Hi Film Folk,
It’s been a while since The Film Doctor Team have spoken to the actors amongst you (but stay here if you’re writers/directors/producers, this could be useful for you too!) so this week we’re going to be focusing our Monday Prescription on one of the most important things all actors should focus on – branding.
NB/ Now, before we begin, let’s recognise that branding does not replace the importance of craft, skill and experience. These are integral elements to good work and success and should be looked upon with great dedication and care.
But beware the classic artist mistake of not fully controlling the business side. The following need not take away your humanity or artistry but should serve to give you control. You are not the industry’s puppet. You are a person who ‘becomes people’. You have thoughts and feelings and dreams and you should be able to implement them.
The Actor as Product
Now this sub-heading may alarm many of you.
“A Product??? I sincerely am NOT a product – not a Barbie Doll or Coca Cola or processed cheese! – I am a performer, an artist, a human being,” you scream.
Well, here’s the good thing – yes you ARE all of those things. Nobody said you weren’t. Humanity and entrepreneurship do not replace one another (all businesses are run by and advertised by humans, not their products). But you’re also a business. Businesses offer either products or services and as an actor (depending on whether you want to be an actor or a star/famous actor) you can end up offering both.
As an actor, you serve the story, the director, the mood, the audience. That’s your service. If you want to be a ‘name’ then you, eventually, become a product, a commodity that helps sell the film and attract audiences to your films.
Johnny Depp said (during an’Inside the Actor’s Studio’ interview about his early success) that he was ‘forced into the role of a product’ and that ‘if I have to a be a product, I’ll be the product I want to be’. This means knowing yourself, knowing the market (for actors and films) and playing to your strengths.
Depp’s comment was made in retrospect about a time where he had already enjoyed huge TV success and, of course, you are only really a ‘mass produced product’ (aka international star) once you have had a string of film successes, but this does not change the need to acknowledge who you are and what roles you aim to play at any stage of your journey. The biggest corporations today started with one guy/girl in a bedroom. The best most popular stores started with just one store, in a distant far off town that nobody’s ever heard of. Even if you’re at the starting line – start with knowing your brand.
Knowing Your Brand
If ‘superstardom’ or ‘renowned actor’ is what you’re aiming for then, once you’re ‘proven’ at the box office/DVD, the fact you can finance a picture (pre-sales) may contribute to the decision to hire/approach you but right now (assuming you’re unknown or climbing) a useful approach is to become a ‘service provider’. Provide a specific character to filmmakers. Be somebody that an actor or writer thinks of as ‘being’ that part.
“But I am an actor who can play many parts? That’s the reason I am an actor. To never be one thing. To shape-shift and change and be various different people!” we hear you scream from the rooftops.
You then will go on to cite many flexible actors (Streep, Phoenix, Bale etc) without taking into consideration their earlier work and/or the context of how they became who they are today.
Start by offering one or two things! Fulfil the market/casting needs first. Then, once you’ve got that foothold and you’re known, start diversifying and ‘showing the depths of your talent’.
TIP: Don’t just study actors at their peak – study where they came from, who they knew, what kind of (perhaps undesirable) work they did beforehand.
Running the Business of You/Creating the Product
So how do you go about setting up your Brand?
Study other ‘brands’ – the brands you don’t like and do. See how Gene Wilder refused to move to LA and do the auditions circuit (because he thought he wouldn’t be good at it) and instead continued to work in theatre productions and raise his profile in NYC to get noticed. See how Amy Adams did the same but starting with performance-related jobs like a greeter at Gap and a waitress at Hooters before securing work in Musicals. See how, at a certain point, Michael Caine (real unbranded name Maurice Micklewhite) refused to take anything but a leading role to increase his value. Some may have got lucky, some may have just auditioned themselves to death until finally they got a break and many made hard-nosed decisions. It’s no good just reading technique books by Stanislavski and Meisner and Easty. It’s no good watching the films of your favourite actors and admiring/critiquing their performances. Find out how they did it, what they thought and felt during different periods of their career. There are no excuses. The autobiographies of Marlon Brando, Michael Caine, Cybill Shepherd, David Niven, Katherine Hepburn, Groucho Marx and many, many more all line the e-bookshelves. Get them. Invest.
