Part I: Headshot Heaven
More than anything, the hardest thing for you as an actor to do when it comes to headshots—beside learning how to choose one and use one—is to truly commit securely to the image looking back at you. While a photographer may expend two or more rolls of film, snapping you in a variety of relaxed poses with a variety of expressions in a variety of outfits in a variety of settings, the actor, not the photographer, is the one who must ultimately be satisfied with the final product. In addition, because the actor will ultimately end up with a far more limited selection of images from all the ones that are shot, finding just the right image, and being secure and strong in that choice, can be a devilish challenge to even a seasoned performer. The pressure that mounts over this most subjective of subjective tasks grows by the minute—one false move, one miscalculation, and the actors may feel as if all those career goals, however meticulously planned, are on the verge of being thwarted.
The key, however, is contained in two words: research and planning. Simply being smart about your headshot process and industrious in your pursuit of the perfect headshot will make you a stronger, more saleable candidate for work. By taking charge and taking responsibility for your headshot, you will own the image looking back at you in more than just the commercial sense. Besides, there's another simple reason why getting the perfect headshot is so important. No actor willingly chooses to endure the humiliation of noticing a casting director (or stage or film director) wincing or chortling at some glaring difference between his or her headshot and real self. Or, in the case of resumes, directly confronting some credit that isn't exactly on the level.
Headshot pitfalls are a completely avoidable eventuality. This millennium guide to headshots and resumes will first explore the essential differences between a mediocre, ho-hum headshot, and the headshot that is heavenly—a spirited, soulful, focused image guaranteed to position you favorably toward paying, career-advancing work in a multiplicity of industries and genres. This alone may well place you a notch or two above the average actor when it comes to going out for the career-transforming role of a lifetime. We also promise to give you the edge when it comes to planning, designing, maintaining, and presenting a sharp, distinctive, professional-quality resume. After all, it's that same exacting director who, after first being motivated to flip over your headshot and find out just who this person is, will, in the best of all possible worlds, positively flip when he/she sees your credits, whatever career stage you happen to be in.
Researching and Selecting Your Photographer
I recently took an informal survey of several casting directors and asked them what their feelings are about headshots—what makes a good one, what gets and keeps their attention. While there was little uniformity to most of their answers, one subject recurred over and over again: how actors must research—and take the ultimate responsibility for—the final product when it comes to your headshot. "It isn't hard," said one casting director, speaking sotto voce as well as on the basis of anonymity. "The information is totally out there—the actor just has to go get it."
The question is, of course, what kind of information to get. The first step is to choose from literally dozens of qualified photographers (no matter whether you're on the East or West Coast). The trick is to zero in and determine which photographer will work best for, and with, you.
To begin, you can find out about photographers from ads—in Back Stage as well as other reputable trade publications—but perhaps the most insightful and fulfilling way to gather information is through personal references and testimonials from other actors. To save time, and even make it a bit of a fun exercise, try gathering a group of friends for dinner one night and request that everyone bring along their headshots. When perusing your dinner companions' images, ask yourself some questions: Do I like what I'm looking at? Are these images as flattering as they ought to be?
During dinner, casually ask how everyone felt at their shoot—did the photographer put them at ease, put them through their paces, or put them through needless tension? Did they achieve a friendly rapport with the photographer? Were they comfortable asking questions? Did they enjoy the shoot? Culling from their responses and your own research, you should quickly be able to assemble a short-list of possible photographers. Preferably, this list should have no fewer than four and no more than about eight. Too few options may seriously limit your success. Too many options may feel repetitive and poised for overkill.
When you arrive for your appointment with a photographer, always remember to arrive on time. This sets a professional tone for the potential relationship, and indicates to the photographer that you are serious, studied, and ready to make a timely decision. After the obligatory pleasantries, the first thing you want to do is look at a photographer's book. As you're looking through it, engage them in light, but probing, conversation about the headshots you see. Notice the responses. Does the photographer discuss his work in a professional, non-judgmental, learned way, or does it become an opportunity for unwarranted gossip? Does this photographer make excuses for substandard work (which shouldn't be in the book in the first place) or otherwise qualify some aspect of the images? Beware if you see a book in which the images all look alike—notice lighting, pose, and overall style in order to discern this.
When you're looking at headshots, the eyes will always tell the true story. Ask yourself: Do the subjects grab your attention with their eyes? Is there an honesty in their eyes? Look at the whole image: Is there a lack of pretense? Do you find a certain sense of warmth, of directness, of clarity, of appeal, of confidence? Are there needless, distracting qualities to the image, such as a too-sexy pose, a too-busy background, or hair teased as high as an elephant's eye?
