"Everything is now really electronic submissions," says manager Tina Truman of talent representatives Truman Gold Co. "When casting offices are looking at these little tiny electronic submissions, if they're just looking at a nice, perfect headshot and the role is a caveman, it's hard to quickly look and say, 'Oh, that guy could be a caveman.' [Your picture] needs the essence of, 'Oh, I can see that that actor can portray that character.' "
Rebecca Norris, an actor who also worked in casting for several years, notes that a lot of actors make the mistake of assuming a headshot is simply a pretty picture. "You're trying to show casting directors and directors and producers how you should be cast," she says. "Especially nowadays, people are definitely getting more and more specific. It's so important to know that and to portray that through your headshot."
And because many actors upload their headshots to the Web these days, it's not as financially unreasonable as it once was to have several shots available. "Now you can have anywhere from five to 10 shots for theatrical or for commercial without it being an unbearable burden trying to print those up," says actor Lisa K. Wyatt, who has a recurring role on "The Office" and who will appear in the upcoming film "The Box." "I think because so many submissions are done electronically, it really matters far more what you have up on Breakdown Services and on LA Casting than what pictures you have printed up."
Suggest It, Don't Scream It
If you're looking to add more-specific shots to your portfolio, keep in mind that this doesn't negate the need for a good, basic picture. "I like for my actors to have the one nice all-around wonderful headshot but then to give me some choices to work with when a specific role asks for something beyond an ordinary look," says Truman.
Specific shots are all about suggesting a look, so err on the side of subtlety. "If you send a picture that has you in, like, a fireman costume, it looks ridiculous," says Norris. "But I think you can suggest that you're the fire chief by wearing an oxford shirt and a black tie and black pants. You can suggest that authority without having to have, like, the hat and the badge and the whole thing. I think it's getting the essence of that person. You don't want to make it so specific that the casting director's like, 'Oh, this person can only play a cop, and that's it.' "
In other words, consider what you're conveying with hair, makeup, and wardrobe. You can imply a certain look without being too obvious, and that look shouldn't be so specific that it only works for one character. Norris, for instance, took a "nurse/medical professional" shot with soft, natural hair and a simple blue V-neck T-shirt. She changed into an off-the-shoulder turquoise shirt for a "fun, urban girlfriend" shot, then wore the shirt a different way and added a scarf for a "hippie/yoga"–type picture.
"Approach it the same way that you're approaching auditioning for theatrical, because it's suggestion," advises Wyatt. "I think the second that it ceases to look like clothing and starts to look like costume, you're in trouble, because it's almost like you're insulting the casting director's imagination. Like, 'Really? You need a stethoscope or I can't possibly see you as a doctor?' "
For example, Truman notes a demand for "cougar"-type roles at the moment, but that doesn't mean snapping a shot of a client done up as a full-on Vegas showgirl. "A woman in her 40s might have a nice, perfect headshot, but it might not say, 'I'm a cougar,' " she says. "If this additional headshot that you have says, 'I'm a cougar,' that's going to get noticed by a casting director. I think it's more about bigger hair and a little more makeup and a low-cut top."
Another subtle element is the background or environment. "If you shoot the actor on the streets of New York, it has a very urban vibe, whereas if you shoot them in the park with trees behind them, it's a very friendly and softer vibe," says photographer Chris Macke. "If you shoot them inside with bright backgrounds, it lends itself more towards an Old Navy kind of commercial feel. So that, right off the bat, changes everything. And you can shoot all those different locations in the same shirt. Just by being in those different environments, it affects the tone and the feel of the picture."
But don't get so hung up on your clothing and background options that you forget about another important element of conveying a certain look: Your acting in the photo must capture whatever essence you're aiming for. "You can suggest the attitude of the nurse or the lawyer or the cop with expression and eyes," says agent Orion Barnes of Rogers Orion Talent Agency, "especially since online headshots usually crop out below the shoulders anyway. You see a hint of color below the neck, and that's about it. The wary O.R. nurse can be read in the eyes and in the face." Adds Truman, "Think of that character, and have a look on your face that's appropriate for that type of role. It's really acting. You have to act in your headshot."
Norris tried to do a few different essences for each look or wardrobe change in her most recent shoot. "I did, like, 'competent nurse,' " she says. "I was trying to imagine a show like 'Hawthorne,' or that new one, 'Three Rivers'—trying to give that feeling of confidence. And then I also did sort of 'naive nurse'—like the girl who's the new intern and she doesn't really know what's going on. I think it's so important to understand your type and then to understand what kind of type. Like, if you're a mom, what kind of young mom are you? Are you Midwestern mom, super wholesome? Or are you Beverly Hills mom? It's important to convey that in the pictures, because the breakdowns are so specific."
