If there’s one thing that becomes abundantly clear after you’ve been around the acting business for a while it’s that no two roads are identical.
Everyone from MFAs to people who stumbled into the business after giving a best-man speech at a wedding has the potential for greatness, and everyone, by definition, carves their own path.
In fact, there are people who would argue that the more unique your journey, the better equipped you’ll be to adapt to whatever comes your way.
Enter Susan Johnston, independent casting director and actor. She’s a lady with a reputation for putting out fires and saving people’s bacon when things go south as far as casting goes.
“I’m known as a rescue casting director,” she says “I’ll get a call at 11 at night saying, ‘can you get me someone?’ And I say yes because I can send it out in one click to 8,000 people. Those 8,000 people are from novices to Oscar winners, from agents to managers to owners of these online sites, and I’ll say ‘Do not share,’ so they know I’m pulling from that pool.”
But it wasn’t always this way. Johnston’s road was as long and winding as anyone’s. First of all, she had the tremendous luck to wind up in LA just at the height of the SAG strike. As a fresh-faced actor just off the bus from New England, what’s a new arrival to do if there’s no acting work?
“I emailed everybody I knew back east and asked who they knew,” Johnston said.
That search turned up casting director Renita Whited. And the work started coming in immediately, it just might not have been the kind of work you’d expect.
“Renita called me at midnight that night, and asked if I could be on set the next morning at 6:30,” she said. “For Kid Rock’s video ‘American Badass.’ They really liked me on set. I was talent wrangler, and it was great, I put out a few fires. Then they called me the next day and said, can you come out again and play the ‘White Trash Woman?’ So one day I’m the talent wrangler, one day I’m the ‘White Trash Woman.’”
And while there were some questions about whether doing music videos is allowed under SAG rules during a strike – at the time Johnston was under the impression they were allowed. There is certainly no question that Johnston knows how to hustle up work. She’s been in a Bon Jovi video, done one each by Nickel Creek and Britney Spears, and numerous other projects, but these days she’s mostly put her acting days behind her.
“I tried keeping them separate for a really long time,” she says. “Because casting directors don’t really know casting directors unless they’re members of CSA, which I’m sure is a great organization. But I survived the 2008 economic crisis by working many different jobs.”
These days Johnston doesn’t do so much acting, rather she runs her own shop, Susan Johnston Casting. On June 17 she’s hosting a networking lounge where actors can drop off their headshots and get themselves on her email list, a valuable resource if you’re in the LA area.
And if bringing physical headshots sounds old-fashioned, Johnston says its worth it, if you want results.
“I can’t tell you how many directors or talent I’ve pitched on projects, saying, ‘I know this person. If you want me to talk to them I will.’ I actually had an acting website tell me that’s kind of old school, having physical headshots. Why would you do that? And I said, because it works.”
When it comes to casting, Johnston likes to see a bit of self-sufficiency. Having made her way down her own rubble-strewn road, she’s the type of casting director who has a strong affinity for people who come walking in the door confident and professional.
“I want to see someone with their act together,” she says. “It’s a business. Leave your ego at the door, leave your stress that you’ve never been in this area before or you got the wrong time. I’m sorry if your dog died, but all that, we don’t need. I like someone who comes in and does their thing.
“My question is who are you? Are you going to have a meltdown because you couldn’t find a parking space?”
She also has some advice for how actors take notes. The key is to remember that directors are trying to get you to do something different, but that doesn’t mean you did badly the first time.
“The other thing that drives me nuts is when the director gives you a note, it doesn’t mean they didn’t like what you did,” she said. “More times than not it means they want to see if you can take direction. Most of the time that’s when an actor gets defensive. But that’s where you have to be able to roll with it. If they ask you to do it with a little more mustard, and you don’t know what mustard means, make mustard mean something to you, commit and do. Just go to it.”
And Johnston had another note for actors, one that probably everyone of us is guilty of.
“People should really hold the moment, and let us say cut,” she said. “Say the last line is ‘Do you want to go to dinner?’ So you hear the word dinner, and everybody starts looking at the casting director. No no no. Look at that person and look into their eyes to respond to your question, listening for the answer to your question, and you’re going to look brilliant. The hardest moments and the more brilliant moments are in the silence.”
As far as actors thinking about making the jump to LA, Johnston has nothing but encouragement – combined with a dose of reality.
“Wherever you are now, you are a big fish in a little pond,” she said. “Here you’re a tiny fish in the big ocean. Which means there’s a lot more competition, beyond your wildest expectations. That doesn’t mean you will not succeed, I just want you to know what you’re getting into.”