Thursday, November 29, 2012

The actor headshot dilemma

It's that time of year again when I update my headshots.  Conventional wisdom and advice from the experts has it that actors should stick to simple clothes in solid colors, wear minimal makeup and jewelry, and leave the background blank or very soft.  I have generally followed that advice for the past three years while I was trying to figure out what my "type" was, but I find it too limiting.  For one thing, sticking to "rules" tends to homogenize actors into a bland sameness.  The idea is to stand out in that auditor's stack of headshots, not blend in.  For another, with me at least, it often makes me look like a soccer mom, and that's too young and not my type.

This year I went to Ken Arnold over in Baltimore.  Ken is a talented and busy actor who does headshots and demo reels on the side.  He didn't pose me (which makes me tense) and he let me wear whatever I felt was right for me and that I felt comfortable in.  My "type," as I'm finally figuring out, is a classic and often elegant older woman.  I can play senators, judges, attorneys, and socialites, or I can downscale with no makeup to working-class immigrants.  But I miss that wholesome, suburban, middle ground.

So I broke a few rules and kept a few others.  I wore a solid color sweater, but in bright blue.  I wore jewelry.  I wore coats, gloves, and patterned scarves. I wore my usual makeup, which I did myself.  My thought is that an actor's headshot should match whatever he or she looks like when they walk in the door to audition.  For me, this is indeed what I look like.

Ken gave me more than 250 proofs, which I winnowed down to 73, then to 20, and then to these 8.  I need a comedy shot, and general or placeholder shot, and a character shot.  I may go back to the 250 and have one more look, because I'm wondering if I need at least one with more of a toothy smile.  But this is a good start.  I like the pearls.  I like the black & white scarves and red gloves.  These things are part of what is uniquely me.  This is the way I dress.  And I very much like the backgrounds.  They give the shots context.

Now I have to choose.  I'll be looking for those that convey something in the eyes - a laugh, a thought.  And then we'll see how they play over the next year.  So far, photo #4 is my favorite, maybe because it looks like it could have been taken on set.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Actor networking underscored

Aha! I no sooner post on networking than theatrical producer John Essay publishes a column in Backstage that underscores what I said. Here's the money quote:

"You need to be available for discovery. A buried treasure is hard to discover unless you know to look in the general vicinity it is located. Make yourself available. Go to plays, movies, and industry parties. Taking classes will allow you to be seen by others who may be helpful to you on your way to success."

Mr. Essay doesn't give it all away (be wants to guide people to his website after all). You'll find more detail in my post below.  Still, it's nice to see someone make the same point.

Stand out in the crowd
By the way, I went to a workshop last night presented by a famous acting coach. Of the 60 or so actors in the audience, only three were wearing what I would call a signature look. Everyone else was dressed in dark colors and jeans, and half of them (men and women) were wearing similar dark-framed glasses. It could have been any crowd at a hockey game.

Every actor should package themselves in a way that sets them apart. It won't get you that role in the TV show or stage production, but it may get you noticed in the crowd and that's a step in the right direction.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Actor Networking Dos and Don'ts

I've been watching Directors: Life Behind the Camera, made in cooperation with the American Film Institute. The producers interviewed a long list of big name directors who talk about the art of filmmaking and their own careers in film. The first section is "you have to start somewhere," and what jumped out at me is how few of them said that they first went to film school to learn to direct. Not that there's anything wrong with going to film school, a good film school is terrific for teaching young filmmakers what they need to know, it's just that most of them started out on a different career path altogether. Then they fell into some aspect of filmmaking on the periphery and then....they met someone! And that meeting put them on the path to making movies.

What it underscored for me is the importance of getting out where you can meet others in the business and where they can actually see you and talk to you (which they can't do on Facebook or LinkedIn no matter how often you post something or "like" someone's project). Getting out and meeting people is referred to as "networking," and actors get a lot of advice on how to do that, usually involving dropping your card on someone in the business or sending them your headshot/résumé.  Let me suggest a few ideas more likely to work, and some things to avoid. Understand that all of these work together, so the more you adopt the more likely you are to succeed.

