I’ve put it off for years, but the time has finally come when I can no longer avoid getting an agent. I’m a New York City actor with several friends who are represented by good agencies, and I’ve hinted or outright asked almost all of them to recommend me to their agents, but I’ve gotten kind of hesitant responses, or they say, “Oh, sure,” then nothing ever comes of it. I’ve also put the word out on social media (I’m part of a big community of actors online) and people are happy to offer advice, but no one seems to take the step to actually connect me with their agent. I know this business is about who you know, and I know a lot of people—people I’ve helped out in lots of ways and done shows with—but no one seems to want to come through for me. What am I doing wrong, and how am I supposed to get an agent if no one will introduce me to theirs?
Mama is herself a perplexed: you say you have “put off” getting an agent, but for the vast majority of American actors, securing legitimate representation isn’t like getting a root canal, which is to say, an unpleasant necessity that one postpones until the situation becomes critical. There are actors who manage to launch and sustain professional careers for years without representation (Patricia Heaton is the classic example) but they are the exceptions, not the norm. In general, once you transition from non-union to union work, you need an agent to get access auditions and casting directors. And the common parlance “getting an agent” is a misnomer. It implies that one can simply procure representation at will, as one gets a gallon of milk from the supermarket. In truth, the process of landing an agent can and often does take years of persistent and nuanced campaigning, often involving a lengthy liminal period “freelancing,” which is essentially a war of attrition. Perhaps a more accurate term than “to get an agent” would be “to annex representation.”
Your first step will be to determine what kind of representation you need. Commercial representation can be easier to secure for the simple reason that commercial agents generally represent a larger roster of clients, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that you will automatically be able to “cross over” from the commercial division of an agency to it’s legit division. While a large agency that handles both legit and commercial work may occasionally sign an actor “across the board” (often as a result of a showcase), it is rare to secure a legit agent in the same agency because of a recommendation from your agent in the commercial department. (There could be an exception if, say, you booked a legit job and brought it to them to negotiate.) In some agencies, it’s actually a tacit policy not to allow commercial actors to “cross over.” (And forget it with voiceover. The voiceover world is tiny. I know actors who have booked consistently for years with their legit agents and still cannot get an appointment with the same agency’s voiceover department.)
Most actors want a commercial and a legit agent, at minimum. There are several ways to go about waging your offensive. You say you have “put off” this process for years, so I am going to assume that you are trained. In that case, scoring an agent through the showcase of a top-tier BFA or MFA program is not an option for you. (Don’t scoff: there are people who commit to three years of graduate school with the main—if not sole—aim of securing representation through the final industry showcase. It can be that hard to get.) You could look into shorter studio programs and see which ones end in Industry showcases, and troll their alumni Facebook pages to get a sense of how many graduates are landing reps. (Remember: any studio can boast an Industry showcase: it doesn’t mean Industry attends, or that they have a track record of signing grads if they do.) Yes, a good studio program will mean a substantial commitment of both money and time, but you could easily spend a shedload of money on classes and workshops and new headshots, etc. and have no agent to show for it at the end of two years, anyway. A studio program could provide you with a support network and connections as well as a useful showcase. Do your homework and carefully consider your priorities, and whether you want further formal training at this point in your career.
If you choose not to go back to school, you have some additional options. If your main goal is to secure a legit agent, ask yourself where your strengths (and credits) lie. If the bulk of your experience is in theatre, you are going to want to focus on agencies that handle theatre. Unless you are very young and very, very cute, don’t shoot for a legit agent who handles mostly on-camera work if you don’t have much television or film experience. Take an on-camera acting class to learn that skill-set (Bob Krakauer’s is the gold standard, if you can get in) and audition for student films all day long and twice on Sundays, both to get experience and to build your reel (more on that later).
