Admissions Tips from Famous Actors' Auditions

Ryan Kelly

Admissions Tips from Famous
Actors' Auditions

How far would you go to secure your dream job?

For Robert De Niro, the answer to this question was “pretty damn far.”

In preparation for Taxi Driver (1976), De Niro obtained a real taxi driver's license while filming another movie and spent his breaks driving around New York, often completing 12-hour shifts. Apparently he lost 35 pounds in the process and repeatedly listened to the taped diaries of criminal Arthur Bremer.

No wonder his role as the deranged Travis Bickle was so convincing.

I’ve always found this kind of “method acting” to be fascinating. I can’t think of something I admire more in terms of passion and commitment to the art or vision.

And that got me thinking–how could these actors’ stories be applied to life as a college student? Are there nuggets of wisdom or life hacks from these Hollywood auditions that could help you crush your applications and interviews with your dream employers or top-choice schools?

Most definitely. But don’t worry–you won’t go as insane as Travis Bickle in the process.

Tip #1: Show, Don’t Tell

An Austrian body builder enjoying his organized desk area.
A beautiful actor making a fierce visage for her audition.

When Jada Pinkett Smith auditioned for Fish Mooney on the show Gotham, she showed up in a gown and short black wig, dragging a half-naked young man on a leash with “liar” written on his forehead in lipstick.

“I thought, instead of talking about who Fish Mooney is,” Pinkett said, “let me just show them.”

Takeaways for Your “Audition” as an Applicant:

Bring “Props” to Your Interviews

It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to dress up in crazy costumes for your interviews with companies or graduate schools, but you can still capture the essence of Pinkett’s audition through the strategy of “show, don’t tell.”

A prime example that comes to mind is one of my students who had co-patented a vaping cessation device that attached to people’s vape pens. He brought it to an interview with a bioengineering master’s program and did a little demonstration.

Think he got accepted? Yep. Pretty much everywhere he interviewed.

These “props” could also be something less innovative but still effective like printouts of abstracts, tables, and data from a research project.

Make a Website or Online Portfolio

I remember another student who had made customized greeting cards for hundreds of hospice patients as part of her application for medical school. Rather than just writing about it, she included links to a beautiful, well-organized website she made that exhibited the different cards.

In a separate instance, one high schooler I worked with was interested in “pixel art,” where he created intricate images in a mosaic style out of hundreds of individual pixels. He did this purely as a hobby, which might have sounded less significant in his college applications if he hadn’t created an online portfolio. While writing about it in his supplemental essays for the Common Application, we shared a link to the portfolio so that colleges could see his impressive, detailed pixel art of his dog, his high school building, and many other passion projects.

Tip #2: Get Comfortable with the Uncomfortable

An Austrian body builder playing table tennis.
An actor getting into the mindset of his character.

When Johnny Depp was preparing to play Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he slept and smoked next to barrels of gunpowder in Thompson’s basement in order to capture the dangerous, unhinged psyche of the famous journalist.

Now, I’m certainly not endorsing any behaviors that present real risk to your health or safety, but there’s definitely a lesson to be pulled from this bizarre story: face your fears, even before you walk into your interview.

Takeaways for Your “Audition” as an Applicant:

Do Some Personal “Exposure Therapy”

I remember a student of mine who was a reserved introvert with a deep-rooted fear of public speaking, so her upcoming interviews with PA schools were giving her anxiety.

She was in a master’s program at the time, so I recommended that she approach at least one stranger on campus each day leading up to the interview. The goal would be to strike up a conversation, hold their interest, and ask each other a few deep personal questions.

This led her to some new friendships, but more importantly, she gained a ton of newfound confidence in her ability to interact with people she had just met and divulge details of her life on the spot without knowing what was coming.

Certainly not as crazy as smoking next to gunpowder, but it reaped tremendous benefits for her, and she’s now a practicing PA!

Participate in a Comfort Zone Challenge

This could mean a variety of activities:

-Joining a group like ToastMasters to practice self-expression

-Getting involved in an improv comedy group at your college

-Becoming a teacher or TA so that you can present to large groups

It could also mean following through on more informal comfort zone challenges, where you set goals each day to do something bold or courageous to enhance your social skills. Interested in doing a “comfort zone challenge?” Here’s a link with a bunch of options.

Tip #3: Immersion Trip

An Austrian bodybuilder participating in a study session.
An actor totally immersed in his wrestling champion role.

To prepare for his role in The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke showed up at WrestleMania XXV as a fan at ringside to take in all the spectacle and fanfare of professional wrestling, eventually joining in on the action and knocking out Chris Jericho with one punch.

Takeaways for Your “Audition” as an Applicant:

Visit a School or Company Before Your Interview

In a much different setting, I would say this is comparable to students who visit a school or company prior to their interview–whether informally just to get comfortable in the setting or formally to actually meet and interact with representatives.

