In early 2002, actor Sam Feuer moved from New York to Los Angeles. His first weekend in California, he attended an open call for a television reality show called The It Factor, a series following the travails and triumphs of aspiring performers. Casting director Mali Finn saw about 1,000 people that day, in groups of 30 or so. According to Feuer, upon dismissing them, she advised, "The one thing I learned when I first came out here is that you never leave a meeting without another meeting. This is your business. You're your own boss. You need to be the CEO of your own company, and you need to network."
"Everyone was like, 'Okay, okay,'" Feuer remembers. "And everyone left the room. I walked straight up to her and said, 'I want another meeting.'" Finn was so impressed with Feuer's approach that she helped him make connections with other CDs in town. And then, says Feuer, things really started rolling for him.
He got a callback for The It Factor, after which he asked for—and received—yet another meeting with Finn. He then found out that the series JAG was casting the role of a young Israeli man. Though born in Connecticut, Feuer moved to Israel at age 9 and did military service there. So he dropped off his headshot and résumé for the JAG casting director. He booked the role the day he read for it, and he joined the Screen Actors Guild immediately.
gonna be deterred. But if you play the game a little bit, then they're interested in you. I think it's the same thing with casting directors. You don't want to be too aggressive, because they'll call back and say, 'Why don't you have an agent?' But it doesn't really matter why I don't have an agent. The fact is I don't have an agent. If [they] want to see me, great. If [they] don't want to see me, fine."
And though the "single" Feuer seems to be doing fine on his own—he can currently be seen in The Omen, and he recently shot a role in the feature In Harm's Way—he'd certainly be happy to sign with a theatrical agent. Shortly after this interview, Feuer landed a manager, Hillard Elkins of Elkins Entertainment.
Back Stage spoke with several actors about the question of working without representation. Some are seasoned performers who've had agents and/or managers for most of their careers. Others are newcomers currently working without representation but who, like Feuer, have booked significant acting jobs. All concurred that, whether represented or not, you can't sit back and passively wait for jobs to materialize; you've got to get out and hustle.
Actor Steve Wilcox, who has an agent, suggested that signing with an agency is not necessarily the actor's panacea. He pointed out that represented actors face some of the same challenges as the unrepresented: "We have to hope our agents are doing their jobs. And then we have to do our job, which is to stay on top of things, read the trade magazines, find out who's producing what… who's casting what, who's cast us before, who likes us—and then keep an open communication line with our agents."
Wilcox notes that signing with someone is no guarantee you'll get bookings. After his appearance in Edward James Olmos' 1992 film American Me, Wilcox hooked up with an agency that had considerable clout. But a couple of months later, his point person at the agency moved on. Wilcox soon realized he was "not being taken care of." Many gigs he subsequently secured over the years came about through connections with people he had worked with before—such as Olmos—rather than because of submissions by agents.
If you don't have representation and you wish to catch the eye of casting directors, Wilcox advises, work in live theatre—but pick your projects carefully. You could also appear in "pay to play" showcases, in which actors pay to perform. Although Wilcox personally finds these somewhat "unsavory," he adds that CDs make connections with actors at such events.
Sending unsolicited headshots is fine, but a post card may be better, Wilcox suggests; CDs won't have to bother opening an envelope. "They will remember," he says. "And after a while they might even say, 'Let's bring this person in, so they'll stop sending post cards.' It's another weapon in the small arsenal we have."
It may be easier for unrepresented actors to book commercial work than film and TV jobs. And Wilcox points out that it's probably easier to "crash" a commercial audition than a theatrical one. "They're not literally looking at a list when they're bringing you in, and by the time they've figured it out, you've already been put on tape…" he says. "And if they like you, you'll be brought back for an audition."
But commercial CD Jane Sobo of Sobo Casting says she and her casting colleagues are wiser than actors may believe. "When a crasher assumes it's easy to sneak, I think that's not because we're preoccupied or oblivious, but rather [we're] accepting and willing to take a chance on that person," she says. "However, he has to remember that if he has the gall to attempt crashing, he has to be able to suffer the wrath and accept the possible embarrassment of being chastised for his scheme within earshot of his peers and competitors."
