Movie Mom

In honor of the upcoming release of “High School Musical 3” on DVD, Disney was nice enough to send along this interview with director Kenny Ortega of the series about the audition process. He talks about what he looks for, an actor who impressed him but took another job, and what it was like to audition Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens.
INTRO: Have you got what it takes to be the next Ashley Tisdale or Zac Efron? Fancy hitting the big time? Want to bag a role on HSM4? High School Musical director Kenny Ortega reveals the secrets to the perfect audition. Follow his top-secret audition advice and you’ll be a star of the silver screen in no time…
Hi Kenny! What are your top audition tips for wannabe actors?
If you’re a young person who wants to become an actor, it’s really important to walk into a casting room with a sense of yourself and some life experience. You can really delight a room and have them already choose you before you’ve even said a word!
How can that happen?
This actually happened to me years ago when a young Leonardo DiCaprio auditioned for me for a film. He ended up not doing it. He ended up doing a movie called What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, which was a good choice, but he came in and he completely won me over.

What happened?

We hung out and he was so honest and real and fun and interesting. He was in the audition room with me and I said to him, “Well, get out of here and good luck. I wish I could’ve had you in my movie, but I understand you have a lot on your plate.”
What was the movie you were casting?
It was a Disney movie called Hocus Pocus with Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kathy Najimy. He left the room and I picked up the phone to speak to my casting director. I said, “Oh my god! This kid is unbelievable. Where did you find him?” They explained that they knew I’d like him and asked how he read, but that’s when I realised I’d forgotten to ask him to read. That’s a true story.

Did you hang out with the new cast members from High School Musical 3 – Matt Prokop, Jemma McKenzie-Brown and Justin Martin – before you cast them?

It’s important for me to be able to have a conversation with the cast – and these three were very interesting to chat to. These three new kids – like Zac, Vanessa, Ashley, Lucas, Corbin and Monique – came into the room and were very interesting to hang out with. I like to know who I’m working with and it’s important because they’ve got to be able to bring something to the party.
Is there one set question you ask at every audition?
Usually, I will ask, “What did you do before you came here today?” And I love it when I hear someone say, “I went for a bike ride.” Or, “I was riding my skateboard.” Or, “I was swimming.” Or, “I went for a walk.” Or, “I was hanging out with my best friend.” Or, “I was playing a video game.” I like that there is a life and that there is a person there.

What’s the wrong answer to this audition question?

I don’t want to hear, “I’ve been practicing my lines for a week.” To want to be an actor is enough – you don’t need to tell us about it. The interesting person who comes with some life experience is always the person who is going to be chosen by me.

Is school important to young actors?

Studying and education is very important. When you’re creating and building and developing as an actor, you never know when you’re going to need to depend on Geography or History. You don’t always have the time to have a quick study into a subject, so I’m constantly saying to actors get as much of an education as you can early on. It sets you up and deepens your possibilities of work.

Do you have any dance audition tips for us?

Wear appropriate clothes. Don’t come in trying to look like you’re wearing a costume; come in to dance. Wear something that allows the choreographers to see the line of your body as you’re performing. Fashion sometimes gets the better of kids. They walk into an audition in layers of clothes and they try too hard. The clothes get in the way of the simple, clean lines you’re trying to show off – so keep it simple.

Do you have any singing audition tips, too?

This one’s easy! Make sure you warm up your vocal chords before you walk into an audition room. Be prepared to sing, but make sure your voice is warmed up and ready to go.
Did you cast all of the actors in all three High School Musical movies?
I did. I am very hands-on when it comes to the High School Musical movies. I pride myself in being at the forefront of selecting each of these talented young actors.
What made the new cast members of High School Musical 3 stand out?
They each brought something into the room that you could sense even before they danced, sang or acted. They just had something in them that I could see and that excited me. That combined with everything else they brought into the audition as a talent made them hard to deny.
Were you hands-on in selecting the original High School Musical cast, too?
The original castings came after many weeks of auditioning – and I was there all the way. Eventually, we put all of them through two, six-hour days of auditions, which were grueling and very intense. By the time they left, their agents were on the phone saying, “What are you doing with these kids?”

Why were the auditions so demanding?

The original auditions were tough because I wanted to make sure I had the right people for the roles. I knew I only had two and a half weeks of rehearsal and 28 days of shooting, which isn’t very long for a movie – and I wasn’t going to hire kids that I couldn’t depend upon. I needed kids who would bring something to the party and have a sense of responsibility and enthusiasm to be there.

How has the real-life relationship between Vanessa and Zac affected the movies?

Their relationship has been a blessing. A lot of real-life couples lose chemistry on-screen together, but maybe we lucked out because they weren’t a real-life couple when we started these movies.
How did Zac and Vanessa react when you first met them?
When Zac and Vanessa came to us, they didn’t know each other and they hadn’t worked together before. We put them together just because we thought they looked appropriate – but something happened there. Something sparked.

Did they stand out straight away?

They did. I remember those early auditions vividly. When we tried to see if the same thing clicked with any other pairing, we couldn’t find it. We closed the door and we said, “We’re all old enough and experienced enough to know something great when it’s standing in front of us.” And that was Zac and Vanessa. We saw something in them before they even saw something in each other.

Is off-screen chemistry not always there?

Not always. Often an actor and an actress who aren’t even on speaking terms come together for a film and explode on-screen with their chemistry, but they aren’t very close off-screen. I’ve been there and seen it many times before. I’m not going to say who the actors are – but I’ve been in situations where the chemistry has been spectacular on-screen but as soon as you say cut, the two walk off in silence in completely opposite directions. Amazing, but true.

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