To get a better feel for all these factors, talent reps and casting directors recommend a simple approach: Watch TV and movies to see how the pros do it. "Watch the shows and see what people actually look like, dress like, what the hairstyles are for a doctor, what the hairstyles are for a cop," says casting director Scott David, who works on the series "Criminal Minds" and "Leverage. "There's never going to be hair gel on a cop on a drama series unless you're on 'Desperate Housewives'—but not on 'Criminal Minds' or 'Law & Order.' You have to really know what the types of shows are, how they make people look. Makeup on female victims on ['Criminal Minds']—there's usually zero makeup. It's never a glam look; it's a real, genuine look."
Tap Into Your Type
How do you determine which looks to include in your headshot collection? Consult with those who know you best as an actor—your reps, your teachers—to get an idea of what roles you're going to be booking. "That's helpful for both parties, because it ensures that you're both on the same page with what the client feels like they should be booking and what the agent or manager is pushing for and going after," says Barnes.
In determining what looks she wanted to cover in her most recent shoot, Wyatt met with her manager and discussed what she typically plays and what she gets called back most often for. She also took a specialized typing class at the Actors' Network. "I wanted to make sure I captured a shot that was like Lynn, my character on 'The Office,' who's sweet and demure," she says. That translated to a simple pink scoop-neck top, a red-brick background, and a warm, inviting expression. Wyatt also opted for a "powerful executive" shot—suit and pearls—and a stark "victim" shot with minimal makeup. "With all of the crime shows, there's always someone that is on the receiving end of the crime," she explains. "It's a scary shot to do—almost no makeup with harsh, unflattering lighting. But it's a good, solid one to have for a dramatic actress. And it's more downscale: world-weary and beaten-down."
For each look, Wyatt tried to get as specific as possible with the different elements of the shot: The pearls in her "executive shot," for instance, aren't the traditional kind that would more likely conjure " '50s housewife." "You're actually going after a headshot that is more targeted and you're looking at a more fully developed character, rather than more generic shots," she says. "You're looking to be very specific in your choices within a shot, because the more specific you are, that you look like an actual specific human being in a shot, the more readily a casting director can go, 'Oh, I can see that person playing this.' "
In considering which looks you want to portray, hone in on what makes you unique as an actor and a person. "It's about looking at yourself and being honest with what you see there and your castability," says Barnes. "Be the person who you are, matched with the characters you feel are in your wheelhouse. Don't fake something up. If you're the leading man, don't fake up the nerd if that's not what you're going to be cast as. Own what you have and what you book."
Barnes asks his clients to have at least three different shots. "One is a general one-hour-drama filmic look; one is a general comedic warm and friendly look; and then there's a wild card, something that really expresses the uniqueness and the different qualities of this client," he explains. "What makes them special? What makes them stand out from the actor in the little JPEG next to them?"
Prep for the Pix
No matter how many looks you're going for, keep in mind a few things in setting up your photo session. Make sure the photographer is someone you trust and are comfortable with. "It's really important to visit with the photographer beforehand and make sure you have a vibe with them, that you feel comfortable with them," says Norris. "Because a photographer can take beautiful pictures, but if they make you uncomfortable or you just don't jell, then you shouldn't work with that person."
Then, when you meet with your photographer, make sure you clearly lay out how many different looks you want to do and clarify whether you'll be able to fit everything into the allotted time. "That's the time to address what you're looking for," says Wyatt. "So then you know that your wardrobe choices are spot-on. Also look at, since you are going to wind up paying for each specific look, if you have a wardrobe choice that can serve a couple functions." For instance, Wyatt had a sweater-twinset look that served as "mom," "nurse," and "warm office-worker." "It's just changing the acting a bit," she says. "That's helpful for budgeting."
Truman says actors may also want to practice their headshot looks the night before the shoot. "Try things on, see what looks good, and what I usually recommend is take some snapshots yourself before you go in for your whole session," she says. "Take a look at them on your computer, upload them and go, 'Gosh, this shirt looked great on, but I see in a picture it doesn't look as good.' I think you have to go in and be proactive: Have a list when you go in. 'Here's the look I want, here's the outfit I'm wearing, and this is the image I want to portray or the character I want to be.' "
Also, consider the timing and sequence of your different looks in regard to hair and makeup. "You should sort of plan out what the day's going to look like. You want to start with the least amount of makeup that you're doing and progress," says Wyatt. "It's much easier to add, unless you want the stripped-away makeup and you're supposed to look kind of puffy and red. It does take a little bit of pre-planning."
That said, don't drive yourself so crazy trying to figure out what agents and CDs want that you fail to relax and have a good time at your shoot. After all, no matter how specific your shots are, the basic rules still apply: must look like you, must be current, must capture a bit of who you are as an actor. "Just be the you that you are, as you behave in the world," says Barnes. "Don't add gimmicks that aren't in your world."
Adds Norris, "Your headshot is really your calling card. A person with a really great, inviting picture can get called in a room even if their résumé might not have as many credits as someone else. You should understand that it is your calling card, it's your logo, it's your branding."