I am going to assume that you already have a clear sense of your type and how you could reasonably be cast in the genres in which you’re seeking representation. Any agent you get the chance to meet with is going to want to know which casting directors already know you. This seems like a catch-22 until you take into account that you can build relationships with casting directors by taking classes (not workshops—classes: they are more likely to remember you) at places such as One On One Studio (there are many others—most require an audition). When you can list four or five casting directors who know your name and are likely to remember your work, you are equipped to meet with an agent. Yes, this will be expensive. Being an American actor is the most expensive job with the lousiest average return-on-investment in the known world. Get used to it.
Assuming you have a decent resume, you’ve narrowed down your list of target agents, and at least a few casting directors or assistants can verify your existence, you are probably ready to take meetings. Getting these meetings, of course, remains the problem. You mentioned to Mama that you have asked your represented friends to recommend you to their agents and have gotten a tepid response. This is understandable. Suggesting friends to your agent is a sticky wicket for any actor. Consider the following:
1. If you are a similar type to your friend, they have no reason to suggest you to their agent: you’re competition.
2. You’re likely not the only friend who has asked. They can only suggest so many people before their agent gets annoyed. Many actors live in fear of annoying their agent.
3. Not to be blunt, but how ready are you? It’s a cardinal sin in any business to waste someone’s time. If you’re not really on top of your game—if you’re a possible liability in any way—why should they risk their relationship for you? It’s their agent. It’s almost like asking someone to share their organ donor: “Does you think she might have a kidney for me?”
That said, people do recommend their friends to their agents. It helps immensely if you give them an easy way to promote you. It’s much easier for your friend to ask their agent to go see your show (if it’s good and you appear in the first half if it’s longer than 90 minutes and the other actors in it are also good—again, think of their time as a commodity) or, even better, to send them a link to your reel, than it is to ask them to make an appointment sight unseen. In fact, that last is not going to happen. Forget Mama mentioned it. If you want your friend to recommend you to their agent, get in a good show (write it yourself if you have to) and/or get yourself a good reel.
But you have no film or TV credits, you say? You’re in luck. Time was, “manufactured” reels were heavily frowned upon. Now they’re becoming more common, and there are reputable companies that will help you choose sides, provide coaching, and film a quality reel for you. You will want to ask for recommendations—try Facebook groups such as NYC Actors and really shop around, because a good reel doesn’t come cheap. Mama would give you a referral , but she came up in the olden days, when a legitimate reel only contained clips from actual jobs, and “fake reels” were both easy to spot and verboten. Happily, those days are over pretty much over, Roxanne, and now you can put together a professional-looking reel that demonstrates your on-camera chops with scenes that actually showcase your abilities, as long as you can pay for it. This is worth doing even if you’re seeking a theatre-centric agent, as putting together a good reel is much faster and easier to manifest than getting cast in a good part in a good show in an accessible part of town, and theatre agents will often look at reels as long as you have decent theatre credits and training on your resume, especially if you’ve been recommended to them.
Finally, you can get try getting manager first. Managers are like agents in that they purportedly facilitate getting you work, but they take a bigger cut of your paycheck, they can’t negotiate contracts (although they can produce), they generally do a lot more hand-holding, and if you’re just starting out, their primary job is basically to get you an agent. A first manager is often easier to land than a first agent, and you go about it basically the same way, but with a higher likelihood of initial success. It’s rather like paying someone to be your stage mother. Keep this in mind before you sign with a manager, and thoroughly research any potential manager (happily, the Internet makes it easy to vet people nowadays), because as we all know, when it comes to stage mothers, you’ve got your Kris Jenners, and then you’ve got your Dina Lohans. Guess which one you want?
As a final exercise, Mama proposes you do the following: close your eyes and picture landing the agent of your dreams. Imagine that you carefully nurture a relationship with this person, maintaining it through success (when you’re making them money) and failure (when you’re making them none), carefully selecting gifts on their birthdays and major holidays, and taking care to emotionally invest in the interns and receptionists, as you realize that before you know it, they will be gatekeepers, themselves. Now imagine a friend asks you to leverage those bonds you’ve curated with such care for the sake of a favor on her behalf. What specific package of qualities would that friend need to bring to the table in order for you to potentially risk those relationships, even a little? Those are the qualities you need to develop in yourself before you ask a friend to recommend you to their agent.