Tuesday, March 8, 2011
In the Beginning
I am not famous. Not yet anyway. I'm not making boat loads of money working in film. Not yet. But, I have worked on a lot of crazy projects, been in a lot of great situations and done a lot of things in the film industry that more than a few people find impressive. That, and I've made a lot of mistakes along the way getting to where I am (some of them I continue to make). So, the hope is here, that if you want to be an actor and you don't want to rush out to Los Angeles to do so, you can learn a couple things from my successes and failures.
Why am I sharing this? Well for one, I like helping people achieve their dreams. I've started to get asked by a lot of people, "How do I break into this business?". It's a heck of a lot easier to give people a link to a site, than to have the same 45 minute conversation over and over again and worry that I've forgotten some key piece of information. I'm also curious about writing a book about the subject and seeing who's interested. I like to write and I like making money doing things that I like to do. So, if I can get enough hits on this site to bring in advertising, then I can help people AND get paid for it, which is even better.
"Who am I?". Why should you listen to me? Well, I'll go into the nitty gritty details as I go along, but as an overview, in my life, I've been a published author in a pretty decent sized magazine (InQuest Gamer), I've been a military officer with a brief stint in Afghanistan, I'm a father of two beautiful girls and the husband of an amazingly talented, intelligent and beautiful woman. But the part you are probably most interested in is, "Why should I listen to this guy talk about acting"? Well I could tell you, or I could just show you.
Here is my resume on imdb. Most notably, I had smaller roles on "Transformers", "GI Joe: Rise of Cobra" and on USA's "In Plain Sight" and the emmy award winning show for AMC, "Breaking Bad". You can see some clips from the stuff I've done here:
My plan is to start at the beginning, with my first film project, "Transformers" and go from there, detailing lessons I learned along the way and describing the cool experiences that make this all worth while. I'll also talk about the hardships and heartache and the misadventures I've had along the way. Some of it might piss people off. I'll try to be as tactful as I can.
To begin with, let me start you out with a few words of wisdom. I think 10 is a good round number, to get you set in the right direction:
1.) If you can think of anything else that you could be doing for a living that would make you happy, do that instead. Not sure where that quote comes from, but it's the God's honest truth. This is a hard road and the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is reserved for a select few. I haven't reached it yet. It's not for the weak at heart. There is a LOT of rejection and a lot of dashed hopes along the way. If you are going to do this, you have to want it with all of your being! Basically, you need to be certifiably insane.
2.) You need experience to get experience. Yep, it's a catch 22. Most of life is. So, how do you build a resume to show people you can actually DO this? College plays, community theater and independent shorts and features are the best way. This means you will be working for free (for the most part). You may luck into a paying gig at this point, but don't count on it. You never know what project is going to get you to that next step. After "Transformers" I couldn't get an agent. Everyone probably assumed it was an extra gig. I got my agent from doing a non-paying role on a direct-to-video film called "Price of the American Dream II". I had no lines, but they needed someone who could shoot a gun safely and in return, they gave me a name in the credits. When I submitted to The Phoenix Agency in Albuquerque, she had already signed a lot of folks who had worked on this film and that got me in the door for a meeting. Crazy, eh?
A note on extra work. I do it. It's a great way to earn money and be a part of the film experience as acting talent. Don't, however, confuse it with acting. You're pretty much a glorified prop. The only people who take it very seriously are people who can't act their way out of a paper bag and have had to turn it into a career. It's fun as heck! The hours are long and the pay is low and there is a lot of waiting, but if you are addicted to the set experience it's worth it. Also, if you don't have any other experience, THIS shows that you have been on set and know how things work. However, if you're one of those guys who try to build a fan base or an imdb resume from your "uncredited" appearances, you're pretty sleazy in my book. Definitely do the extra work, but don't take yourself too seriously for having done it.
3.) PAY for a good headshot from someone who knows what they are doing. Don't have your buddy do it in your living room. Don't get a highschool portrait photographer to knock them out for you. There is an art to it. I can't even explain it. Bottom line is, pay the money. Somewhere between $100 and $300 for decent shots. This is a MUST! It's not an option. You will BOOK roles from this. I booked work on a national NERF commercial off of a headshot alone. It's also a key part of any package you send to anyone. I'll talk more about headshots and some strategies later on.
4.) Take classes. I'm not a fan of acting schools and conservatories and the like. I don't really have the cash to blow on them personally and I'd rather be working than attending classes full time for something I think I'm pretty decent at anyway. That said, there are plenty of great workshops and weekend events that will fit the bill. Particularly, ANY event with a casting director who works in your market. No, it's not a paid audition. It's a chance to meet with a CD in a non-threatening environment and let them get to know you. Of course, if you're an unlikable bastard, this may not be a good option for you. It's worked for me though. I booked roles on "In Plain Sight" and "Breaking Bad" and part of that was because I got to know the casting directors at their workshops.
I've also done some great classes like a fight choreography workshop with the legendary Richard Norton and even acting courses from folks like Lar Park Lincoln, conducted at a horror convention here in the Dallas area last year. Classes are a MUST for your resume. They help you network, help you improve your craft and help you show that you are serious about being an actor.
