Illustration by Adeline Pericart
How to get ahead in acting? Gordon Gaffney talks to the Gaiety School of Acting, actor’s agent Maureen McGlynn and casting directors Thyrza Ging and Maureen Hughes.
Raw talent, steely determination, hard work and jammy luck are essential requirements for an actor to get regular work. But could it be that completion of the finest training and great on-screen looks are not the be-all and end-all? Could a mistake as simple as sending an impersonal, blanket email to every Irish actors’ agent make or break a career?
There are a huge number of actors available to work in Ireland at any one time. According to Amy Dawson, coordinator of the Gaiety School of Acting, 16–20 actors graduate from their full-time course each year, with another 90 or so graduating from the one-year part time course and a staggering 1500 or more from their 10-week acting courses throughout the year. A recent casting seminar in Filmbase attracted 300 applicants and there are about 500 actors’ profiles on the Irish Equity website, which is only a fraction of the total number out there. With such a large supply of acting talent, it’s crucial that you go about securing work in the correct manner and avoid common pitfalls with the three most important weapons in an actor’s arsenal: the CV, headshot and showreel.
Casting director Thyrza Ging has cast feature films Satellites and Meteorites and Savage and the television mini-series Prosperity, and is also guest tutor on the Acting for Film and TV training course in Filmbase, giving advice to actors on the business side of acting.
So you’ve photographed yourself in the mirror using your phone, is this enough?
’Your head shot is your calling card’ explains Thyrza ‘and the most important thing with a headshot is to give a true and fair view of who you are as a person. Some photographers say, “Please don’t smile” but if you are a very smiley person it isn’t going to be a good representation of who you are.’ Prices for professional headshots range from €80 where you may just receive your photos on an CD, to €200 which may include multiple A4 copies, and personalized business cards with your headshot and contact details on it – very handy for schmoozing opportunities at industry drinks receptions, glamorous film festivals and the Filmbase basement.
‘It’s very important to get it right, and for you to feel comfortable in front of the camera,’ Thyrza continues. ‘I recommend actors to at first to play around with a digital camera in the back garden because it is important that you feel comfortable in front of the camera before spending hundreds of euro on a shot. The standard in the Irish industry and the UK is a black and white A4 photograph. In America it’s colour, but a lot of actors here, especially red-headed actors, get colour shots done’
Have all casting directors embraced the information superhighway? Some common sense research will help. ‘A lot of casting directors will say it on their websites if they want you to forward a hard copy and not an email – or vice versa. If you do send a hard copy in, I would recommend that you put the headshot and the CV into a ring binder sleeve – it makes life easier for the casting director. Personally, I prefer email.’
Attention to detail in you CV is vital
In the corporate world of Ponzi schemes and inappropriate loans to company directors, there isn’t a rigid format to a person’s CV. However, all actors’ CVs, like all scripts, are laid out the same way.
‘If you have representation, obviously put your agent’s details on the CV at the top, nice and big, all contact details, phone numbers, emails, etc.,’ Thyrza explains. ‘Don’t cc it to every agency in town, there aren’t that many of us, and if you are representing yourself make sure your mobile number and email address are everywhere. Separate your TV and film work from your theatre work, and don’t be afraid to put in short films that you have worked on or commercials, or even voiceover work, because that’s a very particular skill to have – it means you can take words off a page and bring them to life.’
‘Always put in the name of the character, even if it was Waiter Number One, and put in the director as well. Also, if it’s a television programme, put in whether it’s RTE, BBC or HBO, because that will jump off the page for a casting director’
A showreel is an edited example of your work of approximately 3–5 minutes duration. What should it contain? ‘You should have three contrasting scenes where your character is the focus. One thing not to do is put a lot of time and effort into a fancy edited montage piece at the beginning. It defeats the purpose because a casting director has only a limited amount of time to watch your piece. And be sure to have your own or your agent’s contact details on the footage.’
