How to deal with audition curveballs

curveball

1 delivery in which the pitcher causes the ball to deviate from a straight path by imparting spin.

1.1 North American informal Something which is unexpected, surprising, or disruptive.

You’ve been in this situation. You have meticulously prepared for an audition. You’ve worked on the character’s arc, maybe you’ve even practiced an accent, but when you get in the room, the director or casting director throws you a curveball: throw it all out. It happens, they ask you to read for a different character or they tell you the whole character has changed and throw a new scene at you cold. What do you do? It’s tough and it sucks because you have to forget everything you just worked on, but don’t see this as a negative. Everyone else who came in has been thrown this same curveball, and the way you handle it can help you get the job. Here are some tips for being quick on your feet.

Go big or go home

If you find out the shy quiet babysitter is now a maniacal serial killer, go with it BIG TIME. A curveball gives you the opportunity to make bold choices so do it. If what you thought was a tense drama is now a raucous comedy, make it funny (really funny). Don’t let what you previously worked on control your new choices.

Don’t second guess yourself

Acting is like dating: confidence is attractive and indecisiveness is not. When you get thrown a curveball, just go with it and make the best of it. Be decisive and be yourself and don’t worry about saying and doing the wrong thing. They know you haven’t had the chance to prepare so don’t worry about it being perfect. If you make a mistake, just keep going.

Have a positive attitude

You may be thinking, “I can’t believe these fools just asked me to do something entirely different.” But the reason we probably asked is because we realized the sides weren’t working or because we think you might be better for another role. We’re not trying to trip you or ruin your day. Even if you feel frustrated, just smile and dive in. Being flexible is a great quality for an actor; we all know that no project goes exactly to plan.

Let it go

Please. Please. Please. Don’t keep bringing up what you prepared and how much time, energy, and thought you spent preparing. We know and we’re sorry but things have changed now. Pointing out the fact that you didn’t have time to prepare this new material is unnecessary. We know! Just do the best you can, and let go of what happened before you entered the room.

 

 

 

 

How to Stand Out in a Sea of Talent

 

There are so many actors out there that it might seem like casting is really easy. I mean, all you have to do is walk down the street in New York and you’ll probably run into an actor. But the fact is that while the talent pool is vast, it’s not necessarily as deep as you might think. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that New York actors aren’t skilled and talented and well trained, they are, very much so. I’m saying that it can be hard to find talented actors who don’t… look like actors.

In a sea of headshots, does your stand out or blend in? Here are ways to separate yourself from the crowd.

Do something, anything, different with your hair.

This specifically applies to women but is also valid for men as well. Everyone has the same three hairstyles, and while it may be true that if I’m looking for an edgy girl with piercings and tattoos, we can achieve that effect through hair and make up, if your headshot makes you look like a soccer mom, it will be harder for the team to imagine you in the role. Don’t be afraid to do something different; try an asymmetrical haircut or a fun color. Even just short hair on a woman can be a strong choice or just wear your hair natural. You may not get called in for soccer moms anymore but you will get called in for every single hipster role.

madelinelevineheadshot

Actress Madeline Kelsey then…

img_5505_webready-e1430065885685

And now…

Madeline landed a campaign of online and subway ads for Smile Direct Club. Her choice of an edgy look helps her stand out.

 

Have a sense of style

I understand that actors want to be blank slates that can be transformed into anything, but sometimes a blank slate is just that, empty. Make bold style choices that give us a sense of who you are. Embrace your personal style and be consistent whether going to auditions are going to lunch. Have fun! Be bold! Dare to be different!

Get new skills

Learn a language. Take a tap dancing class. Buy a unicycle. Learn a new sport. You would be surprised at the many different skills I am asked to cast and how small those talent pools become when suddenly an actor needs to speak a foreign language or do trapeze.

“Hands of Stone” and the White Gaze

 

I’d like to preface this piece by stating that I think Édgar Ramírez is one of the greatest actors working today. He is an actor with so many layers and skills that it constantly frustrates me that the projects he gets offered never take advantage of his talent (Joy, Zero Dark Thirty). (If you are unfamiliar with Ramírez’s genius, stop reading, go to Netflix and watch Carlos now! The man can act in 5 languages!!!) There was a time when Robert De Niro was my favorite working actor. Now, that time seems long ago as he continues to play a parody of a parody of his old characters, but I went into Hands of Stone thinking that maybe this combination of Ramírez, De Niro, and the life story of enigmatic boxer Roberto Durán could be the breakout/ comeback film I had hoped it would be when I first heard about it two years ago.

Unfortunately, Hands of Stone is not that film. There are many things that don’t work in the film, but the most egregious issue is that Durán as played by the always luminous Ramírez, is not the center of the film. That space is taken up by the character Ray Arcel, Durán’s American trainer, played by De Niro. Once again, even though there is a Latino star and a Latino director behind this film, the story revolves around the white character. This is Durán’s story through Arcel’s eyes and because it’s clear that Arcel never really understood Durán nor his motivations, the film doesn’t understand Durán either. Ramírez breathes life into this walking contradiction of a man, but the filmmaker seems uninterested in understanding Durán himself and instead relies on Arcel to provide oppressive voice over and in a painful press conference scene, to try to explain Durán’s motivation behind his most well-known moment. It’s not a spoiler to say that especially in the US, Roberto Durán is best known for quitting in the middle of a fight against “Sugar” Ray Leonard, and uttering the now famous words “No mas.” Durán, an icon in Panama, deserves a better film, and Édgar Ramírez deserves stronger material.

13687179_1189967434397891_259263406_n-750x400

Now, I hear over and over that it is difficult to finance a story unless there is a white guy at the center. (See Matt Damon wandering into 10th century China in the The Great Wall). Jonathan Jakubowicz, the filmmaker behind Hands of Stone even wrote a piece recently about the need for more Latino movie stars. I just wish Jakubowicz had made a better film and trusted that his star could be the true lead rather than centralizing the white character and making the story revolve around Arcel’s interpretation of Durán rather than Durán himself.  I still have hope though. I am waiting for some talented writer of any background to create a star vehicle for Édgar Ramírez where he actually gets to be the lead. This guy is a knockout.

Just Be Yourself

Remember that advice that you got on the first day of school “Just be yourself.” Well, it still rings true, especially for actors. The Daniel Day-Lewises of the world are the exceptions that prove the rule. Most actors will play characters that have similar traits to themselves, and there is nothing wrong with that.

A while back, I was casting a film where we needed an actor late 30s to mid 40s to play a European film director with a flair for the dramatic and a bit of a temper. The character was seductive and manipulative at once. It was a solid role. The creative team decided the character could be from any European country and we saw actors from France, Spain, Portugal, Poland, Russia. Sweden, and a few more. What I found ironic was that after living in the US for a number of years, several of the actors we saw had worked hard to reduce their accents and they struggled to speak in their original accent. They struggled to tap into their original language. They had done so much work to “fit in” in the US that they forgot what made them stand out in the first place.

My advice: Just be yourself. Of course actors can stretch and play different parts and no one wants to be locked into playing stereotypes, but don’t forgot what makes you special and differentiates you from the other actors out there. Sometimes, the hardest types to find can be “real New Yorkers.” There are plenty of “real New Yorkers” roaming the streets, but a real actor who still has an authentic born and raised edge is a diamond in the rough, that is why the talented actors who have maintained that edge work all the time.

Separate yourself from the crowd with your thing. If you’re from Georgia, don’t lose the accent, just learn to modulate it for different roles. Hang on to what makes you special and it will serve you down the road.

