“You look like a mime.”
That came from the photographer who was shooting my headshot. Years ago. Back in New York. When we were still shooting in black and white. Film. Not digital.
People say that to me all the time, and I don’t mean when I am wearing white face. Photographers, casting directors, every day people I come across. They don’t know that I am, in fact, a mime. They just tell me that I look like one.
“Oh no, honey, don’t be afraid of the nice mime.”
That was Saturday. At a birthday party where I was performing. Not as a mime. I was dressed as a Circus Ringmaster. On stilts. The yuppy mommy was trying to coax her very shy two year old into coming and saying hello to the nice mime. Me.
When I look at the jobs I book, I have to admit that most of the work I get is as a mime. There is indeed a market for mimes, especially in commercials. Since casting directors often cast the net wide when looking for skilled talent, like mimes, those are the roles that I stand the best chance of booking. Or even just getting an audition, for that matter. So I don’t mind when people tell me that I look like a mime.
On my very first day in Los Angeles, I heard an agent give out some excellent advice. He said to go to a mall with a list of questions, and ask random strangers to answer them for you.
What do you think I do for a living?
Where do you think I’m from?
How old do I look?
Questions like that. The point was to get opinions from everyday people who have never seen you before. Those opinions can help you decided how to present yourself in your headshots. This is an extremely important decision. One that can mean getting work, or not getting work.
I have a friend who is an actor that I performed with onstage a few years ago. Let’s call him David. An extremely funny guy. Great personality. The kind of guy everyone instantly likes. He is never not smiling.
Never, that is, except in his headshots. Over the years that I’ve known him, I have looked on in confusion as he shared his latest photos online. Something he does with noticeable frequency. It’s almost as if he is never satisfied with the last batch, and so runs out every few months to have more shots taken. Another photographer. Another location. Another wardrobe selection.
The confusing part is how none of those photos look anything like David. There is this very handsome man, glowering into the lens. Lit dramatically. Film Noir. He exudes danger. Sex. Imagine Vin Deisel in an ad campaign for men’s cologne. Or James Bond, blowing on the tip of whatever gun James Bond shoots. There is a deep red background, with the silhouette of a leggy woman standing behind him.
Nothing about the guy in those photos says funny. How could he possibly think these headshots are good? They are flattering, for sure, but that doesn’t mean a thing in terms of booking auditions.
There are dozens of them. All the same. Angry handsome man scowling and threatening the lens. Does David believe he’s an action hero? Is that the kind of work he routinely books?
It would surprise me, because in real life, he is perfect sitcom material. Young. Good looking. Funny, funny, funny. That is the operative word. Funny. We all hear so much about how important it is to be good at comedy. How much work you’ll book if you are funny. David is funny. Doesn’t he realize that?
He was recently rejected by a big-time agent. The reason he was given was pretty solid. The agent said he could not represent a client who did not know himself.
David hopped online to vent about it publicly, and sure enough, plenty of his friends chimed in to say that the agent is a jerk, and what a talented actor David is, and how he can play any role he choses to play.
I tried to add a reply, and spent twenty minutes failing to frame what I wanted to say as gently as possible, then deleted the comment and wrote this instead.
Headshots are tough. Few actors enjoy getting them done. We all know how much is at stake, and how disappointing it can be when they don’t turn out well. I’ve been through that as many times as the next guy. I’ve worn the wrong thing. I’ve made the wrong choices. I have tossed out entire sessions without using a single frame. It’s hard. It’s expensive. It can be frustrating.
When it comes to the advice of an agent, or casting director, it’s important to keep in mind that not everyone will see you in the same way. (All the more reason to take that list of questions to the mall.) I had one agent tell me I should get some shots done as a goth character. Goth! I happened to be wearing all black when he met me, and that’s as far as he was able to see. He clearly could not tell how old I was, because I could have been submitting for dad with a goth teenager…
However, it’s also important not to dismiss the advice an agent offers. That is gold. For every agent who speaks his mind, there are twenty or thirty who will be thinking the exact same thing, but won’t bother sharing their thoughts with you.
This one agent wasn’t telling David that he’s incapable of playing an action hero. He was simply saying that his photos do not accurately represent him as he is, in real life.
You may have a great range as an actor, but your picture should say that you are always smiling, if you are always smiling. Or that you look like you could be… a mime.