Advice for Actors from Backstage West

Looking Good on Paper

A sound resume can make a difference

by Andrew Salomon

Oct 25, 2006

So much of what contributes to actors' success lies beyond their grasp: current tastes and trends, an agent's diligence, a casting director's mood. Advice from industry insiders is essentially thus: Concentrate on what you can control and leave the rest alone. Even if actors pay attention to that bromide, however, they'll hear it so often they'll begin to tune it out.

So let's talk about what you can control, what you can literally touch and shape -- that 8-by-10 piece of paper that sums up who you are: the resume. According to agents, casting directors, directors, and educators -- in other words, the people who sift through hundreds of headshots a week -- a resume should function just as an actor should at an audition: clearly, honestly, and with an absence of fuss. "Don't obsess too much about it," Natalie Skelton, the school administrator for the Groundlings, a Los Angeles-based improv company, wrote in an email. "We just need to know a little bit about your background and a picture to remember you by, since we audition hundreds and hundreds of students." This is not to say a resume shouldn't command an actor's time and attention. It must, because, in addition to your self and your headshot, it's one of the few things that tells the industry exactly who you are.

"I do look at credits," writes Stewart Schulman, who has directed many plays in New York, L.A., and regionally. "If one or two things 'pop' to separate them from most of the other talent that you're looking at or auditioning, or in some way legitimizes them in your mind, then that may give them the shot for the audition or actually give them the part."

The Lies That Bind

Nevertheless, other than clearly presenting the details of their career -- work, training, union affiliations, and representation -- there isn't much that actors can put on a resume that will elevate them above the pile. Above all, actors should never lie, even though they do it "all the time," according to Skelton.

"Students have claimed to be Groundlings company members when they weren't," she writes. "The only way to become a Groundling is to go through all the levels of the Groundlings School and then get voted into the company from the Sunday Company by current company members. So many people say they are Groundlings when they have only taken one or two classes here.… Remember, we have a lot of real former Groundlings out there in the industry, so you might find yourself lying to a prominent casting director one day."

Joan Lynn, of Joan Lynn Casting in New York, once auditioned an actor who listed on his resume a certain play with a prominent New York company. Lynn knew he hadn't done the work, because she had cast that play herself.


"If an actor lies," Lynn says, "I will never see that person again. Ever. And it's a small world out there. Word gets around; people talk." Another thing that irritates her is when actors "write that they're 'SAG eligible,' " referring to the Screen Actors Guild. "Well, anybody can be eligible. Don't write that until you're officially in SAG or AFTRA or Equity.... I love actors. I really do. But it's upsetting when people fib."

An Obsession

Back Stage sent queries to actors around the country to get their perspectives on the resume-writing process. The consensus seems to be that actors do, in fact, obsess about this. When asked, "How much time and thought have you put into writing your resume?," most answers reflected equal parts diligence and anguish: "Tons." "Constantly." "About 15 hours, give or take, a day." "Three years." "Years."

Mandi Bedbury of New York wrote, "Hours!!! Days!!! Years!!! The thing that frustrates me, however, is that as much as you want to make it your own, there is still a 'cookie cutter' layout that you have to use to make the casting directors' lives easier."

Indeed. CDs, agents, directors, and other gatekeepers simply want an actor's resume to get to the point. At the top should be the vital statistics: name, height, weight, hair and eye color, vocal range, phone number (only one), and email address. Never list your Social Security number, Lynn says: "People only need that after you've booked a job."

Also, list your union affiliations and the name of your agent and/or manager, but only if you have a signed contract with them, she says: "Don't say you're represented by an agency if you're only freelancing for them. I've called up agents and mentioned actors' names and they'd say, 'Who?' Not only does it make you look bad, it makes me look bad, and that makes me angry."

After the vital statistics, there is a generally accepted order in which actors' work should appear, Lynn says: theatre, film/television, commercials, education/training, and special skills.

"I was lucky to have found a great format early on and have stuck with it," writes New York actor Suzanne Du Charme, whose resume hews closely to what Lynn suggests. "In fact, when Phil Rosenthal [the creator of Everybody Loves Raymond] was starting out, he was trying to be an actor.… I worked with his mom. One day, Phil came into the office and asked me for help putting together his resume, since he liked the format of mine so much. I actually typed his first resume for him."

'Husband, Father, Psycho'

One issue for many actors is how to specifically define the work they've done. With so many plays and independent films out there that no one has heard of, let alone seen, much of what an actor lists on a resume can seem irrelevant. But actors should indicate whether the role was a lead or a featured part. (Don't, Skelton says, list your work as an extra.)

