Professionalism and the Actor

Professionalism and the Actor

Imagine this. You’ve moved into a new home and have the luxury of hiring an interior decorator to elevate the look of your home. (okay, full disclosure, I just moved into a new house and hired a stager to help me – write what you know, right?). And, another full disclosure, while I did work with a staging designer, this story is entirely fictitious. I just love metaphors.

So, what do you do when you need a design job completed and need someone to fill the position? You research several designers and reach out to a few for interest, availability, and price point. Basically, you size them up to see which one might be the best fit for you and your project.

Then starts the sifting process. You weed out the ones who don’t return your email. Or the ones who hound you with dozens of texts, DM’s, and phone calls telling you why they’d be perfect for the job. And, of course, nix the ones who send information with typos, links to unexisting web pages, and confusingly-named files.

You cull the herd to a few select choices. All of them are fine designers but you have a very specific project in mind. So you choose one that seems to be the best fit and vet them. They seem to have a reputable resume, great work samples, a pleasant demeanor, and a cost that fits your budget.

You finally schedule a time for your first meeting. You are ready to put this project in their hands so that you can concentrate on other things in your life. But things suddenly go wrong…

They arrive late. Not a good omen. They scurry to the door with materials stacked under and slipping from their arms. You open the door and they apologize for being late with several excuses. As you walk them to the table to go over the plans, they thank you profusely for the job and let you know that they are relatively new to the field and they’ve only designed a few apartments for family members for free. So, truly, they are so grateful for the opportunity.

If you were paying that invoice, how would that make you feel?

Profoundly uncomfortable, right?

Why?

Because designing is their job – it’s the profession they have chosen and trained for. They have marketed themselves as such with their schooling, expertise, and hourly rate. You hired them and you want to know that they can do the job. You would have preferred a confident arrival with ready selections for you to assemble and an easy-to-work-with nature so you can have a smooth process and a great product.

Wait. I thought this was a blog about being a professional in the acting world. It is. But, as I said, I love metaphors and thought this one worked. If you haven’t figured it out yet, the “designer” is the actor or, as we say in the biz, the “talent”.

The “you” in this story, the one hiring the actor, is “production”. Normally, there is an agent and/or a casting director in between, but, for the sake of this blog, we are talking as if a producer or director is contacting and hiring talent directly.

So let’s talk about the talent. What would be the acting equivalent of the confident, prepared, easy-to-work-with designer that would inspire production to book someone they know can get the job done. Generally speaking, people want to work with those they know, like, and trust. That’s why doing a great job onset can often create more direct bookings for talent.

How can you be that talent that production wants to hire again and again? I’ll share with you what I know from my 30 years in the industry as an actor and an acting coach. Please know that this is not the “end-all-be-all” list. This is what I’ve seen work over the years and I can tell you dozens of stories where people have broken the rules, made mistakes, learned from it and continued to work.

Assuming you are a trained actor and are able to book work directly on your own, the three main skills I see needed are CLEAR COMMUNICATION, PROJECT PREPARATION, and ONSET ETIQUETTE (or SETIQUETTE as we like to call it in the biz).

COMMUNICATION

  1. Respond promptly, professionally, and pithily to business requests whether it arrives via email, text or phone.
    While I have my own preferences of how I prefer to communicate (I prefer email over text) I will defer to the person who is the head of the project. If they text, I text back. If they email, I email back. If they call, I call back.
  2. Have your phone number, contact information and links to your materials (headshot, resume, reel, website) as a signature on your email.
  3. Respond as quickly as you can to industry-related communications. This industry moves fast and if someone is requesting an audition or availability for a job, they usually have several people above them that need information asap. And don’t answer out of desperation; rather, the knowing that there may be several people in the works and production may move forward once they have found a good fit.
  4. If I am unable to respond right away because of a previous obligation or need time to thoughtfully word something, I will respond with a brief “Thank you for your email. I’m in meetings all day but will respond by xxx time” so they know the message has been received and they will get a response.
  5. Read. Read again. Read a third time. We often get so excited about a job that we may miss details and respond right back with questions. Take a moment, breathe and make sure you have read all of the information about the job and respond to any requests for information. If there is information you do need that is not in the email (did I say to read it again?) read it again and make sure the information isn’t already there. Then ask.
  6. In replying, always be honest. If you are unavailable for a project due to a date conflict, respond back quickly with a “Thank you so much for thinking of me for this project; however, I am not available on xxx date.” You could briefly say that you are already booked or traveling out of the country but please do not share your entire schedule or see if they can change the production date to make it fit your schedule. Sometimes shoot dates are not fully set so you may get a range. Be honest about your availability.

