Michelle Shyman

An Actor’s Diary: Sci-Fi Dragon Films, Fantasy Lives & Casting Agents

Michelle ShymanToday was a day to shake my sweaty grip on the conviction that my chosen path is my right path.

I have known forever and long ago that I am an artist, yet it has not been my fortune to be in that small percentage of actors who work solely in their craft. I need to juggle my creative work with day jobs. A film shoot, an accounting job, a music video gig, a customer service job, an audition, an audition, an audition.

I count myself insanely lucky that I can, for a few hours every week, work in film journalism, a job that helps me sharpen my writing skills, as well as indulges me in the gossip, news and glamour of the movie world.

I am convinced — from time to time — that this juggling path is the right one for me.

However — from time to time — I despair. Today was one of those days.

Incident the First

Last night in my film editing class, my lab partner Elle was yakking about her sci-fi space gladiator film. Elle is a do-it-yourself maven. She writes extremely low budget sci-fi nerd films, handles the camera, directs, adds FX and edits. She’s working on her 12th film, none of which have cost more than the price of the gear (camera & lights, computer and software.)  Her films go up on YouTube and have a very loyal, though very small, following.

Elle told me I’d be perfect for the Dragon of Ulliador (that’s the character, not the title) and asked me to come tomorrow (a.k.a today) to audition.

I live an hour west of the city and Elle lives an hour east. This morning at 6 a.m., I put on my audition makeup and drove almost three hours to her community television station to audition. My appointment was for 10 a.m. At 9 a.m., I arrived to an empty television station. No, wait, not empty: the station’s accounting manager was just leaving.

“Do you know anything about auditions being held here today?”


I called Elle’s mobile. “I am here; where are you guys?”

“Oh, Michelle, I decided to cast my friend Lou in as the Dragon of Ulliador, so I didn’t need auditions.”

What?!? You … [badWord], [worseWord] … thoughtless, rude, amateur, inconsiderate piece of [badWord].

My day was already threatening to stink, and it wasn’t even 10 a.m.

Incident the Second

My next appointment wasn’t till after lunch, so I dropped by Louise’s house for tea.  Louise is a painter. (Thank goodness: I couldn’t stand seeing another film person right away.) Louise wasn’t in, but a grasshopper-skinny tall woman in overalls opened the door. Velvet, Louise’s sister from out of town, whom I had never met.

Let’s have some tea and a chat. Velvet, a former high-end model and now an art dealer, asked me about my acting work.

“And what,” she asked, “would you really rather be doing than auditioning for no-pay sci-fi dragon films?”

“I’d really rather be in LA auditioning for union scale roles.”

“You, my dear, should meet my friend Sven, the film director. He has worked with everyone — absolutely everyone.”

At this juncture, enter Louise with two dogs and the groceries. Oh, and her Mom.

“What has Velvet been telling you? She has the greatest fantasy life. Mom is taking her back to the institution in a minute; she needs to check in with the nursing staff before dinner.”

Another disappointment for me. And, damn, I really liked Velvet. Her stories of modeling in Milan were thrilling.

Incident the Third

I fight through traffic to get to Nancy Hayes’ casting office. I will be meeting my friend and fellow actor Susan there.

We have worked hard to get a meeting with Nancy, using all our connections, because Nancy casts all the biggie films that shoot in San Francisco. Susan and I have been courting Jessie-Lee, a small-fry casting director, for positively months to get an introduction to Nancy. We’ve been taking her classes, inviting her to our theater productions (and to the parties,) and comping her when our indie films screen. Jessie-Lee agreed to call Nancy and ask her to see us.

Why did we need Jessie-Lee’s introduction? A casting director like Nancy doesn’t take walk-ins. She calls agents to send over their clients who fit the types she wants to see.  If you aren’t with an agent, you won’t be seen by Nancy for any of the decent roles that are cast here in San Francisco.

