Leanna Levy describes herself as a dinosaur in the commercial agency world. Aged to perfection would be more apt. For 30 years, Levy has been a commercial agent, almost 20 of them with her own agency. As the owner of the esteemed Cassell/Levy agency or C.L.I., Levy presides over one of the top mid-sized commercial talent agencies around. Her client list has included the likes of Angela Bassett, Howard Keel, Brock Peters, Rose Marie, Ann B. Davis, and Jonathan Frakes, among others.
Back Stage West/Drama-Logue: Did you ever want to be an actress?
Leanna Levy: Never. I don't like to rehearse. My entire method of operation is ad-lib. When I was in college, I loved doing radio shows, I loved doing interviews, I loved asking questions and bringing things out of people, and I think I somehow translated that into my own business as years went on. I love finding actors and trying to help them build a career, but I never wanted to perform. Ironically, most of by best friends are actors. I love actors.
BSW/D-L: What made you decide to become an agent?
Levy: I have been doing this now since the late 1960s. I graduated from college in the early '60s with a degree in television directing and immediately went to one of the local stations, channel 5 KPIX, and attempted to get a job. They asked how fast I could type. Literally. I was just a little too soon for the challenges and opportunities that women have now and have had for a number of years. I think that now, some of our finest directors are women, but in the '60s, girls didn't have a chance.
I realized that I really couldn't do what I was trained to do. So, after spending a number of years at TV Guide, I went to work for the ad agency Foote, Cone, and Belding. I was a production coordinator for commercials, and I began to get very interested in the process of how they cast people. Of course, it was so different then. People would come to the ad agency to audition, and there was no videotape; it was live. There would be a producer and a copy writer and a casting director and maybe somebody from the client there.
Anyway, I ran into a man I had known in San Francisco named Charles Stern, who was one of the top commercial agents in town, and he had an opening for a children and young adults agent for on-camera commercials. I tried it and here I am almost 30 years later, still really loving what I do, even with all the changes. I worked for Charlie for almost seven years, and then I went to work for another rather wonderful agent named Herb Tannen. Between the two of them I learned almost everything I needed. Even as things have changed and the process has changed, I had extraordinary basic training between those two people.
In 1981, after my seventh year with Herb, I decided to open my own company. Herb is still functioning, though. He has a really viable agency, excellent taste, and some wonderful clients. I partnered with Malcolm Cassell and, even though I bought Malcolm out in the mid-'80s, I kept the name Cassell/Levy. I think I am one of the few female owners of an agency without partners or backers. The difference between 1981 and 1998, however, is that there used to be about 20 commercial agencies and now there are about 180. And there is less work than there was back then, so it's changed quite a bit.
BSW/D-L: Why is there less work?
Levy: Well, in the old days you would see a car, for instance, a station wagon, drive up, and out would come a mom, a dad, three kids, and an Irish Setter. Now because of computerized graphics and all the ways they simulate the car going up a hill and across the water and up a mountain, Mom, Dad, the three kids, and the dog are gone. That's five jobs. Now it's just the car and a voiceover. I actually primarily do voiceovers now.
BSW/D-L: How many people work in your office?
Levy: Richard Ohanesian and his assistant, Margo Mazzeo, handle the on-camera department; Johnny Davis is kind of the office manager, and we also have a bookkeeper and a messenger. I do the voiceovers, handle celebrities, and buy the toilet paper. And there are always actors floating around here. As you can see, the office is in a house and we try to make it as comfortable as possible for actors. That's very important to me.
I know how difficult this business is for all of you who try to make a living out of it. This is one place where my clients can feel safe. By the same token, they can't come in and hang around. But there are always people coming in to bring in new pictures or sign contracts. And we have voice recording equipment so actors can audition here, and then we send the tape to the advertising agency. Richard is very concerned that our actors don't become strangers.
BSW/D-L: How many clients do you have?
Levy: We have under 500 clients, which is very small. There are some agencies who have 1,500. We're more of a boutique agency. We have a small staff and a list of very loyal clients. Some of them have been with me for 25 years.
BSW/D-L: What are the positives and the negatives of a big agency as opposed to a boutique agency?
Levy: There are pluses and minuses on both sides. Sometimes actors feel more secure if they're with a big agency. It is much more impressive to walk in and see 30 agents that you think are working for you. On the other hand, some people really like the idea that we're kind of like a family here. They also know that we don't have 10 or 12 people who look just like them. In a bigger agency, there are more likely to be conflicts.
BSW/D-L: How can actors meet you?
Levy: Well, we look at and listen to everything that comes in the door. It takes us a long time, though. It probably takes a month for us to listen to tapes that come in. And we look at the photographs that come in. We generally see people very quickly if they're recommended by a casting director or a producer or somebody with whom we do business. Because we are a relatively small to medium-sized agency, we don't take on hordes of new clients, nor do I take lots of new voices. I listen to tapes and maybe try to fill in areas where I'm not as strong as I need to be.
