When you're ready to submit your headshot and résumé to agents in order to find representation, pick up a copy of Call Sheet, published by Back Stage, to see what agencies are looking for and what kind of performers they represent. Many agencies now have websites, which may even list specific guidelines and the agency's clients. Look at those client rosters and see where you might fit in or help fill an agency's needs.
Nancy Moon-Broadstreet, theatrical agent, the Geddes Agency, Los Angeles: "Find out what kind of business they do and where their clients work. If you see someone who has three clients that are kind of like you, then maybe that's not the office to press for. They clearly have the same taste, but you would be fourth on the list, so maybe you should look for somebody who doesn't have anyone like you."
• Write a short cover letter. Explain what kind of representation you are looking for, whether you were referred by any industry people, and anything about your experience that's not on your résumé. Some friendliness or humor is okay, but remember that humor is subjective. For your safety, do not put your home address anywhere on the cover letter, as most of these go into the trash.
Mark Measures, commercial agent, Abrams Artists, Los Angeles: "I don't want your life story. I'm not going to read it. If you've just booked four national commercials and they're not on your résumé—because you shouldn't put them on your résumé; put that in your cover letter—that will get me to pay attention. I don't care about 'These are the types of roles that I get called in for.' That's my job. I know why the letter's coming; I've been doing this for 22 years. You can just write, 'Hi, here's my stuff, appreciate you looking at it, thanks.' "
Moon-Broadstreet: "The best cover letters are short and to the point but will give a little window into that person's personality. Something interesting about them. Something that gives a sense of who they are. I'm not huge on these people who take marketing class and get scientific about it: 'I'm Tina Fey with a touch of Charlize Theron.' That doesn't do anything for me. Also, I love casting director and industry referrals."
• Include one headshot that was taken by a professional photographer and shows you as your type. Any agent who wants to see more headshots will ask or look you up online. Attach your résumé, trimmed to 8 by 10 inches, to the back.
Brandy Wilkerson-Caldwell, commercial agent, Bobby Ball Agency, Burbank, Calif.: "Google 'headshot photographers' and see the trends of the headshots that work right now. We don't want cheesy, Kool-Aid smiles anymore. Send the shot that will get you into casting offices now. I like to go with people who are experienced. I'm not a manager. I want to go with someone who knows what they're doing. I don't want someone who's fresh off the boat and I have to hold their hand. Have a professional headshot."
• A simple 11-by-14-inch envelope will do.
Moon-Broadstreet: "An inexpensive but professional plain envelope is always best. I'm old-school. It's a business, and all that other stuff is kind of gimmicky. The problem with the clear envelopes and with the expense of those is that if your headshot doesn't catch somebody's eye, they are less likely to open the envelope and look at the rest. I don't respond very well to gimmicks. I prefer to keep it businesslike. I think sending gifts with the submission is goofy. I don't think I've ever brought anybody in based on that."
• Address the envelope to the department you are submitting to.
Wilkerson-Caldwell: "Some people just address it to the agency, but then we don't know what you are looking for. Commercial? Print? Theatrical? Are we supposed to guess? If you find out my name, that makes it a little more personal, but 'Commercial Department' is fine, because then we know what you're looking for."
• Find out if the office accepts unsolicited demo reels. Most agencies will not. If you have a demo reel, perhaps mention it in the cover letter or on your résumé. If you have posted it somewhere online, which you should, then consider including the Web address.
Wilkerson-Caldwell: "Nothing over two minutes, especially for a commercial reel. I only look at the person's reel if they have some really good credits or commercials. If it's a theatrical reel, I won't look at it—I'm not a theatrical agent. And I know this sounds lazy, but putting in your DVD takes time. I'd rather you just send me the website address or link, so I can type it in and take a look if I'm interested."
• Don't cement the envelope shut.
Measures: "There is a certain envelope that has this super-sticky stuff that I cannot open. I throw those away. It's so hard; the envelopes are like a plastic, so it bends. I just throw it away, and those poor people don't even get looked at."
