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10 Ways to Master the Dreaded Cold Read

We’ve all been there. You get a big television or film audition, and you have a day (Yay!) or even several (Wow!) to work on it. You tell everyone on Facebook about it, you memorize it, work on your backstory, you go through all of the questions, maybe even do a movement journal (just me?), come up with wonderful “bold” choices, write out your subtext, your action adverbs, meet with a coach (or several), and then you show up and they give you a completely different script! Um…what?!

“The sides for this character have changed” or “You are more right for this other character. Go out and work on the new sides for ten minutes and come back in,” or “You know what? Why don’t you just give this a read right now.” Ten minutes? What’s an actor to do? Cue panic, sweaty palms, and scrambling to make sense of the script. All that work you did just went out the window, and now you have to make quick choices and impress them with very little preparation. Before you jump out the window of that tiny little casting office, fire your coach, yell at your agent, and completely freak out, take a deep breath and realize that they are on your side, and this is where your cold read training kicks in.

Here are 10 tips to nail the cold read. Print this out, laminate it, put it in your headshot folder, share it, save it on your desktop, staple it to your forehead. You will be doing cold reads for the rest of your career, so you must master it.

1. Answer the big questions. Who am I? What do I want? Who am I talking to and how do I feel about him or her? Where am I? (A crowded bar, an interrogation room, a park.) This is what drives the scene and creates the circumstances for the scene to come to life. Write it at the top so you don’t forget.

2. Circle the little moments. A look, a smile, an uncomfortable silence, a kiss, etc. Sometimes the moments between the lines are just as important. Don’t be afraid of pauses. You can say so much about a character’s history with one look, one eye roll, one justified pause.

3. Figure out what just happened. In television and film, scenes usually start in the middle. What happened right before your first line? What did someone just say to you? Your first line is always a response. Figure out where your character is coming from and what emotional level to start at. Do you start the scene angry? How angry on a scale of 1 to 10? I write down a number to calibrate my character’s emotions at the top of the scene.

4. Memorize your first and last line. So important. Establish that connection right away with your eyes. Starts the scene on a great note, even if you have no idea what your next line is.

5. Dog-ear the pages. Nothing kills a cold read more than an awkward silence when an actor is struggling to turn the page. A simple fold at the bottom right of the page will make it easier to stay in the scene, flip the page, and keep the momentum moving.

6. Employ the 80/20 rule. Eighty percent of your attention on the reader, 20 percent on the script. Follow along with your thumb, and every time you look down, grab your line and come right back up. Think of your script as a rubber band. You will never lose your place this way. The more you look down, the more you lose your audience and interrupt the important moments.

7. Listen, listen, listen! This is so important. Once you say your line, be interested in the response. Take a two second pause before you look down. A lot of actors forget this in their effort to get to the next line. It’s just as much about the other person’s lines as it is about yours. Even if there is a pause before you get your next line, as least your are listening in the scene and absorbing what is being said (as we do in real life).

8. Don’t “death grip” the script. Be confident and relaxed—hold the script in front of you with one hand (so you can look down quickly with your eyes when necessary, and not your whole head like a “bobble-head actor”). Avoid the famous two-handed, desperate, white knuckle “I’m gonna win an Oscar!” death grip. Act like you’ve had the script for weeks. Look the reader in the eyes (not for too long; it’s creepy), take a breath, and find that chemistry to make the scene come to life.

9. Stay in character. Allow for mistakes. You will most likely get hung up on words. Simply stay in character when you are turning the page, looking for your next line, without any kind of apology or awkward facial expression. That is being a true professional. Be present for two minutes.

10. Find the emotion. The emotion is more important than the lines. Sure, it’s important to say the writer’s words, but if everyone is reading the same lines, you have to find your unique spin on those lines, your opinion about the lines, and what emotion is brewing underneath. That is where the lines come from, and in a cold read, you have to come up with that choice quickly.