Also ask yourself: Are the skin tones realistic? Does anything about the lighting "burn" the skin or wash something out? Can you tell which actors are blonds? (It's the hardest hair color to get right in a black-and-white photo.) Initiate a short, but rigorous, discussion regarding fees, number of shots, retouching, makeup, styles, poses, clothing, and the overall process of the shoot itself. This should help you make a decision in fairly short order. And remember, never, under any circumstances, give a photographer a decision on the spot.
Before you leave, take a good, long look around the photographer's studio (assuming he/she works in one). Are the lighting instruments bolted to the floor? Are there any spike marks visible? (Such things could indicate a rigidity in the kinds of images the photographer gravitates toward.) Does the photographing area suggest honest representation, such as a blank canvas background?
Finally, after you've gone home with your brain swimming in details and sales pitches, you might want to ask yourself the following questions:
1. Do I like the photographer?
2. Do I like his/her workspace?
3. Do I feel like this photographer will respect my wishes?
4. Do I feel like this photographer wishes to collaborate with me to ensure the best possible headshot, or do I feel rushed and ill-considered?
5. Do I feel this photographer creates something interesting, eye grabbing, professional, and yet non-rigidified?
6. Do I like this photographer's work ethic?
7. Do I feel physically comfortable around this photographer, or do I feel this photographer may hit on me?
8. Does this photographer explicitly offer a satisfaction guaranteed policy—and has it been demonstrated that he/she will do everything possible to make sure that such a policy will never have to be activated?
9. Do I like this photographer's pictures?
The 1990s proved to be a watershed decade when it came to the growing number of ways in which actors can professionally present themselves in a headshot. Once upon a time, there was only the standard headshot, an 8x10 affair, showing the actor's face from the neck up. These are usually printed borderless with a matte—or unglossy—finish, with the actor's name in black lettering on the front of the headshot, preferably on the lower right.
Today, however, the standard headshot has metamorphosed into myriad variations on the theme: "portrait" shots, three-quarter or "body" shots, shots using a specific pose involving heretofore unremarkable parts of the body (such as the hands, the legs, even the feet). Location and context have evolved too. Today, it's not uncommon for these images to occur indoors against a simple backdrop (e.g. an unadorned wall or canvas) or against a somewhat busier backdrop (e.g. a wall with objects on it). Portrait shots taken outside are growing in popularity as well—a moody body shot, taken against a quiet sky, or shots taken outdoors with foliage and external visuals within full view. This "anything goes" mentality may be something of a boon for actors in terms of range of choice, allowing the actor to gravitate toward a setting and headshot style that expressly suits his or her personality. Ironically, this places a higher degree of responsibility onto the actor when it comes to accounting for choices made.
Casting directors are among those industry folk who will regularly call on actors, in their own way, to account for the choices they have made in terms of the image they are presenting of themselves. It can be a pretty dicey deal, which is why Barry Katz of Dulcina Eisen, when asked if he preferred headshots to body shots or "portrait" style to "landscape" style, acknowledged the allures and pitfalls of all these growing trends. "It depends on the actor; it's one of those things I can change my mind on, how much body I like to see. Basically, if there's something about the body that you want to show off, then a body shot isn't bad. If you're an unusual physical type, or tend towards an extreme—very tall and thin, or short or heavyset, then it's good for the body type to show in the photo. It's also good for dancers and actor-dancers. But keep it simple, and make sure the head doesn't get lost, that's the most important thing."
Renee Panichelli, a talent agent at EWCS & Associates, echoed Katz's cautions. Indeed, all the casting directors and other industrial experts interviewed for this article positively abhor the practice of retouching unless a good, solid, unassailable reason can be found for doing so. "Unless there's something on your face that isn't normally there, don't retouch your image," Panichelli said. "If you have freckles or moles, the casting director is going to see them when you walk in the room, and then they're going to look down at the headshot, look back up at you, and think 'Hm!' Why hide it?"
Similar notes of caution were voiced by Joe McConnell, a nationally respected casting director who particularly specializes in musical theatre, an end of the industry not typically given to outlandish deviations from form. "Sometimes I find that, if the headshot is totally wrong for something, it can seriously distract the director."
