Hi again Bon!

I just read all of your columns regarding type and branding. Like most actors, I am resistant toward pigeon-holing myself but I just took the comedy intensive at Lesly Kahn’s and they really, really believe in making yourself as specific as possible. So, with strong encouragement from an acting coach, and casting director (you, obviously), I will commence on the arduous task of branding myself. But before I do so, I need to have a question answered, something that’s been puzzling and troubling me for quite some time now upon reading about marketing oneself.

I pulled up several headshots from working actors (and by working I mean up-and-coming movie stars between 17 and 26) where they first started out, and their headshots are not stereotypical or very branded at all, in my opinion. They use very traditional theatrical shots — simple headshot, staring seriously or demurely into the camera, wearing neutral clothing. Very subtle and not specific besides showing that they’re young. How is it that they were able to get away without having the specific “troubled teen” or “quirky best friend” or “girl next door” look? How did they book jobs with a versatile headshot, something everyone now discourages against? And why can’t I also have a versatile headshot then, if it works for them?

I’ve provided links to some of the headshots I looked at:


As always, I love your columns and greatly value your input! Thanks for taking the time to read my question! 🙂

Katherine Vo

Okay, first, good for you getting serious about branding yourself and defining your type. It’s only been several years of resistance at this point, eh? (I kid, of course, but Katherine, honestly, even the fact that you’re writing to say, “I’m gonna do this, but,” shows me you really, really, really just don’t want to do it. And until you get cool with doing it, doing it is going to feel really, really, really crappy. And that goes for anything that anyone does, ever!)

So, I hope you can, first, get cool with doing this (and if you can’t, then just don’t bother. You’ll always resent having to do it and you’ll have worse results than if you just used scattered, “I can be whatever you need me to be” headshots). I’m a big fan of Lesly Kahn, and the reason she and I agree on the issue of actor branding is because it’s a shortcut, not a limiting factor. Absolutely, you can choose to just use generic headshots. You can have a bunch of shots that show us all the different things you can be. And you’ll risk getting lost amongst the tens of thousands of young actors who also try to show us that they can be anything, while the actors who are best branded, or best repped, or best trained, or best connected, or luckiest move ahead of the pack.

Because you can control very little of the luck part, because you may have a hard time scoring that high-end agent, because you maybe couldn’t go to a league school, because there may be no nepotism helping you along, how’s about you do control the thing you can control: Nailing that branding.

Or don’t. Your choice, of course. 🙂 As are all things.

All right, so let’s assume you are going to get that branding done. Yay! That’s like a team having its colors. There’s an association, just on-sight. Good. Now, you know I’d prefer that you stop comparing the roads other actors took to get to where you would like to be — see last week’s column, “Your Path,” for more on that — but I’ll still answer your question, because I know others have it too. Especially older actors, who made some ground before “branding” became a buzzword for creatives, are very curious about why actors today are so concerned about getting their type established, about developing a pitch.

Well, here’s the short answer that you’ll hate (because you’ll think it’s so unfair) but that you already suspect is true: Some folks “make it” without ever having to deal with branding. They never give it a thought. They just go to class, go out on auditions, network, and book stuff that takes ’em all the way up to celebrity level and they’ve not once done more than maybe bump into a brand. And then there are those actors — just as famous and just as talented and just as wonderful — who, when interviewed, talk about learning their road and finding their way and discovering what made them special and castable. That’s them having found their brand, whether they call it that or not. Their ability to communicate that essence to others was them being on-brand, whether they ever knew that’s what it was. And once upon a time, there were generals. There were meet-and-greets. There were ways to get facetime before your headshot came into the equation. (Today, we call those “ways” self-producing and the Internet.)

I was talking with a very A-List casting director last month about famous actors she knew and how she never once saw them trying to be any particular type. I explained that, of course, they don’t try to be their brand; they are their brand. It’s their authentic self that comes through. The fact that they entered the room for her, that very first time, totally and completely secure in who they were at that moment, right on point, and then did good work that stayed in her mind so that she could cast them over and over again is just evidence of their branding at work. An actor’s brand is what pops into our heads when we think of that person. It’s the feeling we get when we hear that actor’s name.

I’m not an actor, but I have a brand. Everyone does. It’s a shame that word has such negative connotations in the artistic community, when what it does is give you so much more control over a career path that has so very little on it that is controllable.

So, do some successful actors get away with not having a brand, with not knowing (or caring about) their type? Sure. They get seen and cast for other reasons: They know someone, they have hotshot agents or managers, they trained at the same league school the director attended, they got lucky. But even once they got seen and got cast, they delivered — in the room and then on the screen — their brand. And the reason you see headshots that don’t look particularly well-branded is because, once the buyers know your work, the headshot is just a placeholder. It’s a reminder of what we already know about you, at a deeper level than that photo could ever convey.

(And, I’d argue that there is definitely some branding going on in those headshots you linked. In fact, a couple of the actors whose headshots you sampled are in my files. These are actors who were pitched to me, years ago, before they were borderline famous. And the words their agents used, in pitching them, were on-brand. They were not broad in range. They were not about all the things the actors could do. They were about the actors’ primary brand. Typing, branding, knowing yourself — that’s all stuff to arm your reps with the words to use, when pitching you. And these actors’ headshots are perfectly branded for the roles the gals were going out for, back then. Maybe the problem is that you see well-branded headshots as something way more specific or obvious than what’s going on in these examples.)

Until you’ve been in the room and taught us your brand, in person, your headshot needs to show us what to expect you will deliver, if invited into the room. And that’s why having headshots that remove doubt about “what you’re selling” (AKA: your brand, your type) help you get into the room on auditions for roles that you’re more likely to book, rather than just getting asked in because the role is “20-something female.”

Branding, when done right, is just authenticity, plain and simple. The reason most people fight branding is because they’ve not yet decided what their authentic self is. They’ve not had their “Age 28 Epiphany.” They are consumed by wanting to be all things they could be, rather than what they actually are. They know too much about themselves, and that complicates the issue. They so desperately want to “get it right” when they go into the room for an audition that they never bring us what we actually want: their take on the role. Their authentic, real, actual, self-shining-through interpretation of the material. Their on-brand delivery of the lines, so we can see if that lines up with what we need.

If you find yourself resisting branding, either choose to say, “Screw it! I’m never going to do this dang thing y’all say I need to do,” and leave it at that, or get excited about discovering who you truly are, and about how much fun it will be to communicate that to us, effectively, with headshots that just sing “you.” Don’t worry about what you see others doing along the way. Your road isn’t theirs and never will be. The word “fair” isn’t anywhere in the definition of showbiz and all that it is.

(I’m beating a dead horse here. I know.)

Point is, if you’ve really decided to drink the branding Kool-Aid, stop looking for examples of people who got away with not having to do it. Instead, look for examples of people who did it and did it well. Learn from them. Be inspired by them. And have fun figuring all of this out for yourself. You’ll feel more focused, you’ll feel that your auditions are better fits for how you can actually book, and you’ll feel more in control of this crazy career you’ve chosen. All of that beats “keeping score” any day.

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/001142.html. Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.

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