Got a Case of the Rep Sweats?

On this week’s episode of the fantastic podcast Code Switch, hosts Gene Demby and Kat Chow delved into the complexity of getting a case of the rep sweats. The rep sweats are a condition common to people of color and some women, especially those of us invested in entertainment, pop culture, and identity politics. We know that opportunities for people who look like us don’t come along every day, so when a new project comes out that features our people, we feel pressure to support it by watching and/ or buying tickets.

Rep sweaters are also hesitant to publicly criticize projects from, by, and about our people for fear that a lack of a united front could damage the possibility of future projects about us (listen to the episode to learn more about Margaret Cho’s sitcom All American Girl and why it took 20 years to get another Asian family sitcom on network TV).  The fear is legitimate, and a failure for one of us can be viewed as a failure for all of us. One misstep can be referenced again and again as the rule and not the exception. We don’t make things any harder for people who look like us so we support and hold our tongues.

I’ve written about similar issues on the blog before, but I’m interested to know how others feel on this topic. I know that if I dislike a play, movie, or film by and about black people, I am more likely to keep that information to myself. I don’t tend to watch TV shows out of obligation, but I have been known to buy a ticket during the opening weekend of a black movie just to give it my dollars so there might be more opportunities for black filmmakers in the future.

Is there something you do to show support for people of color in entertainment? Do you make a point of seeing films by women directors? Are you hesitant to criticize these works because of the potential backlash? Sound off in the comments.

Friday Netflix Festival: Black Film Canon

If you’ve been hiding under a rock, you may not have heard about the Black Film Canon a compilation of essential films from black directors compiled by the folks at Slate. There are some real gems on this list as well as a handful of films I haven’t seen. The earliest film is from 1921 and the latest is from 2016 so there is a lot to explore.

For this Friday’s Netflix Festival, here are a few canonical films that are streaming on Netflix right now.

Medicine for Melancholy (2008)

This film from Barry Jenkins chronicles the intersection of two black indie people in a gentrifying San Francisco.

 

Pariah (2011)

A tough and touching coming-of-age story about a teenage lesbian and her first sexual experiences. Directed by Dee Rees and beautifully photographer by Bradford Young, this film stars Adepero Oduye in fine form.

 

Fruitvale Station (2013)

Ryan Coogler’s first feature chronicles the last day in the life of Oscar Grant who was killed by police. Michael B. Jordan turns in a star-making performance.

Ashes & Embers (1982)

A little know (until now) film about a black man returning from Vietnam. I haven’t seen it yet, and didn’t know it existed until the Black Film Canon was released, so I’m looking forward to catching up with it this weekend.

Ashes-and-Embers

 

My Take on Strong Female Characters

One movie trope that we’re always hearing about is the strong female character.  She is shrewd in business or she is lethal in combat. She is able to compete in a man’s world and she can hang with the guys. She can drink like a fish and curse like a sailor. She is everything that we often associate with masculinity but she’s a woman and she’s really hot. This SFC trope has been used in films and TV for years, and it popped up multiple times recently, particularly in Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I’m taking nothing a way from those performances, but I am bothered by the idea that a strong woman is one who acts like one of the guys. As if male approval and assimilation is the height of feminine achievement. Let’s redefine that strong female character for the next generation. Here are my picks of the strong female characters from 2015 films. They are smart, inquisitive, vulnerable, emotional, accomplished, passionate, and mysterious.

Therese Belivet in Carol

Played by Rooney Mara, she is young and impressionable and not yet sure what she wants. Her ability to dig into her vulnerability allows her to take a chance that leads to adventure, heart break, and a greater sense of self possession.

 

Kate Mercer in 45 Years

Charlotte Rampling plays Kate so simply and perfectly. She is a woman who slowly realizes that everything in her 45 Year marriage may be built on lies. She doesn’t beat anyone up or stop an army. She does explore her own mind, her own weakness, and her marriage until secrets are revealed that cannot be unseen. Her strength is that she is human and flawed.

 

Bianca in Creed

Tessa Thompson takes a part that could simply be a love interest role and turns it into an indelible character. Bianca is smart, determined and fighting a battle of her own against hearing loss. Her music and her passion drive her. She brings Adonis into her life to supplement and enhance it, not because she needs him to make herself feel complete.

 

Lucille Sharpe in Crimson Peak

Jessica Chastain fills this role with a delicate balance of passion and restraint. As the sister-in-law who may or may not be a threat to a young bride, Lucille brims with danger and desire. She is such a magnetic character, that I forgot about the other characters when she was onscreen.

 

 

Building Relationships with Casting Directors, Agents, and Managers

 

635795918746083754-1755269739_the-golden-rule

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I can’t tell you how important it is to build relationships in this business. From my experience, there are people in this industry who approach a director, manager, casting director, agent, writer with a selfish intent. I can always tell when an actor approaches me with the clear objective of getting work from me. When/ if they glean that they can’t get work from me, they quickly move on. They see me and my colleagues only as a means to an end. No one wants to be treated that way. Yes, you want to work, but this is not the best way to go about it.

I love that actors are so passionate, but a self serving approach doesn’t get you ahead. What does get you ahead is building relationships with people. For example, on a regular basis I get calls, emails, and dropbys from actors who ask some variation on “Do you have any roles for me?”

This phrase usually comes in the first moments of the conversation. Half the time, the actor doesn’t even tell me his name.  I get it, you’re looking for work, but I’m not a vending machine for acting jobs. I’m a person who works very hard and appreciates respect.

The best way to approach an industry professional, especially someone you’ve never met, is to look up how that person wishes to be contacted. Guides like Call Sheet state each office’s preferred contact method. If in doubt, send a personal postcard.

When you meet someone in person, pay attention to the social cues that person gives you. Short answers usually mean that we’re very busy. Don’t keep pushing and probing. Don’t just try to find what I can do for you. See what you can do for me, in a non-kiss ass way. This relationship should be a two-way street. We need talented actors to fill roles, and you need roles. We should be working together. Engage us as humans and we will do the same.

So, when building those relationships, it’s important to get to know people a little bit (but not pry into personal business).

The Definitive Word on How to Become an Actor

masks

I get emails and comments all the time that ask the same basic question “How do I become an actor?” Often times the person asking the question is young and inexperienced; however, if one types into Google “how to become an actor” the results are staggering. There are thousands upon thousands of web sites, videos, podcasts, books, and social media exchanges related to this topic. So why are people still confused? Are they simply unsure of how to begin or does this go to a deeper question of what makes a good actor? Or are they really looking to find out what it takes to be famous?

I’ve been writing a book lately that has made me reflect a lot on this question. Here is my answer, for now,  (at least the short version, for a more in depth response, check out the book when it’s published).

To Become an Actor:

  1. Study acting: take classes, go to the theater, watch movies and TV.
  2. Study people: observe friends, family, strangers. Listen to the rhythms of people around you. Watch how they interact.
  3. Study yourself: look at yourself in the mirror, dig deep to get to know where you can and cannot go emotionally. Attempt to see yourself as others see you in the world. Develop your voice, body, and mind as tools of your trade.
  4. Start acting: put on a play, make a short film, work with fellow students on a webseries. Learn by doing as well as through practice.
  5. Develop a technique: create an approach that works for you based on your studies and your experiences. Use your technique as the foundation you build your roles on.
  6. Treat it like a job: get up every day and work toward being a better actor. Go on auditions. Keep working at it. Realize that your work has value. Be a professional.