Cuban-born actor Marlene Forté began her career in New York in the late 1980s, studying at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute. But she was also a divorced single mother who needed a steady income, so she began appearing in Spanish-language commercials. To polish her craft, she became involved in the Latino Actors Base, which evolved into the LAByrinth Theater Company. She also did background work and appeared in student-directed film projects. Although she was a SAG member, she did not have a theatrical agent when she booked her first major movie, Joseph B. Vasquez's 1990 film The Bronx War, after answering a casting call in Back Stage.
Forté believes that concentrating on the artistry of the work is the most important thing an unrepresented actor can do. Stage work is ideal not only for developing your art but also for exposing your talents to industry insiders. But you should never invite a CD or prospective agent to something you're not thoroughly proud of, she notes, "'cause, child, you will never get them out again—ever."
If you're an agentless actor who's based in New York, consider hiring a manager, Forté says; although they're not allowed to negotiate contracts, managers can arrange appointments with agents. In L.A., however, it's difficult to secure a manager if you don't already have a theatrical agent, she concedes.
I have no representation whatsoever," says Glenn Shelhamer, who came to L.A. from the suburbs of Atlantic City, N.J., via Florida. "I hear things through the grapevine, and I show up when I can and do my best." He has had representation in the past: Three years ago, in Miami, he worked with an agency that scheduled an audition for him for a General Hospital role. He was flown to L.A. for the call. But the character he read for never materialized on the show. Two years later, having had a tantalizing taste of California, Shelhamer tossed two suitcases in his truck and—with about $1,000 to his name—headed West for good.
He was signed with one L.A. agency for a while and got a recurring role on the daytime drama Passions, but he and the agency parted ways. The actor then crashed an audition with a model friend of his and booked an overseas print-campaign job for YKK (famous for zippers); he believes he can still be seen on billboards in Japan. His friend's agency—which Shelhamer was not signed with—recently alerted him to a new Fox limited-run prime-time soap project, tentatively titled Secrets: Fashion House. Robin Nassif, the casting director, liked Shelhamer's style and personality but suggested he get coaching. Shelhamer sought the help of acting teacher Michael Woolson and has been studying with him ever since.
Shelhamer booked the pilot for Fashion House and filmed it in San Diego. "Of course my contract wasn't that great because I didn't have anybody going to bat for me and negotiating. But, you know, it is what it is," he says. At the time of his interview with Back Stage, Shelhamer was still waiting to hear whether he would be retained for the series.
Meanwhile, he's been working on getting his reel together and hopes to find work in independent film. He's also open to working in student-directed films, and he plans on learning more about the industry by attending film festivals. "They can be pretty pricey to get into the parties and stuff—a few hundred bucks, minimum," he says. "But if it's your passion, you just have to get yourself out there and meet with the directors and the people that are moving and doing stuff. That's what I'm trying to do, anyway."
Actor, singer, and visual artist Leah Allers grew up all over the world—Boston, Crete, Japan, Toronto—toted along as her father worked as an animator for, among others, Disney. Allers settled in Santa Monica, Calif., about a decade ago. She has always taken the initiative when it comes to her career, and she believes in creating her own projects. For instance, she wrote, directed, and produced an original musical called The Waiting Room for Theatre Palisades in Pacific Palisades.
As she moved into film acting, Allers joined the Beverly Hills Playhouse for scene-study classes. By February, she'd received enough vouchers to become a member of SAG. Within a week of getting her union card, she booked her first SAG film as a principal in a low-budget thriller titled Captivity, directed by Randall Chu. She plays a woman who winds up killing people when a kidnapping spirals out of control. "My character takes a really interesting journey—from reckless thrill seeker to regretful murderess…. I really get to run the gamut of human emotions," she says.
Every morning, Allers checks the breakdowns on online casting services, including Actors Access, Showfax, Now Casting, and BackStage.com. Even before Captivity, she'd booked several independent nonunion films on her own.
Are CDs apprehensive about hiring someone without representation? Allers says no. "I think when they see the talent, that's all they really care about…" she contends. "They really just want to get the person who's going to do a great job."
Whether CDs would agree is debatable. Fern Champion of Fern Champion Casting, for one, is open to seeing unrepresented talent. "I think that acting is a sole proprietorship," she says, adding that finding jobs on one's own is "very much in the realm of being self-sufficient." On the other hand, the late Phyllis Huffman, who cast many of Clint Eastwood's movies, including Million Dollar Baby, told Back Stage in a 2005 interview, "Without an agent, you might get into some casting offices, but not on a consistent basis."