DO Remember That You're Auditioning Every Moment of Your Life: You never know who you are talking to or who is observing you. A new writer at my day job in Washington turned out to be the father of an executive producer at Temple Hill Entertainment, which makes the gazillion-grossing Twilight films. I met the father of TV screenwriter David Wilcox in an Alexandria, Virginia, McDonald's (I was reading a book on acting and he stopped to chat.) An actor I met working on an industrial turned out to be the son of Sidney Blackmer, one of the stars of the old horror film Rosemary's Baby. The point here: always look your best, be on your best behavior, and let everyone you meet know that you're an actor.  You never know what connections they may have.

DON'T Discuss Politics or Religion: Or post on it to the Internet. There's a scene in Casablanca where Humphrey Bogart excuses himself from a table, saying "Gentlemen, your business is politics, mine is running a saloon." Well, an actor's business is acting, not public policy or proselytizing.  All your friends may agree with you, but the director important to your career may not.  You won't know. Talk about film and stage work and keep your other views private.

Film Festival
DO Attend Gatherings Where You'll Meet Others in the Business: Film festivals certainly, but also workshops, union meetings, special screenings, holiday parties.  Be complimentary.  Stay sober. This Fall I've been trying to attend more SAG-AFTRA union meetings and small-group SAG-AFTRA workshops. The workshops are free, give everyone a chance to stand at the front of the room at some point, and are usually led by someone better known in the business than I am. It's an opportunity to meet other people in a relaxed environment.  If you make an impression, they'll know how to get in touch.

DO Develop a Unique Image: If an actor friend needed to point you out to a big-name director across a crowded room, how would he describe you?  Michael Caine, early in his career, adopted black, large-frame glasses and a cigar, so he was "that tall, blond guy with the glasses and the cigar." I'm "that tall brunette in the bright blue sweater and pearls." It doesn't have to be odd - it can be a color or article of clothing or style of dressing - but it does have to make you stand out, hopefully in a way that relates to your type.  Which leads to the next point...

DON'T Get in the Habit of Wearing a Three-Day Beard: Actors with short, dark hair and a three-day growth of beard are ubiquitous in Hollywood.  That look makes a male undistinguishable from hundreds of others.  Bad move.

DO Look Like a Star: Television casting director Geoffrey Soffer made this point at a workshop I attended last year. People in the business who meet you are not just considering you for a role, they're also wondering if your presence will help sell the film and how you'll look and sound at all those interviews and promotional events you'll be expected to participate in.  Don't arrive at an audition in cutoffs and flip-flops. If you're a woman, don't show up at a public gathering with no make-up and wearing an ill-fitting bra or head-to-toe spandex.  I've seen all of that and worse.

DO Develop a Reputation for Being Easy to Work With:  As the saying goes, arrive on time, know your lines, and be nice to the crew. Ask what more you can do to help make the film a success.  Can you help find a location? Can you provide props? Can you give someone a ride to the location? On large productions you can't be as helpful without stepping on union toes, but you can always say "Yes, I'll come in early, work late, work all night. Please, do as many takes as you need. And, yes, I'll be there for the premiere and any promotional events you have planned."  If you establish a reputation for being easy to work with, directors remember you and may ask for you again. (Be wary of doing any risky stunts, however, especially in the last few days of filming.)

Consider working in student films
DO Consider Working in Student Films: Film students not only know and understand the process of making a film but they also arrive with a ton of expensive equipment - lights, sound, monitors, big cameras - which raises the odds that you'll get a good clip for your reel. They also have great contacts in the film industry.

DON'T Throw Headshots at People: Especially in public places, since they won't have any place to put them.  If they seem interested in you based on your thorough knowledge of their work, ask them if you can send a headshot/résumé and then get their card.

DO Become a Valuable Resource: Become a "go-to" resource for filmmakers. Think of some way you or your contacts can help their project. Put them in touch with someone who can provide a production-related service that they need. Suggest a terrific actor who doesn't directly compete with you. When I'm cast in a film or play, I save the contact information for all of the cast and crew into my IPhone with a note about the production and each person's role. Later if I see something they'd be great for, I make sure they know about it. I send them the posting or put them in contact with the director.  If a director asks for suggestions for filling a role, I can usually come up with 6-8 actors that fit the age-range and type they're looking for.

