Cate Blanchett, arguably one of our greatest actors of all time, said of her agent, Hylda Queally, “I would be an unformed piece of amoebic Jell-O without you.”
Whether or not this is true (Blanchett has won over 150 awards to date), it’s a testament to the remarkable influence an agent can have on an actor’s life.
So how does one go about finding representation and a relationship of this calibre? Unsurprisingly, this is one of the most common and pressing questions for actors of any level. But fear not, we’re here to help walk you through.
You can think of an acting agent as the middleman between the actor and the Wild West that is our industry. Yes, they submit their actors for auditions and pitch them for roles, but their job—especially here in Australia—extends far beyond that.
Not only does an agent become your advocate and bring a wide, pre-existing network of contacts and connections to the table (therefore getting you into rooms you’d otherwise struggle to enter), they also relieve you of awkward and tedious tasks such as negotiating pay, drawing up contracts, and settling on agreement terms and conditions.
On top of that, agents Down Under tend to take on the role a manager would play in the U.S. This means they provide the guidance to help map out your vision for your career, then support you in navigating your way there. They symbolise an investment in you that is both personal and professional. Therefore, a good agent can be a godsend to have in your corner.
As an aside, it’s worth keeping in mind that an agent is also running a business. So, just like you, they are navigating the delicate balancing act of art and enterprise, and this is a governing facet of their job too.
Whether or not signing with an agent is the best move for you will depend on a number of factors, but no, you don’t have to have an acting agent to call yourself an actor.
Some aspects to consider when answering this question for yourself include:
- Your experience. If you’re just starting out—say within the first year or so of your adventure as an actor—you may find you’re best to focus your time and attention on training and gaining experience in short films and/or community theater. This isn’t to say you can’t still apply to agencies, but you’ll improve your odds of signing if you do have some level of experience under your belt. Apply to jobs on Backstage to get some work on your CV to show an agent down the line.
- Your market. In small, regional markets, agents might neither exist nor be necessary. If you’re wanting to remain based in such a market, self-submitting and local connections might be all you need. Leave the agent hunt to if and when you choose to relocate to a bigger market where this becomes more essential.
- Your goals. Somewhat tied to the point above, if you’re more than content to continue being the go-to leading man in your local musical theater scene, signing with a rep just to keep as you are could be superfluous. Anything beyond this, however, is likely to require an agent to help you get there.
- Your current agent. At the other end of the spectrum, if you already have an agent and it isn’t working for whatever reason, choosing to self-represent for a time may actually be the preferable option. In some instances, having a “bad” agent can be more damaging than having no agent at all.
Ultimately, an agent is another person on your team, and one that has far greater access to auditions and opportunities than you as a solo actor will typically have on your own. Sometimes, just the fact you have an agent, “validates you to the rest of the industry”, says Secret Agent Man. “It means someone known to the casting community has agreed to endorse your talent by signing you as a client. People will take you much more seriously when you have representation.”
It’s worth taking the time to lay out a plan for your agency submissions before diving in. While the enthusiasm is fantastic (and necessary), setting aside even an hour or so to prepare beforehand could significantly increase your chances of hearing that magical “yes.”
- Review potential agencies. To get started, you can refer to our guides on the Australian acting agencies you should know and top kids acting agencies in Australia. The Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA) website is another great (and trustworthy) resource to turn to for a full list filtered by state.
- Decide on your selection. Based on your preliminary research, list the agencies you’re going to target. If this is your first time doing so (or you haven’t had to hunt for rep in a while), perhaps err on the side of less rather than more. That way you’ll be able to integrate any feedback you receive when you go a second time.
- Research and refine again. With your list to hand, now laser in on which specific agent you’ll address. Find out how many clients they represent and look for any patterns. If they have public social media accounts or have been interviewed previously, see what additional information you can glean. You might not need to reference any of this, but knowledge is power.
- Explore referral opportunities. Reach out to your network and see whether anyone would be comfortable sending a referral. This could be from a teacher, director, producer, or even a fellow actor currently represented by this agent. Referrals aren’t essential here in Aus, but they can certainly go a long way.
