The secret language casting directors use, how to identify your bullseye, and why you shouldn’t use another actor as your description
I stumbled upon Bonnie Gillespie’s book, Self-Management for Actors, several years ago when researching literature I could recommend to my actors about showbiz and their careers. Immediately after reading SMFA, I knew I found the holy grail and have been raving about it to actors ever since. It’s a complete how-to for actors in any medium, any location. Going from a child actor, to an adult actor, to a journalist interviewing hundreds of casting directors for Backstage and then a casting director herself, Bonnie has collected and published incredible wisdom into several books. Today, she casts independent projects and coaches actors on how to tackle the business most effectively. Join me in learning more about how Bonnie is demystifying this business by bringing her knowledge of the industry front and center.
Bonnie, I’m so excited to finally talk to you. Tell me how you describe yourself and what you do.
BONNIE: I like to say that I’m leaving Hollywood better than I found it. I’m always thinking how do I make this town and culture healthier? And that’s by having people aligned with their joy as they go about their pursuit. I’m interested in having people understand the why behind the what. Actors will say, ‘I need to shoot Slateshots,’ or ‘Oh, I need to do quirky headshots with fingerguns.’ And I’ll say, ‘Really? Do you really need to? Let’s be sure we know the why behind the what.’ And if it turns out that that’s what you need to do, do it from a place of feeling joy for it, not by slogging through. I find that too many artists are miserable. And I don’t understand why you would choose a career that’s meant to bring joy to the world and then not be filled with joy in the pursuit of it. And so, if I can help people feel more levity throughout the process, and demystifying the industry is a big part of that, showing what’s going on behind the curtain, then I feel like I’ve contributed. Everyday I get to help somebody win an award or get to a festival and walk a red carpet—have experiences that they never thought they would have and that feels really great. My log-line I’ve created is ‘I’m living my dreams by helping others figure out how to live theirs.’
How did you get to where you are today?
BONNIE: I started as a child and then adult actor. One of my survival jobs I got was at Backstage interviewing casting directors. The longer I did it, the more I thought that maybe the thing that I’m actually meant to do is help demystify this business. Back in ’98 casting directors were not being interviewed. There was certainly no Youtube or Vlogs or Twitter accounts where people are sharing what auditions are like. You had no idea what was going to happen in that room until you got in there and nobody was telling you how to get in there. So a lot of my early work was getting casting directors to talk about what that process is like. Some of them eventually asked if I would like to sit in and watch their casting sessions. Participatory journalism? Yes! I was listening to casting directors and producers talk about the actor that just came in and out. I got to see the difference between the energy the actor brought into the room, how the actor was treated by the people in the room, and after the actor was gone, the conversations that would happen. Being able to listen to this secret language was my favorite. I was leaning into this more and more and realized the acting was becoming less of a focus. Eventually, a casting director asked me to come work for her, and although I initially said ‘hell no’ because I never wanted a traditional job, the job was only 5 weeks and it paid exactly how much I needed to publish Self-Management for Actors. I wrote the book and eventually went back to casting, but I decided to go where my heart was which was in casting for independent projects. I saw an ad in Backstage looking for a casting director for a super low budget $25,000 feature film. I told them I would cast their film for $5,000 and the director on the phone started laughing his ass off saying that they had $100 to pay a casting director. And I had this moment of Oh! These are the copy-credit-meals days of my casting career! I could stay in network casting (because they desperately wanted me back) and make stupid good money but then drink all the vodka because it was just so stressful or I could go over and work with the people that I’m really crazy about but I’m going to have to work for nothing for a little while and that’s what I ended up leaning into because the writing was paying well enough that I could have this very low-paying casting career.
SELF-MANAGEMENT FOR ACTORS
So I have a story. I came across your book several years ago as an e-book and after reading it, I began recommending it to so many actors, especially actors who are just starting out. The advice you’ve compiled for actors is incredible. I quote you all the time. I always say, ‘This is your starting point. Talk to me later.’ Preparing for our interview though, I bought the hard-copy version and I was completely surprised when I got the book because I didn’t realize how thick and detailed and really organized it is. It’s basically a college-level book.
BONNIE: That’s exactly what we wanted, especially with this 4th edition! We made it more academic than previous editions. The first edition was in 2003 and it was just, ‘Here’s some advice that I came across through doing many interviews with casting directors.’ People would write in with questions and I would go back and ask casting directors these ‘trend questions.’ After doing so many interviews and creating so many friendships with casting directors, I was able to amass ‘general rules’ for this industry. Of course there are exceptions but if there are trends they look mostly like this for on-camera or like that for stage. My husband, then fiancé, convinced me that I had to put this information out in the format of a book and when that particular casting job offered me the exact salary that would cover the cost of publishing this book, I knew it was meant to be. Over the years we found out it was getting into colleges and even high schools so, for this edition, we particularly wanted it to feel very academic, where lesson plans can be built around it.
