The Ugly of Our Trade

This Week: It’s All Business

Recently I was talking to an agent regarding two actors I had brought to his/her agency. For sake of clarity and protection of all involved I’ll name her Sue. (Why oh why do I hear Johnny Cash in the background?)

Sue was discussing the future of two clients I had brought to her agency. One signed. (Amy) The other, not signed. (Peter) Peter was not fully represented but in a popular show for which Sue had helped negotiate the contract for his participation. Both wonderful people but as actors their type and/or skill-set have been a challenge for professional advancement. And so Sue spoke with me about releasing Amy and not taking on Peter. I was troubled. For I, the person of “This is a business folks, treat it as such.” found myself asking Sue to consider emotion and state-of-being for Amy and Peter before casting aside each. But Sue then reminded me of the harsh realities of our trade. If the actors were not making money for the company or as in Peter’s case, not an easy sell, then it only made sense that they be let go.


In Amy’s case Sue spoke of how her office had gotten Amy — never before represented — into all the major NY casting offices for Broadway; Telsey, Rubin, Carnahan, Binder, Howard et al. And noted that in the two years that Amy has been with the agency there have been no call-backs. Zip. Nada. None. The creative teams were nonplussed. That silence was accompanied by a lack of interest from those same offices in seeing Amy again for other projects.  Sue then reminded me that Amy failed to get call-backs on projects cast by my office. Because of Amy’s lack luster performance in audition studios agents in Sue’s office stopped submitting the actress on projects, including readings. To which I argued with Sue that since she as owner of the firm has her name on the office door her employees should follow her directives. Sue countered by reminding me that you can’t force someone to be enthusiastic for a client if the results are lacking and love has waned. She continued by adding the reverse by an actor could and has happened to Sue and many other agencies. If an agency wasn’t producing  an actor’s desired results then that actor would not think twice about severing ties.


As to Peter, the actor for who Sue only represented regarding the hot hit in New York, it was his age and type that was holding him back from being welcomed as a member of the agency’s family. Selling him to the gate-keepers would, as in past similar instances, provide few if any results. A cruel reality I know all too well. Casting directors have far better and more experienced choices of actors at Peter’s age. Unfortunately I could not argue from a business stand point with Sue. My heart wished for another reality but knew the truth. She was correct. I’ve seen many wonderful actors of a certain age or type with few credentials fall by the wayside. There’s little an actor can do if at a point of maturity they have not had a work history that can compete against the resumes of their peers. (For anyone who is going to point out the elder actress, Gloria Stuart, in Titanic; that was a fluke. Plus the creatives wanted someone of age not known. How many decades did Ms. Stuart while toiling away in the civilian world after her acting retirement in the 1940s have to wait for that one last, grand opportunity? You do the math.)

We are not alone with our industry for this precedent of seeking the more qualified on paper over the lesser curriculum vitae holders.

Now while you may be angered by this, think of the following. How many small-town mayors go from governing a village directly to Commander-In-Chief? (O.K. well, it almost happened and didn’t thank God.) On a personal level would you feel more comfortable if your cardiac muscle needed care with a heart surgeon of a twenty year practice or a resident internist? If you thought the latter then either you’re lieing or are fool hearty with your health.

We as artists often keep marrying our lives and personalities to what we do for work thus we feel we are entitled to a leeway for opportunities; believing that the human condition should be taken into consideration when it comes to who is best suited for a job. In response I ask: Do you hold that same standard when choosing teachers of your trade? When buying a car do you consider the car salesman’s “personality” or how well the automobile performs? When opting for one food brand over another do you do so because you like the taste of one over the other or do you consider the emotional well being of employees toiling at remote factories manufacturing both your likes and distastes?

I’ve stated many times, yet sometimes fail to recall myself, that as an artist one must separate who we are from what we do. Our work is product. What you do is not you.

Do not expect that because you bring cupcakes to your agent, flirt with a director, write postcards to a casting director or attend a producer’s wedding that these mannerly niceties of life guarantee you a dedicated response to your product. Sometimes they will help to keep you in mind by the recipient. But if there’s a better choice of product, like all of us, they are going to go shopping for what suits professional and/or personal needs the best. And dependent upon your view; that’s the ugly side to any business.

‘Till next week for something… completely different.

My Best,

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Paul Russell’s career as a casting director, director, acting teacher and former actor has spanned nearly thirty years. He has worked on projects for major film studios, television networks, and Broadway. Paul has taught the business of acting and audition technique at NYU and has spoken at universities including Yale, Temple and the University of the Arts. He writes a column for Back Stage and is the author of ACTING: Make It Your Business – How to Avoid Mistakes and Achieve Success as a Working Actor. For more information, please visit


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