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Casting Advice

The Ugly of Our Trade

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The Ugly of Our Trade
Recently I was talking to an agent regarding two actors I had brought to his/her agency. For the sake of clarity and protection of all involved, I'll name her Sue. (Why oh why do I hear Johnny Cash in the background?)

Sue was discussing the future of two clients I had brought to her agency: one signed (Amy); the other, not signed (Peter). Peter was not fully represented, but was in a popular show for which Sue had helped negotiate his contract. Both were wonderful people but as actors their type and/or skill-set have been a challenge for professional advancement.

And so Sue spoke with me about releasing Amy and not taking on Peter. I was troubled. For I—the person of "This is a business folks, treat it as such"—found myself asking Sue to consider emotion and state-of-being for Amy and Peter before casting aside each.

But Sue reminded me of the harsh realities of our trade: If the actors were not making money for the company or, as in Peter's case, not an easy sell, then it only made sense to let them go.

Damn.

In Amy's case, Sue spoke of how her office had gotten Amy—never before represented—into all the major NY casting offices for Broadway: Telsey, Rubin, Carnahan, Binder, Howard. et al. And she noted that in the two years that Amy had been with the agency there have been no callbacks. Zip. Nada. None.

The creative teams were nonplussed. That silence was accompanied by a lack of interest from those same offices in seeing Amy again for other projects.  Sue reminded me that Amy failed to get callbacks on projects cast by my office.

Because of Amy's lackluster performance in audition studios, agents in Sue's office stopped submitting the actress on projects, including readings. I argued that since Sue is owner of the firm—her name on the office door—her employees should follow her directives. Sue countered by reminding me that you can't force someone to be enthusiastic for a client if the results are lacking and love has waned.

She continued by adding the reverse by an actor could and has happened to Sue and many other agencies: If an agency wasn't producing an actor's desired results, the actor would not think twice about severing ties.

Checkmate.

As for Peter (the actor Sue only represented for the hit in New York), it was his age and type that was holding him back from being welcomed as a member into the agency's family. Selling him to the gatekeepers would—as in similar past instances—provide few, if any results. That's a cruel reality I know all too well. Casting directors have far better and more experienced choices of actors at Peter's age.

Unfortunately, I could not argue from a business stand point with Sue. My heart wished for another reality but I knew the truth. She was correct. I've seen many wonderful actors of a certain age or type with few credentials fall by the wayside.

There's little an actor can do if, at a point of maturity, they have not had a work history that can compete against their peers. (For anyone who points out actress Gloria Stuart of "Titanic," that was a fluke. Plus, the creatives wanted someone of that age who was not known. How many decades did Ms. Stuart toil away in the civilian world after her acting retirement in the 1940s waiting for that one last grand opportunity? You do the math.)

Our industry of entertainment is not the precedent holder for seeking people who are more qualified on paper over the lesser curriculum vitae holders. How many small-town mayors go from governing a village directly to Commander-in-Chief? (Ok well, it almost happened but didn't, thank God.)

On a personal level, would you feel more comfortable if your cardiac muscle needed care from a heart surgeon of a 20-year practice or a resident internist? If you said the latter, either you are lying or foolhearty with your health.

We as artists often keep marrying our lives and personalities to what we do for work, thus we feel entitled to leeway for opportunities, believing that the human condition should be taken into consideration when it comes to who is best suited for a job.

In response I ask: Do you hold that same standard when choosing teachers of your trade? When buying a car do you consider the car salesman's "personality," or how well the desired automobile performs? When opting for one food brand over another, do you do so because you like the taste of one over the other, or do you consider the emotional well-being of the employees toiling at remote factories manufacturing your consumables?

I've stated many times, yet sometimes fail to recall myself, that an artist must separate who we are from what we do. Our work is product. What you do is not you.

Do not expect that because you bring cupcakes to your agent, flirt with a director, write postcards to a casting director, or attend a producer's wedding that these mannerly niceties of life guarantee you a dedicated response to your product. Sometimes they will help to keep you in mind by the recipient.

But if there's a better choice of product—like all of us—we/they are going to go shopping for what suits professional and/or personal needs the best. And dependent upon your view, that's the ugly side to any business.


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.


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