Russell Hess, an actor in Sarasota, Fla., received a tip from a casting director that takes it one step further: Describe each of your roles. For instance, Hess worked in an independent film, Hymns of You, that was made by Sail Forth Productions. He played the character Harrison Morgan. In addition to the word "lead," he put "lonely, frustrated husband." For another movie, Unearthed, Hess played Frank Bruer, "overzealous detective." Other types he has played include "husband, father, psycho," "hitman/heroin dealer," and "aimlessly wandering young man."

"If you do an indie film and nobody's ever heard of it," Hess writes, "then how will they know what type of role you played as Henry from Who Stole My Toenail Clippings? Now, if you have that same line, same title, and you put 'Henry -- homosexual, lumberjack, heroin dealer,' that says something, or better yet, it poses questions."

Does It Really Matter?

As for how seriously the actors think members of the industry consider their resumes when giving out auditions or jobs, the reactions were mixed.

"So many projects…need to be booked so quickly that casting directors just need to cull out actors who don't fit the breakdowns," Du Charme writes. "But at theatre auditions, for example, they always look at the resume. Well, almost always."

"When I get a resume for a project I'm developing, I read the resume, but I've heard others don't even turn the headshot over," writes Hess, who is also a producer and writer. "For my purposes, I like to read the resumes so I can see what they've done.… If you know what to look for, you can tell if you think they'll be good on set."

Has their resume ever made a difference in getting them a job or an audition? "I don't think so," writes John Joseph Gomes of Rhode Island. "I've heard more from directors and casting directors about being called in for an audition because of my 'unique' look. Whatever that means."

But for Du Charme, that piece of paper has turned the key "quite a few times." "Once I was auditioning for a Shakespeare company, and the director read my resume right then and there. She said, 'Oh, I see you've worked with so-and-so. I've also worked with him.' We got to talking, and I got the part." Schulman maintains that resumes can and do influence his choices as a director. "If you're in callbacks, or post-callbacks and deciding on your final cast, you do often refer to the resume to see if there is past work experience that supports your desire to hire them," he writes. "And then you really have to think: 'Even though they gave a great initial audition and callback audition, will they have the chops to pull off what's required in this piece?' Casting is vitally important and the decisions are usually tough. Resumes can make a difference."

'An Interesting Little Glimpse'

At the bottom of most actors' resumes is the heading "Special Skills," which can be anything -- a dialect, juggling, riding a unicycle, or sometimes a combination of the three. The actors surveyed offered a vast array of special skills, either those they possess or have seen listed on other resumes. They include: The ability to put a leg behind one's head, the ability to raise one eyebrow, ambidextrous, "dead-on" Bart Simpson imitation, baton twirling, beekeeping, belly dancing, a brown belt in Shuri-ryu karate, camping, contact juggling, crying on cue, ear wiggling, Elizabethan verse, fire breathing, flag spinning, fly fishing, go-go dancing, great with kids, lisping, miming musical instruments, rapid shoelace tying, rock 'n' roll roller-skating, stuttering, touching one's nose with one's tongue, tying a cherry stem with one's tongue, throwing a spiral (football), yodeling.

As for special skills these actors don't possess but wish they did, they mentioned acrobatics, fluency in sign language, fluency in any language, the eyebrow wave, horseback riding, playing a musical instrument, singing well (the most common wish), tightrope walking, and yodeling. "That area does show personality to some extent," Schulman writes. "And you never know what skills they have that you might need in the project you're casting."

Bedbury adds, "I've heard of people getting the job because they have 'good with guns' on their resume.… It's an interesting little glimpse into your life that helps determine if you get the audition." For others, special skills aren't such a big deal. "Initially I put a lot of thought into this part," writes the ambidextrous, sky-diving, jet-skiing, rope-swinging, typing, lisping, stuttering Hess, who lists 26 special skills. (Actually, it's a lot more than that if you count his "over 40 specific" vocal impersonations.) "But after so many years of doing this, I don't think most people even get that far down." Lynn, the casting director, says the important thing for special skills "is that you have to deliver on what you promise." And that's true for anything you put on a resume.

Skelton, from the Groundlings, wants to make sure actors understand one thing when it comes to their resumes. She feels so strongly about it, she wrote it in italicized, boldfaced capital letters and punctuated it with four exclamation points: "Please staple your headshot and resume together at home. Otherwise, you come across as very unprepared. Drives us nuts."

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