Once you have booked the job, respond quickly and briefly with any production-related emails. For example, you may be asked for clothing size, what wardrobe you may be able to bring, onset meal choices, possible allergies to makeup or products, script changes, etc. Production is handling many different departments and needs quick and to-the-point answers to field to other department heads.

If you need clarity on any of the information or don’t understand something, ask. Always better to get clear communication upfront than a missed

Be clear about the date, time, and scope of the project and make sure you are fully available the entire time and that you are qualified to do the job. Nothing is worse than an actor showing up on set saying that they can do a skill that they can not. For every talent, there are multiple crew members which puts the entire team behind in their scheduling.
Also, be sure to set payment parameters upfront. You should know how much the job is for how many hours and if travel, gas, hotel, and per diem is offered. Get this information in writing ahead of time.

PROJECT PREPARATION
Do your homework on the job. You will be directed on set, but the expectation is to come fully prepared with all your choices made so the director can tweak and adjust performance as you go.

There are many possible talent jobs – playing a character, hosting a program, demonstrating a product, etc. Here are some ways to prepare:

  1. For any project – read the script. Read it at least 3 times and one of those times out loud. Just for overall understanding of the scope.
  2. After reading through the script several times, then you can start digging deeper for how you will interpret, perform, and perfect.
  3. Research any words, concepts, or references that you don’t know.
    If you are working with a specific company or product, research both. What is the company’s mission, what are their core values, what does their product do, and what problem does it solve for people?
  4. If production has sent you clips of the product or projects that are similar in tone, be sure to watch them and see where you can use this information in your performance.
    Know your lines. I usually do all of my prep and research first, THEN learn my lines. That way, I have a deep understanding before I start learning hollow words. For me, it makes it much easier to memorize.

Here are some line-learning tips:

  1. Write them out in full longhand. This slows down your mind so that you can absorb the actual words. You may not be fully memorized in doing this but there is a mind-body connection that helps.
  2. Record the entire script on a voice memo and listen to it when you are driving or doing other activities.
  3. Record only the lines from the OTHER person/people in the script and mouth the words to your lines. Then you can rehearse with the open space for your lines in real-time.
  4. Rehearse your action as if you are on set with this recording. You can even film yourself doing so.
  5. Rehearse lines out loud with a friend or coach several times before walking on set.
  6. If you have a lot of copy but will have a teleprompter on set, you still need to work through your script. While you don’t need to be memorized, you do need to be very familiar with the copy and understand what you are saying.
  7. Use a teleprompter app on your phone or computer and rehearse working the copy out loud so you can see where you need to work on articulation, pacing, or understanding of what you are saying.
  8. Adjust the speed on the teleprompter app. We can’t do something quickly until we first do it slowly. Start slow and increase the speed until you go to a speed slightly faster than what’s naturally comfortable. Then back it down to a normal tempo and it will feel much easier.
  9. If you have time before the start of the project, break down your work into small chunks of time over several days instead of cramming longer sessions into one or two days. Daily work creates muscle memory. Time between sessions moves that work into your long-term memory and makes the word retrieval much easier with each future work session.