Hard copy or link? ‘A link is cheaper, you can send it out as many times as you like, you can change it and edit it more easily, and then send me the edited version. I can share it with directors much more easily than hard copy, and I’ll always have a link handy.’
iPhones and Blackberrys are essential tools for a casting director but they will also interact with you in person, if you go about it professionally. ‘We are always interested in meeting new talent. So be straight up and professional and just email us, saying, ‘I would really appreciate it if I could meet you for a cup of coffee’. Once they meet you in person, it’s easier to progress to that first audition, rather than just being another headshot. ‘If you want to send an email invitation to a casting director for your theatre show then you should have had that in-person meeting first. You’ve got to do your homework too.’
What else should an aspiring actor do? ‘If all of your experience has been in theatre then perhaps you should do an acting for camera course. It’s a very different medium, and the audition process in itself is very different. The advantage is that you can rewind it, play it back and understand it a little better. And sign up for the Irish Film Board, Filmbase and IFTN newsletters and keep an eye on the Call For and Film News sections on filmireland.net. Find out what’s shooting at the moment, who’s got funding and that kind of stuff, because not all projects will have a casting director associated. If you know what’s going on and you know who to talk to, you might get an audition on the back of that. ‘
Thyrza’s website caters for both actors and producers and you can visit it here www.castingireland.ie
The actor’s agent
The Gaiety School of Acting estimates that the majority of their full-time graduates get an agent in their first year: about 15–20 aspiring stars every year. This person acts as the artist’s point of contact with the casting director.
Maureen McGlynn of First Call Management started in stage production and after finishing with the International Theatre Cooperative went freelancing. She was then offered a month’s work in an actor’s agency and is still there 20 years later. ‘There are about 12 agencies in total, and that would include a couple of co-operative agencies which are staffed by the actors themselves. So to work there you would make a commitment to do four hours every week or two weeks. You go in and do the phones, and act as an agent during that period.’
So what’s the day-to-day like in an actor’s agency? ‘We get a script or a casting brief from a casting director or producer, which contains a breakdown of how the casting director envisages each character. We then submit our suggestions, including pictures and CVs if necessary, and slot people into an age range. We would try not to make judgments that might be deemed typecasting, because our clients would shoot us for that. The casting director then makes their decision on the actors they would most like to see. Where appropriate, we may well try and cajole the reluctant casting director into occasionally seeing people that aren’t on their most wanted list. We facilitate the process, communicate with our actor clients and set them up, giving them the script pages that they will have to read and any other necessary information.’
Maureen confirms the answer to the actor’s ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything (when sending a CV). ‘I think it’s ill-advised to cc it to every agent in town. And take those few extra seconds to sign the letter if you are sending it via snail mail. You’ve got to be very conscious of behaving in a professional manner, it’s an incredibly competitive industry. We would take on two or three clients a year, so don’t trash your present agent if you are looking to change. Ours is a relationship based on mutual trust. We have never signed a contract – a contract can’t mandate the things necessary for the agent/actor relationship to work. If it breaks down on either side, well then it’s just time to move on.’
So if there is no contract, how does the business relationship function? ‘With many actors working on low-budget projects, sometimes no money changes hands. The agent’s work must still be done: I spent 12 hours, recently, working on a short film contract where I won’t be paid. However, based on that, the actor might get work in other areas – though normally the shorts are straight offers to our clients’
The agent seems to play the role of a loving parent to the actor. ‘We would certainly see every show that we have a client in, because we’ve got to keep up with their work and be a bit of support for them. You need to remind yourself how good they are, because if you represent them, you do believe they are good’
Maureen is keen to stress one positive outcome of the economic downturn and reduction in production. ‘It has given us the opportunity to spend the time needed to look at new media rights. Producers are trying to impose a clause into an actor’s contract whereby they purchase all media rights not yet invented in perpetuity. This was discussed at the SIPTU conference recently. All the agents and Equity meet every couple of months to discuss common issues, and we can now dedicate time to that – an incredibly important item from an actor’s point of view.’