To some degree, McConnell acknowledged, this also goes directly to the question of what kind of headshot should be submitted for what kind of role, a decision made jointly by the actor and his or her representative. Still, McConnell said, the actor must take responsibility "for two things that happen when you look at someone's headshot…there's the visual impression you get, and also, a headshot gives you a psychological impression of the actor. One is at least as important as the other, as is the mere requirement of always looking like your headshot. About 25% of the headshots I see do not really look like the person."
Among industry folk, there's a bit of wistfulness for the once-popular composite headshot, a style typically comprised of four images on an 8"x10" frame, almost all connoting character or type, which faded from favor in the 1980s. McConnell, who admitted that this style of headshot is today perceived as a little old-fashioned, noted that it had its function, too—it helped casting directors occasionally broaden their menu of acting choices. McConnell, known in the industry as someone who takes great pains to be selective in his choices and go the extra mile when preparing his potential actors for their audition, suggested that the body shot view may well be an outgrowth of the composite headshot. After all, both are about conveying the maximum visual information about the actor when you look at the photograph. Today, most casting directors, including McConnell, say that a composite submission would still be thought of as just as passé as the borderless, in-your-face images of yore.
Renee Panichelli has noticed as well that sideways (or "landscape") images are getting more popular. Still, she continually (and gently) reminds her clients, "turning the headshot on its side doesn't guarantee that it will be different enough to grab anyone's attention…it's still got to be about looking different, though not too different. It's all a question of distinctiveness."
Panichelli has also noticed some interesting trends in terms of how the various styles of headshots translate into work. "Three-quarter shots today are definitely more popular, but not so much for legit work, because the headshot really isn't even a headshot anymore—it becomes more about their body than their personality. Also, on a legit acting level, body shots are just not necessary—for me, it's distracting, and it can also, if you're not ultra-careful, look way, way too posed. I don't want to see a too-posed shot of anyone, period. It isn't natural."
Context, as helpfully defined by the all-important border, is today the name of the game, according to both McConnell and Panichelli.
"Headshots without borders today are outdated, no matter who they are, as far as I'm concerned," Panichelli said. "I just want to see one shot that looks like you. It seems so simple! But you'd really be surprised how hard it can be for actors to reach that goal, or to even understand the importance of it. And yet, it's in their own best interest to have that.
"You need two shots, I think, particularly once you have representation. One smiling—that is, something warm, friendly, and appealing—and one serious, though not scowling or growling or whatever. It's just a matter of whether people are looking for something comic or light or more dramatic, and having a headshot that expresses that 'something' appropriately in that direction."
"Matte is standard—no matter what the image is," said McConnell, adding that he'll still consider looking at a glossy headshot, but may well note its existence. Panichelli: "If it's glossy, it's going to scream out "glamour shot," whether you intend for that to happen or not."
If you think you would prefer a more traditional headshot, meanwhile, remember that you don't have to completely abdicate your preference in order to achieve a contemporary look. A wide border associated with portrait styles can be helpful, and some photographers even crop off part of the hair—though you must be careful not to let too much hair disappear from the image, lest it knock everything off-center. Remember, it's hair style, along with facial features—including the eyes, which are essential to the feeling communicated by the photograph—that will give your headshot the "distinctiveness" you require.
Preparing for the Photo Session
The more carefully you prepare for your photo shoot, the more relaxed you will be—and the more you will succeed in creating an image that can readily be identified as yours.
"The idea is to be relaxed, comfortable, warm, and open—this doesn't necessarily mean smiling and showing every last tooth, but just something that stands out and invites the viewer to want to see the person, and to see what they're about, and their talent," said Panichelli. More than anything, be sure to give careful thought to the type and look of the photos that you want. Then select the clothes you will wear—no more than four changes preferred, for sake of both your time and your sanity—and be sure to decide in advance on makeup and hair (more on this in the next section).
One way to come to a decision about what to wear is to quiz yourself about what, sitting in your closet, will come closest to conveying and capturing your essence. For a casual look, women could try layering a favorite shirt and vest, or a jacket of some kind, over a body suit; textured sweaters can work well, without jewelry or props. Be very careful, however, with busy patterns, spangles, and frills. Remember as well that, by pulling things from your own wardrobe—clothes you genuinely love wearing and are quite comfortable in—you will set the stage for the successful shoot. It's far better to do this than to feel that you are costuming yourself for the sake of an idealized image in something you would never actually wear and, in the process, spend far more than your headshot and resume budget requires.
