A friend and I were recently discussing the trend of soon-to-be first-time parents choosing baby names based on the availability of the name as a website.
Yes, really. This is a thing.
More unique spellings than ever, additional initials, hyphenated names, all of it… if it cements your brand before you’re even born, you’re set.
But what about for those of us whose names were selected before the Internet was a *thing* and who’ve chosen creative careers, where brand management is as important as for any small (or large) business out there, selecting its primary label, so it’s easily identified by its buyers and fans?
When I was a kid actor, like many of us with that past, I used a stage name. It’s fairly common for parents to protect their youngsters’ identity and future privacy by choosing a variation on their legal names. That’s pretty smart, really, because — especially for young actors who begin that career before they are old enough to speak or walk — who can know whether they’d have wanted their privacy given up?
Of course, these days, when people are posting Instagram and Facebook photos of freshly peed-on pregnancy test sticks and ultrasound photos that are creepy 3D-like in their depiction of what the kid’s face is gonna look like, in real life, maybe it’s a generation of folks not too concerned about whether or not they’ve made a privacy violation on behalf of their children.
All that aside, let’s say you’re considering a stage name, today. Whether you’re just starting out as an actor and you want to get “brand you” RIGHT or already established but not really *feeling* your name, there are some considerations to keep in mind before committing to a new name.
Make Sure You’re Connected to Your Name
Your name is the phrase you hear more than any other in your lifetime. You’d better feel a connection to it. Make sure, if you’re choosing your own name for yourself, that it doesn’t feel manufactured (unless that vibe would be on-brand for what you offer up as an actor). It’s best if your name has some sort of connection with your history, your values, your goals. But that’s not a requirement.
Don’t be overly precious with your name (unless that’s on-brand). Heck, run a Google Survey — just like you do with your typing and show targeting homework — to find out which of your top contenders is lining up with how you present in the room. This has been going on like crazy recently in our SMFA Facebook group. It’s been very cool to witness, and the ongoing conversation has been really inspiring.
Of course, it’s not up to anyone else to decide what name works for you. As Seth Godin says about naming your company, “Don’t listen to anyone else. All your friends will hate it. GOOD. They would have hated Starbucks too (‘You want to name your store after something from Moby Dick?!?’). If your friends like it, run.” I won’t go so far as to say don’t *ask* your friends… just remember they may also type you as the glamorous leading lady when you *know* you bullseye wacky neighbor, second banana, best friend territory. Grain of salt.
Don’t Choose a Name Based on Who Already Has Your Name
One of the most common reasons for choosing a stage name is that your birth name is already “taken.” Obviously, if you’re 27 and your name is Meryl Streep, I’m mad at your parents for having been such dicks. But what if it’s 1990 and your name is Kristen Stewart? No biggie. You brand yourself as an actor and you build your fanbase… and then KStew *hits* and you’re “not that Kristen Stewart.”
Honestly, it’s not that big a deal, to the buyers. If you’ve already established a fanbase, it’s just not as confusing as you may worry it could be. Case in point, in the recent past, my Google action has been cut into by a professional football player in Australia named Bonnie Gillespie (yes, really). She’s badass. She’s not me. And as cool as some of my athletic endeavors may be, there’s no one who confuses us with one another. No brand erosion. Just a fun fact.
If you find out that your name is shared by some politician with views you do not condone (and with which you’d hate to be aligned) or an adult film star (when you’re clearly a Disney dad), you can either choose to make that a fun fact in your long-form bio or pitch, or just ignore it ’til the buyers bring it up, at which point you’re prepared with the Brandprov required to drop breadcrumbs down the path toward getting you cast. I choose the latter, with my football star. I choose the former for the Red Cross photojournalist of the same name. I also change it up based on my audience and based on what my show bible dictates will work best where.
Remember, You Can’t Know Who’s Coming Up Behind You
For the same reason that you can’t possibly know who’s gonna “hit” after you’ve done your brand groundwork, you shouldn’t choose a stage name based on where you hope you’ll corner the market before that up-and-comer shows up behind you. Likewise, you shouldn’t worry about those folks who showed up before you.