Neither Susan nor I has an agent. In San Francisco — and we are in the same boat with most actors in town — we work and we make money, but we don’t have an agent. We get commercials; we get indie films; we get walk-ons in studio films; we do theater; we do corporate videos; we eke out bits. And we work day jobs in between. But, we don’t have representation by an agent, so we don’t get to audition for, say, recurring roles on TV series or for “Math Teacher” in Hollywood films.

Thus, it was a coup for us to have an appointment to see Nancy. We came with high recommendations from Jessie-Lee. Nancy hugged us and invited us into her private office.

“What can I do for you girls?”

“Jessie-Lee thought you might help us get onto your radar — or the data bank in your brain.”

“Jessie-Lee knows damn well the only way you can get seen by me is to have your agent send you over. It was lovely to meet you.”

An hour drive for me; three hours for Susan; 93 seconds with Nancy; out the door.

Tomorrow will be better.


3 responses to “An Actor’s Diary: Sci-Fi Dragon Films, Fantasy Lives & Casting Agents”

  1. Jane Boursaw Avatar

    Oh man. I was SO hoping that day would get better for you. Then I got to the bottom and was like, What?! Nancy wouldn’t see you guys?! That sucks!

    Why is it so important for a casting director to ONLY see people through an agent? Even if they’re recommended by someone they know?

    And the follow-up question is, why don’t you have an agent? (That sounds accusatory, but it’s not! Just trying to grasp how it all works.). Do they require money up front, or are there other issues involved with hiring an agent? Is it more a matter of someone being willing to take you on?

    1. Michelle Shyman Avatar

      Ha! This was indeed a day that did not get better. There are many of those.

      Why is it important for a casting director to see people only through agents? Most of these folks are extremely busy and in secondary markets such as San Francisco, they are working on multiple projects simultaneously to make their “nut.” As a way of pre-screening–so they don’t have to see zillions of actors–they ask agents to send them specific types that have presumably already been vetted by the agent to ensure minimal acting skills. This way, the CD only needs to send breakdowns to the agents she likes to work with instead of posting on callboards and managing the huge workload which results from callboard posting. Additionally, when a CD goes through agents, the casting director’s office does not have to handle as much paperwork: W2s or 1099s and union time sheets or union waivers or employment agreements can be handled by the agent’s staff (and/or the film crew.) Technically, in California, an actor can’t be signed on to a film without an agent representing them (except extras.) So, if you cast already-agented actors, there is less hassle. Let’s see…what else…the CD doesn’t have to keep resumes and headshots on file. And CDs like to go to theater to scout their own talent; but they like to be in control of this process by inviting those few actors who impress them: this is better for them than to have thousands of actors coming to them.

      1. Michelle Shyman Avatar

        Your second question, Jane, “Why don’t I have an agent?”

        Great question. At the time of this story about which I have written above I didn’t have an agent in San Francisco. Later I did; then later yet my agent switched careers (to become a casting director) and dumped her whole roster, leaving us all agentless. Ha!

        Why didn’t I have an agent at that time?

        In any city there are always more actors wanting to work than there are jobs. Even taking into account the junk jobs such as trade-show spokes-model which actors take for the dough (not the glamor,) 90+ percent of the professional actors in any city are unemployed in their craft. Agents, although they theoretically work for the actors as commissioned sales reps, have the luxury of being extremely picky about which clients they take on–they are in the negotiating position of “buyer;” the actor is “seller.”

        The agent wants to make the most money for the least work. Going through her files, selecting actors, submitting them to casting directors and following up takes time. The agent would rather send over a few actors with high odds of being cast instead of a dozen actors with average odds.

        So, agents will not sign an actor unless:

        * the actor has already proven to be castable in paying jobs (why do all that work to represent an actor who might not be good enough?) This is the Catch-22 for actors: how can you prove yourself castable if no one will see you?

        * the agent doesn’t already have a ton of actors in her roster that are the same “type” as the actor under consideration (who needs 23 Moroccan skinny grandma types when there are only 2 of these roles cast every year?)

        Thus, most actors in most cities are self-representing until they make some kind of breakthrough and get represented. Maybe a column on how a self-representing actor can get a breakthrough would be interesting.

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