For men, the clothing choices are very similar—be sure to stick with what you have and what you feel represents you as a person. While similarly avoiding too-formal duds and crazy-quilt patterns, be very careful when you're being photographed wearing T-shirts with necklines plunging deeper than Jane Doe's décolletage, or wearing vests and nothing more. While your pecs and biceps may impress, so-called "beefsteak" outfits—or lack of outfits—threaten to accentuate your frame and soft-pedal your talent. Jewelry for men is discouraged as strongly as for women.
For both women and men, if you're looking for a shot specifically for commercials, consider whether you fit more into the "all-American" (be it young mom or outdoorsy beer-drinker) or "upscale" business executive type. If it's the first, choose casual clothes in light colors with open collars (but stay away from white). Sweater and shirt combinations are good for both men and women; but again, nix the jewelry, the hats, the canes, or any other extraneous props. In other words, you want clothing that supports an outgoing, enthusiastic smile. If you're going for the "upscale" look, or for the industrial market, women will want business clothing with very conservative jewelry to match, such as blazers or jackets with tie or a bow blouse. Men should own at least one good suit, although you may want to think twice before posing as if for an Armani ad, particularly until your product endorsement contract is signed. Anyone can use glasses (without lenses), but if you do not regularly wear them, using them in your shoot may well communicate a certain unfamiliarity and even discomfort, so again, think twice.
Some industry people say that, if you have decided you want to market yourself to the soaps, you ought to create a more glamorous shot to do so. This is where portrait photographs and outdoor images can become particularly useful, although all the rules—eyes are the key, borders give context—still apply. With this considered, women might want to do a shot with a low neckline (make up all skin evenly), or something slightly provocative, but nothing overtly sexy or too formal. Indeed, the tendency is to skirt the edges of the "porn" look, and these types of shots should be avoided at all costs. In fact, if your photographer begins asking for poses racier than you are prepared to give, be equally prepared to question the choice. Decide for yourself what the boundaries are, and make the appropriate decision as to whether to continue or not.
For potential male soap-studs, that nothing-but-the-vest look might pay off, but wearing clothing that is casual but "hip" is probably the best way to go. Actors should remember, however, that it's a fairly common mistake (and not terribly difficult) to over-pose and over-glamorize. Indeed, many casting people now prefer your "normal" photo to a real "glamour shot," even for daytime work.
Hair & Makeup
"I like makeup to be 'non-fruity,'" said one casting director. "That means nothing overly exaggerative—no eyeliner on men, not too much cover-up, nothing that makes you look like a clown. Don't ever—and I don't care who you are, man or woman or anything in-between—be a glamour queen."
From canvassing different people in the industry, it would appear that most actors take that advice and run with it. Women, of course, should always wear some makeup for the photo shoot, even if they wear little or none in their everyday life. In most cases, that means paying for a professional to do hair and makeup at the shoot. Follow a similar process with this professional that you did when first choosing a photographer, and never be afraid to ask the makeup professional to be specific in terms of what makeup choices they may potentially make for you. Inquire whether the images in the photographer's book are reflective of the makeup artists' work, or, if not, ask to see evidence of their work. Once you've selected a makeup artist (or, very likely, gone with the in-house choice typically recommended by your photographer of choice), you should carefully discuss in detail the photo style and how you see yourself. If possible, come to the same conclusions: you are the "natural, all-American girl" or the "professional working woman," etc.
An actress who is trying to get two or three different photos out of her session will want to change hair and makeup accordingly, along with the clothing changes as described. In general, you want your makeup to be consistent with the way you will look when you go to an audition. For a commercial shot, however, your hair and makeup might be slightly more styled and upscale, while a soap shot could be a more glamorous evening look. You should take these changes into account when you decide which sequence to use in shooting, so that hair and makeup changes can be done most efficiently.
Some women may feel that doing their own hair and makeup is a way to save money. And for some who feel completely competent and at ease with their own makeup, it is an option. If the least doubt about your capabilities on hair and makeup creeps in, better to have a professional do it, so that you can be completely relaxed at the actual shoot. Remember, saving the $75-$150 for a makeup artist isn't a savings at all if the photos turn out poorly because of hair and makeup.
One of the things you are paying a professional for is their understanding of the special requirements in makeup for a black and white photo, in which color is seen as a shadow. This means cheek color should go lower to accent the cheekbone; if it is applied on the cheekbone, (as you would in your normal daytime makeup, to add color) it will take out the contour. Eye shadow works the same way—it will not read as color, but will deepen your eye sockets. Eyeliner should be soft, applied with a brush sparingly, with very little on the lower lid; apply mascara as you would use it normally. Lipstick is another example of color being meaningless—it's the contrast to your skin, not the color, which will show. Unless an actress is aware of these differences between making up for an audition and for a black-and-white photo, and is practiced in the technique, she should use a professional.
