Breaking & Entering
by Philip Carlson
© Copyright Opus Books, 2016
I was an actors manager for ten years and a talent agent for twenty-two. I love actors. I love talent. I believe that anyone who has talent has a place in the profession. This book is an attempt to help that person find that place.
I was the first agent to sign Philip Seymour Hoffman (the mere mention of whose name now makes my heart skip a beat but during the years I was his agent, he was as rewarding to represent as he was to watch work), Billy Crudup, Liev Schreiber, Claire Danes, Adrian Grenier, Kyra Sedgwick, Idris Elba and Paul Giamatti. I have worked with Kathy Bates, Lois Smith, Viola Davis, W. H. Macy, and Brian Dennehy and I think I have learned a thing or two about what works and what does not when it comes to getting your foot in the door, walking through the door and being asked back into the room.
First off, is there any way I can talk you out of this? Wouldn’t you rather be a banker or a botanist? I mean, what is show business and who cares and why is it so appealing? How did it even happen that you came to want to be a part of this business which is, increasingly, a business and considerably less fun than it used to be? And ‘fun’ falls far short of describing what it used to be. It used to be joyous. It used to be an absolute ball. Not so much these days.
Here’s what it’s like now. Let’s say you go through a three year MFA program and wind up with over $100,000 in student loans. You may know how to act but the people with the jobs don’t seem lined up around the block waiting to give you one. In fact, all of your classmates seem to be in the same line with you. Not to mention the class from the year before you. And the year before that. Let alone the ones graduating from the schools you didn’t get into. The showcase of agents and casting directors your school had promised you was attended by precisely three agents and two casting directors, none of whom wanted to meet you. The only person in your class they showed any interest in at all was that slut who’s had all the straight guys and half the girls and who is a complete bitch anyway. And when someone points out to you that three agents and two casting directors showing up for a school that is not in the so-called top three is actually not such a bad showing, you think, well that’s a pretty stupid thing to say and it’s certainly not why you signed up for grad school in the first place.
Now just a minute. If you went to grad school because you thought their showcase would be a short cut to your getting an agent, then maybe you’re the one who is pretty stupid. Naturally there are side benefits to grad school, especially a prestigious one. You will make some connections that will likely turn out to be beneficial to you once you are out of school, just like all the future bankers and botanists will do in their grad schools and so much the better for all of you. But the bankers and the botanists went to school to learn how to be bankers and botanists. Make sure you go to grad school to learn how to act. I have found some wonderful clients – who have gone on to have wonderful careers – at school showcases but, listen to me now, going to a school just so you can be in a showcase three or four years down the road is a horrible reason to go to a school, let alone a grad school.
But let’s say you went to grad school for good reasons, and then let’s go back to this gloomy picture I am painting in order to try and talk you out of being an actor in the first place. There you are, in New York City with your BA or your BFA or your MFA and you are looking for work with no help from an agent because none of them were interested. And you find a job – at a new theatre company in the East Village which pays you $181 a week. Guess what – that’s good! (Just don’t try living on it.) You’re lucky they even pay you. But maybe an agent will come and see the show. One doesn’t. Not even one. So maybe you take an acting class. Never mind that you were in acting classes all day long for the last three years. Maybe in this acting class you will meet other people in your situation who would be helpful or know things you don’t know because your former classmates from your former school are as clueless as you are and you don’t know anybody else. Two of those former classmates found agents but neither of them are working either. And neither of them came to your show. These are friends? Are you still with me?
Alternatively, let’s say you take a different and far saner approach to this business of show. Let’s say you go to college and get a liberal arts education. Maybe to please your parents or maybe just because you want to. I have spoken to and taught armies of young people and the ones with a liberal arts education are generally far more interesting, well-rounded and simply better company than the ones who have been locked away in conservatory programs honing their craft. Not to say that those driven ones don’t have a certain fascination of their own. But driven as you are, you decide to make nice for four more years and pretend to be a normal person just a little longer before you turn life over to that beast inside you.
So you do it. You go to a normal person school. And it’s fine even though you know in your bones you’re not a normal person, you’re an actor. That’s what you want, that’s what you’ve always wanted. But you stick it out at the normal person school because you like being pretending to be a normal person for a little while longer and your parents really like it when you behave like a normal person and you like making your parents happy.
So you graduate from your normal person school and you come to New York. You find an acting class. Perhaps even a speech class, though why would you need such a thing if you only want to do film and television? But maybe the theatre interests you. You want to check it out. So you take a speech class. Dance, too. Couldn’t hurt. So now you are in an acting class whose students include two kids from two of the best known MFA programs – one of them is even your scene partner. Who’s better off? Him or you? He knows more about acting. He also has massive student loans to pay back. You are both waiting on tables. The answer to who is better off is… arguable.
The pay at the restaurant is pretty good. $300 on a good night and you hear you won’t even have to claim the whole amount. You plan to get your parents to fix you up with an accountant – though your parents may not know too many accountants who have waiters as clients.) Then one day in acting class you realize your teacher is an idiot. You may be a beginner but this guy is a cretin. And cruel. You see it so clearly now. What he said to that poor girl ahead of you was just wrong. You lock eyes with your scene partner and you both realize you have got to get out of there. But you don’t even talk to him about it after class. You’re both too embarrassed. You do mention this discovery to a fellow waiter at work. “Oh,” says your co-worker, “Why are you studying with him? That guy’s a jerk. Everybody knows that. Did he make a pass at you yet?” You decide to not even go back to the class.
