Nina Pratt, who has been part of the casting department at Grey for over a decade, has cast thousands of commercials for companies including Cover Girl, Direct TV and E*TRADE, among others. She has also done volunteer and pro bono work for Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and New Alternatives for Children.
Her career began in film in Los Angeles, and Pratt was on the team that cast Renée Zellweger in one of her early films. Upon returning to New York, she became the casting director for six seasons at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, where she is still a member. She also cast hundreds of actors in the long-running Off-Broadway play and film The Exonerated, directed by Bob Balaban, and received the Casting Society's Artios Award.
Recently, Pratt has done casting work on "Bernard and Doris" for HBO and "Nicky Deuce" for Nickelodeon. Among the actors Pratt has booked on commercials are Josh Lucas, Will Arnett, Rainn Wilson, Adam Ferrara, Becky Newton, Jenna Ushkowitz, Hayden Panettiere, Josh Radnor, Katie Finneran and Rashida Jones.
Pratt talks with Playbill.com about the differences of auditioning for commercial/print work and theatre, how to represent a product, the pros and cons of a social media presence, audition mistakes and more. Start by telling us about Grey Advertising. What do actors need to know? How do they get involved to book commercial and print work?
Nina Pratt: Grey NY is an iconic advertising agency founded in 1917. For us, it's about creativity, integration and producing "Famously Effective" work for our clients.
Grey is known for its work including the E*TRADE talking baby, the "Easy. Breezy. Beautiful. CoverGirl." and the new Direct TV spots featuring Rob Lowe. Grey also does an enormous amount of pro bono work under its "Healing Power of Creativity" initiative. Most recently, we are proud of our work with Hole in the Wall Gang, Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, New Alternatives for Children and a domestic violence campaign for NoMore.org.
And, we've definitely gotten more than a few mentions on "Mad Men" over the years! But one thing that really sets us apart is that we are one of the only agencies that still has an in-house casting department. We identify the right talent to bring creative concepts to life.
It's a great experience for an actor when they first walk into 200 Fifth Avenue. Getting seen by the casting departing at Grey is the first step to being discovered by our creative team and our clients.
Of course, the easiest way for an actor to be considered for commercials is to be submitted by your agent. However, if you are not currently represented, there are other options. In fact, we are always in pursuit of new talent. You'll find Grey casting directors scouting at plays, comedy shows, league shows and even restaurants. Here's a true story: We just cast a waiter/actor from Joe Allen's.
You have cast for both theatre and commercials. What are the major differences that actors need to know before walking in the room?
NP: The first major difference is commercial auditions are always filmed and typically theatre auditions are not. Therefore, the actor needs to be aware of the fact that with a theatre audition they need to reach a live audience and with commercials it needs to be more intimate. Although both mediums require impeccable timing and rhythm, the difference is in the preparation. When casting for theatre, actors are generally given the material in advance, and for commercials they are not, so actors need to learn to prepare on the spot.
What makes a great first impression? Film and TV is so much about how you are perceived, so what catches your eye about someone when they first walk in the room?
NP: Self-confidence. Auditions can sometimes be an awkward process, so when an actor comes in strong and confident, we always notice that. We appreciate a good sense of humor, it indicates that we can throw different things at them, and they can go with it and not get flustered. We want you to do well!
Talk about dressing for an audition. How far should one go to "dress" the part? What do you prefer to see from actors? Can being too casual kill the audition? What is overdressed? What is underdressed?
NP: For commercial auditions, an actor should come in dressed as the character, especially for the callback. No matter how good the performance may be, millions of people will eventually be watching, and we need to be able to picture you as the character.
Actors never want to be thought of as unprofessional or glib when given an opportunity to be considered for a job. So dress the part, it can never hurt.
Overdressed is anything that is distracting to your performance or the people watching, anything that you are not comfortable in. No shorts and flip-flops, people! And, definitely no busy patterns — they stroke the camera and give everyone a headache. Remember, it's a job interview, and actors should always treat it as such.
Speaking to looks, can you talk about headshots? What makes the perfect shot, especially in the film/commercial world? Do you want 3/4 shots and full-length pics aside from a regular headshot?
NP: Every casting director has their preference. I'm fairly flexible when it comes to the type of photo, as long as it speaks to me in some way. Something about it needs to pique my interest enough to want to call in someone for an audition or meeting. The other important thing about headshots that I tell young performers is simple; it should look like you! Talk about the "it" factor. How do you know someone's "got it"? What are the clues?
