Determining your type—epitomized by those A-game roles that require you to stretch the least—is a highly personal journey, because it involves the core of your personality and is often influenced by physical appearance. Hunger for work, coupled with the pressure to compete with Hollywood's attractive elite, can fuel misguided attempts to be anything and everything to everybody.
"It's no secret that everybody wants to see themselves as beautiful, fit, and fabulous, but not everybody can play the ingénue," says New York agent Phil Cassese of Stewart Talent. "I think people like to see themselves in the most positive light. Taking a long critical look in the mirror is just a tough thing to do. People naturally want to brush all they don't like about themselves under the table, which can lead to a false sense of self. The people that seem to do well booking work, and also in life, tend to be those that are extremely comfortable with themselves."
Fortunately, there is more diversity in casting breakdowns these days. Says L.A. actor Andrea Wright, "People get so hung up on looks sometimes, trying to be what they're not. They don't realize that in our industry, they really are casting all types: skinny, overweight, hot, average, goofy, nerdy, white, black, ethnically ambiguous, and everything in between."
But there are only so many jobs to go around, and actors are eager to increase their opportunities—and their odds of booking—in any way they can. "To put it simply," says New York manager Achilles Tsakiridis of the Achilles Group, "actors are desperate to work and to be noticed. It's a hard reality and, as such, they will want to be the brand that gets them the job. That is the pitfall and the mistake. The key and the secret is, and has always been, to recognize the brand that makes them unique and a commodity, regardless of what opinions people may have of them."
Sam Christensen, one of L.A.'s best-known image consultants, has spent years guiding actors to a personal definition system that they can market to industry professionals. Drawing on his extensive experience as a former casting director and a manager, he considers it his life's work to help performers pinpoint a public identity that honors both the public's perception and the complex interior life of the actor.
"We have this interior identity that is rich and where our work comes from," Christensen explains. "It's the stuff that we've lived with our entire lives. And then there is this outside identity that's strong in other people's perceptions, often agreed upon amongst people on the outside. And of course, the folks on the outside have the jobs we want. So their take on our identity is also valid. Actors do the best they can to conform, but the whole time they're thinking, 'Why don't people see this other side of me?' That dissonance between what we feel about ourselves and what others are seeing is the thing that grows into all of this confusion, where people are not understanding or seeing clearly why it is that others see them a certain way."
It's a Journey
L.A. actor Joseph Valdez is no stranger to that dissonance, particularly when it comes to his ethnicity. Agents have often categorized him by his last name and pushed him into the Latino market, but he doesn't speak Spanish and wasn't raised in a Latino culture. Says Valdez, "How do you classify a Scot-Irish-Portuguese-German Englishman that's Navajo and Mexican into a type? I have had agents send me out as the 'Hispanic guy,' but I've found it's really hard for me to compete within that market. There is a cultural gap and an authenticity that is difficult for me to match." Friends encouraged him to change his last name, but he doesn't feel that's a viable option. "I am proud of my last name," Valdez says. "Honestly, I feel like I would be letting the younger generation in my family down if I changed my name."
Rather than succumb to frustration, Valdez decided to research and explore the meaning of his last name. "I started to recognize family traits, characteristics, flaws, and strengths that really helped me understand my tendencies, not only as a person but also as an actor," he says. "I was able to accept some of the things about myself that were hard to accept before. It allowed me to relate to the dark side of family history, like addiction and poverty, and in doing so I found the characteristics of courageousness. What does this have to do with type? It helps me embrace the dark, mysterious, painful, and perseverant side of myself, which is definitely a cast-worthy quality."
Today, Valdez feels like a three-dimensional, living and breathing actor rather than an actor trying to fit into a narrow ethnic category that doesn't ring true. When he walks into an agency for a meeting, he still gets the sense that the agent is hoping he can fill the company's Hispanic category, but he no longer feels pressure to fit that mold. "I just have to be honest with who I am, what I have to offer, how it's unique, and what kind of work I want to do," he says. Sometimes the agent wants to work with him and sometimes the agent doesn't, Valdez adds, but "at least if it's a yes, I know we are on the same page."
Philadelphia native and bicoastal actor Leah Cevoli says the difficulty in determining her primary type was that she wanted to be too many things. "As human beings, we're multifaceted," she says. "I love rock 'n' roll, tattoos, and motorcycles, but I also love children, charity work, and I am a very friendly person. I had to find balance within my personality for my acting career and my brand."
Even if you know your type, the market might not be ready for you. "Sometimes actors are simply in a limbo period while they transition from one age group to the next," explains Cassese. Wright is intimately acquainted with this dilemma. She says, "I've been going-on-35 since I was 11. I never went after the college roles, even when I was right out of college. Instead I went out for 'young mom.' " Even though she looked like her type, she struggled to compete with actors who had more life experience and weightier résumés: "I was in between for a really long time."
A former director offered Wright valuable advice at an early age when he said, "Wait until you're 35." And he was right. "It's hard to hear when you're 23 and want everything to start happening," she says. But she knew why he said it, Wright adds, "and that awareness saved me from a lot of aggravation going out for roles that I wasn't right for, even if I was the age listed on the breakdown."
Your Prime Personality Trait
Many actors worry that determining their type will lead to a career of monotonous roles, one undistinguishable from the other. Christensen believes that worry is unfounded and uses Robert De Niro as an example of an actor who has achieved a sustained and varied career by playing different aspects of one primary personality trait, which Christensen describes as the "urban loner."
