the network was going, “I’m sorry, we’ve tried.” And I had to go and tell her it was over. And it was so horrible and devastating for her. But. P.S. she’s been on three series since then. 

So, it’s finding how to do that process. And it’s a very stressful situation. You’ve got a lot of suits in the room, you know the decision is in their hands and it’s a very nerve-wracking process. You just have to get very—well, as very Zen-like as possible. And walk through it, get into your work, the work of the character, and try not to pick up on all the energy that’s going on in that room.

NC: Aside from the energy, by the time you get there you know exactly how much money is at stake.

HP: That’s another thing I go through in my classes. We talk about that once you get to the studio level, you’re required to have a deal negotiated before you walk into the room. And all of a sudden, you’re talking numbers. All of a sudden, you’re calculating in your head how much money you’re going to make if you get the part—and suddenly you want it really badly and then you lose sight of you’re job, which is to do your work, concentrate on character. It’s a very tough process. I love going through that part of it in the class because it is so hard. I have watched actors fall apart because I’ve had to walk out and say, “You can’t come in the room because your deal’s not closed.” And they’re going, “What? What?” And I’m saying, “I’m sorry, but your agent hasn’t closed the deal and the executives have to leave.” And they’re gasping, “Oh, no!!” I’ve seen terrible scenes like that. I’ve also had to negotiate the deal, right then and there, and then go to the actor, “Okay, the deal’s just closed. Come on in.” And where is that actor’s head then?

NC: The thing that strikes me about that--and the hardest thing to do—is not bringing into the room that this could change your life.

HP: Exactly. You’re going, “Oh, my gosh, I could be making a hundred thousand dollars a month!”(laughs) I know. It’s very hard. So you have to let your agent or your manager or your lawyer, or whoever is doing this for you, have these conversations with you before you go in. You have to agree on what your bottom line would be, whether your representative has the right to pass on the project for you, or whether you want to do the job no matter how much they pay you because you want the exposure. All these conversations need to be had before you come over.

The worst is sitting there on cellphones, or in the day before cellphones, running around trying to find a phone, to put the agent on with the actor and try to go through a deal with them. That is just so awful. All that does is completely take your head out of going in and getting the job. And most of the time, those actors don’t get the job.

NC: And so, through all of that, Hillary Swank was able to just stay focused.

HP: She just stayed really focused on the work. She let her representatives do whatever they wanted to do and she didn’t—even if Hillary was thinking about it, she never showed it. It was all about the work. And that’s what you have to do. You have to completely separate these issues. And, as you say, it’s a very hard thing to realize this could change your life. But that goes back to the problem of walking in the door and wanting it too much. You can see it all over.

Interestingly enough, let’s say, in pilot season I want to test you for something and then I’ll call your agent for quotes. And the agent will say, “Well, he tested for a pilot last year and he got thirty and fifteen.” Meaning for the pilot you get thirty thousand dollars, and fifteen for each episode—it’s usually about half. And I’ll ask, “Did he get the part?” And if the agent says, “No, he didn’t get the part, he just tested for it.” Well, the business affairs people at Warner Brothers don’t see that as real money. They’ll say, “We don’t recognize that quote,” because it’s not a job that you got. It’s imaginary money. And that’s the thing that you have to realize: it’s not real—until you get the part. But it’s very hard not to psyche yourself into, “Oh, my God, I could buy that house…” But, of course, with the pilot, you have to get the pilot picked up. There are more failed pilots than pilots that go. So you have to understand the business side of it, but you have to stay focused on what your real job is.

NC: When Hillary was in the room, did she play opposite someone else? Or was it a straight read?

HP: For the most part, she was opposite me. Through many auditions it was her and me. Now, later, when we were adding her husband, we had those two actors read together for chemistry. And that will often happen on bigger projects later down the audition line.

Let’s say we’re at the network and we’re casting a husband and wife or boyfriend and girlfriend, whatever, and I bring three guys and three girls in. And let’s say the network only likes one guy. So we let the two guys go and we have the one guy stay to read with the three girls to see who has chemistry. And you don’t really have time—they’re not going to let you go out and rehearse with these people. You just have to walk back in the room and all of a sudden you’re reading with another actor instead of the casting director for the first time. So, things, hopefully, will change in a great way.

NC: That’s where the acting chops come in.

HP: Yes. And I have watched actors, however, be so set with having read five times with me, that they can’t get out of that. They still think they’re auditioning and it’s all about them. But in those situations, it literally needs to become about the chemistry. They want to see that you can give with the other actor. You’ve already had your time with a one-on-one with the casting director. Now they want to see what your interaction is. And a lot of actors don’t. It’s so interesting. Sometimes it’s great and other times they’ll walk out of a room and we’ll go, “Boy, there was no chemistry there.” So, the key in a situation like that is to completely give as much as possible to the other actor.

NC: In that particular instance, give up control.

HP: Listen and respond: the old acting thing. It’s a different situation with casting directors because you have to imagine your motivation, really, because they’re not an actor and they’re not going to do it the way an actor does it. So you almost have to imagine the way it’s supposed to be coming out of their mouths for you to respond to it. So that technique is a whole different thing than when all of a sudden another actor walks in the room. It should be wonderful, but a lot of actors don’t know what to do with it. Because they still feel it’s about them. 

Holly Powell is on IMDb!

Interview printed with permission from iActingStudios.com and Rick La Fond. Copyright 2013. All rights reserved. - iActing Studios is a premiere provider of Online Acting Classes. They feature hundreds of hours of in-depth classes; hosted by professional instructors and coaches who've taugh some of Hollywood's most famous A-listers.