• Wait three weeks to a month before following up. Send a follow-up post card if you have any news to report, or submit again, but do not call the office to see if it got your submission.
Measures: "My office will call you either way. You probably hear within a month if it's a no. If it's a yes, you hear earlier. If you submit and it's a no, it's not always a no. There are a few people that I brought in that were noes [but] something changed on my client list or something about the actor changed. Actors are constantly changing their abilities; what they've done is constantly changing. You should note that when you resubmit to me, but for the most part it's certainly worth resubmitting."
How to: Market Yourself
According to Mark Scroggs, an agent with David Shapira & Associates in Beverly Hills, Calif., the first step in self-marketing is to know who you are, or what he calls your "brand." "Whose career do you think you might have, either by age, style, or looks?" he asks. "Are you a Jennifer Garner, a Will Smith, or someone from 'High School Musical'? Know your type. And then promote it." If your type is quirky, your headshot should suggest that. But it can't be any old quirky. The headshot still has to "pop," truly look like you, and at the same time make the viewer "want to hang out with you," says Scroggs.
Your cover letter is also an excellent place to create a persona and evoke interest. New York TV and film casting director Todd Thaler cites one cover letter that grabbed his attention. It read, "After completing my last tour of duty in Iraq, I'm now able to continue my acting career." Says Thaler, "In one sentence he conjured up so much and made me wonder who that person was and what he was about. I like some kind of biographical information—that's not drawn-out life stories—that tells me something more than where the actor studied."
Part of self-marketing is to know to whom you are writing and why. The fact that you've done your research is appealing to the agent or casting director, and it saves you a lot of time, emotional investment, and money, especially if you're using snail mail, says Scroggs. Generally, an email blast or mass mailing is not a good marketing tool—except perhaps for standup comics, he adds.
Résumés and Reels
Résumés are an excellent vehicle for self-promotion, says Scroggs, who suggests that your goal should be to have the most current and relevant credits at the top, as opposed to simply listing credits chronologically. Two typical mistakes, he points out, are listing projects nobody has ever heard of high on the résumé or starting with the projects that are best known but that took place 25 years ago. That will make people think you haven't worked in a quarter-century, he says.
For newcomers, "rather than filling up the page with credits like having played Hamlet in summer camp, I'd rather see where the actor has trained and special skills," adds Thaler. "I know the standard advice on special skills is to say you drive a car or know a second language. I'd rather hear how an actor can cry like a baby on cue. If you can, I might be able to get you some voiceover work. That's also true if you do cartoon voices."
Most industry insiders agree that background work can be mentioned parenthetically. Working as a background actor is a learning and networking experience and certainly shows dedication, but it shouldn't be leaned on too heavily. If you've been an extra on a few well-known TV programs, they can be listed. Don't list background work in a student film that no one has heard of, but if you've had a featured role in a student film and you're proud of your work, that's worth noting, especially if a video is available upon request or accessible on a website.
Reels are essential today, and no one disputes that they are great self-marketing tools. But some agents and casting directors will not look at unsolicited reels, those that are not professionally produced, or those that don't include clips from legitimate projects. Others don't care, as long as the submission shows knockout talent, even if the actor is doing a monologue or a scene with a partner.
New York–based CD Barbara Barna, who casts hosts for reality programs, suggests to actors who want hosting work, "Buy yourself a video camera—they're dirt cheap—and video yourself interviewing the crazy deli guy on the corner. Practice, practice, practice, and then send it out. We're not judging your technical prowess, though you should make sure you're not in shadow. Three minutes is fine, but there are no hard-and-fast rules in terms of length of snippets or the number of snippets on the tape. Frankly, I'd rather see one fantastic piece than three so-so pieces."
Websites, Blogs, and Social Media
Reels—along with headshots, résumés, contact information, and anything else that might be relevant—should be posted on a website, Barna says. Scroggs suggests that a website is useful, if for no other reason than because "it's where you can control what's being said about you. If I Google you and get IMDb, I'm not going to learn about the pilot you shot that was never aired or the play you're in at the moment. IMDb may even have your incorrect age. That's the kind of thing that you can control on a website."
