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The Working Actor

When Is It Reasonable for Actors to Change Their Names?

When Is It Reasonable for Actors to Change Their Names?
Photo Source: Thomas Pitilli

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Dear Michael:
I’m a 28-year-old Caucasian male with a very international background; I’ve lived in six different countries and am fully fluent in five languages. My “neutral American” accent is nearly flawless, yet my name is very European and might scare off anyone looking for American talent. In fact, it’s so misleading that my first name implies to any English speaker I’m female, and my last name is unpronounceable to anyone outside my country of origin.

From a business point of view, a name is a big part of branding, and a good, marketable name will definitely help pave the way to success—people in the industry will easily remember it. On the other hand, our names represent exactly who we are and what we are. I am European, there’s no doubt about that, but I certainly ain’t the stereotypical European with a strong accent and a European demeanor. What to do? Would you recommend Americanizing my name? Do you think it’d help me get into the room?

I’m just about to graduate from a prominent conservatory program here in New York, and I’ve also studied drama prior to moving here. Whenever I’ve been auditioning, my name has been butchered one way or the other.


Dear Jan:
Generally speaking, I don’t recommend creating a stage name. It’s sort of an outdated practice, popular in Hollywood’s golden age, but not so much now. In fact, it’s a topic I’ve addressed previously in this very column (see The Working Actor, “Name Dropping, Feeling the Burn,” Feb. 18, 2011).

But this is one of the many things I love about this gig. Individual situations call for individual answers, and hardly anything is consistently true in our business. Virtually every rule has an exception. And so…

Given all the reasons you’ve listed, I would absolutely change my name if I were you. And now is the time to do it, before you’ve truly entered the business and before you’ve accumulated a substantial number of credits and contacts associated with your real name.

In addition to the problems you’ve already mentioned—all of which are completely valid—I’d also be concerned that people who’ve mispronounced your name or gotten your gender wrong might thereafter subconsciously associate you with their own feelings of awkwardness. They may even feel nervous or intimidated about pronouncing your name. And you don’t want any of that. Those subconscious negatives can mean the difference between getting an audition and not getting an audition and affect whether an agent feels comfortable pitching you.

So I say do it—go American, and make it easier for people to know who you are. And don’t worry about losing your identity. Your friends can still call you Jan.

Be sure to check out the thread “Stage Name and Paycheck” on our message board. It addresses the issue of how to get paid if you’re using a stage name.

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