What Should a Headshot Do?

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Most actors don’t like to feel they are being typecast. When I’m preparing for a headshot session with a client, I will ask what types of roles they want to get sent out on and/or typically book. Many times the answer is, "I just want a general headshot, I can play everything". While an actor can have tremendous range, it is highly unlikely that one person can play everything. I can almost guarantee that Paul Giamatti and Chris Hemsworth aren't competing for the same roles. One of the most distracting things while watching a film or TV show is when a person has been miscast.

It really is to your advantage to understand who you are as an actor and the range of characters you can realistically play. Be honest with yourself about your strong suits and how you are perceived when you walk into a casting office or while performing. Once you have this basis of understanding, then you can expand your skills and creatively bend the rules to challenge people's perception. Even so, you still always want to be aware of the types of roles that are appropriate for you to be cast in.

The general consensus is that your headshot should “look like you.” Obviously, it should accurately portray your age range, your skin, eye and hair color, your hair length, etc. But a headshot “looking like you” goes beyond a description of physical features. The essence of an actor will also determine what characters they can convincingly portray.

When we look at a photograph of a person, we tend to create their personality, character traits and mannerisms in our minds. Whether it’s the expression, body language or wardrobe, we use clues within the picture to build a story about the person. We may imagine how they talk, whether they are confident or awkward, playful and approachable or mysterious and guarded. When planning out your photo session, you want to keep this in mind and use your headshot as an opportunity to display the types of character traits that fit your personality and acting style.

READ: “6 Headshot Photography Myths”

You can certainly make a creative choice to play against type or what is expected based on your physical appearance. It is interesting for instance, when someone we are expecting to be tough and quiet is loud and comical. It can give an actor unique layers. However, don’t try to be something in your headshot that you can’t deliver in real life. For example, everyone has attractive qualities; some of the charm may come out in quirky ways or through imperfections. If you know that you are unable to come across as a mysterious, seductive, sexy character, don’t portray that in your headshot. When you walk into the casting office, you will create a disconnect between yourself and the casting director. Instead, show us your version of sexy in your headshot, which may be more of the adorable, fun, flirty and approachable type.

When casting for a particular role, a casting director may see hundreds of actors who all have similar physical features. Out of all of those actors, one is cast because of a specific vibe, essence or emotional quality that inspired the casting director. Many times a headshot is a first impression. Let it be the introduction to what sets you apart.

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and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Backstage or its staff.

Marc Cartwright
Marc Cartwright is an L.A.–based photographer who has lent his experience and expertise to various aspects of the entertainment industry for over 25 years.