Knowing Your Casting: At the Heart of a Professional Acting Career
The Casting Director scrolls past hundreds of pictures on their computer screen, eyes scanning across whole pages of business card sized headshots in just seconds, before mousing to the next page, and repeating the process, hunting for a face to pop off the screen and hopefully solve their problem.
Here’s a key truth. They’re not looking for actors; their challenge is specific: they are looking for the person described in a paragraph in breakdowns, the character they are holding in their mind’s eye, without being sure themselves what that character looks like… they’ll “know it when they see it.” Top Casting Directors are uniquely gifted at this craft, as most successful shows prove. They initially choose the actors we fall in love with. Your job is to help them, by showing them you are a potential solution to their problem. CD’s recieve well over 1000 submissions PER ROLE for most television projects. You must set yourself solidly apart from the pack.
What are you to do as an actor, to be among the few that “pop” and get your headshot clicked on and enlarged, then hopefully be called in? “Just be you, open, honest, and… well, “yourself?” That used to be the way much of the industry worked. In today’s highly competitive and saturated markets however, “personality driven” shots simply tip the odds in the wrong direction.
The smartest choice for a professional actor is first, to KNOW your casting. Have several different shots that “lean” into the most hirable aspects of your brand, so when your agent or manager submits you, or you self-submit, you provide a shot that immediately sets you apart from the thousands of generic “just me” submissions. I’ve had many actors show me their new headshot and ask “what types do you see me playing?” I cringe every time… you MUST know the answer to that question BEFORE you invest in headshots, because that answer must be in the picture.
How do you know your casting? Hopefully your life experiences and self-knowledge give you some clues. But here’s the hard part… it’s not about how you see yourself, not about what parts you want to play. It’s about how strangers who just meet you, are most likely to perceive you.
SAG has an invaluable branding workshop that is designed to facilitate actionable answers to this crucial question. They hand out a lengthy and detailed questionnaire to a room full of people, which begins with a series of adjectives written in columns, under the heading “essence,” meaning how does this person “feel” to you, just by looking at them?
They then invite actors to sit in a chair in front of the room, say only their name, and then the moderator has everyone tick off the boxes. “Approachable, intellectual, trustworthy, intimidating, romantic, suburban, friendly, artistic, reliable, earthy, wholesome,” the list is four full pages long.
The questionnaire begins with core characteristics, not job descriptions. However, the next section builds upon that “core essence” personality foundation, and is headlined “Stereotypes,” “they could portray the typical…” and then lists such vocations as “scientist, paramedic, CEO, prostitute, realtor, therapist, etc. Again, there are pages of widely varied descriptor to tick off. At the workshop’s end, participants have a treasure-trove of real insight as to their most likely casting.
You cannot effectively do this work with friends, co-workers or people who have formed opinions or a set of perceptions about you. You also can’t meaningfully accomplish this process AFTER you’ve had headshots taken, it’s your essence in person that matters, not what a specific photographer captured, particularly if you weren’t clear on your casting when you shot.
The best place to undertake this process? An acting class, a good workshop, and early on, before classmates have seen your work, or listened to you during critiques or on breaks. You are in class, right? Right?
You can also find a professional actor headshot photographer like myself, who has meaningful industry experience and specializes in the branding and casting analysis process as part of your pre-shoot consultation, but that is far from the usual photographer skill-set. If you’ve recently signed with management or an agent, this is a crucial conversation to have with them early on.
Are you on the same page with them as to your core casting? Do they see things you haven’t, and do you really do need new shots to clearly convey that casting?
Finally, are you watching current television and films critically, as a professional actor? I’m still surprised by the number of actors I ask about a specific show or film and they tell me they don’t watch television much. What? I’m not talking about being entertained, I Love Lucy reruns, I’m talking about studying for the jobs you want, targeting Casting Directors who work those shows! You need at minimum a passing familiarity with ALL the current shows you want to be on, what actors are booking them, and what agents represent those actors. (more on that in my next blog.)
Once you dial in your casting, you need to find the actors on those shows who are playing your parts. See what they’re wearing on screen, how they’re styled by hair and makeup. Now you have some great inspiration for wardrobing and crafting the looks you’re going after in your next session.
Do this foundational work with passion, honesty and discipline, capture your casting in superb professional headshots that stops the Casting Director’s scrolling, and gets your phone ringing instead.