1. KNOW WHAT AN AGENT DOES
Why do you even need an agent? Because agents are the gatekeepers to the people who hire you for TV, film, and commercials — the casting directors (CDs) and producers. In return for helping you find work, your agent will receive 10% of your paychecks (at least, 10% is the industry standard. Beware of deviant contracts).
There are different types of agents for different types of talent. The main types are theatrical (TV and film) and commercial (for commercials only). There are also dance, print (photos only), voice-over (voice only for TV, film, radio), and legitimate (theater) agents. Your agent may represent you for one or more of these categories. Being with the same agency for everything is called being "signed across the board." Some actors prefer to have different agents for different types of work since certain agencies specialize in certain types of casting, while other actors prefer to have centralized representation.
Agents get information about auditions for roles, either directly from CDs and producers or from an insiders-only fax service called "the breakdowns." The breakdowns is a daily faxed list of roles being cast, and they are available only to agents and managers. There are those enterprising actors who get together in groups and outfox breakdowns into giving them a subscription, but actors are technically not allowed to get breakdowns. But we have no qualms about giving you the website: http://www.breakdownservices.com.
For each role, a CD will receive hundreds to thousands of résumés and headshots, from which they will narrow the field to the amount that they have the time and/or need to audition. There are so many actors vying for so few roles that talent agents act as the first step in the weeding-out process. In this field, where the supply so greatly exceeds the demand, just getting an audition is quite an accomplishment. And to get the audition, you need an agent. Get it? Got it? Good.
2. GET AN 8 X 10 PHOTO AND RESUME
The first tools that you will need are an 8 x 10 photo and résumé. (It is also helpful if you have a "demo reel," which is a short video of clips of your work, but don't worry about this if you are just getting started.) Your photo (a.k.a. headshot) and résumé have specific professional guidelines. The photo is definitely the actor's most important marketing tool, so let's discuss this first.
Get a great photo
Know your type. This is the first step in getting great photos. People need to know what they're getting when they call you in to audition. So, if you are not a model-type, please do not get glamorous headshots. But if you are gorgeous, let the viewer know. Likewise, if you are nerdy, don't try to be slick and all put together in your photo. There are plenty of roles for nerdy types, so just be yourself. To get an idea of your type, watch TV and movies for roles that you think you could have played. Ask your friends, family, fellow actors, and your acting coach how they see you being cast. (The most effective way to get straight answers on this, and the scariest, is to ask complete strangers. One Los Angeles area acting coach has his students pair up and go to the airport and to shopping centers with surveys on how people perceive them.) Ask yourself things like: Are you upscale or downscale in terms of how classy you look? What is the five year age range of roles you could play? Do you have a regional or ethnic flavor to your style? How cool and attractive are you? How innocent or worldly are you? Are you a good guy or a bad guy? A great photo will answer all of these questions!
Get photographer referrals from fellow actors whose photos you like. Compare prices and packages (some will let you keep the negatives, some won't). Look at their book of sample photos before hiring them. Yes, it is their best stuff, but it can be revealing if it is not what you want. Look at lighting in his their shots—make sure the eyes are lit, preferably with a single point of light. And look for personality and relaxation in the sample photos. If you don't know any other actors, then try purchasing The Working Actors' Guide. This is available in LA and NYC editions at Samuel French theatrical bookstores. It is updated every year and lists everything that an actor needs to know, including photographers in your area.
Get your photos taken in the market you want to work. LA photos are different from NY photos are different from San Francisco and Chicago photos. Each city goes through different trends in photos at different times. Currently, natural light and unconventional layouts are popular in LA, but that may not be the case in other markets. So if you're sitting in Denver with a bus ticket to Hollywood or Broadway, wait until you get there to get your photos taken.
Get a commercial shot and a theatrical shot. This just means that one shot will be used for casting commercials, and the other for film, theater and TV. Conventional wisdom has held that the commercial shot should be smiley, and the theatrical shot more serious, but this is an oversimplification. For both types of shots, think about how you will be cast and tailor the photo to that image. It is a good idea to have more than two shots, just for variety. In the meantime, get one great photo reproduced for your agency search.
