The most critical factor in getting great headshots is to find the right photographer for you. The best place to start is to ask actor friends who they recommend, especially if you like their headshots. If you’re new to town and don’t know many actors yet, try asking fellow students—because of course you’re taking a class. You can also visit a reputable photo lab that specializes in headshot photography and ask for a list of recommended photographers.
Though it’s important that you are impressed by a photographer’s portfolio or website, it’s more important that you feel comfortable with the person you’re hiring. Always meet in person with the photographer ahead of time to make sure that you are going to get along. Nothing is worse than having your picture taken by someone who makes you uncomfortable.
While there’s the cliché that it’s all in the eyes when it comes to a strong headshot, we’d argue that conveying your personality is more critical. As Los Angeles–based photographer Vanie Poyey told Back Stage, “You have to treat your headshot as a business card. So you want to have as much personality in that headshot to sell yourself as an actor as you possibly can. And you also want to have as much range as possible.”
It’s also crucial for actors to know what they want to convey in their shots. As L.A.-based photographer Maarten DeBoer
said, “I usually ask what roles [clients] want to go out for, I try to get a sense of who they are, and I ask them to be themselves on the shoot. Delusion is a part of what makes or breaks a shoot.” He added, “Knowing who you are, how you look, and having confidence is clearly important.”
As for retouching, subtlety is key. Said Jim Lafferty, owner of Jim Lafferty Photography in New York, “Actors should want their retouchers to stay away from taking things out that are a part of their natural character.” He noted that a good retoucher “wants to work with you in collaboration” and devotes ample time to your headshots. Lastly, he recommends that actors get a second opinion from a knowledgeable source, to be sure the finished product is realistic.
To help us answer the question “What goes into a great headshot?” we asked members of the Actors’ Network, a Los Angeles–based organization that focuses on the business of acting, to chime in. Here’s how they responded:
“Something that actually looks like you, preferably on a good day. Likeness and giving the viewer great connection with the picture’s eyes is more important than quality—although both are desirable, of course. Don’t spend a fortune on overproduced headshots. It’s not the production value that makes it stand out; it’s the motif.
“[When shopping for a photographer] look at what he or she has done before, if you like the type of pics and the feeling they convey. Meeting them once and being on the same page is another thing that’s great. You want someone creative and cooperative, who listens to your ideas but can also give their input to make them better.
“Get a really good night’s sleep before the shoot, drink plenty of water, and go have fun. It’s not brain surgery and it’s not forever. You may be taking new shots in a couple of months anyway. Connect with the camera and the photographer, and try to detach from outcomes. Pretty much like an audition, in other words!”
—Christian Magdu, actor
“It has to pop! With the explosion of online casting in recent years, your picture has to stand out among hundreds if not thousands. Casting directors and agents can easily browse actors quicker with online submissions and just as easily delete your picture.
“Research, research, research. Meet as many photographers as possible. Do you like their style, approach, portfolio, attitude, and price? The cost of a session doesn’t always determine the quality.
“Know exactly how many looks you want so you can prepare an equal amount of changes. Know the differences between casual, business casual, and upscale casual. Know your type and target areas. Are you a casual young college girl or an upscale professional?”
—Stephen Inghram, actor
“A great headshot shows your personality and instantly casts you in a certain type of role. I don’t believe in one-size-fits-all headshots. Think about your target audience: the producers, writers, directors, and casting directors who produce the projects you want to be in. Then work backwards from there.
“When choosing a photographer, of course you need to like their work, and getting recommendations from fellow actors is great, but even more so, you need to have a good rapport with the person. They are going to be capturing your essence, so it’s essential that you feel comfortable with them.
“For my most recent shoot, I created characters with my thoughts, wardrobe, and even a music playlist that went along with each look. For example, for this picture, it included ‘Bette Davis Eyes’ and ‘If I Ain’t Got You.’ Then when it came time to choose the right picture, I asked myself, ‘Would the person I’m targeting be drawn to this photo?’ That made it easier than trying to please everyone!”
