Casting Director Lisa Zambetti's Advice For Actors | Brian Medavoy

Casting Director Lisa Zambetti’s Advice For Actors

When it comes to casting, Lisa Zambetti is a busy casting director on the rise.

She’s cast a ton of projects from indie films to the long-running CBS hit series “Criminal Minds”.

I’ve known her for many years and find her to be an incredible judge of talent, and extremely generous in her willingness to help actors improve and share her wisdom.

That’s why I reached out to pick her brain about some common questions I hear from actors and I’m thrilled to share her answers with you below…

1. Does a casting director have a preference if an actor is off book? Does holding the sides show you’re still working and flexing out the dialogue or does it make the actor look unprepared?

I have a strong, full-throated answer to this frequently asked question, but my answer may be controversial, and the opposite of what many of my very respected colleagues say.

My answer to this question is not based on my preference, or my gut, or my anecdotes from the many auditions I have seen…my answer is based on hard data.

About 8 million years ago I was an actor, stomping up and down 8th avenue in NYC, going to auditions, rehearsing, waiting tables, walking dogs, doing midnight Shakespeare shows, producing play festivals and hustling my little butt off.

I was lucky enough to work on Broadway, Off-Broadway Off-Off-Broadway..and Sooooo-Off-Broadway, they call it Montauk.

I share that only to say that I REALLY get what is at stake here. I understand the struggle, the sacrifice, the strength it takes to pursue this life.

When I made the transition from acting into casting I was SO curious to see how decisions were made on that side of the table.

I was a fly on the wall for how conversations went down between director and producer, how they made their choices, what influenced them, and what didn’t. There were a myriad of micro-decisions that happen during a session that lead to the casting of each role once you put a microscope to the process.

The funny thing is how many times a director would contradict him/herself — they would say they wanted one thing, but actually cast an actor who was the opposite of that.

Something else seemed to be at play here, something subconscious that not even the producers were aware of.

After a few years, I thought I started to see a pattern of things that actors who booked did, that made them more likely to get cast.

It started as a hunch, but then I did something CRAZY. Just bananas.

I went back, way back, going through every eco cast, every audition clip I had on my hard drive, and I started an immense spreadsheet of all the roles I had ever seen cast.

On this spreadsheet, I had certain categories — things I thought actors were doing in the room, things actors who booked had in common. I was obsessed.

And there it was. A clear and undeniable pattern.

This pattern cut across genre. It didn’t matter what the material was or how big or small the project.

The answer was clear. Actors who book are OFF-BOOK. Stone cold off-book. 

Upwards of 90% of the actors I counted who got cast not only had their face off the page…most interestingly, they had the pages completely out of their hands.

Many of the students in my acting classes have told me that they have heard from a good number of my colleagues saying exactly the opposite — do not come in off-book, absolutely hold your sides. And I get that.

I’ve heard ALL kinds of reasons that casting directors say to not be off-book, but I am sure those reasons come from BAD experiences of watching actors who TRIED to be off-book….but….really were not. And that can really burn a casting director, especially in a producer session or test situation.

There is some kind of uncanny valley that comes over an actor’s face when they are not “in the scene” because they are desperately trying to remember the next line. It can be so painful to watch an actor struggle this way. It can lead to casting directors thinking “just hold the f*cking pages already!” But that is not because they were off-book, that is because they were under-prepared.

Are there outliers? Sure! Do actors who hold their sides ever get cast? Of course!!

We can all think of stunning performances in the casting room where the actor had to stop and look at their lines — and they still got cast. It has happened.

Also legally, we as casting directors cannot demand that any actor auditioning for us MUST be off-book as a rule for our office. SAG/AFTRA does not allow this.

All I can do is share what I have discovered in the objective light of my research. But if you think about it, it makes sense.

The actors I have seen who commit to being off-book come in with a whole different energy than those who don’t. They know what the words mean, not just what they say.

They are there to win.

2. What are your thoughts on an actor improvising during an audition?

This is so tricky and so many things come into play for this to work.

First, are you any good at improvising in general?

Everyone thinks they are good, but have you been in a top improv class and regularly get laughs by an audience (who are not all your friends)?

Ok, if the answer is yes, that is good.

But, when do you apply this?

You have to be so so careful. If the writer is in the room when you audition they may or may not be a huge fan of improvising their words.

If it is a comedy, they have beaten out a strong rhythm in the scene, literally timed out the laughs per minute, so if you mess that up with any improvisation, they will most likely not be happy.

In drama too, there can be a rhythm and flow to the language and you best not mess with that.

So when is a good time to improv?

The best time is right BEFORE or just AFTER the scene.

Bookending a scene with improv can be very effective and a safe place to add your own spin. Saying something just before a scene starts to get you into it can also be very powerful.

I’ve seen actors add a line or a bit at the end of a scene and the director goes, “I like what she did with that last part, let’s add that to the scene.”

It is a great way to distinguish yourself from the rest of the competition (in a good way).

If you do have the instinct to improvise within the scene, do it at the end of a line, and don’t do it too often during the audition or the producer might think you are too much of a loose cannon to get a performance with any continuity.

3. What is the biggest thing an actor can do to make your life easier?

You can make my life easier by making YOUR life easier.

Meaning, take care of your process — and create a strong process.

Do things that reduce your stress when auditioning, like getting to your auditions early so you have time to settle, get water, check that you have the right sides, that they have not been revised, and check that you have the right role!

Give yourself enough preparation time, use a coach or rehearse your audition with a friend so you feel more confident and comfortable.

Work out, do yoga, listen to music or do SOMETHING that gets out your nervous energy and centers you before you come in.

