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Les Chantery’s audition tips for budding actors

Les C

For many NIDA Acting alumni, Les Chantery needs no introduction. A NIDA BFA (Acting, 2003) graduate, he went on to become the lead film and television lecturer for the Diploma of Stage and Screen Performance courses. In addition to designing the training program, he serves as a guest lecturer on the BFA program in self-tapes and auditioning.

During our conversation with Les, we discussed audition tips that help actors land jobs and the new direction he is embarking on as an actor coach.

NIDA: What have you been doing since you graduated?

Les Chantery: Soon after graduating NIDA, I received the Mike Walsh Fellowship which took me over to L.A. to study filmmaking in 2006. I made a short film at the end of the course which ended up in the hands of a major Hollywood director, who (then) cast me in a film he was making with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro.

Between takes Pacino and I got to talking. I was expressing to him that I felt more like a director than an actor. He was directing Jessica Chastain in the play Salome at that time and we got to talking about the casting process. He casually said,

“Sometimes it’s not the best actor who books the job, it’s the person who gives the best audition”.

And at that moment everything changed for me.

I took a deep dive into the science of auditioning. I spent a decade using all the information I had learned as part of my Economics degree and combined it with neuroscience and psychology to create a new way of film and tv auditioning.

I started coaching actors and they kept booking the roles and so teaching sort of found me, I never went out seeking it. I have been teaching at NIDA and my own private studio. 15 years after that conversation with Pacino, I now have a book about self-taping and auditioning, Life In A Mid-Shot.

NIDA: You helped a lot of actors break into the U.S. What do NIDA grads need to know about work permits and the process around that?

LC: You either need a green card or an O-1 Visa. The way it works generally is if you book a job in an American project, the studio or network will petition you to be sponsored for an O-1 Visa. That process is made easier if you can demonstrate that you have a body of work and credits in Australia. At the same time, I know countless Australian actors who have won their green cards in the Green Card Lottery.

NIDA: What’s the difference in auditioning for American content and Australian content? Are there any trends you noticed in what American casting agents are looking for? How do they differ with Australian casting agent?

LC: It’s very much the same in this new era of television. One of the most honest perspectives on casting I’ve heard came from a terrific casting director who said, “I don’t 100 % know what I’m looking for, but I’ll know when I see it.”

This is why it’s important for actors to treat the audition process as an opportunity to show casting directors their point of view on the script. It’s a known fact that actors may not get the part they originally audition for but that same tape may be used to cast them in another role.

I often tell actors to see themselves as architects— the audition is a design brief. It says ‘we’re looking for something like this’, but it’s your job to submit the design as you creatively see it. You are a ‘self-tape architect’. The one main thing all actors need to know is that in 2023 it’s not a ‘one size fits all’ acting style. Actors need to know what genre they’re auditioning for. The tone of a single-camera comedy series is different from a multi-cam which is different from a drama, which would also require a tonal difference if that drama was for HBO versus CBS. The common denominator is that casting directors want actors to expand the possibilities of what that character could be.

Do actors need to invest in equipment for self-taping?

We arrived at a very ‘new normal’ very fast, which is self-taping. It is likely that the first round of casting will be via a self-tape submission. Actors have adapted brilliantly to the new norm. You wouldn’t need to invest in anything extravagant – in fact, you can shoot and upload your self-tapes just using your smartphone.

NIDA: Sounds like you booked a new gig in the US, congratulations. Anything you can talk about? Can you tell us if it’s acting or teaching?

LC: As I said to Al Pacino, I’ve always seen myself as more of a director than an actor. I am now working quite a lot as an on-set coach. Coaching actors on-set of big productions is thrilling and is one of those gigs that you don’t bid for. So, when it comes calling for you, you jump on it.

I remember, years back, one director joked that I was ‘the actor whisperer’ and I really thought nothing of it. A couple of weeks back when a Hollywood director (who I revere) said, “I hear you’re the actor whisperer…”, it was a full circle moment. The privilege of being asked to be an on-set coach for big productions is not lost on me, shooting in L.A. and in Mumbai and right here in Australia. They say in filmmaking there’s never enough time and that’s kind of how I feel at the moment, I love it!

NIDA: What is the one common denominator among our graduates who have pursued successful careers in Australia and abroad?

LC: Audacity! They’re willing to take risks and don’t fear embarrassing themselves. When I was teaching a workshop for student directors here at NIDA many years ago, Sarah Snook was the actor provided for them to direct. No matter how outrageous or dramatic the situations she was being given to perform, she committed with conviction and boldness. Nothing embarrassed her. That’s part of the training at NIDA – getting the actors to find joy and play in their work so that they don’t feel self-conscious.

NIDA: What advice do you have for NIDA alumni to keep their skills fresh?

LC: When it comes to self-tapes and auditions, I suggest a power hour once per week. In this one hour, the actor has to learn a two-page script: this includes memorising the lines and making their script choices, and then filming at least one take, all in less than an hour.

The beautiful research around deep practice — stretching yourself beyond your comfort zone and pushing yourself to the brink — stimulates the myelin in our brain. It allows our skills to be used faster and more efficiently.

Given that actors sometimes only get 24 hours to turn around and submit an audition tape, this power hour is hugely beneficial. Remember Al Pacino’s words: “It’s not the best actor who books the job, it’s the person who gives the best audition.”

Les Chantery’s book Life In a Mid-Shot: a premier acting coach’s tool for auditions and self-tapes has continued to be a #1 Amazon best-seller since its release in 2022.

Life in a Midshot book

Available for loan at the Rodney Seaborn Library.