- Submit as per agency guidelines. If you aren’t able to secure a referral, no worries, go full-steam ahead with your self-submissions. This will typically involve writing a concise email with your headshot, CV, and showreel (if applicable) attached, but always double-check the instructions (usually set out on the agency’s website) before hitting “send.”
Additionally, if you can time your initial contact to coincide with an upcoming season of a play or release of a TV ep, unashamedly use this as your angle. Ditto your drama school showcase. Of course, make sure the material and your performance are solid, but this can be a hugely advantageous strategy and separate you from the pack.
On the subject of drama school showcases, most agencies will be keeping an eye on these graduating classes towards the end of the year, so if you aren’t in this boat, sending your enquiries out before August is generally advised.
As with any significant relationship, look for an agent you feel you can trust and with whom an open channel of communication is possible.
While it can be tempting to sign with the biggest name or agency (especially if the offer is there), give yourself a beat to consider whether this environment really is the best place for you at this moment in time. If you genuinely feel it is, awesome, go for your life. But if not, know that you aren’t necessarily “losing” anything by signing with a smaller boutique. As long as your agent has sufficient knowledge of the industry, good working relationships with casting directors and producers, and a true desire to bring out the very best in you, you’ll be in safe hands. Remember, signing with an agent doesn’t necessarily bind you to them for life (though a long-term partnership can be a hugely rewarding thing—Blanchett and Queally have now been together 24 years). If your needs change later down the line, you can always move on.
As for potential red flags, our trade union, the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA) offers some examples of things to keep an eye out for. This includes unusual contract terms, a commission rate of more than 10%, and any upfront payments. If you’re unsure, don’t sign anything until you’ve had a chance to call MEAA or talk it over with another industry professional.
It’s important to distinguish the two distinct aspects agents (and really any decision-maker in our industry) is looking for in their actors: the person, and for lack of a better term, the “product.”
Actors only have limited control over the latter. Different agencies will be looking for different things, and so will individual agents within the agencies themselves. Their criteria will also be influenced by external factors such as their current roster and wider industry trends.
As the chances of being able to guess the perfect combination of these ever-changing elements are close to zero, your best bet is to present your genuine self. Shine a light on what makes you you, and make sure your marketing materials (i.e. headshots, CV, showreel, website, etc.) capture this as effectively as possible.
As to the former, you can absolutely cultivate and develop the desirables here.
Hallie McKeig, Senior Agent at Creative Soul Management, says when it comes to the actual person she’s “Looking for people who truly love the craft. This is usually demonstrated in their pursuit of learning about it, their ability to tell a story in their work, and/or the way they talk about it when they email or when we meet. I’m also looking for genuine, authentic people that I know I want to work with. If it’s all about being famous or ‘big’ in an opening letter or meeting that is usually a no.”
Hone your commitment and work ethic, your courtesy and reliability, and your hunger to constantly level up and improve. Ensure you’re keeping these qualities at 100%, and even if you get a “no,” you’ll have made a favourable impression.
Once you’ve signed with your agent, maintaining a good working relationship with your partner-in-crime is paramount to your success as an actor. McKeig suggests, “In the beginning, ask your agent how they best like to communicate and be sure to respect that. Agents can work differently.” Beyond that, she offers, “Trust that when you are both doing the work, communicating honestly, the relationship should grow naturally—especially after you have been in the acting trenches together.”
While less common in Aus than in the much larger U.S. market, being dropped by your agent due to not booking regularly can occur, however, it’s more likely this would happen here as a result of not seeing eye-to-eye or a lack of professionalism.
So show up to auditions and meetings early, submit self-tapes on time, keep your information and materials updated, and remain adequately contactable. These may seem like little things, but they really add up.
If you do find yourself dropped by your agent, strive to take full advantage of the opportunity to momentarily step back. Interrogate your strengths and weaknesses, spring-clean your materials, reflect on ways you could better approach working with your next rep. This experience can be a blow, absolutely, but it can equally be a blessing in disguise. If you commit to adopting this mindset, you might just emerge a far stronger, wiser, and hungrier actor than ever before.
Check out Backstage’s Australia audition listings!