Keep the mindset that the audition is yours to ENJOY!

You have a captive audience that MUST watch you do what you love to do.

Winning the room is a WIN no matter if you get the role or not.

Come in feeling good, leave feeling better…and you will make my life easier.

4. What is the #1 most common mistake you see actors make?

Lack of preparation sometimes is stunning to watch.

It takes more work than an actor thinks to be ready to audition…no matter how big or small the role.

The number of times I’ve seen an actor fall apart, get distracted, get off track, and tell me, “Gosh, I swear I knew this scene when I did it at home,” makes me very sad for them.

They have underestimated what is at stake and how they need to put their energy into the work. They have not taken care of themselves nor their process.

5. Is there a common denominator for the best auditions you see?

Yep! See answer #1.

There are several more things actors who book have in common according to my data…from dressing to just “suggest” the character and making it easy for producers to see you in the role, to strategically using a prop that is SO subtle that the producers may not even clock it, but it can be very useful to sell you in the role.

I teach about these things in my on-camera classes.

6. What’s the most memorable thing an actor did in an audition that made you think they nailed it and the part is theirs?

I remember when the actor Brady Smith came in to audition for a recurring role of a really bad guy on Criminal Minds. He was great.

 It was a really sadistic psychopathic part and he did a fine job making my skin crawl. But there is something about his face that even as a scoundrel made him very likable and vulnerable.

I think the director sensed that because he said, “Ya know, that was great, but could you read for a different role? Take your time and come back in when you are ready.”

Ok, so this other role was EXACTLY the opposite of a bad guy — this part was that of a good sheriff who was the only uncorrupted person in town, a heart of gold kind of guy.

And it was like eight pages of dialogue! It was a lot to digest.

We resumed the session and fifteen minutes later Brady came back in. He had changed what he was wearing slightly, I think he added a flannel shirt, that kind of softened up his look and to my amazement, he was OFF BOOK.

Like not even the pages in his hands.

And he killed it.

He was so heartbreaking in the role. It was a really a stunning 180 to the original role he came in for. The energy in the room was palpable.

He got the role.

I really love that the director saw that part in him and Brady took it all in stride.

He could have come in holding the pages, we all would have understood, but he knew what was at stake.

He was ready to win.

7. If an actor is unrepresented and they reach out asking to put themselves on tape, is that permissible or too assertive?

At the risk of inviting an avalanche of unsolicited self-tapes, I’m usually OK if an actor does this — if an actor is really passionate about a particular role.

As long as they know there is no guarantee we will have time to watch it before the role is cast.

But we don’t get asked this very often from actors themselves, it is usually the agent or manager who have not gotten an appointment trying one last effort to get us to see that their client is right.

Again, I am usually OK with this because, why not? You never know.

But I can understand how other offices don’t like this.

8. What’s something you wish you could tell actors but can’t?

Probably because of my background as a performer, I care very much for the mental and emotional well being of all the actors I bring in — and I can’t help but worry about them.

Just because you can act, doesn’t mean you should. The life is not for everyone. There are lots of sacrifices, and lots of time spent that you cannot get back. You are not a failure if you quit. It hits me especially hard when I audition kids.

Sometimes I see kids who are obviously so unhappy being there and the parents are just pushing them to grind through it. It takes a special kind of child — an adult pleaser — to thrive in this business. This disposition is almost as important as talent.

Yet that disposition comes with its own dangers and risks.

Many kids who audition for me have to learn scenes that have violent content and quite frankly may have to play a role full of terror and suffering. I do my best to protect them from the context of the scene, but sometimes there is no getting around it.

At the end of the audition when a kid is sobbing and can’t shake it off, well, I feel like the WORST person in the world. I always hug them before they leave until they calm down.

I just want to tell them, “You really don’t have to do this if you don’t want to. It’s okay.”

9. What’s something you wish you could tell actors’ reps, but can’t?

I try to be as honest as possible when agents ask for feedback on their clients — I try to reinforce the good and be specific about anything I find lacking or not competitive with the other actors I saw for the role. And I don’t hold back my joy when an actor kills it in the room, even if they didn’t get the role in the end.

I try to keep an open mind about reps and their clients and keep bringing people in for different things, to see if I can find a fit.

But one thing that you can’t really talk to reps about without them getting defensive for their client is how the client acts OUTSIDE of the casting room. 

If an actor is rude to my assistant, unkind to the other actors in the waiting room or imparts some kind of entitled diva behavior — even if they are super talented and right for a role, I am not likely to move them forward in the process.

I want to surround my cast and crew with great people, people who can behave professionally no matter who they are encountering, be it a P.A. or the director — people with good hearts. Life is too short to be surrounded by jerks.

10. What are the biggest challenges you face?

That old saying is really true, “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life,” and I love casting. I’m so lucky I get to do this and owe huge thanks to the casting directors who mentored me.

The challenges I face while casting a TV show — whether it is the time crunch of casting a ton of new roles every eight days on a series, or trying to budget a guest star heavy episode, or guiding a director or writer to consider more diversity in the roles, or pre-reading 50 actors to find that one perfect fit — those things are not burdens to me.

I get energized by that kind of problem-solving.

The real challenge for me is to continue to meet more producers who are willing to take a chance on someone new they haven’t worked with before.

11. Where do you get your info? What do you read/watch/listen to?

Like everyone I read Deadline, I get Variety at home in print.

But I get really great info from several podcasts: The Business with Kim Masters, TV’s Top 5 with Lesley Goldberg and Dan Fienberg, The Watch with Chris Ryan and Andy Greenwald, and Happier in Hollywood with Elizabeth Craft and Sarah Fain.