Interviews, reviews, and blogs can also be added to websites, Scroggs continues. Blogs are a great way to generate interest and "sell your personality," though he warns against bemoaning wretched auditions or, conversely, offering over-the-top praise for some director or casting director. Either way, it sets the wrong tone, he says. Other online risks include overselling yourself or offering information that's irrelevant—for example, competitions you've entered or auditions you're planning to attend. If you haven't scored, why mention it? For security purposes, Scroggs urges actors to remove all personal information, such as your home address and phone number. A cell phone number is all right if you don't have representation.
"Websites should be kept simple and easy to navigate," he emphasizes. "If it's too difficult to find things, no one is going to deal with it. If you're not sure what a good website looks like, go to the websites of actors you admire and see what they're doing."
If you don't have a website, a business page on Facebook is another way to market yourself, Scroggs says. But again, just offer the basic information. "Be aware of what you put on it," he says. "No photo of yourself sitting in a hot tub, drinking." He adds that a Twitter account is not necessary, nor is rolling up hundreds of fans if no one has ever heard of you. By contrast, in the world of hosting, "if someone has 10,000 followers on Twitter," says Barna, "it shows me there is an audience for that person and the marketing is already in place."
Not all casting directors routinely check out websites or social media, however. Some do it occasionally; others not at all. Scroggs and Barna urge all actors to have hard copy—including a DVD of your reel—pulled together and ready to go at a moment's notice.
After an audition, sending a thank-you note is fine, but again, says Thaler, these notes should be heartfelt, earnest, and sincere rather than boilerplate. Follow-up post cards are good too, but all agree they should be used sparingly and only when you have something real to report, such as a commercial you've booked or a showcase you're doing. You should not list the auditions you've attended, says Scroggs.
In sum, Scroggs advises, "Take yourself out of the picture for a second and look at how other people might see you. Be objective. Also, pay attention to what you might respond to. Be creative and be able to back it up. Some people are so worried about marketing, they forget about the talent."
How to: Protect Yourself when using Social Media
As actors, we're used to putting ourselves out there—sending our headshots and résumés to casting directors, agents, and managers in the hope of getting work. Self-promotion is a key part of the business. In the new digital world, it's easier than ever. We all have our own Back
Stage.com actor profiles, personal websites, blogs, Facebook and MySpace profiles, even Twitter accounts. In each we tend to reveal personal details: where we are, what we are doing, who we are with. Websites like Foursquare exist precisely to let others know where you are at any given moment.
In addition, on those sites, we are open and honest about our opinions of others, positive and negative. We attach comments to message board posts and to news stories we read online. If you have a bad experience with a casting director, or an agent acts inappropriately with you, or an acting teacher tries to overcharge you, you want to lash out—and quickly realize that you can do that using your computer.
There is a darker side to this technology. What you say is recorded and doesn't go away. What you write in the heat of the moment remains on that message board, it can be difficult to remove, and the person in question can find the comment through a simple Google search and possibly trace it back to you. If you post your photos online, nearly everyone can see them just by searching for your name. Be aware that agents, managers, and especially casting directors keep tabs on what people say about them online. Like you, they are very protective of their reputations.
Here are a few tips to protect yourself online:
• Like Google, "don't be evil." You are your own best representative on the Web. Always present yourself professionally, even on Facebook and MySpace. You don't know who is looking at your page.
• Professional websites are just that. Don't include photos from your trip to Cancún. Include headshots and modeling photos only. Consider such sites a passive interview with a casting director. Put your best self forward.
• Create a Facebook fan page and update it with news about yourself. It's probably better not to "friend" casting directors, agents, and managers. With a fan page, they can keep up with your work.
