A terrific resource on the LA actor’s experience is An Agent Tells All by Tony Martinez, a long-time pro in the Los Angeles market. You can get it in hard copy or for Kindle and I recommend it highly. It makes sense and Chapters 7 and 8 speak specifically to this issue of getting an agent. You’ll find much more information there, including how to handle the all-important agent interview.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
What to send: If you don’t have a referral, then you’re doing a blind mailing. You’ll want to include your headshots (I send mine unretouched), résumé (you can find appropriate formats online or in Martinez’ book), and a short, typed cover letter addressed to a specific agent (keep it professional).
Also include a demo reel with five minutes or less of your best acting in roles in which you are frequently cast. I send mine as separate clips identified as drama or comedy, rather than run them all together. Many agents will tell you not to send a demo, because if they’re interested they’ll ask for one. But Martinez points out that if the DVD is on his desk he’ll take a peek. Again, don’t second-guess the agent. If one picture is worth a thousand words, a clip of good acting is worth even more and gives the best example of what you actually look and sound like. An agent can always toss it in the round file if he/she is adamant about not looking at unsolicited demos.
That’s all you need. No gimmicks, no gourmet food baskets, no touting yourself as the next Meryl Streep/Tom Cruise. Avoid cuteness in the cover letter. This is a business. The only reason for taking you on as a client is if you have earnings potential. So ask yourself what kind of information the agent needs to determine your marketability. For example, in what kind of roles are you typically cast? You might point that out in the cover letter.
Where to send it: You’ve got your headshots, you’ve compiled a respectable list of film, television, and theater credits, and you’ve got clips you’re proud to show. Now you’re ready to start submitting your material to agencies. But which agencies? Not every agency is suited to your specific type and goals.
SAGAFTRA posts a list to their website of union-franchised agencies all over the country, often with coded indicators as to what kind of performers they’re looking to represent (children, adults, comedians, ethnic types, etc.) or projects for which they’re frequently submitting (commercials, daytime drama, foreign/international, and so on). Start your search there.
Another strategy is to make a list of strong supporting actors who are in your age range, but not the same type (you don’t want to be in conflict with an established client). Look up each one on IMDb. Are they getting more work? What kind? How often? If you’re impressed with what you see, find out who represents them (if you've subscribed to IMDbPro you'll see the agency). Note the agency’s ratio of clients to agents; more than a hundred or so could be a red flag. This is a business for them AND for you. You want an agent who has the time to work with you to build a lucrative career for you both.
Referrals: If you can get a referral to an agent, open your cover letter with that. It has to be genuine because the agent will check. It can be a referral from those inside or outside of the business as long as they know the agent personally. It can be a referral from the agent’s assistant, if you two have developed a friendly relationship. Martinez says that a referral from an acting teacher only counts if the teacher is willing to pick up the phone and call; in other words, put their reputation on the line for you. If they’re not willing to do that, leave teacher referrals off. That makes sense to me.
When to submit: Tony Martinez says agents are always looking for new faces, but the best months to make contact are April, May, and June, after Pilot Season when agents are catching their breath and looking for new faces to fill holes in their client base. Avoid December, he says. Not only are people distracted by the holidays but they’re beginning to look ahead to Pilot Season and what that will entail.
Send out 5 headshot packages a week (one a day) until you sign with an agent. Again, be sure to address your materials to a specific agent by name. Here's why: I - like most actors - get spammed from time to time with emails from small agencies saying they’ve seen my clips on Actors Access (or some other site), they loved what they saw, and they’d like to have me come in to discuss representation. If the email doesn't open with “Dear Kathryn” I delete it. An agent feels the same way.
So, yes, address your materials package to a specific agent if you want someone to actually look at it. If you don’t get a response within four to five weeks, feel free to then send your materials to a different agent at that same agency. Never to more than one agent at the same agency at the same time.
What helps to set you apart: A professional attitude (positive, friendly, cooperative, workmanlike) and a unique look that people remember. You don’t have to be drop-dead gorgeous or have rippling muscles to be a successful actor. Consider that Mark Rolston, Zeljko Ivanek, Jayne Atkinson, Roma Maffia, and thousands of others who don't look like Julia Roberts or Chris Pine nevertheless have fantastic acting careers.
Another thing that helps is comedy experience, particularly ensemble sketch comedy and Improv, because these showcase your acting skills and how you work with others. There’s lots of work for someone who can make people laugh, so if you’ve got it, flaunt it.
What to do while waiting to be signed? Keep building your experience and sending out résumés. If an agent says no but stay in touch, then STAY IN TOUCH! Send regular updates on the work you’re doing. Don’t assume he/she is just brushing you off. Their needs may change over time, and you will doubtless be getting better.
If an agent just says no, consider that there are lots of reasons why an agent may pass on you that are unrelated to your acting ability. Your age, type, and experience may not be in sync with what the agency is casting at the moment. They may already have too many actors on their rolls who are similar to you (which is why you research an agency and its client base first). There may be little chemistry between you and the agent (hey, not everybody clicks), in which case try another agent at that same agency.
Believe in your talent. Legend has it that an agent once brushed off a potential client, saying “Who’s gonna hire a 4 ft. 11-inch character actor?” A reasonable thing to ask you say, unless of course the young actor is Danny DeVito.
That agent lost A LOT of money.
An Agent Tells All. It’s a gold mine of useful and important information.