Write your résumé
Attach you photo back-to-back with an 8 x 10 résumé with staples neatly in each corner, or get résumés professionally printed on the back of your photos. Your résumé will have your name at the top, then the names of any actors' unions to which you belong. A voice mail or message service phone number should be prominent so that the agents will know how to contact you (this will eventually be replaced with an agency logo, if we've done our job). Your height, weight, eye and hair colors come next. Below that, begin listing your credits, or the things that you've acted in (extra work doesn't count). If you have any film experience, that comes first under the heading "Film." Television credits are next on the page, followed by Theater, Training and Education, and finally Special Skills (e.g., trick rollerblading, world champion bobsledder, certified lifeguard). Look at sample résumés online at http://www.castnet.com, or ask other actors or your acting coach for tips on layout. Once you have an agent, he or she will probably have specific layout preferences. Don't stress too much about the résumé if you are just getting started. Agencies are much more concerned with your look and your personality than your experience or your talent.
3. LOCATE REPUTABLE AGENTS IN YOUR AREA
Here's the nitty-gritty: you only want an agent who is franchised by the actors' unions. This means that they have an official agreement with the union to get you legitimate jobs and to pay you your due. It also means that you can complain to the union if they don't, and the union will help straighten things out. Your agent should be at least franchised with SAG (Screen Actors Guild), and preferably also with AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) and AEA (Actors Equity Association, for theater actors).
To get a list of franchised agents, contact your local SAG branch, or visit them on the web, for a complimentary list of franchised agents in your area. Agency lists can also be purchased at Samuel French or from Breakdowns in LA and NYC. Bear in mind that these are the major markets, meaning that the vast majority of work is in these two cities. One half of the 98,000 actors in the Screen Actors Guild live in LA, one third in NYC, and the rest in secondary markets. There is also a living to be made as an actor in secondary markets like Chicago and San Francisco, but if you're in Fargo, Boise, or Chattanooga, there probably isn't a legitimate talent agency on Main Street. You can still get an agent in the nearest major city with a SAG branch, IF AND ONLY IF you are completely willing and available to commute to that market for auditions with just one day's notice.
Books and pamphlets listing agency descriptions are available at Samuel French, agencies' clients lists are available through SAG, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Players Directory is a wonderful resource because it is full of actors' headshots with a note as to which agency they are with. But the best way to figure out which agent to target is to network with your flighty actor friends about their representation. Get the scoop on an agency by talking to as many of their clients as possible.
4. SUBMIT, SHOWCASE, AND NETWORK
Now you have your list of potential agents narrowed down, so how do you get them to meet with you? The most common (and most difficult) way to get an agent is to submit your headshot and résumé, unsolicited, by mail. The VAST majority of these photos end up trashed. Most will sit in a stack for weeks or months before they are even opened. Timing is everything for unsolicited submissions. For commercial agents, casting and taking on new clients is a constant, year-round process. But for theatrical agents, the best time to look for an agent is during the summer hiatus, when television casting is extremely slow because shows are in reruns. The worst time of year to look for an agent is during pilot season, when TV casting is busiest. Pilot season is loosely early January to late February.
Your submission should include your stunning 8 x 10 photo, your résumé printed or stapled on the back, and a brief cover letter. Avoid giving your home number or address (you never know who will see this, especially if it does end up in the trash) so give a pager, voice mail, or calling service number instead. These should go out in a manila envelope, closed with the brads but not sealed. You can actually buy ready-printed agency address labels from breakdown services, or from our friend Samuel French. These will make your life much easier, but again — save time, dough, and effort by using targeted mailings.
Another way to meet agents is to do paid agent or industry showcases. These usually involve preparing a scene or monologue and paying a company to perform it for agents that they bring in. These showcase companies can be found in The Working Actors' Guide. These are great because they usually cost about thirty bucks a pop, and you already get the agent to look at you and your work. You can also ask them questions about their agency, the industry, and basically all around schmooze. Like mass mailings, showcases are most cost-effective when you target a smaller group of agents.
Finally, the most effective way to get an agency interview is to get a personal referral. This is often through your acting coach. But it may also be through your half-aunt's brother-in-law's college roommate's daughter. You should explore all possible leads and industry contacts. If a connection is tenuous, ask your potential contact to take a brief informational interview with you. Take that person to coffee or lunch, or ask them to take a short phone meeting so that you might pick their mind about the biz. This is a lot more polite than calling someone whom you do not know, or barely know, and asking them to pull strings for you. And this informational interview, if played right, will lead to the sort of help that you need.
As you go about your networking, you must start a file of industry contacts. This is so you can keep track of who you talked to and what you talked to them about, so you don't make a fool of yourself in case you meet them again. Also subscribe to Dramalogue/Backstage, and buy the actors' bible, The Working Actors' Guide. Keeping track of what's going on in the industry will be key. It also couldn't hurt to read Variety every once in a while.