• Don't post photos of yourself anywhere on the Web if you are embarrassed to show them to your parents. While your friends might think it's funny that you acted crazy while drunk, industry people will not. They want to hire someone who will represent their project well. If you've already posted those photos, have them removed.
• Always think before you comment or blog. Anyone can read what you write online, and your statements can be taken wrongly or out of context.
• Never, ever bash someone online—even anonymously. Libel laws are there for a reason. If you defame someone in a public forum without sufficient evidence, even if you feel you are justified, you may be considered to have committed libel. And in the end it could hurt you, because your reputation may suffer.
• Create a separate email address for online profiles. Consider it a business email that is separate from your personal email address.
• Never post your phone number online. That includes in comments on Facebook pages. If you need someone to contact you, send him or her an email or personal message.
• Never post your personal mailing address online. Again, the information is too easy to find if you post it with a profile.
How to: Follow up with Representation
We're often told first impressions are everything. But that doesn't give license to slack thereafter. Here are our tips—with the help of agent-turned-manager Darryl Marshak of the Marshak/Zachary Co. in Beverly Hills, Calif., and agent Sarabeth Schedeen of Metropolitan Talent Agency in Los Angeles—on how to make the next impression as good as the first.
• There's no such thing as a bad thank-you note. Few humans will begrudge another's appreciation for their time or input. "There are a lot of respectful actors out there whose mothers taught them well about courtesy and thank-you notes and the healthy impression that leaves," says Schedeen.
• Don't miss your window. For Marshak, an initial follow-up is appropriate after a week or two, but a month is too long, "because you forget who you saw." Schedeen suggests it's "like romance—the actor has to judge how the meeting went." She likes a note a few days out, as "a thank-you for the time and a reminder of the actor," but adds, "A meeting can be exciting—things in common, similar perspective, shared appreciation of the business, people in common, etc. Then a note in the first 24 hours saying, 'Great meeting. Love to talk further,' makes sense."
• Make sure a more in-depth communication is appropriate. There's a subtle difference between a follow-up and a simple note of gratitude. "I don't mind a follow-up if I have left the meeting with their understanding that we would talk again," says Schedeen. "I may say I will call to set another meeting, but often I am so busy that I forget we are going to connect again. So a follow-up helps me."
• Persistence (possibly) pays. "I like to know what they're doing currently," says Marshak. "A couple months later, 'I booked this, I booked that, I'm doing a play at the Odyssey' or whatever—sometimes people that have kept me abreast over six months, I've had them in again." He adds, "If someone's good, you don't want to miss them. And we're so busy that sometimes that gem gets lost."
• Tinker with tone. Heartfelt sentiments come off better than form letters. Marshak says levity and brevity are important, noting that he responds to a little humor. "You want to keep it nice and easy, reflect on something that you touched on on a personal note," he says. Schedeen likes notes "that are warm and remind me of a good, relaxed meeting."
• Lose the cheap tricks, and dispose of desperation. Schedeen says, "No flowers. No gifts." Marshak is equally frank: "I hate cupcakes, I hate pizzas, I hate balloons. I just think that's so kiss-ass. Keep it professional." A daily call to the office won't win you goodwill, and Marshak warns that begging is a turnoff, as well as the eternal plea "If you just get me out there, I'll book."
• Email is efficient, but pay a visit to the post office. "If I have asked for more materials or information, I encourage them to email me," says Schedeen. But she and Marshak both enjoy snail-mail messages. "What happened to the old letter in an envelope?" asks Marshak.
• Remember it's a small community. "Good manners are good manners," Schedeen counsels. "We all circle round and run into each other again. How an actor conducts him- or herself at every stage of the business matters. The ability to show respect and communicate and thank someone gracefully says how they will be in the business world and in getting and keeping work."
How to: Behave (and Not Behave) On Set
You know the basics: show up on time, learn your lines, and don't take the last doughnut on the craft-services table. But what else does an actor need to commit to memory when it comes to the best and worst on-set behavior?