Go to Webinars and Meet-and-Greets

Lots of graduate schools offer in-person tours or meetings, and even more of them host webinars or virtual meet-and-greets where prospective students can learn about the program or make connections with current students or faculty.

Both of these strategies require extra work, but they automatically give you an “insider perspective” and key information that most candidates won’t have. Plus, they allow the company or school to put a face to your name before you even walk through the door for the interview.

This type of networking goes a long way, and it has worked for pretty much every student I know who’s tried it in the past. Just make sure you don’t punch anybody.

Tip #4: Make a Bold Move

An Austrian body builder shows off his schmah abilities in a lab room.
A happy comedian leaving a nice restaurant.

One day, comedian Louie Anderson saw Eddie Murphy in a nice restaurant. From Anderson’s report, everyone was clearly intimidated by Murphy and steered clear of his table. Anderson had never met Murphy but made a bold move and picked up Murphy's tab before discreetly exiting.

Murphy was so shocked and touched by the gesture that he gave Anderson a call the next day and offered him a role in his movie Coming to America.

Takeaways for Your “Audition” as an Applicant:

Send a Creative Gift

You may not frequent the fancy restaurants of the stars or have enough disposable income to pick up a $500 check, but if you’re creative enough, you can make a bold move that will impress your potential employers or graduate schools.

I had a past student who purchased “gourmet donut holes” (yeah, I was surprised that was a thing too) and sent them to the office where he would soon be interviewing for an internship. He included a nice note and a joke about “helping to fill any holes that the company needs.”

When he told me this story, I was not the least bit surprised to hear that he landed the internship.

Do What No One Wants to Do

One past student earned the respect and praise of his clinic’s staff by volunteering to spearhead their conversion from a paper to electronic system. As a result of his grunting and grinding, their paper consumption decreased by 90% and the staff were relieved of tasks like printing forms, scanning documents, and shredding paper. The doctors also saved money on supplies, and more importantly, had extra time with patients. This helped him secure a paying job with the clinic during his gap year and helped him garner a fantastic letter of recommendation.

Tip #5: Don’t Compare Yourself to Others

An Austrian body builder gives a speech in front of a class.
Two actors feeling self-conscious at an audition.

According to comedian Bill Hader, both he and Andy Samberg were extremely intimidated by one another when they crossed paths during their auditions for Saturday Night Live:

“I remember getting in the elevator for my audition and there was a guy next to me who had a backpack full of props and wigs and things, and I went, ‘Oh my god, that guy is so prepared, I have nothing, I have no props.’ And that was Andy Samberg. And Andy Samberg said he was looking at me going, ‘Oh, that guy has no props. He doesn’t need props.’ And that was the first time we met, was in that elevator.”

If you’re not familiar with this era of SNL, I can tell you that both comedians landed a job, with obviously different approaches to nailing the audition.

Takeaways for Your “Audition” as an Applicant:

Stay True to Yourself

Even though some of my past tips have been encouraging you to get outside your comfort zone and take a leap of faith, it’s also important to note the value of staying true to yourself.

What does that mean, exactly?

I would say that you shouldn’t focus on telling the interviewers what you think they want to hear, since most of the time they have a pretty good nose for BS and can tell when someone is putting up a front. Conversely, people usually respond well to genuine personalities, and playing to your personal strengths can be what makes you the most memorable.

Maybe leave the comedy props at home, though.

Play to Your Strengths

One past student of mine was working at a free clinic/needle exchange, and he realized the staff was in desperate need of an ultrasound machine.

He had worked in the business sector before, and he spent weeks making cold calls to friends of friends, finally finding an outfit that could donate a working machine. The following year, he was co-coordinating the clinic and expanding its mobility in the community.

This became a prominent part of his future Personal Statement and was something that his supervisor at the needle exchange lauded him for in recommendation letters.

Tip #6: Consult an Expert

An Austrian body builder gives a speech in front of a class.
An actor getting dialect lessons to prepare for an upcoming role.

A Star Is Born actor Bradley Cooper trained with a dialect coach before the film to emulate Sam Elliot’s deep, rough tonal quality. Cooper’s performance earned him an Oscar nomination.

Another interesting example is when Alden Ehrenreich decided not to go solo in his preparation to play Han Solo in Solo: A Star Wars Story, instead drawing on the experience and advice of the original actor Harrison Ford.

One of the most famous voice coaches, Roger Love, has helped countless actors prepare for singing roles, including Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon for Walk the Line and Jeff Bridges and Colin Farrell for Crazy Heart.

These are just a few examples of how actors have utilized trained professionals to help them nail a particular role, rather than stubbornly going it alone.

And at Passport Admissions, we feel that students deserve this kind of expert attention as well.

Our experts can’t train you to sing baritone, but we can definitely give you coaching on all your admissions goals, so don’t hesitate to book a FREE intro meeting with us soon.  

I hope this post has inspired you to take a “method” approach to your applications and interviews and try something a little more daring or outside-the-box in your preparation.

Definitely let me know how these tips work for you!

- Ryan