What do you think? What advice would you give to an actor just starting out. How did you start? Do you think I should add or take away some thing?I look forward to your comments.

Friday Netflix Festival: South of the Border, Down Mexico Way

This weekend, sit back, relax with a tropical drink, and savor these films from our southern neighbor. Mexico has a daring and vibrant film culture, and these are just a few of the standout Mexican films you can watch on Netflix Instant right now!

Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001) It’s hard for me to express just how much I love this movie. This film marked the first time I had seen Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna and both are magical as best friends who go on a road trip with an older woman. This film is truly sexy, but also smart, and quiet. This remains my favorite film from future Oscar winner and Gravity helmer, Alfonso Cuaron. It is definitely worth watching again or seeing for the first time.

Like Water for Chocolate (1992) This sumptuous feast is sure to make you hungry. This vibrant and poetic film tells the story of a woman who magically infuses food with her emotions. It’s intense, epic and unforgettable.

Instructions Not Included (2013) This is not a great film. It’s sappy and sentimental and way too long, but man do I love it. Eugenio Derbez is playboy who gets saddled with his infant daughter after an old flame leaves her behind. He eventually moves to Hollywood to become a stuntman so he can provide for his little girl. That’s only a fraction of the story (yes it’s too long) but this film is deeply funny and harkens back to fun 80s comedies like Mr. Mom and Three Men and a Baby.

El Infierno (2013) There are a lot of films about the Mexican drug trade, but this one manages to rise above cheap violence and tell the story of a conflicted man. The film relies on humor to humanize its subjects but doesn’t shy away from the realities of small town Mexico.

 

For Your Consideration: An Oscar for Casting Directors

Have you ever watched the opening credits of a movie and thought about the work of the people who have made that film happen? Traditional opening credits include the main actors, director, producer, writer, cinematographer, hair, make-up, and costume designers, art director, editor, composer, sound and vfx director,  and casting director. All of these artists are eligible to win an Oscar for their efforts except the casting director (The Best Picture Oscar is awarded to the producer). Casting is a field in the film industry where women flourish; is it a coincidence that contributions of casting directors are largely overlooked?

Why are casting directors the odd ones out? The Emmys now honor casting directors, and the Academy now has a branch for casting directors. Why is there still no award? Some argue that casting directors don’t make final casting decisions so they should not be eligible for an award, but by that argument cinematographers and editors wouldn’t be eligible either. Who knows whether an acting choice was the idea of the actor or the writer or the director. Does that mean actors shouldn’t be eligible because all the choices were not their own? I think the tide is turning and in about 5 years or so, we’ll see a casting category at the Oscars. I predict the casting nominees will be CDs who cast large ensemble pieces or who discover new, vibrant talent.  Also, CDs who thought of casting an actor in light could receive this honor. Another casting challenge is finding actors to portray real people from history and biopics are some of the most successful properties come Oscar time. Finally, casting multiple versions of the same person (for example a film like 2002’s Iris) could prove award worthy as well.

Let’s look back at  a few of the last 10 years and consider what would or should have been nominated and who should have won.

2005

Nominees:  Avy Kaufman for Brokeback Mountain, Sarah Finn & Randi Hiller for Crash, Chris Gray and Kimbelry Hardin for Hustle & Flow, Avy Kaufman for Capote, and Mary Venieu for Sin City

Anyone who knows me knows that I loathe Crash (seriously, I really really hate this movie. It’s Best Picture win still bothers me 10 years later)  but I definitely think that the ensemble piece would have been nominated and possibly if there were an Oscar for casting, Crash might have won that award and Brokeback Mountain might not have been robbed. My personal choice would have been Sin City, the range of talent in that film is stunning and they’re all giving top notch performances to match the cool comic style. Rutger Hauer, Mickey Rourke, Clive Owen, Rosario Dawson, Bruce Willis, Jessica Alba, Brittany Murphy, Carla Gugino, Benicio del Toro, Powers Boothe, Nick Stahl, Elijah Wood, Michael Clarke Duncan… this was some cast.

2007

Nominees: Ellen Chenoweth for No Country for Old Men, Avy Kaufman for American Gangster, Laray Mayfield for Zodiac, Richard Hicks & David Rubin for Hairspray, Jina Jay for Atonement and Laura Rosenthal for I’m Not There.

This is another solid year. Casting a musical is a daunting task, and I had to give props to the Hairspray team. Children are also difficult to cast as are younger and older versions of the same person which is why Atonement, with it’s Oscar nominated turn from Saoirse Ronan, makes the list. Zodiac works so well due to the three hefty talents at it’s center (Gyllenhaal, Downey, and Ruffalo), and No Country for Old Men is still best known for it’s inventive use of Javier Bardem. For me, though, there’s no greater casting achievement than I’m Not There. It’s got Cate Blanchett as a gender bending Bob Dylan, Christian Bale and Heath Ledger as two sides of the same coin, and then Richard Gere and a little kid. Throw in chronically underappreciated Ben Whishaw and you’ve got a masterpiece.

2010

Nominees: Mary Vernieu for Black Swan, Laura Rosenthal for The Kids Are All Right, Kerry Barden & Paul Schnee Winter’s Bone, Ellen Chenoweth True Grit, Sheila Jaffe The Fighter, Lisa Miller Katz for Easy A

In a year with few true stand out films, there a few casts that draw special attention. The Kids Are All Right has some very strong performances and believable teenagers which are always difficult to cast. Also, more Ruffalo which is never a bad thing. Winter’s Bone was the breakout for now omnipresent Jennifer Lawrence, and The Fighter garnered multiple acting nominations, but I would give it to Black Swan for bringing together unexpected choices Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis along with the amazing Vincent Cassell 9and lest we forget Winona Ryder).

2013

Nominees: Sophie Blanvillain & Bahijja El Amrani for Blue is the Warmest Color, Kerry Barden & Paul Schnee for Prisoners, Ellen Chenoweth for Inside Llewyn Davis, Francine Maisler for 12 Years a Slave,  Tracy”Twinkie” Byrd & Nina Hettinger for Fruitvale Station.

This is another strange but exciting year. I’d like to point out that any repeat nominations are purely coincidental, I looked at the films released first and then looked to see who cast them. It shows that certain casting directors are always at the top of their game. So, I chose Blue is the Warmest Color because of the magical pairing or Léa Seydoux and the breathtakingly awesome Adèle Exarchopoulos. Prisoners stands out due to the top notch casting on all levels. Evry actor in that film could carry any movie. 12 Years a Slave gets a nod for “discovering” Lupita Nyong’o.  I would give the victory to Fruitvale Station mainly because of its young leads, Michael B. Jordan and Melonie Diaz.

Black is the New Black

It’s official: black folks are in again! With the success of new TV shows like How to Get Away with Murder, Black-ish, and Empire, networks and studios are hungry to get their hands on more black properties. Next season there are multiple shows with predominantly black casts or with a black actor in one of the lead roles. Here are some of the potential highlights.

Minority Report (Fox) stars Meagan Good as a detective working with a former precog (Stark Sands) in this follow up to the film of the same name.

Rosewood (Fox) stars Morris Chestnut as an accomplished and ambitious doctor who lives life to the fullest.

People Are Talking  (NBC) stars Tone Bell and Bresha Webb as a modern  suburban couple.

The Player (NBC) will feature Wesley Snipes in a lead role.

Uncle Buck (ABC) starts Nia Long and James Lesure with Mike Epps as the title character.