5. ACE YOUR INTERVIEW
This part is pretty self-explanatory. When an agency calls you for an interview, it is up to you to be on time, be delightfully charismatic, and to look like a million bucks. Look like your photo, by the way, so they don't say "who the hell is this joker?" when you walk in the door. You will usually be asked to prepare a monologue. Get help on your monologue from an acting coach to make sure you don't suck. You will also be asked to do a cold-reading, (which means that you will be asked to read a scene that they give you "cold," or unprepared). Finally, be prepared with some interesting, funny stories about your background so you can charm their pants off and appear to be extemporaneously witty.
Don't forget that the interview is your chance to interview the agent, as well. Ask them how many clients they have, and what jobs those clients are doing. How many actors of your type do they represent? What do they see as your type, and how will they be submitting you? What do they expect you to do at your end of the relationship? When and how should you contact them with questions and concerns? What do they think of your current photo? (By the way, they won't like it — every agent makes you get new photos, but beware the agent who only wants you to use a specific photographer as this is a red flag of the shady, unethical kickback situation. Union franchised agents should give you a choice of recommended photographers.) Does the agency have any other recommendations for you in terms of image and career development?
They will usually, but not always, offer you representation on the spot at the end of the interview if they are interested. Do not panic if they don't; if you are not a member of the actors' union, and sometimes even if you are, an agency will hip-pocket you. This means that they are representing you on a trial basis, and by oral agreement rather than signing you to the written SAG contract. If they do offer to represent you, you can either accept or (more wisely) express your enthusiasm but tell them that you still have a few more appointments and that you will be in touch soon. Even if this is not true, it will put you in a good position and will give you time to think about the offer outside the pressure of the interview.
6. CHOOSE YOUR AGENT
For those who have already tried to get an agent, you realize that this heading is a joke. See, usually an agent chooses YOU, not the other way around. But in the rare instance that more than one agent is interested in representing you right off the bat, there are a few things to look for when deciding between them.
One important quality in an agent is the amount of power he or she has. A powerful agent has influence, lots of good industry relationships, and other clients who are in demand. Ideally, you will be represented by an agent whose agency logo and own name carry a certain cachet. But this takes time — often years — so hang in there!
Based on your interview, you should have a general vibe from your agent and his or her office. Is he or she excited about you? Do you feel that he or she will fight for you? If this is your first agent, you must also remember that he or she may not be the most powerful agent in town, but you should still get a good feeling when you interview. The office may be small, but is it well-organized? Your agent may not be friendly, but do you trust the agent? You may not get a ton of auditions, but does your agent submit you? (You'll know how often you are submitted by how often he or she needs more photos and résumés from you.) Your agent can be, but is usually not, your friend. After all, this is show business, not show friends. But you don't want an agent whom you can't stand, either.
Meshing of minds
The last main criterion for choosing an agent is that your agent see you the same way that you see yourself. If you think you're a wholesome "girl-next-door" type, and your agent is sending you on auditions for middle-aged, trailer trash, alcoholic hookers, something is wrong. You won't get the job and the CDs will be pissed that everyone's time was wasted. (By the way, before you blame your agent, make sure that you are a girl-next-door type and not trailer trash by taking the steps described under "know your type" in Step 2, and make sure that your photo is an accurate representation of that type.)
Listen, if you don't have an agent after the first big attempt, join the club. This is tough stuff, especially if you are not eighteen and gorgeous. So stick with it, resubmit in three months, all the while continuing to pursue that ever-elusive yet invaluable personal referral. So ask every industry person you meet for a business card. Schmooze. Follow up with people. Bug them until they say yes, yes, yes! Join the fabulous actors' online service Castnet in LA, which keeps your headshot and résumé online for casting directors, and offers many actor resources. Remember that your dream to become a star, or at least a working actor, involves years of financial and personal sacrifices. But if you're any good at all, your hard work may pay off eventually.
When you do get an agent (as we pray you will), realize that your having an agent means you will probably be auditioning soon, so BE PREPARED. Now that you finally have an agent, you must NOT sit on your ass and wait for the phone to ring. More than ever you must continue to market yourself! Your agent has two hundred other clients.
We leave you with the parting reminder that 95% of all actors are unemployed, so be prepared for an uphill battle. You might become a Scientologist, sleep with a famous director or producer, or win the lottery and produce your own film. But if all else fails, we hear they're interviewing for the role of "WAITER" at a restaurant down the street…