—Rebecca Jupiter, actor
“A great headshot consists of an attitude and personality that is natural to you, coupled with specific tones and colors that will complement you. A great headshot occurs when your eyes communicate a sense of ‘engagement’ with the person who is looking at your photo.
“Ask yourselves these questions when considering hiring a headshot photographer:
“1. Do I feel comfortable enough with this photographer to allow myself to be natural within the shot?
“2. Do I feel comfortable enough to tell them exactly what I’m looking for in a headshot?
“3. Review their portfolio thoroughly to look for: a) Focus in the eyes—good! b) Distracting backgrounds—avoid them! c) For commercial shots—headshots only! Avoid three-quarter body shots and pictures in horizontal mode.
“Know exactly what you are going to wear for each look before the session shoots. It’ll save both of you lots of time. Be willing to try a suggestion your photographer offers, be it wardrobe or expression. Some of the best shots happened unplanned, unposed. Allow spontaneity.”
—Ray Schiel, actor-photographer
And remember, whatever you do this time, pay attention. Agents and CDs expect you to get fresh headshots fairly frequently, so you’ll be rereading this how-to column soon.
—Jamie Painter Young
How to Determine Your Type
If you are an actor who did theater in high school and college, you have probably played all different types of roles. However, if you want to make your living as a professional actor, most of your auditions—particularly in television or film—will probably be for characters who are close to who you are as a person.
“One of the things that confounds me is that academia by and large still trains people to be fantastic repertory actors but not necessarily focused on TV and film,” says casting director John Papsidera (“The Dark Knight,” “Zombieland”). “I think the concept of ‘You can play any role’ doesn’t really apply to TV and film. Most actors end up playing a version of who they are.”
“Filmmaking is not theater. Filmmaking is visual,” says casting director Matthew Lessall (“Rocket Science”). “Actors have to be honest with what they look like, at least when they’re starting out. People who ‘get it’ usually find their niche very quickly and book consistently.”
“With casting ‘Criminal Minds,’ we have such little time to cast each episode. Actors who know their type help us move that much quicker,” says casting associate Erica Silverman. “We love actors who are fully aware of who and what they are, so that when they are submitting they are submitting properly, and when they come in the room they are completely appropriate for the character. Don’t submit to everything in your age range and ethnicity. Focus on the roles that you are really right for so when you get into the room, you’ll nail it. You will have confidence that you can absolutely play the role because there is something in you that is inherently that character already.”
Here are a few tips to help you determine your type.
• Start by studying the smaller roles on television and film rather than the leads or series regulars. Does anyone look, sound, seem, or feel like you? Could you have been cast convincingly in that role?
• Look at the auditions you have had over the past year. “If you’re always going in for a certain type of role and you feel confident and you’re getting good feedback on those roles, that’s probably close to what you should be,” says Lessall. “But if you are going in and you’re not getting callbacks or booking the job, then obviously that’s not where your strength lies.”
• Consider your personal interests. Do you play sports? Are you a musician? Do you enjoy art? Science? Motorcycles? Ballet? What makes you different from the other actors who look similar to you sitting in the waiting room? What’s your day job? What do you have experience doing that other actors might not have? Is that something you could put under “special skills” on your résumé? Casting directors love when they can cast someone who is the “real deal,” so why not use who you are to help you get those smaller roles?
• Silverman suggests thinking about your vocal quality. “Is your voice higher-pitched? You’ll probably be better for the more soft, emotional roles,” Silverman says. “Does your voice have strength behind it? You’re better for the tougher roles.”
• Ask your peers. A close family member or friend might not want to hurt your feelings by speaking objectively. So ask another actor, an agent or manager, a casting person, or a teacher. Or find a class, workshop, or networking group that focuses on determining types.
Once you have figured out what your type is, make sure you are marketing yourself correctly. Your most important marketing tool is your headshot. Is your headshot portraying how you see yourself being cast? Do you need two or three headshots that suggest the different types you can play? Consider putting your current headshot up on TypeCastMe.com, which allows strangers to look at your headshot and click on the categories they think you fit. If these don’t match your type, it might be time for new shots.
