Actor and writer Tavi Gevinson recently landed an audition for a movie — a supporting role in a comedy. Like most auditions these days, it was self-recorded. It was eight o’clock on a Wednesday night; tape was due Friday morning. Gevinson was in an off-Broadway play in the East Village, so she asked for an extension. She was sent three scenes, totaling nine pages, plus template instructions. (“Please have another person read the other character’s lines off-screen.”) She spent the next few days memorizing and preparing. The following Wednesday, between the appointment and her show that night, she took a friend’s apartment in Manhattan since she didn’t have time to return home to Brooklyn. She did her makeup in the bathroom, rearranged the furniture in the living room, perched her phone on a stack of books against the windowsill, and FaceTimed on her computer with an assistant at her agency who would be her scene partner. (“I feel bad asking my friends to read with me at this point,” she said.) They spent about an hour doing takes, then Gevinson spent more than an hour comparing them and choosing the best ones. Soon after submitting the tape, she learned that another actress had been offered and had accepted the role days earlier.
In a sense, this is an audition story as old as time. Auditions are a brutal fact of life for actors, except for the elite few who are “just an offer” — and even Gevinson, who at twenty-seven has appeared on Broadway, in “Gossip Girl” and on magazine covers, isn’t between them. Actors know that the math is against them, that auditions are the crucible that separates the stars from the stars, or at least the working ones. Actors attend audition classes. They find day jobs with flexibility. They calm their nerves or try to and hope despite punishing odds. In other ways, auditions are not like they were twenty years ago. Imagine a waiting room with a bench full of nervous actors, called one by one to stand before yawning people in folding chairs behind a table. This mostly no longer exists: the pandemic has turned remote auditions from an option to standard. The outrages seem to have only multiplied. In 2020, actor Lucas Gage was auditioning on Zoom and overheard a director without sound observing how “these poor people live in these tiny apartments.” What has remained the same is that auditions are among the most stressful and personal types of job interviews.
But what if they aren’t like that at all? What if auditions, as a group of actors argue, are work that should be compensated? A few months ago, an actor friend told Gevinson about the concept of “paying to audition.” “I thought we’d never get it! Auditions are job interviews! I don’t mind all that I’ve been through since I was sixteen to do this work for all these kind people! And it would never actually happen,” she recalled. But the more he looked into it, the more it made sense. “Actually they are no job interviews. If I was being interviewed I would go in and talk to someone or maybe show them a portfolio of what I assume is my tape. She knew from experience that auditions required an enormous amount of work—in time, in artistry—and that by self-recording she was essentially running her own production shop. Now she is part of the cast of SAG–AFTRA members pushing for the audition cause pay ahead of the guild’s contract talks with producers in June. They’ve just launched a website under the banner “Auditions Are Work”.
Their trump card, as they see it: required payment to audition screen actors for eighty-six years, but few seem to have noticed until recently. In 2019, actor Charlie Bodine, whose credits include Octavia Spencer’s boss in “Truth Be Told” and Joan Crawford’s dentist in “Feud: Bette and Joan,” flipped through an old SAG a contract he had found in a library. “At that point I had hung up my waiter apron for about ten years,” he told me. “I realized I didn’t know anything about our contracts.” He had gotten most of his union news from the literature in the audition waiting rooms. Now, flipping open random pages of the new-sized contract, he noticed perks he’d never heard of—say, travel allowances he could claim for Transformers, in which he played a military technician. “What the hell else is in here?” He began buying old syndicated magazines on eBay and, developing a “new love for spreadsheets,” created an extensive chart comparing each version of SAG basic agreement over the decades, clause by clause. (Along the way, he became a “thirties movie geek.”)
Boden’s most startling discovery was this SAG‘s first contract, from 1937, guaranteed payment for players called in to do “tests” for films in which they were not used. Ten years later, the word “Auditions” was added in a subtitle, along with the line, “If the player is not given work in the picture, the player will receive one-half (1/2) a day’s wages.” Except for a “player” who now reads “executor”, the line remains unchanged, though largely unnoticed, in Schedule A 15(B) of SAG–AFTRAstandard contract. Actors began circulating Bodin’s chart, and last September in a blog post titled “Paying to Audition: The Biggest Secret That Shouldn’t Be a Secret,” actor Shaan Sharma wrote, “The current daily rate is $1,082, so for each audition you have, but when you didn’t book the job, you’re owed $541.” This, he calculated, would amount to “hundreds of millions of dollars in extra profits in the pockets of performers every year.” Sharma believes that if few people apply for audition pay, it’s only because they didn’t realize they were owed it or feared retaliation.
The guild, far from accepting this discovery, called an emergency meeting and in late September published a notice acknowledging a “lack of clarity” on the matter. It lists several circumstances in which actors can request payment for an audition, including when they are “explicitly” required to memorize lines or when they are forced to wait more than an hour. Since then, actors have noticed disclaimers in their audition instructions that say they don’t they have to memorize lines—which proponents of paying to audition see as a technicality, since anyone who wants to get the part will memorize anyway. The guild pointed out that the industry had changed since 1937, when actors were effectively owned by the studios, and warned that paying to audition could have “negative consequences, including reducing access to casting opportunities”. A casting director I spoke with, Henry Russell Bergstein, expressed this concern. “It’s so overwhelming now to produce independent films and all that stuff,” he said. “If you start paying actors, I’m afraid we won’t be able to audition as many. Manufacturers would limit the number due to cost. Many actors would surely agree.
However, the group Auditions is a Job say auto-recordings have turned auditions into something of a lottery. When the casting people are in one room, they might see maybe thirty to fifty people a day. When they receive autographs, they can easily request a hundred to five hundred offers for a role, which means that the chances of landing a role are vanishingly small. “Everyone is putting in more work for less chance of being hired than ever before,” said actor Thomas Ochoa. Others doubted that casting directors actually watched all the tapes. “Casting treats the tapes like Tinder: swipe left, swipe right,” complained one actor. In a recent post on Deadline , casting director Alexis Allen Winter admitted, “Are we all watching them? yes Are we ALL watching? Not all the time.” (Bergstein told me, “Listen, I watch all the tapes,” but he limits the presentation so as not to “go blind.”) This can lead to difficult cost-benefit analyses. Actor Christian Telesmar was recently invited to audition for the lead role in a Mike Tyson biopic, even though he knew he was an extremely good guy. Was it worth spending the hours preparing a tape? “Sometimes you have to choose between three auditions, two auditions and a meal, or one audition, a meal and taking care of your family,” he said. “If you were getting paid to do it, it would be a lot easier to make those choices.”
On top of that, actors now have to provide resources that have traditionally fallen to casting offices, including equipment, space and people to read with. Diversity it was recently estimated that outsourcing stage partners to auditioners saved producers about two hundred and fifty million dollars a year. “It creates a whole culture where we all have to have a clutch of contributors who are willing to be our readers,” Ochoa said; think of all the boyfriends, roommates, and UPS guys dragged into audition scenes. Karyn West, an actor in his sixties who joined the millennial campaigners (“I’m the old woman in the group”), told me he had to instruct older actors on what lighting equipment to buy and how to upload videos online . “I’ve seen a lot of breakdowns of a lot of famous people,” she said. “I feel like I’ve been a therapist to the tech stars.”