 

 

 

5 Books By Black Women that Should Be Turned into Movies

OctaviaEButler_Kindred

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

50% science fiction, 50%  historical fiction and 100% awesome, Kindred tells the story of a modern woman sent back to early 1800s Maryland to help an ancestor. For those who don’t know their history, Maryland was a slave state and this is pre- Civil War era. Our heroine’s journey is epic in scope and yet deeply personal and specific. Kindred is provocative, intelligent, and full of tension. It would make a taught historical, science fiction, thriller.

32 Candles by Ernessa T. Carter

A girl who was bullied in high school reinvents 32Candlesfinalcoverherself in glamorous Los Angeles, but her past catches up to her and threatens her new life. This riff on the John Hughes film 16 Candles has a cinematic feel and a charming heroine.  This could be fantastic vehicle for Nicole Beharie, Yaya Dacosta or Adepero Oduye. It would be great to see a smart romantic comedy that it is actually funny!

Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self by Danielle Evans

before-you-suffocate-your-own-fool-self_custom-372bfc74702fe326115846748a71a1ae3d14b07c-s800-c15

This series of 8 short stories is so visual and full of life, that you could easily make 8 beautiful short films. The characters are so rich and vivid and come from different walks of life, but Evans imbues them with such distinct voices that it’s hard to believe that each story has the same author. She is a great talent, and short film adaptations of these stories would keep black and multi-racial actors working for years.

The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis

Twelve tribes of hattie

This novel explores the life of Hattie and her descendants over some of the most difficult and defining years in American history. There is so much for a filmmaker to play with in this novel; the imagery is staggering and the language is heightened and poetic.

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
Salvage the Bones

This visceral novel is steeped in mythology and jam-packed with visuals. Jesmyn Ward’s National Book Award winner explores the life of Esch, a teenage girl exploring the nature of love and sexuality in the days before Hurricane Katrina. It is raw, stunning, and definitely worthy of a first-class adaptation. Hunger Games actress Amandla Stenberg would shine in this role.

What is Black Cinema?

MORNING

In the Morning, part of the BAM New Voices in Black Cinema Festival.

A few weeks back, I attended a screening in the New Voices in Black Cinema Festival.  I often seek out films by and about black people because I want to support my community and like every one else, I have a desire to see images of myself reflected on screen. After watching that film and others like it at similar festivals, I was struck by an important question: what is Black Cinema?

The poster for the 2012 action war film Red Tails

At first, I decided that a black film is one that has a black protagonist and is either written or directed by a black filmmaker. Fruitvale Station fits and so does The ButlerHowever, the latest efforts by respected black filmmakers John Singleton and Antoine Fuqua do not (Abduction and Southpaw, respectively)Under my definition, a film like Spike Lee’s Inside Man would be a black film so would Amma Assante’s Belle, but I don’t really think the term fits either film.  It seems slightly more fitting for Red Tails, but even with a majority black cast and a black writer and director, I don’t know if I would say Red Tails is a black film. My inadequate definition leaves room for the dubious Eddie Murphy vehicle Norbit as well as Tyler Perry’s entire oeuvre. Ride Along and Think Like a Man would qualify while Dreamgirls, The Color Purpleand The Help would not. It’s a curious question – what makes a black film– I believe I’ve yet to find the answer.

Mega Sized Movie Poster Image for Newlyweeds

The poster for Newlyweeds

When most people I know talk about Black Cinema today, they’re talking about independent films like Big Words, Newlyweeds, Mother of George, and In the Morning (the film I saw at BAM  a few weeks back). There are other films with largely black casts like Beasts of the Southern WildBlue Caprice and Gimme the Loot, but without a black writer or director behind them, can they truly be black films?  Ultimately, does it even matter? Is it still important to have a separate cinema?  Are the relatively few people who go to black film festivals the only ones who even vaguely care?

Time to weigh in. What’s your definition of a black film? Is there even such a thing? Have black filmmakers become part of the mainstream? Sound off in the comments.

Is This the End of the Socially Awkward White Male Genius?

allegiance-keyart-promo

Allegiance, the ever so derivative Russian spy show on NBC, has been cancelled after 5 episodes. I’m always a little sad when a TV show gets cancelled because that puts people out of work, and Allegiance shot in New York and I know a few people who worked on it in one capacity or another. However, it was yet another show where a genius white guy solves mysteries that the regular cops or FBI or CIA can’t possibly figure out. But wait! He also doesn’t understand social cues, or humor, or sarcasm!

Sound familiar? A socially awkward white male genius (who almost always has a female partner) who solves crimes but can’t seem to connect with people emotionally? Well it should only sound familiar if you’ve seen House, The Mentalist, CSI, Scorpion, Elementary, Sherlock, Dr. Who, Criminal Minds, Monk, Backstrom, and/ or The Big Bang Theory.  In the TV world, the fact that these guys are good at their jobs excuses them from being decent human beings (well, some of them are half way decent, but they all lack connection to the real world). This kind of on screen behavior is primarily afforded to white men. While there a few exceptions, Dr. Temperance Brennan on Bones springs to mind, these characters are almost exclusively male. They are also overwhelmingly white which says two things: white men are smarter than the rest of us and because of their far superior intelligence, we mere mortals should excuse their rude, angry, insufferable, sexist, racist, insert-negative-word-here behavior.

I’m over this TV trope. First, being a genius apparently does not make you that special because every network has a few. Secondly, these characters are so lacking in originality that it’s often hard to tell one from another. Finally, if women and people of colored were offered these roles more often, I might not be as dismissive. Antisocial behavior from women and people of color is not excused and forgiven in our society. A cime-solving Latina genius who is also a socially awkward misanthrope might be fun and provocative, but for now it seems intelligence and jerky behavior are the white man’s terrain.

So, while it sucks that Allegiance was cancelled, I hope this will make way for a show that doesn’t wallow in these same tired racist and sexist tropes that have dominated TV for years now. Men shouldn’t simply be excused for their anti-social behavior and women and people of color can fill genius roles as well.

Why Don’t Actors Think They’re Worth Minimum Wage?

I work with actors on a daily basis. Actors spend a lot of money developing their craft. Classes, coaches, workshops, and headshots are not cheap. Then when all the effort and investment pays off and an actor gets hired for an AEA showcase or an independent film, that actor is often paid less than minimum wage.

Is your skill and craft worth less than $7.25/ hr?  (the current federal minimum wage. It’s $9/hr in CA and $8.75/hr in NY) Then why are you accepting so little for your work? I’ve touched on this subject before, but now with a new AEA 99 seat contract looming in LA, the question remains. Why don’t actors think they’re worth minimum wage?

will_act_4_food

The debate over the new 99 seat contract in LA is about paying actors minimum wage for their rehearsal and performance time. Producers and actors have come out overwhelmingly AGAINST paying actors minimum wage. We want to raise the minimum wage for fast food workers, security guards, and retail employees, but when it comes to acting, even actors are against paying themselves minimum wage. That, my friends, is messed up.

The answers I most often hear are:  If I ask for more money, they’ll just go with someone else or The theatre can’t sustain itself if we pay actors minimum wage.

Let’s start with the first one. You may be right, if you ask for more money you may be passed over in favor of someone cheaper. In a relationship, if you assert your value and make it clear that you won’t date a cheater, your girlfriend may break up with you, but who wants to date a cheater? Who wants to work on a project where your skills aren’t valued? If your answer is, “I do.” That, my friends, is messed up.

I work with film students on a daily basis and somewhere along the line, they’ve been told that actors are a dime a dozen and that you don’t have to pay actors or treat them well and you’ll still get what you need from them.