BSW/D-L: What's your advice to an actor who wants to get into voiceovers?
Levy: My best recommendation, no matter how extensive the actor's theatrical or on-camera commercial background, is to take a workshop. Obviously, if you take a workshop with a casting director, you have a better chance of being seen for something in the future. Some of the better ones are Kalmenson & Kalmenson, and Voice Trax, which is run by Cindy Akers. By the fifth or sixth week, there are agency people brought in to those workshops, or maybe somebody from an animation house or an agency producer.
The workshops are important, because there's an entirely new way of thinking about voiceovers. The sound now isn't so announcer-y, it's much more real. People are driving in the car and listening to music and somebody's interrupting. At Kalmenson, they'll teach you that it is not your job to sell the product, it's your job to get the truth of the message across. It's a very different approach, and I think it makes much more sense and is much more reasonable. There are places out there that help the actor get to that.
BSW/D-L: What are your recommendations for on-camera actors?
Levy: They need a great picture. They need a picture that looks just like them. That picture absolutely must represent that person who walks in the door. So much of the on-camera process is done through picture submission. By the same token, a voiceover tape must sound like and represent the actor. I heard a wonderful tape that must have been produced for $5,000, because when I brought the person in to read something, he couldn't read. He had a fabulous tape that was so over-produced that he came across as quite legitimate and quite competitive. That's like having a picture that doesn't look like you. We won't be happy if you come in and you're different from what your submission led us to believe you were. It's as important as making sure you're well-trained. You have to be ready once you come in to audition. There's no reason why an actor shouldn't come in as well-armed as possible.
BSW/D-L: Do you have a lot of clients who cross over between departments?
Levy: No. You know, everybody thinks they can easily go from one area to another. They really can't. The voice area is very different from the on-camera area.
BSW/D-L: Why do you think that there's this whole "real people" trend?
Levy: Because producers and directors don't have to hire someone who can play a certain thing if they can have that thing. Why hire an actor who does a decent Italian accent if you can have a real Italian? Why hire an actress who's 20 years too young and needs a lot of makeup when you can hire an actual 70-year-old?
Actually, one of my favorite stories pertains to that. Apparently, Taylor Made golf clubs had these gorgeous, gorgeous commercials, and the owner of Taylor Made was on an airplane and reading something like Business Week about the fact that Taylor Made had great commercials, but why were they using somebody with a phony Scottish accent? So he got off the plane, called his agency and said, "Fire the voice‹find a real Scots voice." I sent in an actor named Jim Scally who was born in Glasgow. He just did his 25th commercial for Taylor Made. They are still beautiful golf commercials. Plus, now I've become very interested in golf tournaments because I know which players use Taylor Made!
BSW/D-L: What a great story!
Levy: Actually, my favorite story involves a client who was at the time around 70. This was many years ago. Anyway, she came in and introduced me to her mother, who was a wonderful, sweet, little 89-year-old lady. I said, "Do you want to do commercials?" and she said, "Oh dear, do you think I could?" Within the next year she did two commercials, one for Wendy's and one for Western Union. She made something like $30,000 on the Western Union ad, and she wrote me a note every time she got a check. She lived until she was 94 and this was probably one of the highlights of her life. It was so great.
This tough, rotten business has some wonderful sides to it and over the years, that's what's kept me going. I can be really hard to explain to an actor that they didn't get a job. I don't know why they didn't get the job. Maybe they wanted somebody taller, or a different color hair, or different chemistry between the actors. It's complicated. And in commercials, the product is the star. You're there to tell the story, and if you don't fit with the kid they matched you with, you don't get the job. It's not about your ability. It's not that you didn't do a good job. It's all very basic.
BSW/D-L: Do you have any final tips?
Levy: I truly believe that everybody can get a job. They may not discover you in some Hollywood coffee-shop like the old stories, but I think, as an actor, you must be as fully prepared as possible so that when somebody does discover you, you're ready for it. You must go to workshops, you must have current pictures, you must keep your resum s up-to-date, you must watch television, you must go to the movies, you must go to the theatre, you must see what is happening at that given time and see where you fit into that scope of things. You have to be prepared for it. You have to do your homework and be ready.
And when you get called upon to do it, don't lie. Don't say that you can ride a motorcycle if you can't or that you're an expert ice-skater if you're not, because you will hurt yourself and you will cost people a lot of money. If you can't do the skill, don't say that you can. Tell the truth. It works every time.
You may contact Leanna Levy at:
CL Inc. Talent Agency
843 N. Sycamore
Los Angeles, CA 90038
Quote of the Week:
"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat."