More than 1,000 actors gathered at the Hilton Universal Saturday for Back Stage West's 10th annual ActorFest, a "day for actors" during which the newspaper comes to life, giving actors face-to-face access to casting directors, directors, union officials, and, of course, other actors who have made their own journeys from humble beginnings to success. In addition to large career seminars and a bustling supermarket of acting services ranging from headshot photographers to acting schools, the trade show offered actors numerous intimate "focus sessions" in which to engage with working casting directors.
Casting director focus sessions included guests Kim Williams (The Parkers), Nan Dutton (CSI Miami), Janet Gilmore (The Practice), Felicia Fasano (Bad Santa), John Levey (ER), Tracy Lilienfield (Will & Grace), Sharon Chazin Lieblein (director of casting for Nickelodeon), Ricki Maslar (Dahmer), Danny Goldman (commercials), April Webster (Alias), Scott Lairson (NYPD Blue), Andrea Romano (Justice League), Rick VanNoy (7th Heaven), Monica Swann (Fat Albert), and G. Charles Wright (That '70s Show).
The large seminars kicked off with "Ready on Cue: A Sit-Down with SAG," during which James Cromwell delivered a powerful opening address in which he encouraged actors to take a do-it-yourself, proactive approach. Quoting his own mentor Milton Katselas, Cromwell said, " 'This is a show me world.' You have to get out there and do something…. Participate in your career. Participate in your union.
"Make the work for yourself," he suggested, pointing toward a changing field in which Internet and video-on-demand would allow more opportunities for independent projects to be seen.
Screen Actors Guild officials Todd Amorde, director of member education, and Gavin Troster, executive administrator of production services, gave basic information on how and when to join SAG and what to expect as a member. Amorde emphasized the competitiveness of the field. After all, 90 percent of the SAG membership is unemployed at any given time, he pointed out.
Actors Kevin Kilner, Tess Harper, Angela Watson, and Gwen McGee offered actors career advice and words of wisdom, but perhaps none so specific as McGee's suggestions: "Go get The Ross Reports, go from A to Z, send out 10 headshots and resumés a week. You will not get to Z without someone calling you.
"Be bold," continued McGee. "In your cover letter, write, 'I look forward to meeting you. I'll be calling you in a few days to set up an appointment.'"
Kilner agreed. "You have to be the squeaky wheel," he insisted.
Asked for his advice, Cromwell said, "Do everything Gwen says," and also encouraged actors to remember they have a "gift to give to the world: their uniqueness."
The "Character Studies: How To Be an Actor, Not a Star" seminar, moderated by BSW editor Jamie Painter Young, began with panelists telling the stories of their success—often with a refreshing candor. "I picked up Back Stage and I went to these auditions," remembered Roma Maffia (Nip/Tuck), "and I sucked. I sucked royally." Maffia told of years stumbling from play to play before she realized acting was a career she could pursue. "Basically, as actors we just do a bunch of things so we can speak," she joked, "not to ourselves."
Actor Grace Zabriskie recalled a similarly humbling moment toward the beginning of her career, right after she had done Norma Rae. "People used to say to me, 'Oh, you're an actor. I thought Marty Ritt found you in that mill.' I realized that somewhere in there was a compliment."
Advice was wide ranging, from practical tips like Shelley Morrison's suggestion that actors always have reels messengered to agents, to broader themes. "Don't let them knock your own uniqueness out of you," said Morrison. "Don't be someone you're not."
Actor Stephen Root echoed this theme. He said for years he made the mistake of exhausting himself by doing wildly different characters at each audition instead of focusing on his strengths. "Focus on that," he said, "not on what you can't do."
Actor Keith David (The Big House) warned actors to make sure they are well prepared before attempting a career. "Everyone wants to know how to get an agent, but make sure you are ready to have an agent. If you don't know how to work, you'll get fired."
Morrison and Zabriskie also touched on the theme of being older actors in a young town. Zabriskie recalled a casting director who recently gave her a line reading, beat by beat. Morrison told an illustrative tale: "Toward the end of his career, Walter Matthau met with a young executive whose feet barely touched the floor. And he looked at Matthau and said, 'Now tell me, what have you done?' Matthew replied, 'You first.'"
At "Casting Currents: Do's and Don'ts of Auditions," BSW's film and television reporter Jenelle Riley moderated a group of animated casting directors who shared tips for auditioning success as well as their own likes and dislikes.
"Come in, do your job, and leave," said commercial casting director Danny Goldman. "Don't be too ingratiating."
"If you need to restart," said Ronnie Yeskel (Curb Your Enthusiasm), "that's OK. Take a minute and do that."
"Focus, don't talk to other actors while you wait," said Jennifer Rudin. "There's very little you can get from them then that's positive."
Advice on headshots was simple: Make sure they look like you, and show what's unique about them. In terms of the online vs. hardcopy submission debate, only Twinkie Byrd preferred online submissions.
Emmy Award–winning director Mary Lou Belli moderated the final panel, "Breaking into Sitcoms," which brought together a handful of sitcom experts.
"Be yourself, be real," suggested veteran director Steve Zuckerman.
"Do not ever comment on the material," insisted veteran actor Marcia Wallace (The Bob Newhart Show).
CD Patricia Noland added another warning, "And don't ever rewrite the material. There is usually a writer in the room."
Writer/producer Dee LaDuke (Girlfriends) heartily agreed, being a writer herself. LaDuke discussed what the best sitcom actors often have in common: a "willingness to share all of themselves" as well as an ear for the music in sitcom writing. "Language is music," said LaDuke, "especially in sitcoms."
"Do not get attached to anything," warned actor Yvette Nicole Brown. She explained the roller-coaster ride she had gone through while waiting to hear whether her current series, The Big House, had been picked up. Still, she remained upbeat about the industry. "Don't listen to people who say, 'It's so hard to get an agent.' That's just their fear." Perhaps most inspiring was the moment when Brown said that three years ago she was sitting out there in the ActorFest audience as well. BSW