You can also join improv groups (something I need to do) and join up with a group of other actors to hone your work. My buddy George Katt has a great group called the Indie's Lab up in NYC that is taking off. Great experience and, again, you're building your resume.
5.) Get a reel. Hopefully, some of the experience you got in #2 is on tape! If so, cut yourself a reel. Best bet is to get with a pal who knows about editing and have them craft it for you. I recommend 1 minute. When my agent first told me about the 1 minute reel, I thought she was nuts, but 1 minute shows a bit of what you can do and is short enough where a CD will actually WATCH IT! Nothing says I am about to waste my time like looking at that 7:47 tag on your video length. It may be the best 7:47 second of footage EVER, but if I don't click on that play button, none of it matters. Indy film that doesn't pay should ALWAYS offer free copy or footage. Also, you can stage your own scenes with a filmmaking buddy. Teamwork isn't just something for the Wonder Pets.
6.) Build your talent pool. A lot of gigs are dependent upon an actor bringing some knowledge to the table. Westerns like folks who can ride horses. Action flicks like people who can fight or shoot guns. I've missed out on opportunities lately because I don't know how to play guitar (been on my to do list for way too long). Make a list of all the things you know how to do that set you apart from your peers. My primary "talents" are my ability to do a wide variety of voices and accents, my military background and all that entails and my moderate experience in the martial arts. You may have been a football player or know how to throw pottery. I heard an amazingly funny story from a friend about his pole vaulting experience and a great story from Glenn Moreshower about his vast experience with horseback riding. More on that later.
This is also a great time to make a list of things you wish you knew how to do and start knocking them out. Oh, and stuff like having a passport and travel experience help.
7.) Make your resume! So your resume has a section for bio information, like name and contact info, height weight and the like. It also has a list of all your experience, your training (classes) and your special skills. Whoa, see how I already touched on most of that above. In addition to your resume, your acting package will include your HEADSHOT (whoa again) and your reel (wow!). These are the things that show a CD, a director, an agent or a manager that you know your stuff. I'll touch on formats and style later.
8.) Build your web presence. Get that reel on youtube. If you have film experience, look into imdb pro. imdb.com is THE source for film. You need to be on it and stay current. I learned this on "Transformers". All the behind the scenes folks and actors were telling people to check them out on imdb. The real entertainment community uses it and so should you. Also, set up free accounts on actorsaccess.com and nowcasting.com. These two sites are industry standards for casting and also help you build your resume in an electronic format.
Next up, FACEBOOK! Get out there and meet some filmmakers. Oh, and Zack Snyder doesn't care who you are. When I first started out, I was mailing him daily letters (maybe not THAT crazy) about my desire to work on "The Watchmen". The man probably is flooded by letters like that and there really isn't much of a reason to single me out over the hundreds or thousands of others. The folks you need to be talking to are the NEXT Zack Snyder. These are talented filmmakers that just haven't had that lucky break we all pray for. Talk with these guys. Offer your services. Shoot the breeze. Form FRIENDSHIPS. One of the best part of networking has been the friendships I've formed with some very cool people. What started out as simple admiration for their work has turned into kindred spirits and good times.
Something I need to work on...stay away from politics, religion and whining on your site. I've been guilty of all 3 and still fall prey occasionally. No need to scare off potential employers and co-workers because they think you are a total douche bag.
9.) Seek out an agent! Now that you have something to show them, AND NOT BEFORE! Start shopping for an agent. The best way to find a great agent is to ask around. Talk to the people in your area who are doing this thing regularly and ask them who they are with.
In addition, temper your expectations. An agent is a gatekeeper. Simply having one is a requirement to see most Casting Directors. While your agent can be a powerful ally in getting work, you can NOT rely on them to do everything. Your agent represents potentially 100s of people. They get paid when SOMEONE books a role, not necessarily you. YOU are always the key to your success. You need to work with your agent to make yourself more marketable and to find out what's out there. Also, more than one agent is not a bad thing. Look for representation in any area where you think you can feasibly work. I have representation in Texas AND representation in Louisiana (almost). Your agents are VERY busy. Help them help you.
A few notes on warning signs for agents. Agents should NEVER make ANY money off of you unless they book you/represent you on a gig. Meaning there should be no dues or fees, no required classes or things you have to buy to keep representation. Also, agents should charge somewhere in this ballpark. 10% for union gigs (per contract), %15 for nonunion and for print etc, as high as 20%. Any more than that and you are being taken for a ride. Again, if you are asking around, it's the simplest way to avoid these traps!
10.) Be professional. Always be on time to auditions. Never take yourself too seriously. Be where you say you're going to be, when you say you're going to be there. Bring your headshot and resume to your auditions (in the right quality/quantity). Don't get frustrated by long waits. Sell yourself as someone who is easy to work with. Don't sell your dignity. There are some sleazebags out there who are mainly only out to exploit you (mainly if you are a woman). The casting couch isn't worth it and is 98% a myth. If you can't be professional and market yourself, then you probably shouldn't be doing this.