This week, I’m going to be telling stories without name-dropping and that’s going to be tough to do, but I think the stories are worth the point. Pardon the level of “vague” in what follows. It’s a necessity of the timing on several projects (mine and theirs) and a professional courtesy. And sometimes the lesson is worth describing the theory, even though the actual story would be more exciting. Bear with me.

Recently, a friend of mine went from, “I’m done with this business. I just can’t do it anymore. No one believes in me. I can’t get a break. It’s over,” to winning several major awards and producing her own material with the likes of a very, very A-list director. It’s been a thrilling journey to witness, and not just because I’m one of the friends who encouraged her to stick it out, keep at it, continue to develop her own passion projects, do good work, and build a fanbase. Even if I didn’t know her, I’d find her tier jump inspiring. Because it is.

So, when one of the many projects on which she’s been working reached the “we need to do some casting” stage, I volunteered my services. Her last breakdown was an email sent out to some actor friends, followed by an open call. I wanted to help her get something in Breakdown Services, proper. I wanted to help her project land in front of name actors. I wanted to help filter the submissions and negotiate the deals. She’d gone up a tier and really shouldn’t be doing this by herself anymore.

But then her breakdown went out without me and she emailed to ask a question about protocol on breakdowns, because it was all new to her. Of course, I answered her question and casually mentioned that I was only slightly bummed not to be her CD on this project. When she replied, she told me who the CD is. (I hadn’t seen the breakdown.) O!M!G! Her CD is sooo many tiers above where I am. I did a happy dance and congratulated her on doing a really huge tier jump, because that’s exactly what she had done. This casting director is going to be able to get her way more awesome people than I could easily access. It’s a brilliant match. And I’m so happy for her!

Another actor friend of mine used to audition for me regularly. Like on every project with a college-aged hottie. And that’s most of ’em. There was a film in 2005 (a $200K budget indie, which just last week got distribution. Yay! But wow, this stuff takes forever) on which he tested for the lead, but lost out to an actor who is probably my favorite “discovery.” But my actor friend had something. I knew he was a star. And I cast him in the lead on my very next film in 2005 (another $200K budget indie) and from what I have seen (I still don’t have my copy of this film, but I’ve seen some of the dailies — remember what I said about this stuff taking forever), he was amazing.

And of course he must have been amazing because after doing the lead in our little film, he was tapped to star in a series, and now has screaming fans wherever he goes. He’s all kinds of famous and a lot of that had to do with his natural charisma, the talent he’s developed through hard work and discipline, and the fact that he had starred in a feature film (even a micro-budget indie film) because that meant it was a slightly lower risk for the network, when casting him to star in their series. Awesome.

When I first saw he’d gotten that gig, I sent him an email congratulating him. Nothing. But then his dad emailed me to thank me for having giving his son one of his early breaks. Aw. So sweet! I said, “Hey, that’s my job,” and asked him to have his son email me if he had a minute. I had a script I wanted him to look at (another low-budget indie). Nothing. I figured, “Wow, being a series regular on a top show really does make you too busy to answer email.” I get that. Sometimes I’m too busy to answer email and I write a weekly column and cast low-budget indie films! I can only imagine.

Over the holidays, I spent some quality time with one of the casting directors on this friend’s show. I told her about my early experiences with this amazing actor and she asked to see the trailer of this little film. I pulled it up on my iPhone and she gushed about the casting and about this actor’s clear, raw talent, totally all over the screen even two years before he nabbed the series deal. Just this week, she sent me an email to let me know she was talking about me with this actor and he asked her to say, “Tell Bon I miss auditioning for her.” That was the best. See, he isn’t allowed to audition for me now because he’s being groomed for lead roles in studio films after his series wraps. None of the mainly ensemble, mainly under $5M budget films I’m casting will be something his agents would let him do right now. He’s several tiers above. And I’m so happy for him!

So, why the vague stories without the name-dropping? Why the “I’m so happy” about a casting gig I didn’t score and an actor I can no longer cast? Because, as I often say: Anytime I see someone succeed, I am happy, for it reminds me that I live in a world where success is possible. There is something really beautiful about seeing success all around us. It means we’re success-adjacent. And if we’re not using the success of others as a way to feel like crap about what’s not working for us, we’re happy for the proximity to success. We’re aware that means we’re in a network of successful people. That means ours is on its way.

As an actor, you often reach for gigs that are many tiers above yours. For example, you don’t yet have your SAG card but you submit for a recurring top-of-show guest-star on a top-ten network show. You don’t yet have an agent but you get a copy of the breakdowns, decide you’re perfect for the lead, and submit your own audition tape to Debbie Zane on Soderbergh’s next blockbuster. You have to do this stuff because you never know. But you should not do these things to the exclusion of cultivating the relationships at — and just above — your own tier.