Men have the advantage of generally not needing a professional makeup artist, though they will usually want to use a little bit of cream base to lighten a very heavy beard, as photos tend to accent dark beards. When arranging the shoot, ask the photographer what he/she generally suggests, and whether makeup is available at the shoot or if the actor should bring it. An actor who frequently wears a beard might want to get the most out of a session by doing a full range of facial hair—first shooting with full beard and moustache, then shaving to moustache only, then clean-shaven. Shave carefully—nicks will undoubtedly require a certain amount of post-shoot touchup and, worse, may undermine your sense of confidence during the shoot itself. If you have had a beard for a long time, be prepared to add makeup to even out the tones of your face. The old "Don Johnson" look of a few days' growth seems to have waned in popularity with casting directors, but not so with actors, who tend to see such images as emphasizing masculinity and a "tough-guy" stance. If you feel that is very right for your "type," and could improve potential casting situations, you can try some shots with a rough look, then shave for the remainder of your session.
The Actual Shoot
When you first meet with your photographer, or when you arrive for the shoot, be positive. Do not announce that you do not like to have your picture taken, that you are nervous, that you have had horror stories with headshots and photographers in the past, and that all will be doom and gloom as soon as the clicking begins. Presumably, if you have done your homework, the photographer you have chosen will be someone you are not only comfortable with on a personal level, but someone who has proven to you that their work is professional, insightful, captivating, and guaranteed of, at the very least, a running shot at getting you work. This should eliminate any nerve-wracking butterflies that might flutter about on the day of your shoot (beyond the usual).
Moreover, if the photographer does not go out of his or her way to ensure that you are relaxed, get out of there immediately. If you think the photographer is exerting undue pressure to try a particular shot that doesn't interest you or that, at worst, makes you feel as though something other than a headshot session is taking place, there is no reason to stay. This is your money, your investment, your career, and your headshot—and you have an obligation to not only do your research, but to take responsibility for the quality of your photo shoot. Never be afraid to say no; never be afraid to ask questions; never be afraid to assert your wishes, and to enforce the legally binding contract between you and the photographer.
Also remember, the headshot must somehow "capture the verb." It's a funny, almost imperceptible thing, this notion of trying to capture a grammatical contrivance within a still image. Remember, above all, that a verb will always imply, connote, or command an action—to love, to hate, to run, to jump, to hide, to leer, to glance, to wonder, to dream, to defend, to mind, to stall, to petrify. If you just put yourself in the thought process of the verb, any verb, you will be sure to avoid the terrible trap of taking a "dead picture."
Here as well, the photographer's expertise and personal style will be crucial. If you are comfortable with your photographer—you've looked through his or her book; you've asked lots of questions; you've appealed to the photographer for sound, professional advice; you like the setting in which the photographer works—then allow the photographer to coax you into jettisoning any remaining butterflies. Go for the accomplishment of that "verb" with your whole heart.
Finally, try the following technique at home before the shoot, perhaps even using a Polaroid for visceral effect. Let the camera eye become a person—a person the actor cares about, one that the actor is inviting into the action. The actor creates a scenario in his mind, one including the person the camera has become, and plays it out during the shoot. For instance, the camera becomes a close friend the actor hasn't seen for a long time. As the actor goes through the actions of seeing and recognizing the friend, feeling a quick jump of joy at the surprise meeting, and then planning something fun that they can share together, the camera is snapping away, capturing real moments in time, not frozen facial poses.
Retouching and Reproduction
Always look at the contact sheets with a loupe (magnifier), and with a sheet of white paper that has a square the size of one picture cut out of it (to isolate one frame at a time). Also, use a grease pencil to make your preliminary and ultimate selections. (The photographer can, more often than not, supply you with one or let you borrow one.)
Trusting your first impressions, and going by the same criteria as when you looked at the photographer's portfolio, make rough choices right away, then take them to a few trusted friends. It can't be stressed enough, however, how important it is for you to be truly thoughtful and selective in those with whom you share these images. Make sure you value the opinions you're going to receive—and you're going to receive plenty of them, especially if you probe for them. Consider, if possible, including a director or a casting director among the people on this list.
In the interest of presenting yourself as you really are—as the industry folk elsewhere in this article have already attested—avoid retouching. The only retouching you should consider is that which softens lines that normal photography freezes into an unattractive, unappealing, unnatural hardness, and that which removes blemishes that are not permanent. Your photographer may be able to recommend a retoucher.
