Show You're Special

"Classic beauties, men and women, are usually not funny, unfortunately," says David Ziff, vice president of the on-camera commercial department at CESD (Cunningham-Escott-Slevin-Doherty) Talent Agency in Los Angeles. "So, if we find one who has improvisational or standup comedy skills, it's a winning combination in commercials and something we can promote to casting directors."

Special skills may not always change an actor's type, but all agree they certainly broaden employment opportunities, especially in commercials. Besides a flair for improvisation, sports skills are in high demand—including yoga, running, swimming, diving, football, baseball, and basketball. So too are extreme sports," says Ziff, such as rock climbing and hang-gliding. A martial-arts background is an asset. "These kinds of skills may be needed for energy sports drinks. Any major sport on a résumé is a plus, and actors should include these under 'special skills,' " Ziff says. "If we have 200 clients and three of them have 'hockey,' on their list, those are the three actors the casting directors will most likely want to see."

Other "special skills" that are in demand for commercials include all kinds of dance. Playing an instrument and singing are special skills worth noting. "And if we encounter an opera singer, that totally changes how we look at that person and what we can submit him for," says Ziff. The ability to speak a foreign language—especially Spanish—is a huge asset given the mammoth Spanish-speaking market. When Ziff finds a Latino actor who does not speak Spanish, he strongly urges the actor to enroll in a workshop or class in order to master conversational Spanish. Dialects and accents, however, are not all that useful, Ziff says: For example, casting directors in need of an Australian accent will probably want to cast a native Australian.

Reality television is yet another genre where actors endowed with special skills—art, fashion, home decorating—may find employment as hosts or guests, suggests manager Arthur Massei of Massei Management, New York. Indeed, he thinks special skills are so important they may take precedence over an actor's type or even talent. He talks about how non-actor broadcasters, for example, are able to parlay their careers into roles on TV shows, trumping a legitimate actor who can play a broadcaster but has never been one.

Duncan Stewart, who has cast such Broadway productions as "Chicago," "La Cage Aux Folles," and an upcoming revival of "Pippin," is not a great fan of special skills. Often they are springboards for foolishness or an actor's determination to stand out in some silly way, he says, citing as examples the ability to wiggle an eyebrow or do a Tarzan shriek. "Why would you want to be known for that?" Stewart asks rhetorically. "Wouldn't you rather be known as a fine actor?"

Still, he admits there are times when special skills serve an actor well. But they must be relevant to the project and not a gimmick. For "Pippin," actors who are skilled in sports, bodybuilding, and weightlifting have a shot over actors who don't have those skills. Similarly, in "La Cage," actors who have a flair for acrobatics, trapeze, and tumbling are in good stead. Indeed, one actor who could roller-skate has been cast in the Broadway production, the choreographer incorporating skating into the show.

Casting director Sig De Miguel, whose credits include the films "Rabbit Hole" and "The Good Shepherd," also believes special skills are only of interest if they are relevant to the project. For example, he is currently casting a film in need of a young Latino male who can dance. Such special skills as rumba, salsa, and ballroom dancing would be useful. "And if they are relevant to the film, they should be highlighted on the résumé," he says. "But don't mention a special skill unless you are truly expert in it."

All those Back Stage spoke with agree that lying about special skills or citing kooky novelty skills—such as touching your nose with the tip of your tongue—are counterproductive.