DO Get to Know Your Crew: The great actress Joan Crawford was on a first-name basis with all of the guys in the crew and reportedly treated them better than she treated her kids! There's a reason for this: (1) they make you look good on camera and (2) they have great contacts. People who crewed a student film I did three years ago are now working on major motion pictures. Remember their names. Stay in touch.

DO Share the Glory: This is where you practice your Oscar acceptance speech. If you post a screenshot from your latest film online, be sure to identify all of the actors in the shot.  If a film you were in wins an award, spread the word, but remember to mention and praise the writer, director, and stars. If you post about it, include links to the production company and all major players. A lot of people in the business subscribe to Google Alerts that notify them when their name is mentioned online, so they'll see it.  Actors who are always "me, me, me" are off putting and self-limiting.

DO Remember to Use Your Notecards Effectively: Yes, use them to tell the casting agency what you've been up to, but also use them to say Thank You, compliment someone on an award, pass along a contact, etc.  They are note cards; write notes!

DO Remember to Say "Thank You":  Thank the writer, thank the director, thank members of the crew.  When casting agency people put me in a film, even if it's just background, I follow up afterwards with a thank you note and a paragraph telling them how it went.  You'd be surprised how few people say thank you.  Just doing that will set you apart.


DO Remember What It Is You're Selling: Yourself, as an actor. About 75 percent of union actors need a side job to make ends meet. But if you're using your acting contact list to sell a product or service, you're not an actor, you're a retailer. You get the picture. Stay focused on your goal.  I write to make money, but I write under a different name and keep my contacts completely separate.

These are just a few ideas I've picked up over the years.  I'm sure there are many more tips out there on how actors can connect.  If you have one you'd like to share, please send it along.

The Story of Bella comes together

Finally saw a cut of The Story of Bella, which I did with Nora Achrati and Stephen Rutledge for R.M. and Jonathan Robinson (The Robinson Brothers' Indiego Blue Studio) in Baltimore more than a year ago. It's still only for private viewing, but they gave it a very imaginative treatment as part of a feature called The Shadows of Strangers, a compilation of short stories about the love, jealousy, revenge, and betrayal (all the good stuff.) These are talented guys (which reminds me that I need to start a list of up-and-coming young filmmakers, because I've seen quite a few.)  Anyway, here's a screenshot and what I look like with no make-up and harsh lighting on the third day of filming in an airless Baltimore rowhouse in 90-degree heat.

Kathryn Browning and Stephen Rutledge in The Story of Bella

Monday, November 5, 2012

Making it through another open call audition

God, I hate this: 132 actors, each with exactly two minutes to convince 45 casting agents, directors, and producers that they're worth a second look. Everyone's nerves are on edge.  Some actors pace.  Some mouth their monologue and gesture to the wall. The veterans lean back in their chairs and close their eyes and hope their hearts stop pounding.

A few years ago when they staged a revival of A Chorus Line on Broadway, they put out an open call for cast.  More than 3,000 actors showed up in a line that stretched for blocks.  The auditions went on for months as the director winnowed the applicants down.  The actors kept coming back and coming back and giving it their all.  I caught that show. It was fantastic. But for all they went through, I can't recall the name of a single member of the cast.  Another reason it's tough to work on Broadway.

This line was not that long. They took us in in groups of 20 or so, all types, all ages. In my group there was one lovely little girl of 9 or 10 with long brown hair whose little knees were knocking together so hard.  I wanted to put my arms around her and tell her she was going to do wonderfully well, but I doubted somehow that my words would sound sufficiently convincing. As it was I just tried to smile at her reassuringly.  I do hope she was there because she desperately wants to be an actress.  She was such a sweet-looking little thing.  There should be a rule that children go first, so they don't have to suffer so.