Reproduction: Photographic or Lithographic
Jill Charles, co-author of "The Actor's Picture Resume Book", offers the following excellent advice regarding how to have your headshots reproduced.
"At many reproduction houses today, you will be asked if you prefer photographic or lithographic reproduction. What's the difference? A photographic print is made from a negative projected onto photographic paper with sensitized silver emulsion, so that it has continuous tones from white to black. A lithographic print, however, is printed with ink on coated (glossy) paper, from a "screened" negative—a negative broken into little black dots, so the tones from white to gray to black depend on the density of the dots. The higher the "line screen," the more dots per square inch (dpi).
"A newspaper such as Back Stage generally prints with a screen of about 85, because, on the more porous newsprint paper, dots spread, and too many dots close together would blur. A photo used for an illustration in a book might be screened at 133; a very high-quality print might use a screen as high as 175, and screens can go as high as 300. Headshots are usually shot with screens of 133-150 dpi. If you hold a photographic print next to a lithograph, the difference is easy to see. The lithograph looks flatter, and probably muddier than the photo; if you look at it under some magnification, you will see the dots. You can distinguish photo from litho by the finish on the two papers, also.
"So, if a lithograph is not as sharp as a photograph, why would anyone consider this method of reproduction? In a word: cost. You may have seen some ads offering reproductions of your headshot for less than half of the normal rate. Read the ad carefully, and you will probably see the word "lithograph" somewhere. The setup for the first copy of a lithographic print involves making the negative, burning a plate, and then setting up the press. Once the plate is made, however, the cost per print is drastically reduced, because the cost of paper stock is only $.02 per sheet as compared to $.30 per sheet for photographic paper. This is one reason you can buy as many as 500 lithographic prints for the cost of 100 photographic prints.
"Lithographic prints are more widely accepted in some markets than in others. The photo is still the way to go in new York, according to various casting directors and agents with whom Back Stage spoke. Lithographs are more common in L.A., and in some smaller markets like Dallas and San Francisco. But because a photographic reproduction simply looks better, it seems a bad trade-off, whatever the market, to settle for less than the best. You should definitely have a quantity of photographic reproductions; you may find a use for lithographic reproduction as well. For instance, having lithos on a lightweight paper, to fold and send out in a standard business-size envelope with only $0.33 postage is a great savings if you're trying to keep in touch with regional theatres—after they have your "good" photo on file. Or using lithographed postcards to keep up with casting directors on a monthly basis is a sensible savings."
Have a Checklist
After you receive your reproductions, have ready a quick checklist to go through while examining your order. Putting yourself for a moment in the photographer's shoes, in this case, may be a fitting end to an involved, but fulfilling, process. If you can imagine yourself for a moment in the role of a photographer, ask yourself these key questions:
1. Are the black areas too black; are the white areas too white?
2. Is there too much shadow? Or, if the idea is to provide a little bit of shadow—for a moody, dusky, dramatic air—is it just subtle enough to intrigue, or is the overall image dark?
3. Is my skin tone too "burnt out"?
4. Is my skin tone too "washed out"?
5. Is the photograph in focus?
6. Is there a bluish or a yellowish tint visible as a result of the developing process?
7. Does the border set off the image in a flattering way, lending the image a context and perspective?
8. Is the lettering for my name easy-to-read, preferable in a serif font? Is it black?
9. Will the image convey what I want it to convey, or does it ask the viewer to work too hard to evaluate it?
10. Does the image look like me?
"The headshot that captures our attention," said Renee Panichelli, "is the one in which we can clearly see potential. But frankly, we spend even more time working on an actor's resume." And that's the next step.
Part II: Resume Reality
Of the casting directors and industry representatives interviewed for this article, perhaps the person who came closest to accurately summing up his role was Joe McConnell. "I assume that the reason anyone engages a casting director is for efficiency," he said. "Efficient, and innovative—someone's got to get the job of helping the director execute his or her ideal vision of someone for the role. So you're there to be resourceful. You're a yenta."
A key part of the strategy is not only the physical look of the potential performers coming through the door, but what credits have earned the performer the right or the expectation to be there. This is where having a stellar resume becomes key.
"It's my job to make sure that I'm providing choices, but not wasting anybody's time," McConnell says, "which is probably why, more than anything else, actors have to make sure that they make their resumes as honest as possible. Because I have to solicit talent that is a 'match,' actors just can't afford to be anything less than that in terms of how they present their experience to me, or to the director."