Changing your name because you share it with someone famous is only necessary if there *really* would be confusion. There almost never would be. “Oh, Marsha Mason… but not *that* Marsha Mason. Cool! Does that get weird for you?” “Nah. It’s fun! I love her work. Hope to play some of the roles she has had in her big career.” “Awesome. Let’s see what you’ve got!” Done.
The producers know that THE Marsha Mason is not submitting on this low-budget indie or being pitched by her Toronto-based agent for a scale-pay studio project. It’s a talking point. And as long as it’s one that doesn’t derail the overall branding, it’s all good.
I know I made fun of the parents who are choosing baby names based on availability of URLs for those names, but there’s nothing worse than ending up like Joey on Friends when Chandler convinced him that “Joseph Stalin” might be a good stage name. Google that. Be sure your new favorite name isn’t already out there. Or *way* out there.
Check alternate spellings. Do a search at Google, but also at all the current social media sites. Definitely hit IMDb-Pro and even call SAG-AFTRA and AEA to check their member list for similar names, if at all possible. This is not to say that you will dismiss your favorite name if it turns out some actor had it, 60 years ago! It’s just so you won’t be surprised with information about your name’s history, after there’s no turning back.
When you Google your future name and nothing really comes up, that’s gonna be good news for your ability to gain first position in Google, when you’re setting up your actor website and all your online actor profiles, not to mention social media accounts. But that doesn’t mean you choose Gurtrude Z. Blurch, just because it’s gonna get you all the Google love.
In the end, you’re going to have to use this phrase; these words; this combination of words, initials, hyphens, and unique spelling conventions, perhaps, as your simplest brand statement for life. “Bonnie Gillespie” is mine. There’s a brand there. I remember when I first began to embrace “Bonnie Gillespie” (remember, I’d had a childhood acting career of *not* using that name, and on top of that, I’d never felt very connected to the Gillespie side of my family). I was planning my move back to Los Angeles after grad school (and that Age 28 Epiphany you’ve heard me talk about, before) and speaking with my college-town next-door neighbor while watching dumb TV.
“Bonnie Gillespie is a sitcom actor. She’s funny. She’s fun. She’s real. The name has rhythm,” Sloane said. (I always liked Sloane’s name, frankly! Sloane Simmons. Damn, that was cool.) But she was right. My stage name was clearly a stage name (well, not really, it’s just my first and middle name — but I used my middle name as my last name, and there is no one on the planet with the last name “Athene”). People would ask about my ethnic origin: “Are you Greek?” And when I’d say, “It’s my middle name,” they’d launch into a whole new slew of questions: “What’s your real name? Is Athene really your middle name? Are you sure it’s not Athena? Were your parents into mythology? So, you’re not Greek at all, huh? Well, now the red hair and freckles make more sense.”
“Bonnie Gillespie” never once has led to such dumb chitchat. It’s just my name. The two questions it gets are: “Scottish or Irish?” and “Any relation to Dizzy?” — both for which I have spectacular retorts. See, my stage name took up a lot of time in the audition room and in meetings. And not the kind of time that helped anyone understand my brand. Often, actors will confuse “time spent in the room” with “likelihood of booking.” Not me. I was always very clear that nothing about our “Bonnie Athene convo” was charming these buyers into understanding exactly how I could best serve their project.
Make sure your chosen name is a point of entry for all sorts of exhilarating conversations, all of which make you light up, on-brand. Or, make sure your name is a quick in and out, with no *stoppers* and no obstacles to the brand-building work you’re about to do, whether in the meeting or doing the audition. But when your name is something for which you apologize, something you must explain or justify, or something with which you really don’t connect, it’s not helping you… anywhere. (Heck, isn’t that true for any one of your marketing tools, your promotional efforts, your online presence, your wardrobe, your pitch… all of it? Of course.)
