Why Physical Appearance Shouldn’t Define an Actor’s Worth

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Photo Source: Spencer Alexander

Just before the holiday break, one of my favorite clients, a character actor named Lisa, dropped by the office to offer some seasonal cheer. I was in a great mood because the strikes were finally over, but Lisa seemed a little bit off. 

“Is something wrong?” I asked. She explained that her goal during the work stoppage had been to lose 20 pounds. It didn’t happen, and she was incredibly disappointed.

I told her that from my perspective, her weight was a nonissue. Gain, lose, whatever—it’s her talent that counts. And I made it crystal clear that I didn’t just submit and pitch her for characters described as heavyset. Why would I limit my ability to make money by pursuing fewer opportunities for my clients? I also pointed out that I’ve never asked an actor to step on a scale before I agreed to work for them, and I wasn’t about to start now. That made her laugh, and she left in a better mood.

This business is tougher than a $10 steak, so it kills me when actors like Lisa make it harder on themselves. But it’s not her fault; she’s just reacting to the world we live in.

Sadly, image issues for actors were much worse back in the 1930s when Thelma Todd was a star. Known as the “Ice Cream Blonde,” her studio contract specified that her weight at the time of signing was 122 pounds. If she gained more than three pounds, her contract could be terminated. 

Unfortunately, attitudes haven’t changed much in the past 90 years. Maybe that’s best summed up by a quote from Academy Award winner Julianne Moore: “Someone in the film industry said to me, ‘You should try to look prettier.’ I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can,’ ” she told the British newspaper the Times.

Lisa’s visit got me thinking, so I skipped down the hall to Secret Agent Woman’s office to ask if she had any history dealing with this sort of thing. She shared a story about a former client who had grown up performing on one of my favorite childhood shows.

“Nobody wanted to see her because she hadn’t worked in years, and that stupid show you love so much typecast her for life,” Secret Agent Woman told me. “So I busted my ass and pulled every favor I had. Guess what? She started working. We were building momentum. And then she made a huge mistake.”

When the client decided to get plastic surgery that totally altered her appearance, that was it. Game over. I asked Secret Agent Woman if she felt that female actors had to deal with these issues more than their male counterparts. She just glared at me, so I ran back to my office and locked the door.

Before going home that day, I called a casting director friend to get his opinion on Lisa’s concerns. He’s an old-school guy who’s been around longer than yours truly. And you know what he said?

“The last time I checked, there are parts for everyone.”

And there you have it. Happy New Year!

This story originally appeared in the Dec. 28 issue of Backstage Magazine.

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Secret Agent Man
Secret Agent Man is a Los Angeles–based talent agent and our resident tell-all columnist. Writing anonymously, he dishes out the candid and honest industry insight all actors need to hear.
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