NP: A lot has been said about the "it" factor, but there's a reason it's called that. It's just "it." It's indescribable, hard to define. Casting directors have a natural instinct to recognize "it." Speaking only for myself, when I meet someone who has "it," I just know, I feel it immediately. They walk in the room and they own it. When one actor has "it," it can be completely different from another who also has "it." They never try to impress me or get the job, they just do their thing. I believe it is a combination of self-confidence and self-awareness, inner joie de vivre. It's a connection to the material, it's when they walk out of the room, and we all look at each other and say, "That's it, that's the actor." It's when you don't see the actor acting, you see the character, and you can't look away.
Talk about representing a product. Can a social media presence or personality damage an actor's chance at representing something on commercials or in print?
NP: I believe having a positive presence on social media could be very beneficial for certain brands. However, as with anything, there are two sides to this discussion. It may be difficult for us to cast a performer that is overexposed. An actor needs to be able to melt into the character in order for the audience to suspend belief.
The reverse can be true when casting a celebrity to play himself or herself. Again, as long as it is positive, a strong social media presence can help the actor work in tandem with the brand to reach the widest audience possible.
How do you feel about social media in general? Does it help to get actors "out there" and "network" or can it be hindering? Are there pros and cons? Can someone's social media persona negatively impact his or her professional goals? What are the plusses?
I believe social media can be a very effective tool in someone's career. More and more these days, entertainers are referred to as "brands." And, social media presence plays a big part in the equity of their brand. As you mentioned, it can help an actor get themselves and their work "out there" and be seen by many more people than in the past. Self-promotion is very important in the digital world, just make sure whatever you post is compelling!
And, as with anything, some discretion is necessary. I think actors should be cautious about revealing too much personal information or posting something that could make them seem unprofessional or unemployable. Also, they have to be aware of the fact that things live on the Internet forever. So, think twice before hitting send on that X-rated photo or tweeting that drunken rant. Casting directors use Google!
What's the best way to break into the film and TV industry? Should one start with a lot of non-union work to build a resume and create a reel?
NP: I firmly believe training is the key to a long and successful career. There are many wonderful classes available to performers at all levels. It is also up to the actor to try and create opportunities for themselves rather than just sitting around waiting for the phone to ring.
Go to a meet and greet, participate in a reading, write your own material or do whatever is appropriate for you, just put yourself out there, keep active and the work will come.
Regarding the union, Grey is a strong supporter of trained union professionals. We have a long history with SAG-AFTRA and Equity and only cast union performers. So while I do believe it is okay for young performers starting out to do a few non-union jobs to get some experience, I would not recommend it for any length of time.
What are some common mistakes actors make at auditions, and what advice would you provide for a successful experience?
NP: Great question. One mistake is being in a hurry or not leaving you enough time for the audition. We usually run on time and rarely keep actors waiting; however, there are circumstances beyond our control that can hold up an audition (especially a callback) so allow yourself extra time, so that you don't make your problem our problem.
Another common mistake actors make is to say too much in the room. It's fine to ask a question or two if it helps, but try and remember that we are usually on a very tight schedule and unless we engage you, less is more. Talk about sides — is it better to have them completely memorized, or would you prefer an actor to just be "familiar" with it, so that they are not committed so strongly to one way of thinking/performing?
NP: I prefer actors be very familiar with them, but not have them completely memorized. I believe fully memorizing the material can lock off the performance to spontaneity, and actors stop listening. There is such a thing as being over prepared.
Do you put more weight on actors who have high-profile representation, agents or managers?
NP: No. It doesn't matter who your representatives are; at Grey we have strong relationships and enormous respect for all the agents and managers we work with. They really are the unsung heroes of this business and do not always get the credit they deserve. I have met incredible talent from the most powerful agencies to the smallest boutique ones. I call actors with no representation directly all the time. If an actor is talented, it doesn't matter how I find them, just as long as I do. However, I will admit to being slightly biased towards my fellow New Yorkers!
What are some challenges that actors face now that are new to the industry as it evolves?
NP: I believe that technology has had a major impact on the industry, but rather than looking at it as a challenge, I think we should see it as a positive development. All of the emerging content outlets have opened up new opportunities to work and be seen. Most importantly actors are able to have more control over their career and create their own original content.
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)