Image – Acting isn’t ‘all about image’ but it’s the first port of call for almost everybody to start off with. What is your image? We’re not talking ‘gossip column’ image here, we’re talking about the whole package – physical appearance, grooming, dress sense, demeanour, style, vocal delivery, the way you carry yourself. All of this adds up to your general image. If you haven’t thought it out, then you should. The key is, initially, to play to what you are. We all know that, as actors, we have the potential to be many things but decide what it is you, mostly, are. Assuming you’re not in your early teens, you should have a good idea of yourself.
Present Your Brand – What you are should permeate and radiate from your headshots, your showreel, your auditions. We can not speak for how you behave ‘in the room’ – your ‘off screen’ personality. There are many cases of actors who have underwhelmed in person or who have delightful off screen ‘public loved’ personalities who have done both good and bad work and who have had successful and unsuccessful careers. We only speak for the ‘acting’ character you offer to the world. Remember, those who yearn to play many parts, this is only temporary!
Don’t know, exactly – what you are/want to be?
- What films and TV series do you enjoy? What is your style of film? What characters could you realistically play in them? Right now!
- What kind of material do you really prefer? Are there really roles/films that are ‘off limits’ for you?
- What kind of roles are you most often cast in (whether you wanted them or not)?
- What are your long term goals? What are your short terms goals?
- What is essential and what is whimsical? What is do or die and what is just a nice thought?
- What do you have that many others don’t? What do you have that people seem to like in other actors?
- What is standing in my way? Am I standing in the way of myself?
TIP: Matthew McConaughey says he owes his current success to capitalising on the assets that made him a Rom Com star instead of deriding them.
“I said, “Hey, do my good looks help me along? Absolutely. Does the fact that my body is considered good and we’re gonna have me up there in a shirtless scene help it along? Sure. ‘I didn’t ever go, “No, no, no.” I was like, “Yeah! I get that. That’s fun. What’s the big deal?” If you go deep with the romcom you sink the ship. There’s a buoyancy to the frequency of romcoms. To be light is critically always looked down upon – it’s willowy, it’s wispy, it’s nothing. You know what? It’s f***ing not easy to do and a lot of people don’t do it well.”
Get Brand Kudos
This is simple. There are two ways you get your brand (you) kudos.
1.) Get a part in something known/successful – this gives you the stamp of approval that all other casting directors and producers so often desperately need. You can be as brilliant as the best but if you haven’t got some kind of ‘industry accreditation’ (whether from a show or film or stageplay you like or not) you may find it hard to become ‘accepted’. Get that kudos and start the chain reaction!
2.) Do a great performance in it – this is obvious and should be first in your mind anyway. Anything you do, do it very, very well. Obviously putting in a great performance in a known show/film is ideal but if you’re working on an indie project with unknowns, the same rules apply. The project’s quality is not always up to you though – if you think the script is weak and the director doesn’t know what he’s doing, don’t do it.
Now there are long term goals and short term goals and small goals and big goals but what you must remember, whether you’re in the middle of your career or just starting out, is that everything is temporary.
By taking certain roles now, you are not forever bound to them. You can change things when you want to but get into that position first. Start where you are!
There is a whole generation that know Bryan Cranston for Breaking Bad and not Malcolm in the Middle or who know Bruce Willis for Die Hard and Red and not Moonlighting or who know Johnny Depp for Pirates of the Caribbean and not the 90s TV series 21 Jump Street.
What you do in the long term is for thinking about, and acting upon, in the long term. Don’t be paralysed by your fears or doubts or pretences. Build your brand up!
Your mantra right now should be ‘get work, get known’ – ‘get in the position’ first.