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How to Find Your Type as an Actor

How to Find Your Type as an Actor
Photo Source: Jesse Balgley

Are you new to acting and hearing a lot of “type” talk being tossed around? Ever wonder what that means for you, exactly? You’ve come to the right place! We’ve called on our team of resident Backstage Experts to break down what an actor’s “type” is, how to hone in on yours, and how to best use that information to book your next gig (and plenty of gigs to come).

What does an actor’s “type” mean?

“Your type is a combination of the five criteria found on any breakdown when a role is being cast: sex, age range, physicality (race or the basics: short, tall, thin, heavy, light, dark), job title (mom, lawyer, cop, spy, teen, criminal), [and] personality trait (quirky, serious, intellectual, sexy, loud, innocent),” writes the Actors’ Market founder and Backstage Expert Gwyn Gillis.

OK, but why is determining your type so important? Because it’s the kind of knowledge that when applied correctly can get you the job.

“Film and television are visual mediums. When the camera cuts to you, the audience must know exactly [who you are] before you even speak, just by the way you look and how you are dressed,” says The Castable Actor creator and Backstage Expert Tom Burke. “The same is true for a casting director, agent, or manager. They must be able to look at you, your headshot, or your reel, and know exactly who you are and exactly how they can work with you by the physical image you present.”

This doesn’t mean that you have to throw what makes you so particularly you to the cutting room floor—in fact, it’s those notes of individuality that will ultimately book you the job. But acting is a business, and you have to know what you’re selling and where it falls in relation to those selling the same “type” of thing. Sure, Tom Ford and Calvin Klein are two fashion houses—they don’t sell cheeseburgers—but they each are distinct and representative of their own unique brand within that larger umbrella. It’s the same with acting!

Do all actors have a type?

Yes, all actors have a type, even the most versatile of us.

Of course, there’s such a thing as acting against type, and once you reach a certain amount of visibility and credibility in the craft, delineating from your type may well come easier than it does early on your career. But particularly for actors who are just getting started, knowing your type and sticking to it will get you and prospective agents, casting directors, and others on the same page speaking the same language.

Inevitably, that common understanding of who you are as an actor and what kind of roles you can best play will get you seen in the audition room and eventually cast. Getting cast means more work, which means more time acting and doing what you love, which means growth and development as an actor, which means you can later prove that you don’t have to just play the girl next door or bad boy biker. It’s all part of the process.

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Burke continues: “If you want to be taken seriously in the film and television industry, and—more importantly—book jobs, you need to know exactly who you are and where you fit in. There is nothing more attractive to an agent, casting director, director, or producer than working with a professional actor. That actor is keenly aware of their specific type and presents him or herself in an image that the industry is buying.”

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What are some of the most common types?

We listed the examples of “bad boy biker” and “girl next door” above, but when it comes to thinking about the most common types of characters and types for an actor to fit, it really comes more down to playable physical and emotional traits.

When we say “girl next door,” what we really mean is an ability to play wholesome, youthful, and approachable. It’s silly, but think about Taylor Swift’s archetypal caricature from 2009’s “You Belong With Me” music video: She’s a literal girl next door, yes, but she’s smart and crushable, someone who can make you laugh and someone you’d feel comfortable confiding him.

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She’s also not the queen bee. She’s not the hottest or the most popular girl, which inevitably brings an approachability and an authenticity to her character. That’s what we mean when we say “girl next door.”

When we say “bad boy biker,” what we really mean is a guy who, sure, may dress the part of leather jacket, greased hair, and tattered jeans (hello Cry Baby era Johnny Depp!), but furthermore, can portray a guy who’s a bit mysterious and misunderstood, bruised but resilient. You see this sort of character in many high school-set comedies and dramas—Christian Slater in Heathers, Shane West in A Walk to Remember, Heath Ledger in 10 Things I Hate About You.

What about the other types? Well, we mentioned “queen bee;” take that as a someone who can play a calculating, cold-hearted leader (who’s eventually going to get what’s coming to her). Running down the list high school tropes, how about the jock or athlete type? Comically all bro-y brawn with no room for book smarts. Geek type? Comically all book smarts with no room for social graces.

Believe it or not, a lot of these high school types carry into adulthood due to the characteristics they bring to the table. “Queen bee” is now a ball-busting CEO; “girl next door” is now a mother of three; “jock” could go one of two ways—either a 20- or 30-something sex object (start hitting the gym!) or a loveable doofus, sometimes both; “geek” may well carry into adulthood as a Kumail Nanjiani-on-“Silicon Valley” type; and “bad boy biker” may evolve into playing the villain (and a misunderstood one, at that).

There is no science to nailing down all the “types” in the world, but, in short, you need to know what personas and characteristics come naturally to you in addition to the physical traits Gillis listed in her above definition. 

What questions should I be asking myself and others to determine my type?