Carol Goldwasser, who casts the Disney series Hannah Montana, substantiates Huffman's claim. Goldwasser reports that her office has never placed an unrepresented actor. She posits that CDs may be open to actors without agents, but the time constraints for many projects are such that CDs turn to agents for talent first. Sometimes, she says, a CD may attend a workshop or sketch comedy evening and see a performer he or she will track down and use—but it's usually for a smaller role. Sobo says timing is everything: "Someone might just happen to appear at our door at the perfect moment when we are seeking someone new and different." However, on certain busy days, she says, uninvited guests would be an unwelcome distraction.
When interviewed in early April, Allers told Back Stage that once pilot season was finished, she would begin submitting herself for representation. She said she believed agents would not give her a moment's notice until she had her SAG card. She has specifically narrowed her focus to film and television and is not actively seeking stage or commercial jobs. "When I try to explain my life to relatives and others, they ask, 'Why haven't I seen you in the next Tom Cruise movie yet?'" says Allers. "I explain that I'm starting a small business. It really feels like that to me. It feels like I am taking care of the administration, PR, marketing—as well as being an actor."
She has her own website and is planning on co-producing a short film for herself in the near future. "It's just so important to generate your own work and get yourself out there and get yourself seen," she says. "You can be brilliant, but if you're sitting at home, no one's going to know that you're brilliant."
A few years ago, in a rural South Carolina schoolroom, drama teacher Paige Cooper gave her class a journal-writing assignment: Where do you want to be in five years? She wrote along with the students and also joined in when they read their assignments aloud. Cooper revealed that she wanted to be a working actor in New York or Los Angeles. One of her students looked at her and asked pointedly, "Why aren't you there now?"
With that, she "hit the ground running." She moved to L.A. in July 2004 and devised a methodical five-year career plan. For every year in the itinerary, she has certain goals to meet. In her first year, for instance, she concentrated on training, becoming SAG-eligible, and completing an internship in a casting office to learn more about the movie business. She met all three goals.
For a short while she was "frantic" about finding an agent. But she eventually decided it was pointless to do so until she had sufficient material on her résumé and reel to interest agencies. "I didn't know what to look for in an agent," she admits. "It was like this other being you had to have in order to move on, and it just didn't make sense to me. I like to understand things and get a good grasp on what it is I'm trying to get. And now I feel like I have that idea."
Despite being agentless, Cooper has booked meaty jobs. She earned a leading role in a SAG low-budget film, also starring Anna Chlumsky, which Cooper auditioned for before leaving South Carolina. And she appeared in six episodes of the Nickelodeon series Hi-Jinks, a show in which parents set up their kids in good-natured Punk'd-style pranks. "It's great comedy, great character shtick—and it's improv," she explains. The other roles she's done on-camera have been less broadly comic, so she's getting a good range of clips for her reel. Cooper is SAG-eligible; she has the union paperwork filled out and waiting in her car. But the Nickelodeon work was nonunion, and it paid well. So she decided to hold off on getting her SAG card.
After the third episode of Hi-Jinks, Cooper steeled her nerves and asked for a pay raise. People she knew in the industry coached her to ask firmly about the increase, to not "overtalk" it, and to be prepared to walk away from the job. "I didn't want to walk away—that was the problem," she says. She was "sweating bullets" when she approached producers about the raise. But she succeeded in getting it, along with a bump up in billing, from "also starring" to "guest star" status. Her brief involvement with contract negotiation gave her increased respect for the work agents do.
Cooper submits herself for jobs using some of the same online breakdown outlets as Allers. Cooper also uses the submission service Get More Auditions (www.getmore auditions.com), operated by Doug Eakins. "You send him all your headshots with résumés on the back…" she says. "He has all sorts of different sources that he uses." GMA submitted Cooper for the first Hi-Jinks job.
Cooper feels fairly relaxed about the question of signing with agents. Having not rushed her pursuit of representation, she believes she'll be more selective in finding the agent that's right for her. She notes, "I'm getting my reel. I'm still continuing to train. And I know my work is getting out there. When the time comes, it'll fit…. It'll be a match made in heaven."