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It's the million dollar question: How does an actor stand out from the crowd of wannabes and finally land representation? We hear the stories: the diner waitress who caught an agent's eye while serving home fries, the hot TV star who was discovered while walking his dog, the beloved character actor whose aunt's friend's accountant's massage therapist's second cousin just happened to be a well-respected talent manager.

True or not, these tales often become the stuff of Hollywood legend, but how do most actors—the ones without dogs or tenuous showbiz connections—go about approaching talent representatives? The rules of etiquette are tough to put into concrete terms. "There's an idea of being persistent, and there's an idea of being a pain," says agent Eddie Culbertson, owner of The Culbertson Group, LLC. "It's a very fine line, and nobody can tell you what it is until you've crossed it." Still, there are ways to ensure that you approach reps through the proper channels and remain professional while doing so.

The most basic way to approach agents or managers is of course the mailed-in submission, consisting of a cover letter, resumé, and headshots. You may also want to include a reel, if you have one. Some offices may take e-mail in addition to the traditional snail mail, but most reps agree that showing up to drop your materials off in person is an instant strike against you. "People will often call me, and I will say, 'Please send me your details: headshot, resumé, and tape,' and [I will] give them the address," says manager Lorraine Berglund, owner of Lorraine Berglund Management. "Then they'll turn up and knock on the door and say, 'Well, I just thought you might want to see me face-to-face.' It's just not on."

Manager Phil Brock, president of Studio Talent Group, concurs. "Hand-delivered submissions become a problem because people walk in, and everyone's working in the office," he says. "They sort of stand there and go, 'Well, are you going to read us now?' Or [they think] if they show themselves to you, you're going to take them. That doesn't really help, because [the office] is too fast-paced and too busy to do that."

When it comes to assembling your packet, most reps agree that it's best to keep things simple. After all, they've seen every gimmick in the book, from food to party favors to ... feet. "There was a famous [submission] years ago," recalls Tony Martinez, an agent at the GVA Talent Agency and author of the upcoming book An Agent Tells All. "Everybody got a headshot and resumé and an envelope attached to a small box. When you opened the box, there was a human foot inside—not [from] a dead person, of course, but the kind you find in a shoe store, a really lifelike human foot. The note next to it said: 'I'm just trying to get my foot in the door.' Yes, I laughed, everybody I know laughed, [but] no one brought that person in for a meeting, because it's just a silly gimmick."

And even if you aren't going so far as to send prosthetic human limbs, including extra "perks" in your package is generally not appreciated. "One of the most offensive things is when people send us money," says Culbertson. "They're trying to be cute, and I understand that, but they'll put in a dollar and say, 'Here's the first dollar you've ever made off me.' We generally return to sender."

Agent John Lyons, owner of The Austin Agency, sometimes finds himself being wooed by well-meaning actors bearing culinary treats. "One person delivered a cake with her stuff," he says. "God love her, you know? I put it in the trash because it was this complete stranger giving me food. I'm not neurotic, but it was just too weird for me."

Actors may think distinctive packaging will help them stand out, but the reality is that most reps prefer to let the headshot and resumé stand on their own merits. "[I've had] women submitting, and their paper was something that my 7-year-old daughter would have used, with fairies printed on it and glitter," says Berglund. "A 7-year-old, you could understand, but not somebody in their 20s. It should be very simple."

Though some reps like to see a bit of flair in the cover letter, most agree that actors should still resist the urge to give in to gimmicks. "I've had, 'Dear Tony, here are David Letterman's Top 10 Reasons You Should Represent Me,'" says Martinez. "I've had cover letters written in screenplay format, where the actor is a character and I'm the other character, and we're interacting, and I'm falling in love with the actor. Keep [the cover letter] as basic possible. The reality is, we know what's in that 9x12 envelope; we know it's a submission from an actor seeking representation."

Reps say once you've sent in your materials, it's generally not a good idea to follow up with a phone call. "Calling us to see if we got your package is just not helpful," says manager Steven Nash, owner of Arts and Letters Management. "We get large numbers of submissions, and we look at every single one of them. A follow-up phone call to see if we got it, I understand where it's coming from; it's good business generically to do a follow-up, but it's not helpful with our company. We'll call if interested."

Some actors take it a step further by misrepresenting themselves. You might think this makes you look particularly enterprising, but most reps simply see it as rude. "Actors often call the office here and get my assistant and bluff their way through to me claiming to be a friend or an ex-girlfriend. That never works," says Martinez. "That behavior is considered so unprofessional that you've now set yourself up as someone who is unprofessional. So what does that do for me as an agent? You're doing something inappropriate. If I sign you, you'll probably continue to do things that are inappropriate, and then it will reflect poorly on me."

And it may seem obvious, but, when submitting, don't forget to clearly label all materials. "One mistake that some actors make is: They'll send us a submission and not have contact information on the picture and resumé," says Nash. "They may have it on the cover letter, but that could easily get separated, especially if the person's under consideration. The cover letter is not passed around; the picture and resumé are."

If you want to follow up, some reps advise that a postcard printed with your picture, name, and contact info is a good reminder. Postcards can also be useful when actors want to invite reps to see them in a specific project. "Postcards are non-threatening, easy," says Brock. "It reminds us of who you are: you're in a play, You're in an independent film, you're doing a showcase next week."

If you're inviting reps to a specific production, you may also want to put together a packet that includes some good reviews of your performance. And, occasionally, some reps don't mind if actors get a little creative when it comes to promoting themselves in certain projects. "Doing an interesting promotional—fun things that are specific to a specific job—can be interesting to me," says Nash. "If someone's doing a war play, and it's a little GI from the 99-cent store—that can be fun. A promotional that's about a specific event can get my attention, but never [make it] complicated and expensive, because then it's just too much."