Now, imagine that if in the above sentence, I replaced “film students” with “men” and “actors” with “women”. It would read:

I work with men on a daily basis and somewhere along the line, they’ve been told that women are a dime a dozen and that you don’t have to pay women or treat them well and you’ll still get what you need from them.

We’re outraged at blatant sexism but disrespect for acting doesn’t seem to ruffle any one’s feathers. We demand equal pay for women but balk at paying actors minimum wage. That, my friends, is messed up.

The second argument is that the theatre won’t survive if actors get paid minimum wage. To that I say: okay. If theatres fold because they can’t afford to pay actors a minimum wage, then so be it. They clearly have a flawed business model if they are reliant on an underpaid workforce. Wouldn’t we say the same thing about a business that paid low wages under the table to undocumented workers and then forced them to work in substandard conditions? Why do actors think they deserve to be treated this way? That, my friends, is messed up.

My hope is that by collectively asserting the value of acting, actors will actually be able to make a living from their work. Actors and non-actors: let’s talk about why this under valuing of acting talent exists and what we can do to make a lasting change.

The Blair Underwood Effect or Where Are My Good Black Men?

When I was a kid, Thursday night was the only night that mattered on TV. In the late 80s and early 90s, Must See TV consisted of The Cosby ShowA Different World, Cheers, some random show at 9:30pm, and then in the 10 o’clock slot, L.A. Law.

History+Blair+Underwood+in+LA+Law+in+the+1980s++2

Blair Underwood shutting it down as Jonathan Rollins on L.A. Law.

I was just a kid so I didn’t understand everything that was happening on the show, and my parents often sent me to bed not too long after the episode started. However, there was one abundantly clear thing about L.A. Law: Blair Underwood was on the show. For those unfamiliar with this American TV classic, L.A. Law was a drama about a law firm that starred an array of beautiful people pretending to be lawyers. Corbin Bernsen, Harry Hamlin, Jimmy Smits, Susan Dey, and a host of others filled out the cast. They handled a docket of complex civil and criminal cases. In season 2, Blair Underwood arrived on the show; he played a cocky, young, brilliant attorney named Jonathan Rollins. Don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t hurt that Blair Underwood was and still is drop dead gorgeous, but I remember being enthralled by this strong, self-assured, educated black man. I had never seen anything like it on TV, not even on St. Elsewhere or comedies like The Cosby Show and A Different World. My parents are both college educated. I grew up in the suburbs so I understood that black professionals existed, but actually seeing a skilled and respected professional black man at work  on TV (not just on the basketball court or the football field) it was life changing.

dm1murder07z-a-600

Viola Davis plays a top lawyer on How to Get Away with Murder

empire_13999075234443

Terrence Howard plays a drug dealer turned rapper turned mogul on Empire.

Today when I see Viola Davis, Kerry Washington, Gabrielle Union, Nicole Beharie and other strong, intelligent complex black women on TV, it still means a lot to me and I know it means a lot to young people too. But, I have to ask, where are the good black men on TV today? I don’t need them to be saints, and we all know that the black women on TV have their flaws (which is a good thing) but would it kill us to see a black man who is not a by-the-numbers detective or criminal. A criminal in a suit is still a criminal. When the best roles for black men on network TV are still drug dealers, I have to wonder if in some ways we’ve taken two steps forward and two steps back. Don’t get me wrong, I love Empire, but I wish there were more roles for black men than just drug dealers or cops. Look at the dramas you watch, and count the number of black men who are neither criminals nor cops. I don’t think TV characters need to be role models, but I think diversity is important. Images matter because we can be truly inspired by what we see, and we can be muted by the stereotypes that limit the way we are perceived.

Is it Time to Leave Your Agent?

I talk to a lot of actors who are trying to get an agent. They think that if they can just break through and get representation, that will catapult their careers to the next level. A trickier dilemma for many mid-career actors is when to seek different representation. There are issues of loyalty at play as well as the fact that many actors do not know how to navigate the process of changing agents. I’ve put together some thoughts on how to decide if it’s time to move on and how to land the new agent who will help build your career. First, the reasons to jump ship:

1. You’re not getting sent out on auditions

Your agent works with you and for you. It should be in your agent’s interest to send you out. If you are never going out, there is some sort of disconnect. Either your agent isn’t working for you or your materials aren’t speaking to the CDs who are casting. Maybe your agent is submitting you for the wrong projects. There can be many reasons why you aren’t getting auditions through your agent, but at the end of the day, your agent is there to connect you with more work so if you aren’t even being seen, there’s a problem. If you aren’t getting sent out, schedule a meeting  with your agent (face-to-face) to talk about the kinds  of projects he/she is submitting you for.  Find out if you’re on the same page about the kinds of auditions you should be getting. Which leads us to….

2. Your agent is never available

The job of a talent agent is difficult and thankless, but you should still be able to schedule an occasional  sit down with your agent. At the very least, you should be able to schedule a phone call. Your agent should respond to your messages in a timely fashion. When your agent is incommunicado, it might be time move on.

3. You’re not growing

It’s important that actors continue to grow. The agent who was able to get you in the door for the projects you wanted 5 years ago, may not be able to give you access to the projects you want now. That’s okay. I always say, you never want to be one of your agent’s best known or most experienced clients (unless you’re represented by CAA, WME, UTA, etc) If you’re the most well known client at a small agency, the chances are that your agent isn’t able to get you to the jobs that the other actors at your level have access to. That’s not always the case, your agent may be working tirelessly on behalf of his best client, but if you’re not getting sent out as well (see #1) then it is probably time to consider your other options.

Jeremy Piven

Jeremy Piven as everyone’s favorite talent agent on Entourage.

So, now that you’ve decided to see what’s out there, how do you find a new agent? Chances are your last agent found you at a showcase or film festival and now that you’re looking to move out, you might have to approach a new rep on your own.

1. Do your research

Investigate every agency that seems like it might be a good fit. Talk to friends and colleagues about their relationships with their agents. Look at an actor who is your same type who is where you want to be in 3 years. That person’s agent may be an excellent choice for you because she has already guided someone along that same path. Also, it’s important to review any contractual obligations you might have to your agent before moving on. You need to know if this potential break up will cost you.

2. Make sure your materials are on point

A new agent wants to see the best side of you so make sure your headshot, résumé, and reel are up to date. If you haven’t already, start updating your social media accounts and make it clear that you are an involved and active member of the acting community. The same goes for your website, blog, and other pages. An agent is going to investigate you so make sure you’ve got your best materials out there.

3. Get a recommendation

The best way to make yourself known to a new agent is to be recommended by someone that agent knows and respects. The strongest recommendations come from that agent’s clients and casting directors that agent has worked with. Don’t be shy, ask someone who has a connection to that agent AND knows your work to recommend you. It really makes a difference.

4. Strike while the iron is hot

Do you have a film in theatres or at a festival? Are you going to be on TV or in a high profile play? When your work is current and you’ve got a bit of buzz that is the perfect time to engage with an agent.

5. Be the good guy/ girl

Parting can be such sweet sorrow, and actually leaving your agent can be difficult and uncomfortable. Just try to be the bigger person and let your former agent know how grateful you are for everything he did for you. A parting gift and a heart felt card go a long way. You always want to stay on good terms with people in the industry.

2014: Not a Banner Year for Black or Female Filmmakers

So, I’ve been negligent about updating the blog. However, it’s that time of year when people try to do better so I’m doing just that by writing my first blog entry in months. Look for some changes in 2015. In addition to (hopefully) more frequent posts, I hope to shift the focus to a blog that specifically looks at issues of diversity in casting and feminism in filmmaking. Yes, I used the f word.