So a few thousand dollars later, you go in search of a new acting teacher. Maybe by now you have some friends you can ask for recommendations. You find a teacher you’re crazy about. And you get cast in a Columbia University student movie. There’s no pay but you might get some nice footage of yourself on film. That’s good, right? Kathryn Bigelow went to Columbia. Maybe the director will turn out to be the next Kathryn Bigelow. That’s very good, right? Never mind that on the last day of the film the director decides to shoot all night so you have to miss work which results in the restaurant firing you but there are always other restaurants, right? Are you still with me?
Who would willingly choose such a life? Well, hundreds of people make that choice every day, though I would tend to think that the life chose them rather than the other way around. You don’t really have a choice, do you? I could give you reason after reason why you should stay in St. Paul and you will not listen to me. I know that. Ever since you were sitting there at a community theatre production of “Brighton Beach Memoirs” or a National Company of “Wicked” and some actor on stage did something, some little thing and some place inside of you was touched in a way you had never been touched before and that was it. You were a goner. You were summoned. You found what you want to do in life and you didn’t even know you were looking. So you make a vow to do it. Because acting is still – even if you end up doing dinner theatre in Denver – a calling. Why else put up with all the… nonsense? (Well, of course I mean bullshit.) And it’s worth it. You know it will be. When you finally get to do it, it will be worth it. This book exists to tell you how to accelerate the process of finally getting to do it.
So you went to college and you took undergrad theatre courses or you got a BA or a
BFA or you went to grad school and got an MFA. Or you went to high school and bummed around for a few years and saved up some money and you went to New York and decided to study with Bill Esper. Or you just knocked on the door of the Wooster Group and begged them to let you in because that’s where Willem Dafoe started and you think Willem Dafoe is the coolest thing in the business. (He’s pretty cool.)
Personally, I think there’s a lot to be said for just jumping in and trying to get a job but there are enormous advantages to training. I think almost everyone I ever represented who went on to have a career had some sort of training except the exceptional Claire Danes. (I never represented Barbra Streisand.) So get some and then come to New York and act. You will not receive an engraved invitation. You will have to fight for an acting job for which you will likely not be paid. But do so. Fight for it. See if you are any good. If you have difficulty getting cast in something , welcome to the club. Do not whine. If you discover you have specific shortcomings you want to work on, study with someone who can help you with those shortcomings. If you find it all overwhelming and yet you love it and you want to be a part of it and you believe in beginning at the beginning, rethink that decision to skip training. Enter a conservatory or an MFA program. (Be prepared for serious debt.) If you find out acting is not for you, leave it. When you start to get work, find an agent. If that agent leads you to better work, stay with that agent. If not, find another agent.
Let me tell you a little bit about this book you are holding (or hearing). It will always be my intention to be completely open about my intentions. I have no hidden agenda. And my primary intention is to impart to you that you are enough, you belong in the business if you feel you do and if you feel you do you must know that everyone in the business is on your side. Agents and casting directors and directors and producers all have their own quite separate agenda from yours but they are not the enemy. They are necessary to your goal which is, at the very least, to be a working actor. You may broaden that goal to becoming some sort of reincarnation of the next Marlon Brando or Cate Blanchett but no matter how modest or grandiose your aim, you will nevertheless need to believe that you belong – and you will need to know how to let the gatekeepers realize that you belong.
In order to achieve this end, I have designed a series of Workshops to let you in on what people in this business with the jobs – or access to the jobs – are really looking for. The answer is simple – they are looking for you. The trick is to know who that is. If you already do, so much the better for you. If you do not, here is your chance to find out.
When an agent meets an actor, the agent’s first thought is: What kind of jobs will this person go for? What kind of roles will he get? What kind of a career will he have? What kind of a career does he want?
When a casting director meets an actor, her first thought is: What kind of roles is this person right for? How can I use them in a way which will best serve the project and bring the greatest amount of glory to me?
Agents are looking for someone who will make money, someone who will work. Casting directors are looking for someone who will bring the greatest amount of depth, enlightenment, talent to a role. Any role. A nurse with three lines. Cleopatra.
What are you looking for when you meet an agent or a casting director. Agents and casting directors need you in order to do their jobs. You need them in order to do yours. You are all in this together. No one is an adversary here and it would be a mistake to approach the business as if it were us against them.
These Workshops of mine are set up to help you define what you are selling (sorry if that sounds so coarse, it sort of is) and how best to present whatever that is. These Workshops are designed to make you castable, for lack of a better word, though, in truth, that is the perfect word. I don’t think it’s a real word (my computer certainly doesn’t think so) but I trust its meaning is clear: people who have the power to hire you take one look at you and think they have an idea of how to use you. That makes you castable. It doesn’t really matter if they are right or not about who they think you are. What matters is that they think they are right and they want to audition you for the role of Ellen Page’s sister right now. If I am meeting with a guy in my office and he cracks wise so I think maybe he could get a sit-com and I say, “Hey, you’re funny,” it is so predictable (and so boring) that he will almost certainly reply, “No, I think I’m more right for the dark edgy kind of roles, like Jack O’Connell.” Well, I think to myself, you aren’t as handsome or as interesting as Jack O’Connell and maybe, if you aren’t funny, I’m not sure what I could even do for you. So you should probably get out of my office.
Are we clear so far? It is my Socratic plan to talk a little bit – or sometimes more than a little bit – about things you will need to know while you are going about breaking into show business. After I feel I have made whatever point I have been trying to make, I will offer a Workshop illustrating – hopefully – the wisdom I have just imparted to you.
Let me insert a word here about all the stories I tell in this book. I love show business stories. I love hearing them and I love telling them. All of the stories in this book are true or are true in spirit. I cannot swear they are completely true because where’s the fun in that? But their essence is always true and I hope the lessons – if lessons there are – are instructive. I have tried not to be mean – with some exceptions. So let’s talk a little bit about how it starts.