Well congratulations on the success of it! I see it’s always Top 10 on Amazon in its category.
BONNIE: Yes, it consistently does really well. I’m so grateful. There’s no structure to this industry, yet there is. People choose a creative career so they can have all this freedom but then they are craving some sort of structure and this provides enough of that so that they know where the lines are and when to color outside the lines.
I want to talk about how casting directors talk to actors in the room. A few weeks ago, I had 3 actors audition for different roles on the same project. They each called me after their audition. The first actor says, ‘Anna. You would not believe how well that audition went. Casting loved it so much. They said I was the best of the day. They asked me about my availability. It was incredible.’ The second actor calls. ‘Anna. This is it. The casting director was nodding the entire time through my read. I stayed in the room 20 minutes more than any other actor. We were just shooting the shit. This was my best audition ever.’ Finally the 3rd actor calls. ‘Anna. They’re going to book me. This is my role. I feel it. They literally told me that I was the character. We need to fight for this. I know this is it.’ Bonnie, I get calls like this from my actors all the time. Casting directors really give so much validation to actors that it really messes with them when they don’t hear back. Why do that? Why give an actor that much positive feedback? I find it kind of annoying.
BONNIE: Here’s the answer. The majority of actors enter the room needing validation. It is human nature to give someone what they’re seeking. So, if we’re sitting in this restaurant and a stranger walked in within 5 feet of us looking around as if they were lost, we would feel compelled to say, ‘Are you looking for someone? Did you lose something?’ We don’t work here and it’s not our job but it’s just human nature to be helpful. When enough actors come in needing some sense of validation, the casting director brain goes to, ‘I want to give them validation. They want to hear they did a good job so I’m going to say they did a good job.’ And really, a lot of times they did a good job but maybe not to the degree of that feedback. So part of what I teach actors is to use this as data. Go home and write in your notes that that casting office gives ‘good room’ because every time you go in there and think you have a callback, you don’t get one. It means that you shouldn’t take it seriously when they tell you you’ve done amazing or they keep you in the room longer or they ask about your availability because until it turns into a callback or an avail or a booking, it’s just a ‘warm room.’ If you get enough data, it will steer you. The problem at first though is that actors don’t have a lot of data so they’re going off of a really small sample of information to decide what’s going on. If the actor is coming from a space of enoughness where they don’t need any of the validation that comes from the room and it does come, you’re just like ‘okay, cool’ because that’s your resting point and you already know this anyway.
What about this ‘secret language’ you mentioned picking up on when an actor leaves the room?
BONNIE: It’s everything from, ‘We just put an offer out on this part so everybody we’re seeing now we actually need to be thinking of for this other role that we didn’t release in the breakdown,’ and not telling the actors that because the actors would be completely derailed with that information and we want to see their best work. And then that actor leaves thinking ‘I did great’ and ‘I did great for this role’ even though that role’s not a thing anymore but casting can be looking at you for another episode or another project even. So there’s so much other casting going on than what you think. Or just how many times actors were told ‘that was great’ and it wasn’t and the actor left the room and the casting directors would say, ‘Oh God, no. No way.’ And the ‘Oh God, no way’ usually meant wrong fit for the role but sometimes it did actually mean, that was bad acting. And of course the actor in me back in the ’90s when I’m doing these interviews was thinking Give them a note! They can fix it! They have craft! Trust that they can fix that! But of course going into casting and learning from a time management perspective, we’re not there to teach acting. If you can come in and show it to me exactly how I need it on set tomorrow, right now, you’ve now saved me time. And the biggest thing that surprised me about those sit-ins was seeing how many actors don’t look like their headshot because I had heard casting directors tell me that and I thought Yeah, yeah, yeah. People don’t look like their headshot. And then to actually realize what they meant is that actors don’t feel like their headshot. So they would look at the picture and I would see the notes that they would write on the resume to remind themselves of what that essence of the actor was that wasn’t actually in the picture. It was really fascinating to me. And to hear casting look at your resume and say, ‘Oh, you worked with (so and so).’ You think Great! We have a common relationship. This is a good thing. Then the actor would leave the room and the casting director would say, ‘Oh my God, that director sucks’ and it would actually not be a positive like you thought. Complex relationships. Societal systems that you’re not even aware of. And no time in the room to get you in the loop. So you don’t know what you’re dealing with sometimes. Especially if you’re still early on in your career or new to this room.
“…we’re not there to teach acting. If you can come in and show it to me exactly how I need it on set tomorrow, right now, you’ve now saved me time.”