On that note, if you read this article for the New York Times from two years ago, you might feel encouraged about increased opportunities for female filmmakers. However, if you read this article from the New York Times a couple weeks ago, you might be discouraged by the fact that only 3 major studio films released in 2014 were directed by women. What gives? Are things getting better for women filmmakers or not?

Ava Duvernay

Selma director Ava Duvernay

My three avid readers may recall a post from late 2013 that talked about what an exciting year it was for black filmmakers and actors. Readers should not be surprised to find that there will be no such post this year and 2014’s crop of  films by and/ or  about blacks was pretty thin. There were a handful of films with black protagonists (Get On Up, About Last Night, Annie) and a few with black directors (Selma, Beyond the Lights, Ride Along, Think Like a Man Too, Dear White People), but that’s pretty much it, and other than it being a breakout year for the Sony-criticized Kevin Hart, it appears that things have gone back to status quo for blacks and women in the industry. So, for every article you read about Ava Duvernay this year, (like this one or this one or maybe even this one), remember that she is the exception and not the rule. It’s perfectly fine to celebrate her and Angelina Jolie and but let’s not forget that we have so much further to go before we make any real and lasting progress. In 1976, Lina Wertmüller was the first woman nominated for an Oscar for Best Director, nearly 40 years on, only three other women have joined in her that accomplishment. Will another 40 years go by before women filmmakers achieve parity? WIll we even have films 40 years from now?

A little ove a year ago, I also wrote this piece about mainstream Mexican films. However, that appears to have been a brief blip on the radar screen as well. Men and particularly white men still dominate screens in the US and the world. I like white guys. They’re great. I’ve even dated a few, but I’m tired of only seeing their stories on film.

I hate to Debbie Downer; I believe in problem solving, not just complaining. I invite everyone to post possible solutions in the comments. Please let me know ways we can improve and increase cultural/ ethnic diversity and female representation in the film industry. I’m starting by forming a think tank to discuss representation issues and then set about finding real solutions. If you want to be a part of that, feel free to email projects@destinycasting.com

Happy New Year!

Dear Actors: Stop Being Douchebags on Social Media

I’m friends with a lot of actors, both in real life and on social media. I follow a lot of actors on Twitter. Actors continually pop up in my news feed on Facebook. Recently, more and more, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend. I’ll call it: the rise of the douchebag actor. How do you know if you’re being a douchebag on social media? Follow these tips to steer clear of douchebag-ville.

A douche by any other name would smell as sweet.

A douche by any other name would smell as sweet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. Stop bragging about your auditions

I got an audition for a TV pilot opposite a major actor. #blessed

I’m running from this casting office over to that casting office because I’m so in demand right now. #actorlife

Who cares? Did you book it? If you book work then feel free to humbly express how excited you are.  Getting an audition is no great feat. Also, actors often come dangerously close to revealing private, sensitive information about upcoming projects. Just keep your audition schedule to yourself. Who are you trying to impress? Or are you just trying to intimidate other actors? If you must, post something about how you feel about an upcoming audition so you can express your feelings to your friends.

I’m really excited about today’s audition

I’m nervous about my audition tomorrow, but I know I can handle it.

2. Stop telling people how busy you are

I’ve gotta get across town in time for my fitting before a musical audition, and rehearsal for my one woman show #busy

Filming all day and then studying up for my huge commercial audition tomorrow #setlife

I get it, work can be hard to come by in this industry. It’s great that you’re so busy, but imagine if all professions did the same thing.

Meeting my client for arraignment followed by quick trip downtown for a settlement conference #lawyerlife

Just took out Mr. Johnson’s appendix, now a quick wash up before cutting into Mrs. Bradley’s gallbladder #thedoctorisin

These posts are annoying and unnecessary. There is a fine art to self promotion. Actors have to be a little selfish to get ahead in this business, but constantly posting about your busy schedule just makes you look self-absorbed.

3. Stop asking me to contribute to your crowd funding campaign

Look, if we are actually friends and you’ve been over to my house and or had a private meal with me, then go for it. However, if we met once at a casting event or at a friend’s birthday, I am NEVER EVER EVER going to contribute to your campaign. EVER. There are actual charities I like to support, so unless you actually know someone personally or truly believe they will have a specific interest in your specific project, stop begging people for money on social media.

4. Keep the political stuff to a minimum

Again, if you are talking to your actual friends, feel free to say whatever inflammatory thing you want. However, when posting to a wider range of acquaintances or, in the case of Twitter, the whole world, what you say can come back to bite you. Your religious and political beliefs are protected under the first amendment, but the constitution does not protect you from other people’s opinions of what you’ve said. Your posts affect the way you are perceived. I’ve seen more than a few objectionable posts from actors that have led me to reconsider whether I should be calling them in for auditions. Be smart and think before you post.

5. Stop asking for sympathy

I didn’t book that big job. An actor’s life is so hard. Gotta get back in the game.

The casting director said my voice was all wrong. Why do I keep putting myself out there?

Newsflash: acting is not hard work. It’s a skill. It’s an important part of our cultural experience. It’s a craft, but back-breaking labor it ain’t. You aren’t spending 12 hours down in a coal mine. Lives do not hang in the balance. There are people out there with actual problems. People who suffer from war, violence, poverty and disease deserve sympathy. Get some perspective and stop whining about every rejection. Acting is 90% rejection, if you can’t handle that (without whining) maybe it is time to find a new field.

What Does Diversity in Casting Actually Mean?

I was looking for something to watch over the weekend so I decided to check out the recently cancelled Mixology on Hulu. ABC describes Mixology as:

One bar. One night. Ten single people. Welcome to Mix, a high-energy bar in Manhattan’s trendy meat-packing district and the backdrop of a sexy new comedy from the writers of The Hangover.

As someone who lives in Manhattan and has be known to hit trendy and not-so-trendy bars in the meatpacking district, I was interested to see how New York singles would be represented. Unfortunately, the show doesn’t deliver on the “sexy” or “comedy” claims in the write up, but I’m always more interested in the casting anyway. The cast includes: Adam Campbell, Adan Canto, Blake Lee, Andrew Santino, Craig Frank, Alexis Carra, Frankie Shaw, Vanessa Lengies, and Kate Simses. On the surface, this group passes “diversity casting” muster: Craig Frank is black and Adan Canto is Mexican. Also, research shows that Ginger Gonzaga has Filipino-Dutch heritage and Alexis Carra is of Spanish, Cuban and Argentinian descent. Vanessa Lengies is a Canadian actress born to a German father and Egyptian mother. In life this is a diverse group of people, but onscreen they look like this:

Mixology

 

 

Diversity isn’t just about sprinkling in a few faces with darker hues, it’s about diversity of culture and perspective. The diversity of our cultural and familial backgrounds is part of what makes us unique, but too often on TV we see racially diverse actors playing culturally similar characters. How do we go beyond token diversity and create multi-faceted characters who embody the full cultural, spiritual, economic, and lifestyle diversity of Americans? Or am I asking too much from a comedy made by the guys behind The Hangover? Sound off in the comments section!

Casting Lessons from The World Cup

I love soccer (also known as football). The World Cup is my favorite sporting event. I love it even more than The Super Bowl and The Summer Olympics, and I’ve been watching game after game with excitement. I’m always a casting director, that’s just how my brain works, and some of these players should go into acting after their playing days are over. One of the other joys of watching soccer is that it helps me to practice my Spanish. I love to watch the games on Univision and hear the answers shout “GOOOOOOOOOOOOAAAAAAAAAAAAAALLLLLLLLLLL!!!!!!!!!”