The main to remember when determining your type is to be realistic about your skillset and your physical attributes as an actor. Things to keep in mind beyond physical characteristics like height and weight: the way your voice sounds and any special skills you have in addition to acting.

As acting coach and Backstage Expert Matt Newton says, “Take a good hard look in the mirror. Pay attention to your face, your weight, your ethnicity, and your personality. Do you have a receding hairline? Do you have a thick accent? Listen to your voice. Do you sound smart and articulate when you talk, or do you sound uneducated? Be. Honest. If you don’t look anything like Angelina Jolie, then that is the wrong type for you.”

These are the concrete traits you can determine about yourself with limited bias. For more of the intangibles, many Backstage Experts advise you to turn to your friends and colleagues. Photographer and Backstage Expert Marc Cartwright, for instance, says actors determining their type should request 10 adjectives from friends of friends and past cursory colleagues—people who “don’t know you well. First impressions are great,” he says. You should also “ask people who have seen you perform,” he says. “While you may be a very confident, charismatic person day to day, you may come off comedic and quirky when you act. View the lists and look for the similarities.”

You should be making another list to spot patterns, too: your past credits. “What do you tend to get called in for and book?” poses Cartwright. “If you aren’t getting seen for the types of roles you want, now is a good time to look at what you need to work on as an actor to shape your career. It could also be a time to understand and further develop what is already working for you.”

All actors should also be consumers of the craft via film, TV, and theater. Being fluent in the different kinds of projects out there and the different kinds of characters available will give you a better sense of what types exist and what’s plausible and within reach. “Watch as many films, television shows, and theater [productions] as you can,” says casting director and Backstage Expert Lisa London. “Keep a list of the kinds of characters you would be good at playing. When you watch these projects, envision yourself playing a certain type of character on the show. List the different emotions, personalities, attitudes, and qualities that the roles demand. Be as specific as possible in describing the character and what traits you see the actor playing. Add the ones you feel you could do well to your ‘Type List.’ ”

These questions very naturally come to light if you are an actor who’s continuing their training. Acting class and working with professional coaches gives you a new outlook on your approach to material and what kinds of roles are most emotionally accessible to you. It teaches you what’s in your wheelhouse.

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“Acting workshops expose you to a range of characters you might be right for. Professional commercial and theatrical on-camera classes will give you a good opportunity to objectively see and study yourself. Many scene-study and on-camera-technique teachers often cast you in roles that they believe are indicative of your look and personality. [And] improvisation classes will teach you to trust your instincts and work through your blocks, which will help to free you up so an authentic you can be present,” writes acting coach and Backstage Expert Carolyne Barry. “What you learn about yourself during this investigation into typing should be of great benefit to you personally and to your career.

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How do I determine the age range I can believably play?

All actors should know what ages they can play. Some can play teens well into their 20s; others can play their 30s at a ripe 25 years. It’s all a case-by-case basis, but as the Castable Actor creator and Backstage Expert Tom Burke says, answering casting directors who ask what your age range is with a “I don’t know, you tell me” or “I can play anywhere from 15–40” is a direct ticket to not getting the callback. “[That] is not the response of a professional actor,” Burke says. “In fact, that can be very off-putting to a potential employer.”

Lucky for you, Burke has a four-step system to help you determine your age range.

Rule No. 1: He insists that first and foremost, “An actor’s age range is no more than five years. Most importantly, your real age must be within that five-year span.” There are exceptions to this rule (kids grow and change quite a bit year-to-year and may have a two- or three-year range, and senior actors “are usually all clumped together in the ‘older actor’ category). But generally, that’s how adult actors should view their range by-the-numbers.

Rule No. 2: Age up. Always trying to play younger is a deathtrap, Burke says; “Who do you think you’re fooling?”

Rule No. 3: Change your perspective and start living for the future. Rather than looking back romanticizing a period in your career where you were young, in shape, and wrinkle-free, Burke says that little good can come from doting on what you can’t change. “A working actor looks forward by creating a career arc with attainable goals getting bigger and bigger,” he says. “If you’re in your 30s still holding on to the 20-something-hot-girl, you are cutting yourself off from all of the powerful female roles you should be working towards. Look to the next age category. How can you prepare yourself for those roles? That is a far better path to success than staying back competing against the younger actors just because you don’t want to face being older.”

Rule No. 4: “Embrace it. Own it. Present it.” This means in all aspects of your career, you have to presents yourself as the 30something actor you are. The main thing here to is to dress age-appropriately. “This will eliminate the whole ‘everyone tells me something different’ dilemma because you will always be presenting the same image to everyone,” Burke says. “If you want to play on the team, you need to wear the correct uniform.”

How does my type affect my time in the audition room?

At the end of the day, your type doesn’t bear much affect on the main thing you’re in the audition room to do: act. But the devil is in the details.

