If you want to see an actor freak out, walk up and ask how old he or she is. Seriously, it's fun. You'll see them panic, stutter, divert their eyes, and eventually mumble a response that sounds something like "Well, how old do you think I am?" or "I usually play mid-to-late 20s." It never fails. You'll feel like you just asked them to confess to a crime, as if aging were a felony.
The truth is I never ask actors their age, because it doesn't matter. Unless you're a minor, there's no legitimate reason for me to know how old you are. It's just a number that has no bearing on how I do my job. I submit and pitch clients based on how old they play, not how many years they've been alive. Every agent knows that some actors really do play younger than their age. For example, I represent a 30-year-old woman who can't get arrested unless I submit her for characters in their early 20s.
But that's just me. I'm sure there are agents out there who like to ask. Some actors believe it's illegal for an agent to do this. Well, go to law school and learn something. Agents are not employers, so they're allowed to ask. It's not illegal, just inappropriate. But this industry is full of inappropriate behavior. So if you're meeting with an agent and you get asked the million-dollar question, grit your teeth and answer honestly, or deflect the question by asking how old he or she thinks you can play. Then after the agent answers, change the subject. That should send a clear signal that you're not comfortable discussing your age. And if that doesn't work, the agent is obviously an idiot with no social skills and you can probably do a whole lot better.
The whole age thing gets a little trickier if it's a casting director who's doing the asking. In that scenario, there's a possible legal issue at play, because casting directors have the power to influence the employer. But what are you going to do? Sue? Call 911? The truth is you're stuck. I said it once and I'll say it again: This industry is full of inappropriate behavior. So get over it. Successful actors are the ones who learn how to handle tricky situations with humor and tact.
But the question remains: What do you do if a casting director asks your age? The answer is simple: Lie. Just say you're two years older than the character you're auditioning to play. That's what I call a believable response. And trust me, you won't go to hell for fudging your age. Everyone lies in this business. It's almost expected.
Age discrimination is a very real concern in the entertainment industry. Unless there's a specific legal reason, your age is no one's business. But as an actor, you have to pick your fights wisely. Never get angry at someone in a position of power because he or she asked how old you are. Use your training and my advice to handle the situation smartly. Remember, there's always a greater good to be served. And that greater good is your career.