While watching Univsion one day, I was struck by the below commercial for Hyundai, not because of the content or originality, but because I had seen it before. The exact same Hyundai commercial, with the exact same actors had aired on ESPN and only the language and the uniforms were different. Watch and be amazed!

What is the lesson here for actors? Doesn’t this just mean less work to go around if the same actors are playing to different markets? Well, yeah, but it also means that actors need to expand their language skills and think outside of their ethnic backgrounds to see what other ethnicities and backgrounds they can reasonably portray. Hyundai tweaked this commercial for a different market with a simple change of language and jersey. Who knows, they may have aired this same ad all over Europe with the same actors in 10 different languages!

Actors, I encourage you do make a list of the ethnicities you could realistically play and see how you might be able to crack into commercials for that target market. I watch The World Cup and see diverse squads like Brazil, Germany, England, USA, Algeria and more with people of every hue playing for their countries. The world is getting smaller, and it’s time for actors to diversify their portfolios.

New Leaf

So, I promise to update my blog more often. I’ve been really busy (which is good) so I haven’t stayed on top of my blog (which is bad). I’m back at it and will do my best to post every Monday and Friday for the rest of 2014.  Woo hoo! Let’s get started.

What Next for Lupita?

Is Oscar win just the beginning?

Is Oscar win just the beginning?

Winning an Oscar is a momentous point in any lucky actor’s career. Sometimes the award is bestowed on an established actor as an acknowledgement of a full and versatile career (ie Peggy Ashcroft, Melissa Leo, Judy Dench). Sometimes, the Oscar heralds a particularly surprising and not expected to be repeated performance (ie Monique, Jennifer Hudson, Brenda Fricker, Linda Hunt). And sometimes, particularly for young women, the Oscar is the industry’s investment in the future. It’s a sign that Hollywood insiders are putting their stamp of approval on a new star (ie Jessica Lange for Tootsie, Marisa Tomei, Goldie Hawn, Mary Steenburgen, Mira Sorvino, Anna Paquin, Anne Baxter, Jennifer Connolly, Angelina Jolie and Meryl Streep in Kramer vs. Kramer).

After winning the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, Jennifer Connolly, Mira Sorvino, Angelina Jolie and other similarly talented and relatively young actresses were offered more lead roles than before their wins. Do you remember Jennifer Connolly in Dark Water and The House of Sand and Fog? Mira in Mimic and The Replacement Killers? Angelina in every movie from the late 90s to early 2000s ( 2 Tomb Raider movies, Taking Lives, Beyond Borders) The Oscar win in a supporting category brought them leading roles in major studio films. Will the same hold for Lupita? Is there a place in Hollywood for a young, black leading lady? Only time will tell, but I’m an optimist and I’m betting that Lupita is set to break down some barriers.

Twelve years ago, Best Actress winner Halle Berry, definitely saw an uptick in her career in the aftermath of her Oscar win. Interestingly, Berry often stars in roles that are not ethnically specific, for example, Gothika and Catwoman could have starred an actress of any race. Will Lupita get those same kind of offers or will her offers be relegated to specifically black roles in period films? Personally, I hope Hollywood embraces her fully and gives her at least the chance to play a few diverse roles. Why not a romantic comedy or a spy thriller for Ms. Nyong’o? Maybe an action movie? She’s on your screens now in the Liam Neeson juggernaut Non-Stop. Let’s hope the roles keep coming non-stop for her!

Why I Love Sleepy Hollow

Some of you may be watching the new Fox show Sleepy Hollow. If you’re not, here’s the premise, Ichabod Crane wakes up from a coma/ spell 200 plus years after the American Revolution and works with a sexy police lieutenant to save the world from the Headless Horseman (who happens to be just one of the 4 horsemen of the apocalypse). Ridiculous! Preposterous! I love it!

As Ichabod, Tom Mison is delicious. He strikes a delicate balance of humor and righteousness. The writing is strong especially in relation to Ichabod’s fish out of water situations. As Lieutenant Abbie Mills, Nicole Beharie shines. She’s tough, witty, and sexy but she also has a dark side. The show also features Orlando Jones (yes, it’s okay to have two black people on a show who aren’t related) and a host of talented newcomers and lesser-known names.20131105-134758.jpg

I enjoy it because it’s a lot of fun and doesn’t take itself too seriously, but there’s also an intriguing mystery there and some cool treats for history buffs.The guest stars are out of this world: James Frain, John Noble (Fringe fans rejoice), and John Cho just to name a few.

The acting is just spot on. Mison and Beharie bring sparkle and spice to every scene. It’s commendable that Fox took a chance on the amazing but not super-well-known Beharie and even more daring that they embraced the even lesser-known Mison. It looks like those gambles have paid off because Sleepy Hollow already has a strong following. What I take away is that sometimes you have to go out on a limb when it comes to casting. Follow your gut and go with the best person for the role who might not necessarily be the biggest name.

Casting Counts: Gravity, All is Lost, & Captain Phillips

I see a lot of movies because I love movies and it’s kind of my job. Casting is always key for me. I’m always looking to discover new talent in small roles on the big screen. It turns out that casting is key for many movie goers as well. Three recent releases have emerged as unintended companion pieces about isolation and insurmountable odds. In Gravity, Sandra Bullock plays a woman who must try to survive in space after a freak accident leaves her adrift. In All is Lost, Robert Redford, film legend,  plays a man who must try to survive at sea after a freak accident leaves him adrift. In Captain Phillips, Tom Hanks plays a man who must survive at sea after pirates take over his ship.

GRAVITY

 

I’m sure it’s pure coincidence that these films came out around the same time, but I can’t help drawing comparisons and noting how key the casting is for these particular films. Robert Redford, film legend, is the only actor in All is Lost and thus, the film has limited dialogue, very limited as in all the words could fit on one page. Would audiences be willing to pay to see an unknown in this role? Probably not. More importantly, Redford’s stature as a Hollywood legend, and his age (77) make him particularly compelling and vulnerable in this very simple and unencumbered performance.

Heavy hitters Sandra Bullock and George Clooney separate Gravity from every other science fiction fan boy film out there. The presence of these two stars makes this film a must-see for 15 year-olds and 50 year-olds and the film’s popularity with the older crowd has been one of the keys to its success.

robert-redford-in-all-is-lost

 

Unlike Gravity and All Is Lost, Captain Phillips features a slew of actors who play the pirates, the ship’s crew, and the military personnel who try to end the situation. These actors range from complete novices like the four young first-time actors playing the pirates to recognizable faces like Max Martini and in a brief appearance, Catherine Keener. However, this film is all about Tom Hanks in the title role.  A known entity at the center of this film is what got it greenlit in the first place, and it is what attracts (particularly older) audiences.

An argument could be made for all of these films that unknown actors would have been a stronger artistic choice. Even though there are strong performances all around,  I never forgot that I was watching Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Tom Hanks, and Robert Redford.  The stature and allure of these stars can’t be denied. There is a reason that Redford has been a star for nearly 50 years, and that star quality is on display in every moment of All Is Lost.

Captain-Phillips

Ultimately, I’m intrigued by the way casting of stars and lesser known talent affects the audience’s expectations. I think expect more from stars, but are also willing to see a film just because of their presence. Are there any stars that you seek out at the movie theatre? Any actor whose shear presence in a film will guarantee that you’re there? For me, there are a handful: Michael Fassbender, Gael Garcia Bernal, and Viola Davis come to mind. Leave a comment with your go-to stars!