“Take a picture that represents your type,” says Silverman. “Make sure it comes through in the pose, the wardrobe, the setting, the whole thing. If you are conservative, you’re not going to want a picture where you are the edgy goth girl. I like headshots that suggest a character. Don’t rent or buy a costume. Portray that strength in you. People can take a really great, standard headshot, but when I’m flipping through 1,500 submissions for a very specific role like a cop and you’re just submitting a regular everyday headshot, I’m probably going to skip over you. I have a very short amount of time to cast this exact role, and I need your picture to make me stop. By pushing yourself in that direction, it helps us so much.”
Finally, don’t worry about being typecast. “Over time, it will change,” says Lessall. “After years of working with various directors, producers, and casting directors, you can change the perception about who you are as an actor.”
How to: Choose a Monologue
A recent book on the acting business declared the audition monologue dead, to which actor nation cried “Hallelujah!” Sorry, monologue haters, but it’s still alive. Of the 144 calls listed on
ActorsEquity.com on April 20, 53 percent asked for a monologue. Add nonunion theater, college acting programs, and the occasional general audition for an agent or CD, and it’s clear you’ll be talking to invisible partners for years to come. Limiting yourself to film and TV is the only way to avoid monologues. Otherwise, here’s how to choose them:
Read, read, read. The more plays you read, the more likely you are to find monologues that suit you. You can also build a monologue from dialogue by leaving out the other character’s lines (Jack Poggi describes the process in detail in his book “The Monologue Workshop”). Fiction, memoirs, essays, and interviews can yield unconventional monologues. Some CDs suggest comedy albums. Screenplays and teleplays are another option, though the better-known monologues will be indelibly linked to the actors who originated them.
Some actors write their own monologues. The advantages: No one has ever heard them before, and you can create something uniquely suited to you. The disadvantages: Auditors may see this as cheating—the point, after all, is to take someone else’s words and make them your own—and few actors write well enough to create something memorable. So unless you also happen to be a brilliant playwright, leave the writing to professionals.
As for monologue books, they’re the lazy actor’s shortcut, which is why the monologues in them are so overdone. And those books of “original monologues”? Most are filled with dreck; avoid them.
Choose a monologue that’s appropriate to your age and type. That’s the conventional wisdom: The character should be one you might realistically be cast as. For example, you may be the best 18-year-old Willy Loman in the history of high school theater, but that won’t get you cast as the middle-aged salesman in a professional production. Many auditors will have a hard time looking past your inappropriateness for the role, no matter how awesome you are.
On the other hand, director Karen Kohlhaas, in her book “The Monologue Audition,” says she’s heard of just as many cases “in which an actor got a part because he took a risk in his choice of material” or opened an agent’s mind by performing a monologue that didn’t fit the actor’s “type.” And in “The Perfect Monologue,” Ginger Howard Friedman writes, “Don’t limit yourself by allowing your age, gender, or race to prevent you from choosing a piece of material when the dialogue and circumstances affect you very deeply.” The bottom line: The further you drift from your type, the bigger risk you’re taking—but if you’re particularly dazzling and the auditor is particularly open-minded, it might pay off.
Choose a monologue that reveals your strengths as an actor. Show the auditor what you do best, whether it’s timing jokes or jerking tears. But don’t look for a single monologue to convey the whole range of your talent. Monologues like that don’t exist. That’s why you need more than one. Most teachers recommend having at least a classical dramatic, a classical comedic, a contemporary dramatic, and a contemporary comedic monologue. But the more you have to choose from—and can do at a moment’s notice—the more flexibility you’ll have in tailoring your choice to the audition.
Choose a monologue that’s active. Your character should be actively engaged in a high-stakes struggle or conflict. And you should need a response from the person you’re speaking to. “Need is the greatest help in doing a monologue,” writes Michael Shurtleff in “Audition.” “Needing a specific reaction or series of reactions from your invisible partner.” In “The Actor’s Audition,” David Black writes, “If your monologue contains an unforeseen event that changes what your character is trying to accomplish, you will have more to react to.” Kohlhaas recommends that your monologue tell “a complete story—it has a beginning, middle, climax, and end.” But beware monologues in which your character reminisces about something that happened in the past; they seldom make good audition pieces.
