Here’s a candid conversation between the award-winning commercial, television, and independent film director Phil Hawkins and casting director Martin Gibbons who have worked together for years in the United Kingdom. Indeed, they’ve made over a hundred television commercials together and, in the process, have auditioned thousands of actors. In this Philm Blog video, the two reveal many insights into the casting process and give advice to actors about conducting research for commercial roles, taking direction during auditions, and “hitting a moment” during a shoot.

Preparing for the role, Knowing the brand

One of Hawkins’ pet peeves is when actors arrive at auditions, and they haven’t properly researched the role. He emphasizes the importance of knowing the tone that the brand seeks to capture. “If you’re going for a mainstream commercial, usually they’ve made them before. So go and watch the things they’ve done before because actually, pretty much it’s going to be the same sort of thing … Brands spend a lot of money developing the brand, developing the look, developing the feel of that brand. And they’re not about to change it every five seconds,” Hawkins insists. 

Gibbons encourages actors to see their preparation time as an investment. “Let’s say you’re going to get three, four, or five grand for doing a commercial, for that much money for one day’s work, is it not worthwhile for that much money to do a bit of research and just spend a little time finding out about the director, finding out about the casting director to a point—I mean less so, but finding out what they’re like—finding out about the client, the product, looking at their old commercials, because there will be a similar style.”  As far as researching the character is concerned, questions he says to look at include: “Who is this character? Who do I think they are? Who do I think they’re going for? What type thing would they wear—within reason, don’t go too far with that. What would their sort of feeling be?”

But after actors have put in a lot of effort into their preparation, Gibbons states, “The most important thing to do is be able to walk into a room and then forget [about all that preparation] if you have to because the director or the casting director will give you all the information you could possibly need for you to make that character the best ever. We want you to be brilliant; we’re on your side.” In other words, prepare well but remain flexible!

Taking Direction

During auditions, Hawkins is always envisioning what it will be like to work with each specific actor on set. He emphasizes the importance of having chemistry—not just the kind that actors have with other actors in front of the camera but the chemistry between the director and actor. Always on the lookout for a relaxed, fruitful working relationship, Hawkins is one of the directors who is very involved in working with the actors during auditions. “Whoever I cast in this room is going to make my job a hell of a lot easier,” he says. “I’m not actually looking for the camera-ready performance. All I’m doing is I want to see it one way and then almost the opposite way. Or a spectrum. And if I can tell you can listen to directions, take it, and react instantly” then, he says the casting process shifts to if the actor is the right type.

Hitting a moment during the shoot

Although Hawkins likes to delve into the actor’s preparation and go deeper into character motivations and feelings, a lot of time, he says, the performance boils down to: “I want you to smile at this point,” or “Can you just smile more?” After all, he explains, “There are certain times when they just need a moment. Pick up that cup of coffee, smile, and drink it. Right? And that’s very hard to do convincingly.” But that brief moment is likely exactly what will be needed during the editing process.

And finally, Hawkins and Gibbons share insights into the deliberations that occur when selecting talent. Indeed, they give us a glimpse of how subjective and seemingly haphazard the selection process can be at times. The actor who gives the best performances may not always get the part.  So, they encourage actors to focus their energy on what they can control: “Just have fun in the room,” Hawkins says. Quality work in the audition room is valued and it will get you noticed and invited back for more audition opportunities.