Headshots are, first and foremost, marketing tools. They are all about casting. Never forget that. Most actors think the purpose of a headshot is to show the casting director or agent what you look like. But in reality, it's so much more than that. Great headshots answer the three basic questions of casting: What's your look, what's your personality, and can you act? All three must be addressed or the headshot will be of little value.
Before we dive into the three questions, let me address Rule No. 1 of Headshots: Your headshot must look like you. Simple as that. It has to be real and natural and show what you really look like. Ask any casting director his or her pet peeve and chances are most will say, "I hate when actors come into the room and don't look like their headshots!" Stay away from high-fashion-style lighting, dramatic shadows, disproportionate or goofy poses, and anything else that makes the shot more about the photographer's artsy style than about you.
Now for the questions. The first question that a great headshot has to answer is "What's your look (or type)?" If you don't think typecasting is an integral part of this industry, you're sadly mistaken. It's often said that most casting is done in the first seven seconds after an actor enters the room, and it's true. In the blink of an eye, an assessment is made, the first impression is locked, and they've sized up your type. If that first impression is anything other than what you've shown in your headshot, you've broken Rule No. 1 and they're done with you. They called you in and wanted to cast you based on what you submitted. Casting directors decide which actors to call in primarily by looking for a match between the actor's type and the character's type. To understand good headshots, you have to understand casting.
Almost every casting director I've worked or taught with has said the same thing: They usually think of actors as being able to play one, maybe two, or at most three things. Agents will tend to say their actors can play anything—as any good salesman would—but when the rubber meets the road, they know full well how casting directors think. They know which roles their actors will book and which they won't. Whether you like it or not, you're going to get typed. Why not take advantage of it? If you do, you'll be way ahead of the pack. Once you're famous, you can play any type you want. But until then, take the path of most success and least resistance.
How do you find out what type you are? If you don't have a great manager or agent or know a casting director, then the secret is to question total strangers. Don't ask family, friends, or even fellow actors. They're either biased or know you too well. They're more likely to tell you what they think you want to hear instead of being brutally honest. And it's hard to say what your first impression is when you've known someone for any length of time.
Here's a simple typing exercise. Print these 27 basic types on a piece of paper: all-American, artist, bad boy/girl, bitch, businessperson, collegiate, comic relief, cop/military, dad/mom, doctor/nurse, hottie, ingénue, intellectual, lawyer, laborer, psychotic, quirky one, regular guy/girl, seducer/seductress, slacker, socialite, rebel, teacher, victim, villain, white trash, and wise one.
Now make 50 copies. Next, go with a friend to a public place, like a mall, a park, a train station, etc. Have your friend go up to a stranger and hand him or her one of the lists of types. Then have your friend ask the stranger to circle the words that are absolutely appropriate for you. Stand at a distance and don't say a word. If you talk to them, they'll be less inclined to be honest. Do at least 50 surveys. When you're done, tally up your score and see which types come up the most. There should be about three. These are your primary types.
How do you capture your types in a headshot? The best way is to assign each type a scene or some dialogue. In other words, come to your headshot session prepared to play as an actor. For example, if one of your types is best friend, think about a situation in which you would be with your best friend. Come up with some dialogue. When the photographer starts snapping your picture, play with that scene or dialogue in your head (or even out loud). You might say something like, "You look amazing today! I love that shirt on you." Or you might imagine sitting on top of a mountain that you just scaled with your best friend. Smell the air, feel the breeze, and enjoy the mutual accomplishment as the camera clicks. You'll be amazed at how specific your headshots get.
It's All About You
Second, a great headshot has to tell us, "What's your personality?" I have a saying: Acting, it's all about you! David Nutter, the brilliant TV director, once said, "Acting is autobiography." In other words, it's revealing bits and pieces of yourself, who you really are, in the lines and movements of someone else. When agents or casting directors look at your headshot, they should instantly be able to see your personality and who you really are. Show us something about you. Show us how hard your life has been and how you've prevailed anyway. Show us how you love, how you are at a party, or how you handle stress. Are you analytical, sweet, charismatic, parental, or enigmatic? We want to know, we really do!
The secret to capturing your personality in a headshot can be found in these two simple words: Have fun! Have you ever noticed that our best pictures are always the ones that our friends take when we're just hanging out, having a good time? It's because we're not trying to be something we're not. We're simply comfortable being ourselves. We're around friends who accept us as we are. This is why it is so important that you find a photographer you connect with. Make sure you meet with potential photographers beforehand. Make sure you have good chemistry with this person and can relax and be yourself.
If we see someone having fun in a headshot, we can't help but like that person. It's called the likability factor. Casting director Stephen Snyder said it best: "When I look at a headshot, the first thing in my mind should be, 'I'd love to hang out with that person.' " Even if your primary type is the bad boy, the bitch, or the psychotic, if you're having fun, we can't help but like you. Anthony Hopkins said one of his favorite characters was Hannibal Lecter in "The Silence of the Lambs." Because he loved the role so much, we can't help but like the character, even if he is a cannibalistic serial killer.
Third, a great headshot has to answer the question "Can you act?" Meaning "Can you connect with the camera and have something going on in your head?" Again, if you bring in lines or scenes and play around with the photographer while he or she is capturing those moments, we'll look at your shot and say, "That's a great actor!" I once heard a commercial casting director say, "My favorite headshots are the ones where it looks like the actor is messing with the photographer."
Get specific, have fun, and make it an acting assignment. I've had standup comedians do their routines while we shot. I've had dramatic actors do Sam Shepard monologues. I've even had a well-known sitcom actor drop his pants in public (not to worry—he had boxers on and I cropped from the chest up). Be active and have something going on in your head. If you're thinking about your poses, we'll be bored and doubt your acting skills.
You've probably heard the saying "Great headshots are all about the eyes." It's true. They tell us who you are. If your eyes are dead or there's anything that distracts us from them, it's a huge problem. That's why we have rules like no big stripes or patterns, no giant jewelry or accessories. With agents and casting directors getting hundreds or even thousands of headshots each day, your shot has less than a second to catch their attention. Make sure it's the eyes they gravitate to first.
Finally, by way of example, take a peek at the headshot accompanying this column. It is probably my favorite of all time. This person gave me only eight shots to capture his "perfect headshot." So I simply asked him to recall the most defining moment of his life. And just before he spoke, I shot my eight shots. He didn't need to say a word. His eyes told me everything. Without ever having met him before, I knew who this man was, I knew his personality, and I knew how to cast him. I understood his rich history without him uttering a word. I've had more calls about this headshot than any other I've taken. No wonder; he was himself.
See if you can do the same in your next headshot session. The world is waiting to know you.
Mark Atteberry of IdyllicPhotography.com and BeAWorkingActor.com will lead the intensive "Know Your Type" at Actorfest LA on Saturday, Nov. 6. For more information,
go to Actorfest.com.