What’s in Your Actor Bag?

First, what is an actor bag? Well, it’s that messenger bag, backpack, or gym bag in the trunk of your car with all of your actor goodies inside. Goodies? Headshots (with resumés already affixed, whether that’s with staples, glue, or printed right on the back), photo postcards and business cards, highlighter for sides, bottled water, a wardrobe change for last-minute auditions, Thomas Bros. Guide for finding your way to last-minute auditions, extra batteries for your pager or a charger for your cell phone, and perhaps a personal hygiene kit (breath strips, deodorant, etc.).

Now, why do you need an actor bag? Well, if you’re heading home after a visit to the gym and your agent calls with a last-minute audition, you don’t have to say, “Oh, no! I can’t make it. I have to go home, get cleaned up and changed, pick up headshots, print up directions from MapQuest.com, download sides, and then head off to the audition.” You can simply say, “I’m on my way!” Get there early. Head to the restroom and change into a clean outfit and freshen up. Hand over a headshot and resumé rather than asking to borrow a stapler. Pick up the sides they have waiting for you at the audition location and do your best, even with very little notice. That is what a pro does. You are a pro, right?

For those of you who attended the free casting director panel discussion I moderated at Loyola Marymount University last week, this is familiar advice. Casting director Michael Donovan made it very clear that there is no excuse for having to miss or postpone an audition simply due to lack of preparedness. In fact, he went as far as to say actors need several clothing options pressed and ready in their cars at all times, especially if they’re coming in for commercial casting sessions.

In fact, there were so many good tips from the panelists last week that I’d like to devote the rest of this column to their contributions to your metaphorical actor bag (which is the one with all of your actor “stuff” inside, not just the physical items you carry around with you wherever you go).

Must I rush out and get color headshots to replace my black and white shots? Not for theatrical headshots. Chemin Bernard shared that the Casting Society of America had recently taken a membership survey on the issue of color headshots vs. black and white headshots. The result: NO ONE CARES. The only thing that matters to any casting director is that the actor’s headshots look like the actor! That said, commercial casting directors tend to prefer color headshots simply because the ad agencies and commercial clients for whom they cast require seeing actors in color.

Must I be SAG in order to get seen by you? No. In fact, the act of Taft-Hartleying specific actors is simple and very commonly done. Casting directors on SAG projects are required to audition a certain number of SAG actors for every role prior to opening up an option to seeing non-union actors who would need to be Taft-Hartleyed in order to be a part of that SAG project. Chemin Bernard said that actors younger than 18 and older than 60 can be Taft-Hartleyed with the least amount of trouble. Actors within that 18 to 60 age range will have a harder battle being Taft-Hartleyed, as the casting director must prove to SAG that she has exhausted every possible option (in terms of current SAG members) prior to looking to non-union actors to fill union roles. Unless the actor has some extraordinary skill that simply cannot be found in union actors of that actor’s type, the production may be fined for using that non-union actor. Even so, the fine is generally much lower than most producers would have you believe ($500 for a day player, $800 for a performer on a weekly contract). The size of the project, its budget, and the rate of pay each actor receives have nothing to do with those fines. Don’t let producers tell you otherwise.

Do you want to see my demo reel? Generally, no. Michelle Gertz explained (and the other CDs concurred emphatically) that, unless your reel is requested, there is very little time during casting to stop and take a look at your taped work. That said, when you are asked to provide a demo reel, you’d better have one! Add that to your actor bag! Demo reels should be no longer than three to five minutes and your name and contact information should be on the tape and in the tape itself! Edit your name and phone number right into the opening credits!

Don’t you already have my headshot from the submission process? Maybe. Quite simply, you must bring a headshot to auditions. And, of course, since you have a load of headshots in your actor bag, that’s not a problem, right? Michael Donovan reminded us that, with so many submissions being done electronically now, many times we simply don’t have your headshot. We need the hard copy in the room with the director, the producer, the client. To come in and say, “Oh, I thought my agent sent that to you,” when we ask you for a headshot is unprofessional. Even if your agent did send one over, you should always be ready to provide one. If we did prescreening electronically and your agent provided a clickable thumbnail of you prior to prereads, we actually don’t have your headshot. When sessions are over and the director says, “Let me see the headshot of that actor we liked earlier today,” and my only response is, “That actor didn’t bring a headshot,” what happens next? We move on to the next actor the director liked, since he needs to have a visual reference RIGHT AT THAT MOMENT in order to make a decision. Actors work in visual media. That means actors should always leave a visual reminder of their work behind. That’s what a headshot is.

Other tips you’ve heard before and will hear again:

  • No touching the casting director. That’s a standard request. The tales of manhandling by all three of the panelists were embarrassingly funny. And sad, really.
  • What you do in the lobby ends up getting back to the casting director. Guaranteed. We have assistants who report the divas in the waiting room. Behaving badly “out there” and then coming into the room sweetly will not fly. We do learn about the “other” version of you.
  • Often, it comes down to two actors up for the same role with the producer or director simply unable to make a choice. At that point, we are asked to make the final call. Well, we want to be hired again, so we will always (when both actors are equally talented and are both well-suited for the role) recommend the actor who is less likely to be a pain in the ass on the set. Be the type of person you would want to work with. It could make all the difference!
  • Come in, do your best, and let it go. Once you walk out of the room, be done with it. You did your job, now let us do ours.

One thing every actor must find a chance to do at some point is intern in a casting office, volunteer to be a helper during auditions, work as a reader, anything that gets the actor into the line of fire of auditions from the “other side.” No matter how many tales you hear about actors who cross the line in audition settings, nothing is a substitute for the value in getting to see, first hand, what it’s like. Believe me, if you experience a day in casting sessions simply observing actors, you will come away saying, “What was that actor THINKING?” at least a few times. Also, you will come away feeling confident that when we tell you that, quite frequently, the most talented person in the room does not win the role, we are speaking the truth.

Volunteer to work with casting directors once in awhile. Soak up everything you can about the experience and pack that into your actor bag as well. The metaphorical one. Keep the physical actor bag stocked with headshots.


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/000141.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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