The following will give you a sense of how to create that hard-hitting but easy-to-access theatrical resume.
Every resume has a short but important list of elements that need to appear on it, and appear on it prominently, or else it will quickly be considered substandard or even unprofessional. It's not a very long list—the actor's name, a contact phone number (preferably a service, or better still, voice mail), a full accounting of union affiliations, and representation, details, if any—are the chief elements. But sometimes, according to McConnell, they are among the items that don't appear. "You'd be surprised…it actually happens maybe 10% of the time that people don't include something so logical like a phone number," sighed McConnell.
You will also want to provide those taking a look at your resume with a thorough sense of your physical dimensions, so include your height (to the inch), weight (to the pound—sorry), and such incidentals as hair color and eye color. Clothing sizes become relevant only if someone is assembling a modeling resume, and vocal range becomes relevant only if someone is a singer or musical performer. Some casting directors argue that a sense of vocal range is preferred regardless, that actors in the modern era must be equally adept at as many different kinds of performance as possible, but this is clearly a personal choice and, if made, should be reflected on the resume. Offering citizenship status and a social security number can also be helpful, particularly if your representation prefers it. The best thing to do, once you are represented, is ask.
Actors sometimes think they are being impressive when they try to squeeze in every single credit. "It's overwhelming," said Renee Panichelli. "Worse yet are actors—who, I'm afraid, are very often older—who don't have a computer or know how to use one, so they end up writing in ink (and in script, which is impossible to read) all their recent credits. They end up writing them going up the side of the page of the resume or wherever they can put it. The most important thing is to format your resume in a legible manner."
Panichelli continued, "Generally, if you do have some credits—meaning film, TV, downtown theatre, or whatever it is—list the roles that are largest first, but only list those that actually represent roles that would fit who you are if you were out auditioning in the marketplace. If you're 18 years old, don't put down your tour de force as Willy Loman at the top of the page because, let's be honest, no one's going to cast you as Willy. Be realistic about it."
Joe McConnell echoed the call to realism, especially where listing directors is concerned. "Sometimes," said McConnell, "it can be a good idea—a very good idea, actually—but only if the directors you have worked with are important or well-known in the industry or otherwise impressive." A good rule of thumb, then, is that the more important or prominent the director, the more advantageous and impressive it will be to place their name in association with yours on your resume. Finally, "don't ever say you were cast in a show that you weren't really in," advised McConnell. "Someone is going to call you on it, and that's the worst thing that can happen to you in an audition."
The section that lists your credits usually begins by genre: "Theatre," "Film," "Television," and "Commercials." If you have a great deal of experience in one particular genre (typically theatre), you may choose to break things down even more specifically, separating out "Off-Broadway" from "Off-Off Broadway," and making a separate listing for "Regional and Stock" or "Tours." Be careful, though, because the differences between professional and non-professional theatre, and within genres, may be fuzzy, subjective, and minute. While the community theatre production you did in Staten Island in 1991 may have been reviewed, chances are the professional theatre community will not recognize it as a professional production.
"List upon request" may be all you wish to put under the commercial section, if you have a significant number of them under your belt. Or, if you have only a few, you may wish to list them to make it obvious that you have on-camera experience. (Some early-career actors will disclose on their resume any on-camera training—not as good as actual experience, of course, but clearly a step in the right direction.) For smaller film and TV experience, you can just cite the name of the show, since one assumes only larger parts will have character names. The only difference between East and West Coast resumes is that New York actors list their theatre credits first, while West Coast actors list film and TV credits first. Once you've arrived at a satisfactory layout for your resume, it isn't hard to develop two of them, depending on what you are submitting yourself for.
(The following is reproduced from last year's Back Stage article on resumes, written by Jill Charles, co-author of "The Actor's Picture/Resume Book".)
Training and Special Skills
You need a section that will show the casting director where and with whom you trained, and that will identify the areas and extent of your training in acting, voice, dance, and related theatre skills. It isn't necessary to list every person with whom you ever took a seminar, but list names that might be familiar to people in the industry. Include apprenticeships or internships with highly regarded theatres here, even if you worked in a non-acting capacity.
The "special skills' section should show related talents that might be useful in commercial work, or that could be an extra attraction to a theatre company. Start with theatre-related skills like stage combat, acrobatics, musical instruments, accents, and dialects. Include athletic abilities, and whether you drive a car (standard and/or automatic). You can add to the list almost anything you do well,, like photography, graphic design, American Sign Language, carpentry, electronics, etc.