Choose a monologue you enjoy and relate to. No matter how much someone says, “This monologue is perfect for you,” if you don’t enjoy it, you won’t want to rehearse it, you’ll dread performing it, and auditioning will be a nightmare. Auditions are stressful enough; don’t make them worse by picking material you don’t love, a character you can’t identify with, or a situation you don’t connect with emotionally.
Choose a monologue that’s appropriate to what you’re auditioning for. If it’s a gritty urban drama, your Molière piece would be a poor choice. If it’s “As You Like It,” they probably won’t want to hear your David fuckin’ Mamet. If you’re auditioning for a theater company, find out what kind of shows it produces. (An experimental troupe, as Kohlhaas points out, might actually want you to play against type.) Some auditors, especially at regional combined auditions, prefer not to hear monologues involving graphic violence or sex. Others warn against props or dialects. If it’s an agent audition or a general audition, simply choose a monologue that reflects who you are and the kind of roles you see yourself playing.
Choose a monologue that’s unfamiliar…or not. Advice on choosing a monologue usually concludes with a list of pieces that CDs, agents, and directors are tired of hearing. The problem is, every auditor will have a different list. (Google “overdone monologues” and you’ll find dozens of them.) And not every auditor thinks well-worn monologues are automatically a bad idea. Some even prefer them, and some will recall being thrilled by an actor who brought something new to an old warhorse. So unless you know the particular likes and dislikes of your auditor, go with the monologue that you can do better than anyone else.
How to: Dress for an Audition
You’ve landed an audition. Now the all-consuming concern: what to wear.
• Do not wear a costume. Try to convey the essence of the character you’re auditioning for rather than wearing a uniform or costume.
New York casting director Ilene Starger (“The Pink Panther 2,” “Night at the Museum”) says actors should use common sense in terms of the character’s social standing and dress accordingly: “I think if one is playing an upscale, sophisticated character—i.e., a lawyer or a stockbroker—don’t wear ripped jeans and a T-shirt. I don’t mean come wearing a costume, but I think one should come in looking as much like the character as possible. Likewise, if you’re coming in for a drug addict, don’t wear a suit. I don’t mean spend money to buy outfits or come in wearing a cop uniform if you’re playing a cop; I’m just talking about good common sense.”
Los Angeles CD Johanna Ray (“Kaboom,” “The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call–New Orleans”) says the most important thing is for the actor to feel comfortable: “Actors perform best when they are comfortable. Sometimes when an actor dresses for the role—particularly if it’s for something like a hooker—the outfit and the makeup can prevent you from seeing beyond that, unless the performance is absolutely brilliant.”
Casting director Pat Moran (Washington, D.C., casting for “State of Play,” “A Dirty Shame”) warns actors not to arrive wearing a stethoscope if they’re reading for the part of a doctor: “If I couldn’t see them as a doctor, I wouldn’t have called them. The stethoscope thing makes me nuts. Why do you think I called you in? Or if they’re reading the part of a coal miner, I don’t need a coal miner’s hat. I did see you as a coal miner.”
• Do not wear anything distracting. L.A. CD Monica Swann (“The Bridge to Nowhere,” “Phat Girlz”) advises actors not to wear something that’s overly distracting, like jewelry that makes too much noise: “If every time you move around there’s this tinkling, people can’t hear all of your words. You don’t want anything that’s going to detract from the performance.”
• Do not wear white. Starger warns that white can wash you out: “If you’re going on camera, it’s probably not good to wear white near your face, because it tends to bleach you out and it makes the recording process difficult.” Instead, try to wear colors that pop and bring out your eyes, hair, and other features. Not a fan of color? Black is slimming and very theatrical and is usually flattering on every complexion.
• Do not wear too much cologne or perfume. In today’s allergy-ridden environment, powerful fragrances are not a good idea, says Swann: “You have to think about the fact that we’re seeing 10 people back to back, and when there are 10 very strong fragrances in a small room, it gets to be a bit overpowering. You don’t want to do anything that’s going to keep people from focusing on the performance in the room.”