When you think of yourself as an actor, do you think of yourself as a brand? Are you a funny, clever secretary, a chatty next-door neighbor, caring best friend, powerful CEO, or kind school teacher? Or do you think of yourself as an actor who is more interested in expanding your boundaries? Do you think of yourself as someone who is committed to developing the skills and artistry to play the widest range of roles possible with equal strength and believability? The way you answer that question will tell you whether you are more committed to your acting or to your marketing.
Without question, marketing is important to any actor’s career. Is it more important than dedication to being a skilled and compelling actor? No. In order to succeed as an actor, not just as a commodity, you need to be spending your time living with your eyes open, leaning into new experiences, growing, and training to be that special actor who can breathe real life into any role you audition for. Before you start planning how to tell people about yourself, you need to have honed your awareness of the many facets of yourself and of your talent. Your marketing plan shouldn’t be more professional than you are as an actor.
When I worked at Halpern and Associates talent agency, actors we met would sometimes tell us their “casting” – the old term for branding. We appreciated their awareness of what they could do, but we only represented strong, versatile actors. We wouldn’t send every client out for every role, of course, but we did expect every client to be great in every role we did submit them for. We never considered signing anyone who felt strongly connected to only one part of their personalities. Dale Raoul, a character actor known for her work on "True Blood," "Monday Mornings," and "Under the Dome" takes a similar stance: “Why put limits on yourself? Being typecast is somewhat unavoidable primarily based on what you look like. Let the outside world pigeonhole you. The job of the actor is to use imagination to explore a myriad of different personalities. This year alone, I’ve played everything from a rich society matron to a down-and-out hoarder. What could be more fun or challenging?”
This idea of branding can be troublesome on the personal and creative levels as well as the professional level. When you narrow your personality to accentuate only one part of it, you will end up spending a lot of energy hiding the other parts of yourself that conflict with that primary image. Your brand then turns into little more than propaganda: the small picture that you hold up in front of you hoping it will hook the powers-that-be into seeing you, liking you, hiring you. But what if those same powers-that-be don’t see you as the brand that you and your classmates and friends came up with? You’re sunk because that’s all you have chosen to show them. You’ve fragmented your personality, and a fragment is never as powerful or compelling as the whole. Indie film casting director Brad Gilmore ("Bag of Hammers," "Finishing the Game") says, “Branding might be a fun exercise, but if that specific type becomes paramount you risk being stereotyped. I want to see your contradictions and insecurities, your mysteries and awkwardnesses. Unpredictable? Yes, please!”
The concrete nature of branding is also at odds with the fluid and constantly changing energy of life. Living a life focused on putting forth a small, fixed idea of yourself can cause you to become rigid and non-adaptive, separated from the natural rhythm of human experience. You sacrifice your spirit of creativity, artistry, and flexibility in the interest of pushing this pre-packaged picture of yourself on the world. The more your view hardens around the idea of your brand, the more you compromise your overall power and effectiveness in the world. You’ll probably have less time to tend to your acting as well. The creative, open, expansive side of you gets less and less attention when your focus turns to maintaining, defending, and selling your brand. Staying small can be a full-time job.
Casting directors I have spoken to and worked with over the years have always loved interesting multi-faceted actors – actors they can bring in again and again for a variety of roles. They go out of their way to hire actors who don’t just play the “type” of the cop or the nurse or the lawyer, but have the skill and depth to play the whole person. They would never say that they hired an actor because the actor was perfectly branded for the role. They would talk about how the actor expanded the possibilities of the role, gave it dimension. They would thank us for sending them a “real actor” and not just a type. Casting director Gayle Keller, ("Law & Order Criminal Intent" and "Louie") has this to say to actors: “You don’t need to worry about your type. Just be as prepared, interesting and true to yourself in the role as you can be. The bottom line is that you have to be good.”
And Gilmore says, “When you audition for me, I’d rather not have you try to trick me into thinking you’re this or that type. I want to see someone who has prepared extensively to bring the role to him or herself. If you’re presenting a brand, you’re putting up a barrier between us, and I can’t get to know the real you. It’s not acting. It’s a sales pitch and I’m not buying.”
I believe that having an awareness of who you are and what you can play is valuable. I also think it’s wise not to get lost in one particular brand. It is far from the whole story that you have to tell, and it is shortsighted for actors to lose their focus as creative beings because they think they’ve discovered a part of themselves that might sell. It may make you feel safe to only deal with a small facet of your personality. But the thing about small spaces is that they quickly become cramped and airless and there is no room for greatness.
Craig Wallace is the creator and award-winning teacher of The Wallace Audition Technique, an audition preparation system that he developed based on his years of experience as a studio executive, talent agent and casting consultant. In his 14 years of teaching, he has seen the careers of hundreds of his students take off. He is also the author of the best-selling book, “The Best of You – Winning Auditions Your Way.”
Craig is currently teaching his audition technique classes and his Meditation for Actors classes in Santa Monica, CA. For more information visit www.wallaceauditiontechnique.com.