Interesting. Not all common relationships spark good feelings in people.
BONNIE: This is a comment I made to an actor just recently. The actor said, ‘I used to say I am a Kevin Spacey type and now I can’t say that.’ And I said, ‘Actually, the whole time you’ve been saying that, there was a population of people in Hollywood who had a very different feeling hearing it than you intended in saying it.’ Which is why I always tell actors to be very cautious when using any other actor as their description. I encourage actors to write the breakdown of that actor that they keep getting told they remind people of and then use those descriptive words instead. Let the person sitting in the room say, ‘You remind me of Kevin Spacey.’ Let it be their idea. Because when you say it, you don’t know what kind of seed you’re planting. Relationships are complex and just because we have a shared name on a resume doesn’t mean it’s a good thing.
What about the actor’s energy when they walk into a room?
BONNIE: Well I always say that the energy walks in before you do. From the moment you’re in the waiting room and we peek out, we’re already getting a sense of your energy. Then walking into the room you’re proving that that energy matches or is off for some reason which is one of the most interesting dynamics for an actor’s first time in a casting office. After the casting director knows the actor, it’s only the energy we’re calling in. The picture doesn’t’ matter, the footage doesn’t matter, the new credits don’t matter, the StarMeter doesn’t matter. I’m bringing you in because of that way you made me feel when I met you before. It’s the Maya Angelou, ‘People will remember how you made them feel’ thing.
THE BULLSEYE & THE SHOW BIBLE
The bullseye is a huge concept in your book. Tell the readers more about it.
BONNIE: Because actors have range, I really like the dartboard analogy. I’m not telling you that you can’t do the other things but it’s that thing at the center that you do better than anything else and that you do better than anyone else that is at the center of your brand. And by focusing on your bullseye, it allows you to be very clear in the messaging that you’re putting out. Who are you as a character when you’re in a role? It allows you to not worry about stretching to get to something else that’s on your dartboard because that’s somebody else’s bullseye. And yes, you can stretch to it, of course you can, you’re an actor and you have range but what is the value in stretching to show them Oh I can still play 16 when you’re 23, and actually, you are a really good 23-year-old? Instead, look for those roles that line up with that and just bullseye those rather than stretching to something else. Because especially in a market like LA, the act of stretching toward something becomes then what we see. We see the effort. And buyers love things that look effortless. We have 100 problems and if we have 100 problems and most of them are called ‘roles’ and then you come in and solve a problem, well, that’s 1 problem off the list- great! If you go out partying the night before and then you come to set the next day and you’re all of your 23 instead of the 16 you can stretch to, now we have a makeup problem we have to deal with and a lighting problem we have to deal with. How about if you just go for the things that are effortless for you? And hopefully that should also be a lot more fun.
One of my favorite stories to tell is about Burn Notice which ultimately ran on USA. When they were first pitching the show, one of the places they pitched to was FX. And when they pitched the show to FX, it was set in New Jersey which makes perfect sense because on a network like FX, the show would need to look grey and grainy and dirty like New Jersey feels on TV. But the reason it ended up being set in Miami is because FX passed and the next meeting they had was at USA. They said, ‘If we’re going to USA, let’s look at the USA brand.’ It doesn’t need to be set in New Jersey. It needs to be set somewhere beautiful and sunny and yellow- let’s make it Miami. And why this story is important when I’m working with actors, is it helps the actor see that it’s not just the actor who has brand management to deal with. The showrunner also has brand management to deal with. The network has brand management to deal with. And so, if your bullseye aligns with Aaron Sorkin’s bullseye and that aligns with the Netflix bullseye then that is the point of intersection where y’all are gonna jam. Again, what ends up happening for a lot of artists though, is that feels limiting. And I always remind them that they can wipe their tears with hundred dollar bills because once they start booking, then there are no limits because then their brand is I’m-A-Booker. And once your brand is I’m-A-Booker then you have a lot more room to show the buyers other things you can do. But if you lead with ‘let me show you all the things I can do,’ it reads as desperate. So it’s: Find that niche, lean into it, let them buy in and then start to expand from there.
How does an actor identify what their bullseye is?