Actors can send headshots and CVs to Maureen at email@example.com
Maureen Hughes trained as artistic assistant under Garry Hynes at Druid Theatre Company in the ’80s and went on in 1992 to work in the Abbey Theatre for two-and-a-half years as head of casting. She has since moved on to cast several major screen productions, including the Oscar®-winning films Six Shooter and Once. She is also casting director on the upcoming Love-Hate, which stars Aidan Gillen and features a lot of new faces, some of whom have come through the training system both in Ireland and England in the last couple of months and who haven’t been on the screen before.
Perhaps surprisingly, the casting director goes through an auditioning experience similar to an actor’s. Maureen explains: ‘You’re sent the script so you can have a read of it. You’ll have an instinctive set of ideas, and you send these back to the producer. These instincts allow you to see the people who could inhabit the characters in the script. Also, you are expected to know who’s who, what they’re at and what the acting community is doing here in Dublin at the moment. If they’re ideas they’re interested in, they’ll call me in to meet with the director. This is when I’m ‘auditioning’ for the job because that script has been sent out to three or four casting directors. The success of my relationship with the director will depend on what kind of ideas I’ve had on the first read.’
So how stiff is the casting director competition? ‘The budgets in the last couple of years have been extremely tight, working at the bare minimum in film and television. But at one point there would have been eight or ten casting directors working in Ireland and we were always up for the same jobs. But it is about who reads the script, who gets the meet, who does the better meet and who suits the director the best.’
‘We can’t afford to rule out actors who have very little on their CV, particularly if they are right for the role.’ Maureen discovered Eamonn Owens who played Francie Brady in Neil Jordan’s The Butcher Boy ‘in a national school in Killeshandra, County Cavan. We kind of knew we wouldn’t find him in a drama class, and there he was at the back of the room with a big red head and fantastic animation in his face’. Outside of casting for psychotic pre-pubescents, where else would she find new talent? ‘I would go to a lot of fringe shows and watch an awful lot of short films. As an actor you have got to start working yourself up some screen credits. Ring third level colleges to get on student films and get your ass out there – you’ve got to get yourself some experience, which will almost always be unpaid in the beginning’
So actors can have a rough time of it in the beginning? ‘I would say that the actor’s agent job is actually the hardest. They have to be there at every opening night and at the end of the phone for every crisis. I can actually close the door at six o’clock and go home. About two-thirds of the acting community are not represented in this town – there aren’t enough agents in Dublin to cope with the amount of acting talent there is.’
So how does the casting director get their choice of actors through the process? Maureen explains: ‘First, you check if the actor is available for the specific period of time. You send them the script in advance and ask them to prep a scene. Then you bring them in to audition. Personally, I don’t mind people not being off-book [reading from the script], but there are casting directors and directors who will be very, very unimpressed if they do. It’s up to the actor himself to check who he is going to be working with. Sometimes I feel if people are really, really off-book then it’s very hard to unlock that performance. Whereas, at least if you have somebody just reading it, they’re not scared to try it a different way.’
‘For film and television the audition is everything, because if it ain’t working on the screen, it just ain’t working. We use fairly limited MiniDV cameras but it has got to work on camera on the day.’
‘I suppose the big thing is “to thine own self be true” There is nothing worse than coming into the audition dripping with neediness. Are you happy with the way you read? Can you get up out of that chair, walk out the door and go, “well, fuck it, I thought I did great.” I’m looking for the person who does that as opposed to the person who has tried to second guess what we’re looking for and ends up in a very artificial process.’
So what’s the bottom line? ‘Good, intelligent preparation is everything. Who are you meeting in the room? What are they like? What are their expectations? I’m bringing you in there, so ring me. I want you as prepped as you can be, because I don’t want to look foolish either.’
Maureen Hughes is contactable at firstname.lastname@example.org