"De Niro could do anything," he says. "He's a genius. But he doesn't have to. There are plenty of ways to play that urban loner segment of his personality, and he's managed to fill that frame with over 70 motion pictures. I think the larger issue, if I were to give advice, is to say to actors that this desire that you have to audition outside of the box and to play against type is essentially misplaced. The better choice is to really figure out what your frame is and then figure out how many ways you can fill the frame, rather than how many ways you can break out of it. Knowing 'This is my chunk of stuff' is essential for career longevity. It's so much more relaxing to say, 'I don't have to do something different,' but rather, 'I have to do something different within the context of what I already know.' "
Honing in on those effortless roles can decrease pressure in the audition room. Once actors have a clear picture of how they're publicly perceived, they can relax and stop trying to "show" everything. "The task," says Christensen, "is 'Now how do I move the stuff around a little bit? I maybe have to exaggerate it or turn it down, but those core traits are already believed the moment I walk into the room and I don't have to create that.' The question is now 'Is there anything that I actually have to invent?' That eases things up a lot for actors."
Really? You See Me That Way?
Most actors are aware of their strengths, and the adjectives they use to describe themselves are often the same that others use to describe them. This is unsurprising. "And then there is about 5 percent of the unwelcome stuff," offers Christensen. "The stuff that makes an actor say, 'I don't want people getting that. I went to therapy to fix that.' "
Wright took Christensen's workshop years ago and was surprised that the word that classmates used to describe her most was "guarded." "I didn't realize I set off that kind of vibe," she says, "but the more I became aware of myself, the more a-ha moments I got. And I made peace with it. I said, 'Okay, this is one side of me that I can turn up or down.' "
Valdez had a similar experience in a class designed to help determine his type. Somebody labeled him "aloof" and someone else described him as "arrogant." "There will always be people who identify me in ways that I don't like or that make me feel uncomfortable," he says. "I challenge myself to embrace it and see what I can do to use it."
It works the other way too. Sometimes actors hold on to beliefs about themselves that simply aren't seen by an outside eye. Wright remembers being described as "graceful" in Christensen's workshop. "I never thought of myself as graceful," she says. "I was kind of awkward growing up. We hold on to so many judgments we have of ourselves that developed when we were kids that we aren't able to see that we've actually moved on."
Says Christensen, "It's great to know that you have a reasonable handle on it, and it's also good to know that thing that you really wish people didn't hold but they do, because I think that is where the Oscars and Tonys live. But also not having to embrace a bunch of stuff that you have been worried that's true but that nobody is thinking."
While all the actors interviewed for this article eventually took a class to help hone their marketing materials and eliminate type confusion, proactive actors can jump-start the process and begin eliminating confusion right at home.
Cassese suggests honestly comparing yourself to the types of people you see frequently used in commercials, on TV, and in films. "This can give a person a good sense of where they fit in the industry," he says. "Do you see a lot of yourself on TV or in movies? These days it's nice that so many diverse types are being used, so the answer is probably yes. If so, what are those types and what kind of projects are they involved in?"
Bonnie Gillespie, an independent film casting director and the author of "Self-Management for Actors," suggests that you make a list of adjectives to describe your personality, using casting breakdowns for ideas. Then ask everybody you know—from people who know you really well to casual acquaintances—to do the same thing. "Take note of those adjectives," Gillespie says. "They will point you towards your primary type. See where actors of the types your research shows you to be are consistently getting cast. Get on CDs' radar, using CastingAbout, Actor Genie, IMDbPro, and Google Alerts to target them. Getting on their radar means when they see your headshot, they'll say, 'Ooh, this is an actor who solves a problem April Webster has every week!' Bingo. And that's smart targeting based on your type and research that shows you who most often needs your type. Be a solution to our problem, rather than just another actor in need of a job."
"Having a log line is a great place to start," suggests Cevoli. In 2003, she took a branding workshop in which she came up with the marketing tag line she still uses today: "a fun, friendly free spirit with an edgy rock 'n' roll attitude." Consistency is important, she says, and all of your marketing materials should reflect your primary type: "Casting will begin to recognize you if you consistently use the same colors and log line on your marketing materials. Think of it this way: You recognize Apple's logo, McDonald's' logo, and SAG's logo, right? No matter where they appear, it's the same logo, same color. Your brand is no different."
Tsakiridis asks potential clients to name their role models in the business. "I ask them about their dream job," he says. He asks his clients "to create a one-year, three-year, and 10-year plan. I ask them to actually define the word 'brand' and to give me examples of it, and I give examples of brands that take years to be recognized and appreciated." No need to wait until you secure a meeting to heed this advice. Put those goals and ideas to paper now.
Take the adjectives that describe your primary type to a photographer and ask him or her to use artistry to capture those unique qualities, and you can say goodbye to generic photos. And, of course, there's no shortage of free venues on the Web to post work that showcases your primary type.
"Bottom line," says Cevoli, "your type is simply your personality. You know who you are better than anyone else does. Branding yourself is simply a way to focus your personality onto your marketing materials so that casting knows who you are before they even meet you. Being confident and sure of your type and your brand makes everybody's job easier. You'll begin to refine the projects you submit on and the agencies you target, and pretty soon you'll begin booking more because you're submitting on brand."
And if you're still unconvinced, take it from Tsakiridis, who grooms clients and celebrates little wins every day: "Focus on what makes you unique. Be prepared for the worst possible day ever, and expect a day that is twice as bad. Eat it, breathe it, sleep with it. Become the brand that is the best it can be, regardless of how you are perceived, or go home. The rest will come. It will never come exactly when you want it or expect it—but it will come."