Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Know Thy Headshot

The film business serves up some harsh lessons from time to time. One of the harshest lessons is for actors. As Richard Walter once said, if a script has flaws, the writers can tear up that script and start completely from scratch, while an actor can never change into something they're not. If a director wants a particular look, and you don't got it, hit the skids, kiddo and don't forget to leave your sides with the lady by the door.

A worse lesson than that is the deep self-knowledge which fosters a niggling doubt that you don't have something special. For example, a long time ago, I could see my own career in acting would be fruitless because I had a Come to Jesus moment with myself: I can read sides cold and make the words come alive, and I can carry that intuitive reading into a performance. However, I don't have an especially attractive look, my voice isn't that enthralling, and I could never live with that frustrating emotional roller coaster ride of 1,000 failed auditions to (maybe) get my big break. The odds were simply too small to make it all worth the effort.

Not that I won't act if someone hands me a script. I love to act, but I'm simply unwilling to tread an arbitrary masochistic path to get past the gatekeepers. That's not a judgment -- I have immeasurable respect for actors thick-skinned enough to go that route. For me, though, it was never a good fit.

This hit home for me on two occasions. The first was in 1988 when I went to NYU film school. Our NYU teachers told us to go down to SAG to dig through the SAG headshots for actors who might be willing to act in a short student film, kind of like a $5.99 DVD Wall Mart bin, but for actors. So I'm sitting there with one of the other students and we come across a headshot... a headshot which hit me like a bucket of cold water -- it was my headshot! The photo had been taken years before, when I was only 16, and it was painfully out of date. I could run down a large inventory of feelings I experienced about that headshot but my most lasting thought was, "Wow, that whole acting thing was such a waste of my time." Of course, it wasn't -- all my acting experience has helped me view film from an actor's perspective and that's something you never forget as a director, but still... finding and hiring a photographer, hiring and pestering an agent, running around on auditions hoping you nailed an audition but never really knowing for days thereafter... it got old. At some point, I must have racked it all up to a sunk cost and moved on.

Years later, in 2000, I was looking at resumes for a three minute short I was directing. All the actors who replied to my Craigslist ad were already well vetted; they knew they'd be working for no pay on a short film. And still the headshots came flooding in. Jena, my confidante in crime, really helped me winnow the stack down because, at times, I'm embarrassed to say I was totally log jammed. There were so many actors and it was difficult to say no to any of them, especially when many had spent so much time and money making their headshots, and even had notable experience on their CV. Jena pulled me back down to Earth.

She held up a headshot. It was one of my Undecideds. "I'll make this easy for you," she said. "Would you want to watch this guy for three minutes of screen time?" That was a harsh question to ask, but the right one because the answer was no. The actor in question wasn't terribly attractive and I couldn't see myself honestly wanting to watch this dude for half a minute, much less three minutes. The headshots were easy to narrow down after that.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule. There will always be a Steve Buscemi out there, but decisions like mine are made every day by casting directors in the entertainment industry. Sometimes actors got "it", but almost all the time, they don't. The best advice I heard about being a professional actor came from the actress I ended up casting in my short film (unsurprisingly, she later moved to L.A. to pursue acting): "Audition like crazy. Do as many auditions as you can and always do your best in them. When the audition is over, forget all about it. The chances are you didn't get the part, so why worry about it? Instead, use your auditions to perfect your acting. And try to get a flexible day job that pays well. I'm a mobile notary."

When Matt Damon was asked about what he'd tell people getting into acting, he said, "Don't. You get too much rejection." Interesting that his response was a rejection... was he surreptitiously trying to discourage thin-skinned newbie actors to save them years of tuition in the School of Hard Knocks?

Acting's a tough gig. Deal with it. But above all else, be honest with yourself about your headshot, your experience, your shtick. If you're not yielding any results from your auditions, is it really because you haven't knocked on enough doors, or is it because you really don't got it? Finally, if you'll never have what any casting director is looking for, at what point is it time to move on?

1 comment:

Kukolka said...

That's a great post, thank you very much!
During my school time and adolescent life I wanted to become an actress really badly. But when I was finishing school at the age of 19 (and I just had acted in a play which was shown at the city theater) I realized, I didn't feel well on stage, I wasn't confident enough so that I couln't even enjoy my time on stage as much as I think I should have, doing the thing I dreamt of doing for the rest of my life. So somehow I just "switched" my dream from wanting to become an actress to wanting to make movies myself. It really seemed to have happened in no time, no thinking or deciding was involved. But I guess the reasons for that change of passion were the ones I read in your post today - some of us can't deal with rejection or we don't want to wait for somebody to discover or hire us. As for me - I guess I wanted to be able to have control over something, to be able to make decisions in my field of work and finally - to be the one to hire actors myself ;o)
Greetings from Hamburg, Germany.