THE ACTOR'S WAY: Get a Life - New York agent Gene Parseghian prefers working with actors whose interests extend beyond their careers.

Gene Parseghian, a senior V.P. in the talent department of New York's William Morris Agency, has a client list reflecting his stature as one of the most respected agents in the business. His clients, an unusually well-pedigreed group, include Daniel Day-Lewis, Emma Thompson, Joseph Fiennes, Miranda Richardson, Christopher Walken, Harvey Keitel, Olympia Dukakis, Isabella Rossellini, and recent Oscar winner Dame Judi Dench.

Parseghian began his career as an actor, studying at the Guild Hall School of Music and Drama in London and at Stanford in their M.F.A. program. He went to New York after graduation and, after four years of steady work in regional theatres, Parseghian had the startling realization the he preferred the curtain call to the actual work. He took that as his cue to leave acting and started working as a receptionist with a small talent agency. That eventually led to partnership, and then ownership, of his own agency. A series of mergers followed wherein Parseghian's company eventually became David, Hunter, Kimble, Parseghian, Rifkin; and finally, Triad Artists. In 1993, the very successful Triad was sold to William Morris where Parseghian is happy to be working exclusively with clients and not worrying about the administrative work that bogged him down while he was running his own agency.

Back Stage West: It's fascinating that you work with so many British actors. Is there a particular reason for that?

Gene Parseghian: It just kind of happened. But I do think that British actors approach the business differently from American actors and their approach is more in line with my own.

I think that their values are frequently different. British actors care less about instant stardom and gratification than a lot of American actors do. They usually care more about the value of the project and may well want to continue to work in the theatre as well as in film and television.

BSW: Do you think that the British repertory training makes it easier for actors to go back and forth between theatre and film over there? American actors tend to specialize.

Parseghian: I think it does. And I think the fact that the business in England is in one town, rather than separated by 3,000 miles of country the way it is here, makes it easier for actors to go back and forth between film, television, and theatre. There, theatre is a tradition which is hundreds of years old. And over there, I think that before most actors do any work in film or television, they spend years working in the theatre. Then when they do branch out, I think it's easier for them to continue to feel like part of the acting community.

At the same time, there's been an unfortunate shift here. I don't want to sound like I'm talking about "the good ol' days" but 30 years ago, when an actor got out of school, the best thing that he could have hoped for would have been a season at the Guthrie. Now, you'd have an extremely difficult time convincing a young actor coming out of a professional training program to go spend a year in Minneapolis. You can barely get them to do one play, because they're afraid that they're going to miss opportunities in film and television.

BSW: Do you think theatre has changed much in New York?

Parseghian: I think it's become more divorced from the rest of the business over the past 25 years. It used to be that when an actor won a Tony Award, you'd expect to see him in a movie or on television a year later. These days, the general public has never heard of 80 percent of the nominees. But I still believe that if an actor really has a gift, the opportunities for personal growth and career advancement are better in New York. Of course, I'm prejudiced, but I think that an actor is not quite as quickly categorized in New York as in L.A. And probably, that's necessary in L.A. There's so much going on out there, there's so much territory to cover, there are so many opportunities, and there are so many projects, that you need a way to sort through all of the actors and, well, categorize them, if you will.

BSW: So would you advise young actors who are starting out to move from L.A. to New York?

Parseghian: I would never advise it solely as a career move. It would also have to be a life experience, an appreciation for the energy and the vitality of New York. If one is nurtured by that, then that's a terrific thing. But to come to New York and feel lost wouldn't be worthwhile.

Another difference between the two is that I think it's harder to be out of work in L.A. then it is to be out of work in New York. In L.A., I think people expect an actor to be working. They don't necessarily expect that in New York, so perhaps it's a less judgmental environment in that regard. In L.A., if you're not working, people automatically assume that something is wrong.

You know, Daniel Day-Lewis is not wanting to work. There have been times when he's gone for as long as three years between films. When I tell people that he's not interested in working, that he doesn't want to read any material or hear about anything, they have such a hard time understanding. First they ask why, which always bothers me because I immediately think, "it's none of your business.' But the reality is that most people think that when an actor reaches a certain level of success, his career is about maintaining that position. When they see an actor not doing that, that's confusing to them. With Daniel, his life is more important to him. And I think I work better with actors who are focused on living lives rather than living careers. People who hand themselves over to their careers often end up living alone, very alone.

BSW: Let's talk about being part of a powerful agency. There's the assumption that being signed by a big agency can really help build a career. What are your feelings about that?

Parseghian: I think that assumption is unquestionably true, assuming that one can tap into the resources of a large agency.

BSW: So who, other than stars, should be with an agency like William Morris?

Parseghian: I don't know that I can answer that, because there are a number of young people who are not yet known with whom I work and I believe that this is the best situation for them. Even though they may not yet be in a position to need someone packaging deals, the power of a large agency can tip things in favor of our clients. And for the most part, an actor being identified as a client of a major agency is generally at an advantage with casting directors.

BSW: So how could an actor get into your office and what would it take to be signed by you?

Parseghian: It's hard. Generally, I don't meet people I don't know. But what I respond to most is contrasting characteristics in an actor. An actor can, for example, be both powerful and sensitive. There has to be more than one quality apparent to me.

BSW: Would the recommendation of a friend or casting director be enough to get someone into your office?

Parseghian: Yes, I try to pay attention to the thoughts and feelings of those I respect.

BSW: What's your opinion about actors who sign with a larger agency and then get lost there?

Parseghian: That has to do, in part, with how an agency is structured internally. If it's a boutique situation, I would imagine that it's more likely that could take place. But when there's a team established, as there is for every client we have, that probably won't happen.

BSW: How does it work when there's a team?

Parseghian: At William Morris, every client has an ORA, an overall responsible agent, who is ultimately in charge of the agency's relationship with the client. It's that agent who is supposed to have the overview and who's supposed to take responsibility for making sure that every element of the agency is performing responsibly and appropriately on behalf of the client.

BSW: Is there anything that you've always wanted to say to actors?

Parseghian: No, because they're all so different. I could never generalize. One of the things I like about what I do is that there are all of these wonderfully varied clients with whom I have relationships. They are so different, and I get to engage with all of them. The other thing that I love is that I never know what's going to happen each day. I know that I come to work in the morning and that I go home, usually late at night, after theatre or a screening. I know that I get a paycheck every week, so there's that stability of structure and routine. But outside of that, anything can happen. Both wonderful and terrible. And you never know from day to day. BSW