Most commercial agencies have a special-skills file to run to when they're looking for jugglers, equestrians, and so forth. The list of skills that could be useful to a theatre company or in a particular commercial or industrial is almost endless, and these things can also generate conversation at an interview or audition.
Two caveats on the special-skills section: Don't get too cute, and don't put down anything you can't back up. If you list "Donald Duck imitation," you'd better be able to do it on the spot and do it well. Likewise, any dialects you list should be those you actually could do at an audition, if called for, without special preparation.
Your Graphic Image
You should give the layout and composition of your resume every bit as much energy as you devoted to your photo: You want to project a professional image, but at the same time create a look that "feels right" for you. Go to a copy center where there is a display of resumes, and step back from a group of them: Which draw your eye? Things like typeface, lines, borders, "white space," and arrangement of copy lines will make a resume not only striking looking, but easy to read.
With the ready availability of desktop publishing, image scanning, clip-art and the like, there is every opportunity for creating an attractive and unique professional resume. Pay attention at auditions, and you'll see around you fancy borders, small photo reproductions, and creative type-faces and unusual paper stock, all making up individualized resumes that stand out from the crowd. The trick is to stay on the side of "professional" and not cross the thin line into "cutesy" or "overdone" or just "trying too hard." It's a question of taste, for the most part.
You may have the capabilities for doing your resume yourself on a computer with a high-quality (preferably laser) printer. If you can't do your own resumes, be sure you find a service that offers not only high-quality graphics, but also a storage service, so that your resume can be simply—and cheaply—updated as needed. Once you are satisfied with the look of your original, you're ready to reproduce it, remembering that the layout of the resume must fall within an 8"x10" space, so it can be trimmed to match your photo without overlapping edges.
Once you have created the ultimate picture-resume, of course you must decide what to do with it. Aside from submitting it when requested and bringing it with you to auditions, how will you distribute it to the people you want to impress? In many years of researching this article, Back Stage has interviewed scores of agents, casting directors, and directors. These points come up consistently:
1. Target your mailing carefully. Rather than blanketing the city with your picture-resume, make a concerted effort and research your target. For instance, if you have decided that your first step is to get an agent, decide if you're looking for a commercial agent or one for film and legit theatre work.
2. Do your research. Find out which agents are most open to new talent, and find out how they like to be approached. Do you need to mail to every agent in a particular agency, or just to one? If you decide to concentrate on regional theatre work, find out which theatres have someone in-house in charge of casting and which use a freelance casting director.
3. Include a brief, professional note or cover letter specifically stating what you wish to achieve by sending your picture-resume. For example, "Please consider me for the role of _________ in your upcoming production of _________."
4. Keep in touch with occasional postcards, once you have gotten your picture-resume in the casting director's file: "Just booked a national Citibank commercial!" or "Hope you can catch me in my network TV debut, Oct. 15 on 'Law & Order,' playing a street-wise social worker."
5. Keep careful records of your contacts. Agents and casting directors are in constant flux, and you always need to be up on their whereabouts. If you don't have a computer, or a good record-keeping system, you might look into one of the services like Shakespeare Theatrical Mailing Service or a similar service (look for ads in this issue of Back Stage). Such services will help you map out a game plan and then do all your mailings for you.
6. How about the Internet? Is that a viable way of getting into the right casting offices? At this point in time, it still isn't a substitute for the filing cabinets lining the office of a casting director or agent. This is largely because there has not arisen a single online service which supports enough actors—and those at a high enough level of talent and experience—to make it an efficient way for agents to look for new clients, or for casting directors to look for talent to bring in to auditions.
This may change—in fact, it's likely to change—in the next few years. "Academy Players" and "Players Guide" are both now online, and likely will become significant casting services. But actors should beware when being tempted with deals that will "put your photo at the fingertips of every casting director in the country!" It's a nice thought, but hardly reality—yet.
Jill Charles is a frequent contributor to Back Stage, and co-authored, with theatrical photographer Tom Bloom, "The Actor's Picture/Resume Book" As artistic director of Vermont's Dorset Theatre Festival, she estimates she has looked at more than 40,000 picture-resumes over the past 25 years. Drama specialty bookstores across the country stock "The Actor's Picture/Resume Book." It can also be purchased via mail by check or credit card for $16.95 (add $3.00 per book for regular shipping,$4.25 per book for priority mail) from Theatre Directories, P.O. Box 510, Dorset, VT, 05251; or call (802)867-2223; Fax (802) 867-0144; or log onto the web at: www.theatredirectories.com.