Be confident when you say it, write it, spell it out when leaving a voicemail, hear it mispronounced or mangled by others, include the hyphen, that middle initial, every element of what you’ve decided *is* your name… be confident about it all. You chose it. When someone mispronounces “Gillespie” (usually giving it a soft G, like Jill, instead of Gill), I quickly say, “Hard G. That’s my rap name.” On-brand. Funny. Memorable. On to the next.
When I’ve mispronounced an actor’s name and seen that person roll his eyes, get frustrated, explain (for the Nth time) how it’s actually pronounced, I always think, “This clearly isn’t the only time your name has been mispronounced. Consider adapting a better relationship with educating people about how your name is actually pronounced. Or let it go. But *don’t* go into these histrionics. Ew. Not castable.”
Make the Change as Early as Possible
You’re building your brand daily, either by design or by default. Once you’ve made even a wee bit of progress in your industry relationships, you’ve established whatever name you’re using as your most efficient brand statement. And once you make a change, you start over, to some extent. So, while there are moments of clarity that certainly come later in life, the earlier in life you can identify your “right” name (or at least one you are confident about), the better for your brand. Obviously, once your brand is so well established that you’re known more for your body of work than by your name, you can change your name to a symbol… and then back to Prince again, later.
And then Stick with It
Oh man, it’s so frustrating when an actor renames herself (yes, it’s usually females, but males do it too) multiple times. It’s the real name in the beginning, then the creative name that feels right, then it’s the married name, then it’s the married name but back to the real first name because that’s more authentic, and then there’s the divorce and the first real name is rejoined to that first last name, unless the actor decides NOW is the time to go with the creative name that feels right *again* and… oh, man, I wish I were exaggerating about how frustrating this is on the buying side (and, um, now dang narcissistic the whole thing appears).
You may think we don’t notice all the changes, but we do. It’s our job. If you’ve read for us and you’re submitting again, we recognize your face but now your name is different… we’re gonna do what it takes to figure out WHO you are in our files, because we have notes on you that we don’t want to lose just because you’ve changed your name. I actually have several actors in my show bible whose notes include “chronic name changer” along with all the variations I’ve experienced, over the years.
You’re building a brand, constantly. Your brand is “name changer”? No. Not better than “consistent, rockstar, amazing actor I can’t wait to cast.” Not at all. You may be cutesy at a certain age. Assume you’ve got a Betty White-like career stretched out ahead of you (God willing). Is “cutesy” still good for you at 80? Be sure — before you name yourself something ending with an *I* (dotted with a heart) — that it’s enduring.
As with everything else, there is no one RIGHT way to name yourself except for the way that lines you up with lots of happiness when you introduce yourself, correct people’s pronunciation (or let it go), and possibly tell the story that goes with whatever questions might come up because of your name.
My husband’s first name is wrong pretty much 45% of the time someone uses it. He never corrects them. He knows they mean Keith. They either don’t know or don’t care that they mean Keith. But he knows they’re not insulting him to call him Kevin, because it has happened his entire life. He is not branded by “Keith Johnson” as much as he’s branded by “Mr. Bonnie Gillespie” or “Jackass Dad” or “The Bulldog.” So, what does he care? He doesn’t. And that’s totally on-brand for him.
What’s on-brand for you? What’s your name? 🙂 I’d love to know.
Oh, and also, remember, our 100-Day Challenge is coming to a close here before long! Lemme ask you ahead of time: Do you have any wins to share? Did you experience challenges with the challenge? Whether you’ve succeeded with your 100-Day Challenge goals set out on March Forth (4th) or not, do you have any thoughts for how you’ll make the most of the next 100 days we have stretched out before us? My email address is just below. Lemme hear from you!
Bonnie Gillespie is living her dreams by helping others figure out how to live theirs. Wanna work with Bon? Start here. Thanks!
Originally published by Actors Access at http://more.showfax.com/columns/avoice/archives/001823.html. Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.