Instructions Not Included is the future of film (and that’s a good thing)

20131008-141334.jpg

Have you seen this movie called Instructions Not Included? It just happens to be the highest grossing Spanish language film in the US ever. Of all time. EVER. Yes, higher than Pan’s Labyrinth. What do you mean you’ve never heard of it? Unlike Guillermo Del Toro’s mythical masterpiece, Instructions is a silly, sappy, melodramatic comedy/ drama that is about as far from an art film as you could get (it’s also a lot of fun and a shameless tearjerker). Unlike other high grossing foreign films in the US Instructions is not an Oscar contender nor an action extravaganza (like, say Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon which was both)

Instructions is just a regular movie. Writer/ Director/ Star Eugenio Derbez is a huge star in Mexico and that accounts for some of the film’s appeal. Also the fact that Instructions was released in the US prior to Mexico helped to stave off piracy, but ultimately, the success of Instructions comes down to two things: the previously untapped buying power of Latino Americans and the genuine desire for live action family friendly films. Latino Americans make up nearly 20% of the US population (that’s more than Blacks and Asian Americans combined) but Hollywood has not found a way to appeal to Latino Americans as a whole. Also, Instructions strikes a delicate balance. Although the majority of the film is in Spanish, there is still plenty of English and most of the action takes place in Los Angeles. The star speaks only Spanish (in the film) but many of the other characters are played by white actors who go back and forth between English and Spanish. The end result is a heartwarming family film that appeals to Latino Americans but also isn’t too foreign for English speaking audiences in middle America. Instructions harkens back to 1980s comedies like Three Men and a Baby and Mister Mom and it is also reminiscent of 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer (not in quality but in subject matter and the balance of comedy and drama). I think audiences are looking for more of those types of films that have nearly disappeared in the wake of dozens of action blockbusters per year.

2012-09-29__2_03_16PM.jpg

A scene from “Pulling Stings”. Is this film destined for the same success?

At the end of the day, Instructions isn’t a “great” film, but I think it is a harbinger of things to come. We’ll have to see how Pulling Strings (another Spanish language film released by Pantelion Pictures) does in the coming weeks. It opened in 9th place with 2.5 million (not bad for another film you haven’t heard of). I’ve been brushing up on my Spanish recently and I suggest actors do so as well. This trend of Spanglish filmmaking may just be here to stay.

Can’t Wait to see 12 Years a Slave

12-years-a-slave

I’ve been chomping at the bit to see 12 Years a Slave and it’s almost here. In anticipation, I’ve been looking back at some of my favorite films featuring the film’s stars.

Chiwetel Ejiofor has been dazzling festival audiences with his performance in 12 Years, but I’ve loved him since way back in 2000 when I saw him along with Andrew Lincoln and Bill Nighy in the play Blue/Orange at the National Theatre in London. Since then he’s had mostly supporting roles in the US, but two of his British films really stand out to me.

Before Billy Porter was killing it as Lola in the musical Kinky Boots, Ejiofor played the original Lola in the 2005 film.

Stephen Frears 2002 film, Dirty Pretty Things casts Ejiofor as a hotel worker caught up in an organ smuggling ring.

Michael Fassbender has the best scene in Inglorious Basterds. He also has served as 12 Years director Steve McQueen‘s muse in Shame and Hunger.

Brad Pitt is a movie star who has been familiar to audiences for years. He plays a small role in the film, but played a major role behind the scenes, helping to get the film produced. My favorite Pitt performance is in the understated and achingly beautiful The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Pitt plays Jesse James as a complex and flawed hero.

Benedict Cumberbatch pops up in 12 Years as well. He’s had a break out year and I think he will continue to explode in 2014. I really love many of his performances, but my favorite is in a supporting role in Atonement as well as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (one of my favorite films of the last decade).

Are Reality Shows the New Soaps?

20130905-150827.jpg

I was talking with some friends recently about two recent films Fruitvale Station and Lovelace and the fact that the stars of these films used to play star-crossed teens on “All My Children”. So many stars got their start in the soaps, but now the soaps have virtually disappeared. Where is the new training ground for young actors?

The theatre has always been fertile soil for growing actors, but the soaps used to be the on-camera boot camp for actors. With a demanding schedule and rapidly changing dialogue, the soaps whipped young actors into shape and prepared them for careers in film and television.

Now, with many soaps canceled, opportunities for young actors have dried up and more and more we see reality stars parlaying their popularity into acting success. So what does that mean for young actors? Should they try to get on reality shows? Where else can they turn for experience?

20130905-150749.jpg

There are many routes to success. Two stars from America’s Next Top Model are starring in major Hollywood movies. Jennifer Hudson went from American Idol cast off to Oscar winner and big personality stars like Nene Leakes have worked their way into sitcoms and films.

20130905-214214.jpg

20130905-214328.jpg

I think young actors need to take opportunities that come but remember that the recipe for true acting success includes training whether it is on the job or in the classroom. Whether your path resembles Amanda Seyfried’s or Jennifer Hudson’s you can carve out your own road by taking advantage of the opportunities that come into your life.

5 Ways Actors Waste Their Money

It always amazes me that actors who for the most part don’t have a lot of disposable income, will plunk down hundreds of dollars at the drop of a hat. Your money is precious and you need to spend it wisely. Here are the worst examples of actor money-wasters. Are you throwing money away? Find out.

1. Mass Mailings

I’m not saying don’t do a mailing at all. Mailing your headshot and resumé to the right casting director or agent at the right time can yield benefits. I’m saying don’t send the same non-specific mailing to every CD and agent in the book. Target your mailing. Take the time to tailor each cover letter to the specific CD or agent you wish to reach. Follow the submission instructions for that company. Make sure that the CD works on the kind of projects you want to do. Proof read it. Check spelling (especially of names). Make your mailing stand out with your high level of professionalism.

2. Crappy Headshots

Obviously you need a headshot, and this is a place where you need to work with an established professional. Actors waste their money by going for the seemingly cheaper option. You get what you pay for, a poorly lit cheap-looking headshot. There are oodles and oodles of pro headshot photographers in New York. Look at their work, talk to them, find out what their photo package entails and then make an educated decision. Don’t get your cousin to blow up some snapshots from last summer. If you need headshot photographer recommendations, leave a comment below.

3. Actor Crap

What is actor crap, you say? Actor crap is anything that only actors care about. Directors, producers, casting directors, and talent agents don’t care about this stuff but actors have convinced themselves that it’s of the utmost importance. I’m talking about buying a new outfit for every audition, spending extra money to have your submission delivered by messenger, having seven different headshots, pink submission envelopes with glitter writing, new highlights, character appropriate underwear. This stuff doesn’t matter, just present yourself like a professional.

4. Workshops

I know this is a controversial one. I teach audition workshops as do many other casting directors, but you have to choose wisely. Go for the workshops that will provide the two most important things an actor can gain from a casting professional: knowledge and access. Don’t waste your money meeting people who don’t even work on the kinds of projects you are pursuing. Choose workshops that have both a performance element and an educational element, that way the casting director gets to see your work and you can learn something valuable.

5. Scams

Unfortunately, there are people out there who just want to fleece actors out of their money. Sometimes these are non-legit “agents” or “managers” who make actors pay for expensive photo packages and lessons. Some so-called acting coaches are doling out deleterious advice to actors out there. Do your research. Get feedback from previous clients before signing up for anything.

Save your pennies by using your noggin!