BONNIE: The fullest description of the process is in Self-Management for Actors, of course. And I have free SMFA Hot Sheets that help with this at https://dojo.bonniegillespie.com for download. But the short version is this: You gather data. You survey people–friends, colleagues, casual acquaintances, strangers–and you interview your bookings. You look at what patterns emerge. And the temptation will be to focus on the anomalies. “That one person called me a bitch! I’m not a bitch!” When what you need to see is that 25 people called you the nice guy. That’s a bullseye, and bitch is on the dartboard but it’s someone else’s bullseye. Ideally, your bullseye aligns with what you LIKE to play, roles you naturally gravitate toward. To use my writing career as an example, because sometimes it’s easier to see in someone else, my bullseye is writing about the business side of a creative career. I could just as easily have built a career writing about SEC football, but early on, I saw buyers paying me more for my words about demystifying showbiz, so I leaned into that. That’s what we’re asking actors to do. Lean into those bookings that are coming easily, even if that means your bullseye is a serial killer. When you see patterns that show buyers are valuing this thing you can make look effortless, do that. It’s because you make it look effortless that it’s your bullseye. If you have to stretch to do it, we see that effort, and it’s not your bullseye; it’s somebody else’s. And note that what you say NO to – especially early in your career – is extremely helpful in getting known for your bullseye. When you say yes to everything, you confuse buyers about how to cast you. And a confused mind says NO.
“When you see patterns that show buyers are valuing this thing you can make look effortless, do that. It’s because you make it look effortless that it’s your bullseye. If you have to stretch to do it, we see that effort, and it’s not your bullseye; it’s somebody else’s.”
Tell us about the show bible concept from your book.
BONNIE: Well I think if I knew how this concept was going to take off, I would have come up with a unique name for it rather than bastardizing an actual industry term because that can be confusing. A show bible exists for every show and I always use Friends as the example because everyone knows the show. Spoiler Alert- Ross and Rachel were always going to end up together no matter if the show went 1 season, 3 seasons or 10 seasons. There was a way for them to end up together at every negotiation point in the contracts for those actors. You can see it when you’re watching re-runs and that was by design so there would always be an out with them together. When I tell actors that they, too, have a show bible of all the players and participants in their career, using the story of Friends always having an endgame–actors do, too. I do a magic wand exercise with my clients where I wave an imaginary magic wand and say, ‘You’re magically transported to whatever set you want, playing whatever role you want, uttering the words written by whomever, directed by whomever on whatever budget level. Tell me what that is.’ Then we work backwards like Google Maps. What is the road map? Everything we do from this point forward needs to be in service of that trajectory. We’re going to map out on this Show-Bible-Google-Map all the potential roads, all the potential relationships and how we connect everything to this future we want. This is a relationship business and you need to start treating it that way from the beginning. What acting coaches are you working with? Photographers? Castmates? Not so that we can lean on people in inauthentic ways, but so we can see the direct route that actually does exist toward where we want to go. It’s a lot of research, time spent on CastingAbout and IMDB-Pro, time spent cultivating relationships but this business is all about relationship management so it’s a requirement. You can read all about it in my book.
What do you do besides actors?
BONNIE: Poledancing! 5 classes a week. I’m obsessed. The strength and the femininity and the grace. It completely surprised me. It’s so much more than a physical workout.
BONNIE: Kim Estes. He just won an Emmy in September. I saw him in a play in 2004 and was immediately captivated, I’ve cast him several times, and it’s been amazing to see him grow as an artist and as a leader in our community. He brought his Emmy to Thirsty Third Thursday. He shares his victories with our SMFA community. That’s ninja.
Favorite TV shows?
BONNIE: What What Happens Live with Andy Cohen for studying Brandprov and Scientology and the Aftermath with Leah Remini as a documentary. I did a piece on Scientology in late 2000 and went undercover in the church, to their casting Q&A sessions that they advertise in Backstage. It’s fascinating and scary and Leah is uncovering wonderful stuff.
What is your advice to actors who have followed all the advice and have been working so hard and things still aren’t working out for them?
BONNIE: If you’re sure you’re talented, what expiration date do you put on the trust that others will see the talent? If you’ve got an expiration date on others seeing your talent then just stop now. If you’ve got an ‘I’ve got to make it to this point by this age’ mindset then just do yourself a favor and stop because this business doesn’t respond to your timing. If you trust that you’re talented and you have a voice and there’s a place for it, then stick it out. Lean into things that bring you joy and if that is acting then create opportunities where you are acting. Don’t wait for permission from somebody else to go out there and show people what you can do. It’s one of the beauties of technology coming down in price in the past decade and a half. The camera in your phone used to cost $5-7 grand, not even a couple of years ago. The fact that technology is acquirable by everyone means there’s no excuse and certainly you don’t have to wait for permission.
Self-Management for Actors on AMAZON
WHAT’S FOR LUNCH
LOCATION: 101 Wilshire Blvd, Santa Monica, CA 90401
DISH: Kale Tabbouli with Grilled Five Spice Organic Tofu (& a virgin Mojito)
NOTES: Dish wasn’t great but the location is beautiful and upscale. Located inside the Fairmont Miramar Hotel on Ocean Blvd.