How did I do?  Okay, despite my own knees feeling decidedly wobbly. It is rare that I wow myself - I'm much too tough a critic for that - but I did okay.  I looked fabulous.  We'll see if something comes of it.  Fingers crossed.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

A better take on Anna Karenina

There's a full-page ad for Keira Knightley's Anna Karenina in today's New York Times.  I never cared for Tolstoy's story.  I remember reading it years ago and thinking the title character was a foolish addle-brain who was married to a perfectly decent man, blamed everyone else for the muddle she made of her life, and took far too long to finally throw herself under the train.  I somehow doubt that this version is going to change my mind.

a.k.a. One Woman's Story
But I saw a 1949 British film on television some time back that was a new and much more satisfying twist on the same story.  I was so enchanted I bought it.  The film is called The Passionate Friends and was released in the United States under the title One Woman's Story.  It stars Claude Rains as the husband and Ann Todd as the silly wife, straddling the fence between a secure if predictable life and a marvelous romance (that exists largely in her head as it turns out) with a professor, played by Trevor Howard (who was such a rock-solid actor in so many films.)

The ending is wonderful.  The fantasy romance becomes a public scandal (remember those?)  Todd realizes the professor actually doesn't love her, he loves his wife, and she has now put his life in turmoil. Claude Rains tells her off, says he doesn't want her anymore, then recants, says she's wounded him to the core, and that he loves her dearly.  But before he gets to that last point, she has slipped out of the room. In a daze and feeling rejected and ashamed (remember that?), she staggers down a darkened street and into an underground subway station.  She is clearly going to throw herself under the train.  She teeters, the toes of her shoes on the edge of the platform.  There's a rush of wind as the train emerges from the tunnel, she closes her eyes and begins to fall forward....and Claude Rains catches her in his arms.

Hey! It's a chick flick!

I'm watching The Ides of March this evening and doing a bit of on-line research for the short film that I'm shooting next weekend.  But after that I think I'll sit back and watch The Passionate Friends.  I like romance....

Daniel Day-Lewis on playing Lincoln

I'm off today to a gem and jewelry show and an elegant lunch at a posh hotel....a rare treat.  But before I go I want to mention a terrific article in today's New York Times on Daniel Day-Lewis and his role in Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, which was shot down in Richmond, Virginia, last fall. (Being neither male nor petite, I had not the slimmest chance at a part, but a few of my actor friends had roles.)

Daniel Day-Lewis
The article is "Abe Lincoln as You've Never Heard Him," and it reveals Day-Lewis' total immersion technique for getting in character.  It is fascinating.  He begins with a ton of reading to develop a foundation for the role, particularly if it's a biographical film, as this one is.  But then he works to become so in-character that he can allow himself to believe for a time that he is, in fact, that person.  He doesn't go out of character during the many weeks of filming, and sometimes for a period afterward.

If any actor has the guts to try it, I think it's a do-able approach that can add a great deal of depth to a performance.  You just have to be prepared to warn the other cast members in advance (so they don't start chatting you up about last night's hockey game) and to put up with snickers from the crew.  But the payoff could be a jaw-dropping performance.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Choosing your acting resources

David Suchet quoting Stanislavsky: If you speak any lines or do anything mechanically without fully realizing who you are, where you come from, why, what you want , where you are going, and what you will do when you get there you will be acting without imagination.

Or, what is your motivation.

You must listen to the words and understand the feelings of other characters. Be specific. Understand where the emotion is coming from.  Make your response fresh.

I am watching this evening John Barton and the Royal Shakespeare Company in Playing Shakespeare, a set of four 1984 DVDs available through Netflix, which I have just put on my Wish List for Christmas.  It's wonderful just listening to the discussion and watching such incredible actors - Ben Kingsley, Ian McKellan, Judi Dench, Patrick Stewart, Suchet, and a host of others - in a workshop that I could never afford to attend in person. An actor is learning his craft constantly.  But you can spend hundreds – no, thousands – of dollars on local workshops and classes given by far lesser lights than Royal Shakespeare who take those same few lines above and stretch them into 6 weeks of pure muddle.

So why do we do that when there is such a rich trove of resources on DVD and in books?  I have begun to question that.