5 Steps For A Legendary Cold Read

Let’s get real: A professional cold read is 10–20 minutes of laser-targeted prep to lay down a winning audition. A properly prepared cold read can have the same impact as a fully prepared audition, where the actor has at least 24 hours of prep time. 

This is analogous to how sometimes a 30-second commercial can make you laugh harder than a five-minute “SNL” monologue. It’s the compelling choices made—not the time and effort spent—that makes one successful and the other not as much. Smart choices make a lasting impact. Labored, inauthentic choices—or those reeking of acting technique—only reflect the misguided effort used to get there. 

Sherri Shepherd, a former student, once performed a cold read in my class where she was reacting to a home invasion, under the threat of imminent death and rape. It was one of the most dangerous and impactful performances I’ve ever seen. She didn’t make the mistake of pasting together a flimsy take on the material after frantically scanning it twice. She took a requisite amount of time, around 20 minutes, to make specific, fun choices and organize her mind. It was remarkable in that—without being off-book—she was so emotionally full (fear, shock, and horror) without once dropping the connection to her reader. She was also an expert at the technical demandsof a pitch-perfect cold read—she effortlessly lifted the text up and off the page. 

The time constraints of a cold read are often the primary challenge that can rattle actors. 

You don’t have hours to repeat your damn lines in front of the mirror, or with your roommate, or to your mom over the phone. You don’t have time to record your practice reads with your phone and watch them back. You don’t have time to sleep on it either, awaking in the morning refreshed with the taste of some inspired choice that will no doubt help you book the job. 

Cold reads are like standing at the drive-through window with eight cars honking behind you. No time to stare into space and think about which acting theorist really touched you the most. Cold reads are the time for steel-edge concerted focus. And even with the dearth of time you can still create a great performance. Just as a drive-through window shouldn’t prevent you from having a great meal, it’s all about the decisions made under the gun.

The 10–20 minutes you have to prepare a cold read don’t prevent you from making specific, fun, and devastatingly impactful choices. You just need to keep a razor-sharp focus—like a Navy SEAL or a trained assassin.

The golden rule of the cold read is the same as any audition: Don’t guess what they are looking for. Assume you are what they’re looking for, and bring yourself to the piece with choices that pack a punch.

Here are five tips to help you prep for your next cold read.

1. Style. What’s the style of the piece? What world are you in? Film or TV, and what genre?

2. Bare-bones relationship. What’s your bare-bones relationship to every character in the scene? No “he’s my friend” answers here! The specific answer is, “He’s my best friend since childhood. In fact, we grew up in the same house when his parents were going through a divorce.”

3. Emotional relationship. What’s your emotional relationship to everyone in the scene? What’s your specific emotional feeling for them?. No “I like her” answers will do! “She’s the love of my life and I’m intensely attracted to her” is what you’re looking for.

4. Context. What’s the context? How do you see the scene? Paint the picture of how you see everything in the scene. Never just “place” people here and there like furniture! The higher art is to ask yourself, “How do I see it?”

5. Hook. Your “hook” is your deeply emotional attitude at top of the scene. My article “How To Stand Out in the First Moment of a Scene” shows how a “hook” can light you up at the start of any scene.

After that hook, it’s blank canvas time. You don’t know what she’s going to do, and she has no clue what you’ve got up your sleeve—moment by moment, talking and listening. 

There are actually two more steps in this process, and I want nothing more to share them with my dedicated and educated readers. I just get the impression my students would lynch me if I gave everything away outside of class, and I see where they’re coming from.  

Even so, if you can make precise decisions on these five choices alone, you’ll be well ahead of virtually the bulk of actors auditioning, creating a smooth runway to launch a soaring audition. 

This article was originally posted on Backstage