SET ETIQUETTE

  1. Research the location before arriving on set. Make sure you know where the location is and how much time you will need to get there.
  2. Check the time of day you will be arriving and do some research to see what traffic is like at that time of day in the region you are in. Give yourself enough time for any possible delays en route. I like to arrive anywhere from 15 minutes to 1 hour early, depending on the job, the location, and the traffic.
  3. If you do arrive early, bring something to do while you wait – a book, earbuds for a podcast, or look over your lines.
  4. If production is providing makeup, they will usually let you know what is needed for the day of arrival:
  • Clean face – means no makeup and washed, ready for the stylist to have a clean palette for their work.
    Hair washed and dried. Most times they will style. Sometimes, they will want you to style your hair as you normally would and will enhance it prior to shooting.
  • Camera Ready – means you come with your hair and make-up done and usually, touch-ups will be provided onset.Bringing wardrobe:
  • If you are bringing pieces of your own wardrobe, this will usually be discussed ahead of time with what types of pieces will be needed. You will usually bring several more choices than needed so that production has options.
  • Bring items on hangers. There will usually be a rack on which for you to hang your wardrobe. It makes it much easier for production to see and select choices that way.
  • I keep a hanging bar in the back of my car and hang my wardrobe when traveling for gigs.
  • I’ve heard people say to bring your clothes ironed. That’s a nice plus, but, if a wardrobe stylist is provided, they usually have a steamer and will steam the final choices.
  • While I try to have my clothes as neatly presented as possible, it’s not always an option to have every piece of clothing I’m bringing perfectly ironed. In general, the lower the production budget, the more the work the actor has to do in this area. I have tried to weed out those lower-budget projects so I can focus on the acting work and not as much on the wardrobe work. That may depend on where you are in your career and what jobs you decide to work on.
  • Women-Identifying Actors – always bring a white bra, a nude bra, and a black bra with straps that won’t creep out from underneath wardrobe (ie sports bras or racerback straps), and always bring a bra with padding in case it’s cold onset (there I said it – but it’s true). I almost always bring a white, nude, and black shape-smoothing tank top and white and nude underwear.

When arriving on set, check in with production (usually the First Assistant Director on a union set, but in the non-union world can be a Production Assistant but could be an Assistant Director, a Director, or a Producer).
Greet them and then wait for instructions on what is needed next.

Know that there will be a lot of” hurry up and wait”. You will be provided a place to wait when not on set. You may want to bring something to do while waiting (a crossword puzzle, knitting needles, a book). You can also work on lines. Just be ready to go to set when needed.

Shooting a project has many moving parts and you do not want to be the one slowing things down. That does not mean that you have to be perfect. We all have the occasional flubbed takes, missed marks, and flawed execution. That’s why we are in the film industry and not in live theatre. We can always do another take. Just know that production will want to keep those to a minimum AND keep the time in between clipping along. That means don’t apologize, agonize or defend what happened. All of that takes extra time. A professional knows to take the note, adjustment, correction, and move on.

Generally speaking, keep your phone tucked away when actively working on set. It’s fine to check it during downtime but it can be a distraction for you and can make noise during production, ruining takes. Keep it turned off or in airplane or silent mode when shooting.

Read the room when it comes to taking pictures. Some sets do not allow pictures at all, especially when it’s a confidential project or there are high-profile celebrities involved. Many people do take some pictures of their fellow castmates or a group shot, just be courteous to those around you, don’t post on social media unless you have permission to do so, and don’t interrupt the work.

When it’s time to break to eat, let the crew eat first. They generally have to get back to work sooner than the talent to set up the shot, so talent usually has a little more time to eat. Again, this is a time when you can read the room depending on the level of production.

Also, when breaking for lunch or dinner, change out of your top wardrobe or wear a jacket over it. You don’t want to spill on the wardrobe you are shooting in.

At the end of the shoot, be sure to return all wardrobe items that don’t belong to you. Hang them back on the rack or fold them neatly.

Make sure you take everything that belongs to you & end the day with a brief, genuine thank you to those you worked with – the Director, Producer, Stylist, Camera Op, and anyone else.

You’re wrapped! You can head back home or to your hotel, knowing that you put in a great day of work. And, if you didn’t get paid onset, you can wait for your check to arrive – and now you have some extra cash to pay for that designer!

Erin Dangler

Erin Dangler

Erin Dangler is an actress, coach and teaching artist based in Atlanta. With over 3 decades in the industry, Erin is a seasoned veteran of the stage and screens large and small. Erin’s passion for acting, coaching and teaching stem from her joyful curiosity, her collaborative energy and her desire to genuinely connect with other curious human beings. So whether it’s deeply embracing a character while filming on set, encouraging a budding actor to find their authentic voice or coaching non-actors how acting skills can enhance their life and work.