You will want to dress appropriately for your type without being so on-the-nose you’re in a costume. Los Angeles-based casting director and Backstage Expert Kate McClanaghan maintains, for instance, that “every actor needs a handful of go-to items in their wardrobe to suggest types they’re likely to audition for such as: mom/dad, office-type, professional/authority, (clean) workout wear, bathrobe/pajamas, and so on.” It’s important to remember not to go too bold or flashy, though; the focus should still be on your acting. “Don’t overwhelm or upstage yourself with awkward props and unnecessary elements that will only undermine your ability to perform,” McClanaghan says. For instance: If you’re reading for a lawyer or generally fit the type of a upper-class professional, there’s no need to take your suit to the tailor and drycleaner before the audition; wear khakis, a polo shirt, a nice pair of shoes. The safest default if to “be the most well-groomed, approachable, pleasant, dressy-casual version of you.” You have to be comfortable!

Similar tweaks—albeit minor ones—may also be enacted on your resume, headshot, and other materials you present casting directors with.

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Just like you would with a non-acting job, it’s not unheard of for actors to reshuffle the credits on their resume to highlight the types of roles that most interest them and the type that they’re going for in that moment. Furthermore, it’s ultimately a conversation to be had with your own headshot photographer, but it’s common for different types of headshot photos to be used for different roles, depending on the kind of character you’re going out for. It’s also important, though, to make sure that all of these headshots are reflective of who you are and what you bring to the table. No matter the role you’re auditioning for, you have to feel that it’s a reflection of your essence and your talent.

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But shouldn’t actors embrace what makes them different to stand out?

The best way we’ve heard this dilemma and its solution articulated goes back to casting director and Backstage Expert Kate McClanaghan. She calls it the “performance persona.” Yes, casting comes down to the unique qualities and aura that you bring in the room and the camera; it makes sense that you’re confused, considering you’re told “being yourself” is “precisely what [you’re] asked to do at nearly every audition and on every session or shoot,” McClanaghan writes. But you still have to play by the rules of the game. Or as Burke said above, you “need to wear the correct uniform.”

McClanaghan says there’s an easy solution for actors trying to bridge the gap between themselves and their singularity and the intangible universals casting directors look for in auditioning out certain roles. “Make peace with this notion by developing an honest, natural persona that is a true extension of yourself, that you can comfortably play through,” she says. “This realistic performance persona will allow you to meet the casting demands, while satisfying your own aesthetic sensibilities. It’s an extension of you, yet not necessarily you, per se.”

And really, it is you and the uniqueness of you that ultimately determines your type. Photographer and Backstage Expert Marc Cartwright says that your type is ultimately form-fitted to your strengths as a performer. Play to those strengths, especially early on. “If you are magnetic as a comedian and aren’t as convincing dramatically, don’t squash comedic ability just because you only want to play dramatic roles,” he says. “Use your talent and, as you grow as an actor, transform. Traits that are unique to you are what make you intriguing.”

What is typecasting, and how can I avoid it?

The reality is that as beneficial as knowing your type can be in the beginning of your career, it can in the worst cases come back and bite you when you’ve found a certain level of success and want to break out and try different things. That success leads to reliability, which leads to less risk, which leads to producers casting you to play your fifth doctor in as many film projects. These are the basics of typecasting.

“There is always a perception of what you can play,” says acting coach and Backstage Expert Michelle Danner. “It’s crucial that an actor knows the roles they would be cast in and would excel at, and knows the parts that they would not readily be cast in, but that they know deep down they can play. Actors can break the glass ceiling—we see it all the time. I, for one, am more interested in seeing casting that is off-kilter than right on the nose. I like casting against type. Every professional actor wants to ask themselves: What part have I not played that I would be passionate about playing? And also be realistic about what those parts can be.”

Saying that you want to break out of the acting box that got you started in is easier said than done, however. The main way to get cast in excitingly unexpected ways is to show casting directors (and maybe even your agent) that you’re able to and wanting to play against type. That could mean getting new headshots with the intention of showing a new side to what you can do on camera (nice to bad, awkward to sexy). It could also mean creating a staged scene for your demo reel that shows you tapping into a whole new type of character.

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But if you want to get paid to act in projects that will show off an unknown shade of your acting, the best bet is to go out for indie and web series, even if you’ve reached a level of mainstream acclaim. “Take chances! Challenge yourself!” Danner says. “You would have never thought that Brie Larson, only having played supporting parts like the sister in ‘Trainwreck’ would win an Oscar as the leading lady in ‘Room.’ You would’ve never known that she had those dramatic chops, but she showed us her range.”

The best place to start your career in independent entertainment as an actor is Backstage. As the No. 1 trusted source and top casting platform for over 50 years, we’re here to help you reimagine or to kick-start your career. In addition, Backstage features an almost endless supply of information on both the craft and business of the performing arts to ensure you enter those casting calls with your best foot forward. Check out our casting notices here.

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