Despite having been an actor prior to jumping the audition table to directing and casting, it wasn't until the release of my book, as well as teaching and writing for various publications—when my visibility went from 'that guy behind the audition table' to 'that Paul Russell behind the audition table'—that I fully realized just how cautious actors are about relatively unknown-to-them casting, representation and/or educational opportunities.
My anonymity, which I greatly enjoy, and career stature had lulled me into a false sense of security that actors were trusting of entertainment professionals. Wrong. Oops. My bad naïveté.
Colleagues of mine—reputable agents, veteran casting directors, established teachers and other long-career-termed entertainment professionals—and I are suspect to a segment of the acting community. Why? Several reasons. First and foremost is because younger and/or newbie actors pay little attention to industry history. (Except possibly that Rent was some sort of songy-thing that came to Broadway after the movie—or was that High School Musical?—both answers incorrect, by-the-by.)
Second reason for reticence is the shysters and cons that sadly exist in our trade. While on this side of the audition table, I was peripherally aware of dubious entities on the Internet and the brick-and-mortar shams: The strip-mall 'talent and modeling agencies' or online 'casting call-boards' that lure starry-eyed hopefuls with a promise of career advancement for a hefty registration fee... and, "Oh, that'll be an additional $1,500 for pictures with our photographer" bullshit.
Often these backers of the promissory plastic notes of notoriety were less-than-promising professionals. They were sub-cellars far below my foundation. I believed that most actors were above falling for the piranha ploys, able to decipher the genuine from the faux-pros.
I was woefully idealistic.
During one of my classes, students and I were talking about those who exploit the hopes of actors—in particular, one organization that calls itself a 'casting agency.' The alleged NYC 'castings office' (emphasis on 'NYC' and the second 's' in 'castings' and you may know who I'm talking about) contacts actors by phone with a sales pitch that, for a fee, they will register you within their files—which they then make available to talent reps. Actors buy this dribble.
Okay, first of all: A legitimate casting office will never, ever ask for money to keep your picture and resume on file. Never.
Secondly, casting directors do not submit talent to agents. Agents submit talent to casting offices. A casting office's clients are producing entities. Actors are not clients of a casting office. Actors (you) are our resource for solving puzzles. We don't ask you for money in relation to casting. We don't get a commission if you book a job. We don't get kickbacks. For our work in organizing and finding talent, our clients (the producers) pay us a fee. Casting is, as I've often said, nothing more than glorified human resources. We're talent headhunters.
Back to my student and the paranoia-and-piranha problem.
As I listened to the voicemail from the NYC 'castings office,' with the telemarketer drolly promising thespians triumph in the trade, I got angry. No... that's too polite. I was livid. Pissed.
It's these practitioners of phishing performers for pence and pennies that by merely existing bleed-and-breed distrust among performers towards the true professionals. That actors' mistrust that blankets us all with ire on both sides of the legitimate audition table.
Sometimes that mistrust is warranted when purportedly professional people cross the line into unprofessional behavior. The most recent example I encountered being when one student of mine began speaking of his agent in Philadelphia.
The Philadelphia agent provides her clients with copies of breakdowns from Breakdown Services (which is an act of illegal copyright infringement). She also allegedly provides her clients with agency letterhead and labels. She then suggests to the people she is supposed to be servicing that they take it upon themselves to submit for projects they believe to be appropriate.
I was hoping that maybe my student was wrong, but when he forwarded me an email a few days later that was sent to him by the 'agent,' it did contain a breakdown from Breakdown Services along with instructions for the actor on how to submit themselves to Bernard Telsey.
I was enraged. I took a breath. Relaxed. And then I alerted Breakdown Services. That 'agent's' behavior is not, repeat, not professional, legal or typical of what a legitimate talent agent's responsibilities are.
A legitimate talent agent, franchised by the unions to represent actors within a union's membership, is the only person authorized to submit an actor via a breakdown released on Breakdown Services on behalf of an agency.
(Self-submission via Actor's Access is different, if you're wondering. But if you've read my prior posts on breakdowns, you know that Actor's Access doesn't include access to the really good breakdowns. Sorry.)
I was annoyed. And yes, angered by practices of questionable or illegal motives of persons and entities that take advantage of artists (or anyone). An actor's life is difficult enough in trying to survive financially. Exploitation beyond and within our ranks has me wanting any of the practitioner's balls on a spit. And if the felonious don't have testicles, I'll take teeth as substitutes.
So what is an actor to do to differentiate the legit from the illegitimate?
Do your homework. Investigate. And by investigate, I don't mean rely on Internet message boards where anyone with keyboard courage and a need for anti-depressants can flame-out a rant without accountability.
Ask working professionals who are actively engaged in your field about opportunities that are presented to you. And don't assume because you or someone you ask hasn't heard of a particular industry professional or entity that either is not above board. I'm often inquired of by actors who ask me about producing entities or industry people of which I've no knowledge. My reply is always, "I don't know them, but that doesn't mean anything other than that I'm ignorant to who that is." No one is omnipresent (except maybe Oprah).
Caution is fine when used with reason and knowledge. Don't be quick to cast-off an opportunity because you haven't heard of them. There are many respected people working diligently behind the scenes that not everyone has heard of. Do you know: Kevin Huvane, Pat McCorkle, Richard Rose, Kim Miscia, John Clinton Eisner, David Kalodner, Sarah Fargo, Larry Hirschorn, Francine Maisler....? Hopefully you do. If not, Google my friend, Google.
Now back to those frauds... Where's my barbecue spit?
Paul Russell's career as a casting director, director, acting teacher and former actor has spanned nearly thirty years. He has worked on projects for major film studios, television networks, and Broadway. He is the author of "ACTING: Make It Your Business – How to Avoid Mistakes and Achieve Success as a Working Actor." For more information, please visit www.PaulRussell.net.