DETAILS: Soap Opera Casting Secrets Revealed!
Ever heard the rumor that working on a soap opera is one of the toughest acting jobs out there? Well, according to some industry insiders like “Days of our Lives’” casting director Marnie Saitta, “The Bold and the Beautiful’s” John McCook (Eric Forrester), “General Hospital’s” Anthony Geary, and “The Young and the Restless’” Max Ehrich (Fenmore Baldwin), daytime gigs are some of the toughest jobs to land — and keep, as well!
Soap Opera Network attended an event at The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, and the above experts spilled all of the role-snagging qualities aspiring soap opera actors need to possess. What’s more, they shared some surprising details about the secret world of soap opera casting! Read on to get the juicy behind-the-scenes scoop.
When it comes to being cast on daytime shows, there are specific skills that would-be actors need to exhibit. And “DAYS” casting director, Saitta, says that actors possessing those qualities are very rare to find. “I need an actor who trusts their instincts, whose script analysis skills are so strong, their craft is so strong, and they’re willing to jump on that first take, because we don’t have second and third and fourth takes,” she explains. “We basically do a play and a half a day with no rehearsal. And [being able to do] that is such a rare skill set that is rarely used in other mediums, because [in film and in other television], you get the luxury of having multiple takes, and you get the luxury of having direction.”
In her 20+ years of working in the casting arena, Saitta has observed that it’s actually quite tough to find actors who can boldly make choices without nervousness interfering. “If an actor comes in and they make a strong choice, but it isn’t necessarily right or it doesn’t sit right, I can redirect them, and I know for sure, two or three takes into it, we might get exactly what we want,” she explains. “But I will tell you, on the day of [the final audition], 10 out of 10 times… because the pace of the day is so fast, it will infiltrate the cadence and the auditioning actor will feel the pressure, and their adrenaline will start to pump, and they will go back to their very first instinct in the scene, which is before the redirection, and I will see their performance of something that wasn’t quite right that we redirected. So for me, it’s really important to see the actor come in and nail it in one take, and I think that is an amazing quality that not too many actors possess.”
Having been on “Y&R” for a year and half, Ehrich knows exactly what Saitta is referring to when she mentions actors trusting their instincts. “Honestly, it’s been thrilling, because we do the scene in one take, so… you have to be [alive],” he shares. “We only have one rehearsal and then we do the take, so there’s no option but to be. You need to be on your game all the time, so for me, it’s been rewarding as an artist. It’s an exciting experience.
“We don’t stop and just do coverage on one person and then go to another person, so everyone is really, really focused,” he continues. “I’ve developed this sense of hyper-sensitivity and focus… so it really has been the best class I could have ever asked for. It’s been awesome.”
Another skill that actors who wish to be on soaps must possess is the ability to find subtle layers not obvious during a first read of the script. “You have to always have subtext — always,” opines Geary, who’s played “GH’s” Luke since 1978. “And… it need have nothing to do with the script itself. And another tool that I’ve used for years and have encouraged every young actor I’ve come across to do is to learn to subvert the material, because sometimes the material is weak and so ‘on the nose,’ you have to find a way to — I use the word subvert, which means to put a twist on it, bend it, make it something else. Otherwise, first of all, you’ll be bored to tears, and second, because it’ll just be dull. Sometimes [material] works with a typewriter, but it doesn’t work when it’s on its feet. So you have to know the difference and be prepared to make it work any way you can.”
“A lot of times that happens in the unspoken,” Saitta says in response to Geary’s comment. “People will often come in and when they read for me, they say, ‘Oh, you’re off-book? I can’t believe you’re off-book. You’re a casting director,’ and I say, ‘I can’t believe how a casting director can not be off-book,’ especially in daytime, because to really see if the actor is committed and present, [it’s] in their unspoken. So when I am speaking to them, if [my face is] down in the page, I don’t get to see them reacting and listening, where I believe all of the magic happens. You fall in love with the unspoken, you have conflict in the unspoken, you subvert in the unspoken, so that’s really where we’re able to connect and make that magic that happens.”
So, in essence, being willing to take immediate risks, subverting, finding interesting subtext and being able to quickly analyze scripts are necessary traits for actors in the soap business. And McCook says they’re tiring abilities to have to tap into every single day. “There are a whole bunch of really wonderful actors out there in show business, in television and in film and theater, who are well known and well respected and are very creative people who would come in and be assigned a part on one of our shows, and after four or five days, many of them would say, ‘I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to work like this. This is too hard,’” he says. “You have to create something [with your acting],because it’s not always Tennessee Williams, it’s not Shakespeare: It’s daytime soap opera writing.
“Some of it is really wonderful,” he continues. “There are three things: Great writing, great characters, and great dialogue. Most shows don’t have all three. They have two of them, but they don’t have all three. If you get days when you have all three, it’s really exciting. So when people say, ‘I have an actor who has a look for a soap opera,’ you’re talking about models or pretty boys or girls who can come in at 22 years old and look beautiful on camera, but you can’t just have them come out and memorize lines and do the scene, because it’s boring. There has to be creativity going on.”
In fact, the skill level necessary for the daytime arena is so heightened, that Saitta actually prefers if actors have primetime experience before auditioning for soaps! “I’ve been casting for 22 years, and agents used to call me and say, ‘Oh, I have this new actor that just got to town, and I think they’re perfect for a soap. Brand new! Perfect look,’” she says. “And that dialogue doesn’t happen anymore. It’s more that I get the call from an agent who says, ‘I have an actor who was in an improv group and they’re so crafted and so wonderful, and they’d be perfect to jump in,’ because I really don’t think that daytime is necessarily… a master class. I do think you learn, absolutely. But to say that a beginner actor can walk into this ensemble in this pace with what the actors are doing and trusting your instincts and throwing down on that first take, I think that’s its very overwhelming for a beginner. And a lot of times, I’ll say to the agent, ‘Let them get some experience in primetime, and then bring them back to me.’ Because they need it. They need it in order to really tackle daytime and what’s ahead of them and the challenges that our actors go through.
“I have such an appreciation for what our actors do on a daily basis,” she continues. “So often they’re regurgitating information from the previous day for people who missed [the show], and they have to make that interesting, and they have to breath life into that, and there’s not necessarily an arc for the day or something for them to sink their teeth into. That’s very, very difficult to do, and I think that a lot of times, they’re underestimated. Truly underestimated. But the majority, I really do think are very talented actors.”