What’s your tier? Are your most-accessible projects student films? Spec pilots? Web series? Micro-budget indies? Time-controlled challenges? Contest-related spec commercials? I’m not talking about choosing only to pursue those goals which are most easily attained. That’s not challenging and it’s also a sure way of staying stuck below your “real” tier (and it leads to Bitter Actor Syndrome). What I am talking about is really connecting with those folks who are coming up at the same time you are. Investing in the future Soderberghs, the future Debbie Zanes, just as you’re asking them to invest in the future whatever-awesome-celeb you are. Just like casting directors crave “finding” that actor who will go on to be a major star someday, part of your job as an actor involves seeking out the filmmakers and producers and screenwriters and casting directors who will be tomorrow’s legends. Your “picker” needs to be good. Just like we hope, when we’re starting out in casting, that we’re picking projects that will go on to win major festivals and score worldwide distribution, you need to spend some of your energy focused on who your instincts tell you will be around in a decade. Or four. I mean, you plan to be doing this that long, don’t you?

The “big gets” at several tiers above you are the easy submissions. You know you want to be on that hit show. You know you want to be in the next blockbuster by that major director. You know you need to be in the casting office that casts ten different shows for networks. Those are easy targets for you. But who is winning the top fellowship at AFI? Whose script just won the Nicholls? Which producer nabbed the John Cassavetes Award at the Independent Sprits? Don’t care about these things? Well, then you’d better already be a few tiers way above “working actor.” Because if you are looking to create a name in this industry, cultivating those relationships at the ground level is very important. Did you turn your nose up at this column nearly five years ago, thinking, “What do I care what this person thinks? She’s been casting all of one year!” or did you say, “Cool. I can watch the evolution of an indie film casting career from the very beginning. There may be lots of lessons for me here,” when you first clicked in? How’s your picker? Are the people you chose to pursue even still in the biz? Are they tier jumping? Are you?

I have seven feature films on the slate for 2009-2010. Seven. Budgets range from $1.5M to $5M. I took a look at the relationships that led to each of these seven gigs, when working up my notes for this week’s column. The most recent one is due to a referral from a director for whom I cast in 2005. He sent a director friend to our first Cricket Feet Showcase in 2007. I’m now casting and producing her film. Two of the films come from directors who attended a panel discussion I did in conjunction with Breakdown Services at a film festival back in 2005. Both guys liked my vibe and loved the film I had cast that was screening at that same festival. Both have hired me multiple times since then. Three of the films I’m casting and associate producing come from actors who auditioned for me back in 2004! They are producing their own work, now, and remembered enjoying the process of reading for me on a short film over at the old IFP (now FiND) office, and knew — when the time came — they wanted me to cast their babies. And another casting/associate producing gig on which I’m negotiating comes from a the longest-ago relationship, one made during a play I cast years before I actually became a casting director! Yup. Another actor, producing her own work, and I met her when she read for me in 2000 at a tiny black box theatre in Hollywood.

What’s the point of this list? Two points! Yay! One, there are people who have very good “pickers” as far as who’s gonna go places in this industry. They know — even if they’re “just” actors — that they’re people worth keeping up with. (And I say “just” actors because so many people pooh-pooh the power of the actor, when it comes to self-producing and creating work. Silly them!) And two, there are people creating their own work. I know that I’ve been hitting this point really hard recently and there’s a reason for that. There’s a new business model. There’s power in self-producing. There’s so much more work available to you than you may ever realize, if all you ever do is submit headshots and wait for the phone to ring.

So, self-producing readers, I ask you, how did you get started, producing your own work? I know some folks are reticent to share their toys. (That’s one of my least favorite parts of this biz, actually.) But if you — fine actors who decided not to wait to create — would be so kind as to email me at the address below and share for a future column any info about the nuts and bolts of getting started when you’re “just” an actor, but you have the desire (and drive) to do more, I’d really appreciate it! (And frankly, in this town, you do have to be driven to do more, or else you’ll never stand out and get that opportunity you so crave.)

Self-producing gurus: What did you read to learn the fundamentals? Where did you work out? To whom did you look for advice and mentorship? What was the most valuable lesson you learned along the way? What was the most painful lesson you learned about this process? What have the benefits vs. costs been, in this quest to self-produce? Thanks in advance for your emails. I look forward to compiling another column filled with inspiring words from my awesome readers.

So, do I wish I’d gotten the shot at the above-mentioned hot project with the fancy director? Sure! But I’m also aware that the producer could have her next project be even bigger and she’ll tier jump yet again. Or it could be more modest and she’ll come to me. Or BOTH! Her next project could be bigger and by then, I’ll be another tier or two ahead, and we’ll be perfectly matched at that new level. Who knows? Maybe I’ll even be able to cast the hot series regular in her next project! The trick to making this work is that we don’t invest in these relationships because of where they might go someday. We dig the people. We like what they have to say. Their voice speaks to us. We’re into their vibes. And that’s what makes it so that we can both intersect with them when it’s the right time to work together and feel joy for them when they’re working at a tier above us.

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

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