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The Working Actor

Forbidden Question, Meeting Challenges

Forbidden Question, Meeting Challenges
Dear Michael:
I usually book roles five years younger than I am. Casting directors regularly ask me my age, and they are always surprised. I would honestly prefer not to disclose my age, as I believe it alters their perception of me for the role.

Is there a polite way of not disclosing my age? Another professional who found out my age strongly suggested that I never disclose how old I really am. I don't want to lie, but I'd rather not share the truth either, as it really doesn't matter, as long as I look or act right for the part, no? I've thought of giving an age-range answer, but I'm concerned that casting directors may take offense at an obvious dodge of their question.

—Peter Pan's Sister
New York

Dear PPS:
You're absolutely right. Age is a tricky issue, especially for women. And I'm frankly a little shocked that casting directors are even asking your age. The fact is it's illegal to make age a consideration in hiring, and therefore it's illegal for anyone to ask you to provide your age at a job interview.

But legalities aside, "How old are you?" is a rude question that should never be asked. And if it is, it should be dispatched as lightly and quickly as possible. I've heard a number of clever or creative answers over the years:

"You go first."

"What age do you want me to be?"

"Old enough."

"Somewhere between birth and death. Closer to death."

"What a coincidence! I'm exactly the same age as the character."

 "I'm ageless and timeless. Next question?"

"How old do I look? And answer very carefully."

"Don't worry; I'm legal."

"Old enough to know better than to answer that question."

Or simply, "Haven't you ever heard it isn't polite to ask a lady her age?"

But I think a simple "Oh, I don't answer that question," accompanied by your sweetest smile, closes the subject quickly and in no uncertain terms.

If someone presses the issue and you really want to land your point, you might explain it thus: "My job is to peddle illusion. So things like age, height, weight, and ethnicity are all in the eye of the beholder. If I can make you believe I'm the character, that's what matters, not my actual statistics. If a character is from Denver, you don't ask auditioning actors, 'Are you from Denver?' If a character is gay, you don't ask the actor about his sexuality. So if I'm playing a 25-year-old, and you believe I'm that age, why spoil the illusion by revealing that I'm older or younger?"

Dear Michael:
Do you have any tips for agency meetings?
Los Angeles

Dear E.H.:
I do. Actors who are relatively new to agency meetings often make the mistake of thinking they've been summoned to see the Wizard of Oz. They approach these meetings with great trepidation, as if their whole careers thus far were being reviewed for validity, as if they might be permanently booted out of show business if they were to say or do the wrong thing. Good news: That's a completely warped interpretation of the circumstances. Here are some tips to make the meeting go more smoothly:

1) Own the fact that these people want to meet you. Agency meetings are hard to get. Agents are busy people. They only have time to meet with actors in whom they already have at least some interest. So you're not starting at zero. You're already walking in as a potential client, just there to see whether it's a good match.

2) Don't overdress and don't underdress. I'll explain both. First, you don't need to dress up as if you're interviewing for a job at a bank. The best thing to wear is something that reflects the kinds of characters you play, but without being costumey. If you're a young person, wear young-looking clothes. If you play Mafia heavies, wear a suit and maybe a simple gold chain. If you're often cast as the female love interest, wear makeup and something pretty. If you're an interesting character type who plays psychos and homeless guys, dress casually and don't shave. Don't try too hard and, again, don't wear a costume! Wear a version of normal attire that suits your type.

Now, regarding the second wardrobe danger, underdressing: Sexy girls (and guys, for that matter), it's great to know your category, but wearing something distractingly skimpy is more likely to get you an indecent proposal than to get you an agent. There are ways to demonstrate your type and still leave something to the imagination.

3) Think of the meeting as a two-way interview. You're meeting to see whether you want to work together. No matter how desperate you may feel about getting an agent, remember, you might not click with this person. Whether you realize it or not, you don't want just any agent. You want to find the right agent—one who is reputable, understands what roles you play, has the clout to get you auditions, and with whom you have an easy rapport. So don't just answer questions as if taking a test; ask some as well. It's not an audition. It's a mutual assessment session. Approach it with the goal of figuring out whether the agency is a good match for you.

4) When discussing your career, in addition to sharing what you've done, talk about what you'd like to do. Agents like knowing that you have a healthy combination of realism and ambition. They want to know that you understand your type and your place in the business but also that you have a sense about the kind of work you'd like to do as your career grows.

5) Don't feel that you have to restrict the discussion to your credits. Part of what you're there to do is get a sense of each other's personalities. You can achieve that by discussing any number of things, from a movie you just saw to your pet peeves. Be open to wherever the conversation leads.

6) You want to do something that will impress an agent? Decide when to end the meeting, rather than waiting for the agent to end it. That shows strength and a sense of your own value.

7) Finally—and some will find this strange or controversial—don't be too nice. I don't mean you should be a jerk. But the groveling, self-deprecating, worshipping approach reads as needy and creepy. Most people don't respond well to that. But a small hint of arrogance suggests you're worthy of notice.

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