You should also be selective when choosing the project you invite reps to. "Do not have [reps] come to see you [in something] where you are fairly decent, and everybody else is bad," says Lyons, who likes to find new talent in the theatre. "Pick and choose the one they come to; make sure they have a good theatrical experience."

While it is possible to get your foot in the door via an unsolicited submission, many reps prefer to hear about talent via referrals. "The best way to approach an agent in this town is through a referral—'referral' is, like, the magic word," says Martinez. "Anybody who refers a potential client to me, I will generally take that meeting. Referrals are worth their weight in gold in L.A., because everyone is judged based on who they refer."

Adds Lyons, "I like [referrals] from casting directors, particularly CDs I respect. I've gotten some incredible referrals from CDs because they understand what I like."

To land that valuable referral, reps suggest actors work on their networking skills and watch for opportunities. "When you have an audition, no matter how small, if [the CD] is impressed with you, strike while the iron is hot," says Lyons. "Say, 'I don't have representation. Can you refer me to anybody?' If you get very good feedback there and then, that's the time to do it. Don't do it if you're not right for the role, and they're looking over their shoulder at the next person." And don't forget: If you are referred by somebody, be sure to mention them in your cover letter.

What if, by chance, you happen to encounter a rep at a party or in a bar? Most agents and managers say there's nothing wrong with approaching them, but it's best to engage in friendly conversation rather than immediately begging for their contact info. "As a manager or an agent, I think you really will go to bat for someone you like," says Brock. "Not only are they talented, but if someone has a great personality, they're going to go in and wow a casting director, too. If they intrigue you and make you want to talk to them further and find out more about them, I think that's a great thing. If they just walk up and say, 'Hi, you're Phil Brock, I'm an actor, I want to meet you,' eh, I don't know. I'd rather hear that they like sports or where they're studying or what play they're doing. That's my preference."

Establishing that human connection is key—you don't want to seem like you're trying too hard, and you never want to make the rep feel like he or she is being harassed. "I don't mind people saying, 'Oh, my goodness, you're a manager, do you mind if I submit something to you?'" says Berglund. "What I do object to is being at a social event and they want to completely monopolize you and talk about it and about themselves and what should they do. I was at a party, and one of my clients turned up with one of his friends, who of course knew that I was his manager, and I could not get away. I couldn't even go and get a drink, because he was insisting on getting my drinks. I was trying to have conversations with other people."

Say you've gotten past that first hurdle and are invited in to meet with a rep. You've still got to remember to stay professional, be yourself, and attempt to connect with the agent or manager. "I think the worst thing you can do in a meeting with an agent is spend 20 minutes talking about acting and your career," says Martinez. "Actors will spend 20 minutes telling me what's on their resumé. I'm holding it in my hand, I know what's on it; I'm a fairly intelligent human being. If I have a question, I will ask it. The best thing to do is, just have a conversation. Get to know each other."

Adds Culbertson, "It's a job interview when you're meeting with an agent. It's being prepared, looking professional, not going too over-the-top. It's just being real. Don't try to guess what we're looking for. Don't try to be who you think we want you to be. We want you to be you."

You should also have some knowledge of the rep you're meeting with: It makes you look prepared and professional. "Ask questions and [do] research and know who I am and where I'm coming from," says Lyons. "Don't ask me if I have any other types like [you], because if [you] read any publication or anything about me, [you] know that I don't think that way."

And don't forget the basics. One negative, says Brock, is not having your full range of headshots with you when you come in for an interview. "To me, that's absurd," he says. "They may have mailed one to us, but we get about 500 submissions a month on the average. I have no idea what happened to that submission picture or which pile it's in. For me, it's so important that they actually have their picture and resumé with them. If they're an actor who comes in, and they can't even have pictures with them, how are they going to be prepared for their audition?"

In that vein, you also want to make sure you treat potential reps with respect. "If we have an appointment and someone is late, and they don't call, we generally just cancel them," says Culbertson. "Because if you're late for us, and you don't call for us, you're going to do it to casting. That is the first step of communication. Don't leave us hanging and then show up and tell us you're late—we already know that. Be respectful of our time."

Brock says he also likes for actors he interviews to have some idea of where they're going with their careers. "I want to hear that they have somewhat of a plan of where they want to be a couple years from now," he says. "If I ask an actor, 'Where do you want to be when you're 30?' and the actor says, 'I don't know,' then they haven't thought out their business plan. If they haven't thought it out, and they're not confident in what they believe they can do, then we're in trouble."

When it comes down to it, perhaps the most valuable bit of advice is this: Investing your time and energy into finding representation is important, but honing your craft is equally so. "No one's going to find you if you're sitting home, complaining about how hard it is to get an agent," says Martinez. "You've got to put it out there, man; you can't just sit around waiting. That's the first step, I think. If you want to be an actor, you have to act."

Martinez remembers one instance from five years ago, when his girlfriend dragged him to see a play in downtown L.A. "I did not want to go," he says. "I did not go as an agent; I went as a reluctant date. The play was horrible, the neighborhood was horrible, and the parking was worse. But I've got to tell you, there was one guy onstage who was so funny, like a young Woody Allen. I brought him in for a meeting, it went well, the other agents met him, we signed him, and I swear to God, six months later, he booked a network primetime sitcom series on NBC. He went from making nothing to half a million dollars a year. And that's just because he was out there doing it; he was out there doing his thing." BSW

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