Writer-director Neil LaBute ("Death at a Funeral," "In the Company of Men") emphasizes, above all, that everyone should keep the collaborative aspect of filmmaking in mind. "While it is a time where you are honing a personal performance, that is a big and important part of a whole that you always have to be aware of," he says. "I'm looking for that actor who really wants to be part of that team—likes being there, doesn't run back to their trailer. And you want people to come prepared: They know the script, they've pulled me aside [beforehand] and asked those questions, because they shouldn't really be asking in the moment that we're shooting. They should be bringing their best game: 'Okay, I think I'm now ready to provide for you and me some synthesis of what we've both been feeling about this character and put it on the screen.' "
In other words, don't use that time in front of the camera to accomplish things you should have accomplished prior to shooting. "The values of the scenes, the relationships, the circumstances, and the doings of every scene must be understood, worked up, and fleshed out before an actor ever even steps foot onto set," says actor Robyn Cohen, who stars in the Starz comedy series "Gravity." "It's a disservice to everyone if, the night before filming, an actor tells him- or herself that in order to keep things fresh and in the moment, they're going to abandon preparation. An actor trying to be spontaneous without putting in the effort to understand a part will undoubtedly have nothing to show. Work these things out in your living room beforehand. Come in like it's opening night of a play and you only get one take."
In addition, don't let anxiety get the better of you. Remember to take care of yourself within the film-set environment. "This is your world too," says LaBute. "Feel that you have the right talk and bring something to the table, as long as we're always working towards something—it's not about you trying to get more lines. It's you doing something for the sake of the character and for the sake of the movie."
And when it comes to figuring out that character, make strong choices. "I've had the experience where I came in for my scene and just kept waiting for someone to tell me what to do," says actor Maggie Kiley ("Monk," "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit"). "Take initiative. Know your objective and be confident with asserting yourself physically in the scene. Direction and blocking are great to get, but you may not always [get that]."
On a more practical note: Don't forget to eat. "It's easy to let nerves get in the way of navigating craft service, and chit-chat can take over catered lunch," says Kiley. "Don't miss out on any opportunity to fuel yourself with good protein to keep you focused and energized all day."
And even as you focus on preserving your sanity and blood-sugar levels, do your best to learn all you can about the other people on set. "Be very much a student on your first movie," says writer-director Jessica Bendinger ("Stick It"). "People will make themselves available to you, from the A.D. department to the hair-and-makeup department. You're going to have a lot of time where people are working on you, and it's certainly okay to ask questions about process. Every film set is different, but definitely be humble and ask questions."
Adds writer-director Kasi Lemmons ("Eve's Bayou," "Talk to Me"): "Treat everyone in the crew nicely. Try and learn their names and what they do. If another actor is concentrating, give them space. I started acting when I was young [and] my co-star might be concentrating, and I'd be like [affects overly perky voice], 'So….' You want to give them some space."
In that vein, don't overstep your bounds by attempting to "direct" your fellow actors. "If you aren't getting what you need to, chances are you haven't invested enough in your partner," says Kiley. "Focus on what is within your control, and let the director take care of everybody else. Trust me, if [someone isn't] stepping up to the plate, they'll notice."
And what about those on-set situations you just aren't prepared for? Actor Blake Robbins ("The Office," "FlashForward") tries to abide by a golden rule: "Save them money; don't cost them money."
"Should I not worry about what might happen to my wardrobe while devouring my lunch? A stain will cost them money; if there is a continuity problem that now has to be dealt with, it will cost them lots of money," he says. "Should I gossip? Talk negatively about the production or someone on else on it? Business experts will say that any divisive energy will certainly cost them money over time. Should I go to the bathroom now? When you do can either save or cost them money; plan accordingly, if possible."
And if you really want to learn all the dos and don'ts, notes Robbins, get behind-the-scenes experience. "There are rules—almost all of them unwritten," he says. "If you want to learn them, offer to work for free as a P.A. or as any kind of assistant on a feature film. Within a week, you'll probably know 90 percent of those unwritten rules."