If you’re dedicated to the life of the working actor, then you know as well as I do how much fun we get to have doing the best job in the world. (The secret is we get to play!) And unlike mentally checked-out 9-to-5ers, we get the privilege of being fully engaged with doing what we love to do while we’re doing it. We actors may spend a lot of time zipping from audition to class to rehearsal to set to actor’s group, etc., but once you hit your mark, you’re all in.
That’s why it’s so easy to let certain things slide – when you’re trying to run lines while thinking about being on time for your next appointment or gig, it’s tough to consider things like what kind of look are you presenting to the world. But it’s important to take a step back every now and then and do just that.
Why? Isn’t the way I appear already just “my look?”
Well, yes and no. Of course, barring surgery or massive weight loss or gain or a radical haircut or something similar, your basic appearance is pretty static. But what we’re talking about here is Your Look, not just what you look like. And your look is very important to getting cast, creating a brand, and your overall marketing.
Imagine being on the other side of the table in the audition room or an agent’s office. We all know that agents and CDs are super busy, harried people. They – and producers, and directors, and commercial clients – need some kind of handle on you to get a grip on the actor they’re evaluating, and they need it fast. If you don’t grab them in the first second or two of them looking at your headshot, you’re probably not going to be called in.
So if you present yourself as a sort of a generic guy for instance, an everyman in a polo shirt and jeans just like every other everyman, you’re not really communicating anything. This kind of neutrality might work for commercial auditions where what’s often needed is the person who can be the most interesting while still being inoffensive. But for booking more challenging, in-depth work you’re going to need to show who you really are in order to give them something to go on. Here’s a few ways to get started!
1. Your Personality Is Going To Come Out Anyway – Let It.
A person’s look isn’t just the shape of their nose and the color of their hair and so forth. It’s the unique essence of you that can’t help but bubble to the surface when you perform. A CD can go through a hundred headshots of “hard-ass cop” -looking guys, but there has to be something particularly arresting (rimshot!) about the looks of the actors he or she decides to bring in, something genuine, something honest, something true. We as actors looking for work focus so much on trying to make ourselves right for a role that we sometimes forget the secret truth: you already ARE right for it. It’s just a matter of showing the casting team how you, in your particular, unique way are the right choice for them. So, even if you’re a big teddy bear type, or a wiry joker type or a whatever type, showing that off and letting it come out instead of trying to obscure it can often help land you the role. Even if the writer and the casting team originally pictured a burly grizzled cop with a hundred-mile stare, if you show them something that connects to your genuine self in your headshot or your first read, you can often change their minds. When thinking about this aspect of leveraging your look, remember the lesson of Aubrey Plaza in her stunning, revelatory role as Lenny in Legion. The character was written as a middle-aged man, which Plaza clearly is not. Not only that, she convinced showrunner Noah Hawley not to change the dialogue due to her gender. Many critics have hailed her performance as some of the best work the Parks and Recreation actors has ever done.
2. Going Against Type Is Interesting
A former acting coach of mine used to say “There can be no tension without pretension,” a nice way of summing up the truth that every interesting character has something going on inside themselves or with another person that they’re pushing against, something that doesn’t quite fit the imaginary tale they tell themselves and the world about who they are. Another application of this is the idea of going against type. A lot of people worry that if they play too hard toward their type, that that will be the only kind of work they’ll ever book. Who wants to play a meathead cop/truck driver/soldier etc their whole life? Who wants to be “quirky nerd girl with glasses” in every damn role? Nobody. But the thing about being honest with your type and how it fits your look is that if you trust yourself to be yourself, and you make a strong statement with your personality and the look you offer up in such a way that CDs can clearly see You in there, the real You, then the door will open up to other possibilities. Contradictions are intriguing, in life and in the art of acting. Who doesn’t love seeing something like an unremarkable high school science teacher delve into the dark world of crystal meth manufacture and dealing? Who doesn’t love a burly, scary cop who volunteers at the animal shelter? Who isn’t interested in learning more about a battle-scarred soldier who prefers to quietly read philosophy while his mates are horsing around? Just because you have personality quirks that inform your look and are in contradiction to a particular role doesn’t mean you should suppress them. In fact, that quirk might be the one factor that gets you the callback, simply because you’re showing something different from the other 200 people who read for the role. Another point to keep in mind is that CDs and directors love to see flashes of versatility in auditions. By coming in with a headshot and real-life face that is bubbly and vibrant and funny, and then slipping on the mask of the grizzled cop when it’s time to read – or better yet, reading him or her as funny or at least sardonic, you can separate yourself from the pack as well. Your personality is going to come out one way or another; might as well capitalize on it.
3. Put It All Together
Going back to how hectic life is for most working actors, it can be tempting to simply book a headshot photographer, slip on a nice-ish outfit, and just go for it. This is also a mistake, and could end up costing you potential work and leave you with a useless headshot that informs no one of anything. Once you’ve decided on what’s your best, most honest look, the one that fits most closely to your true personality and type, take some time to think about things like the best clothes, facial expressions and physicality you might want to employ in order to convey the message of who you are. Do this before you schedule your photographer. One great exercise is to do a dry-run photo session, for which you don’t need anything more elaborate than a friend and an iPhone. If you want to take this to the next level, you might query your actor’s group or your Facebook friends as to what are some key words they think of when they consider your personality and who you really are. You might be surprised at the picture you present to the world without even knowing you’re doing it!
Just remember, in order to stand out in an ever-more crowded field the key isn’t to cram yourself into someone else’s box. The key is to be your true, weird, quirky self honestly and unapologetically. Let your truth be on display for the world to see!