Working with casting directors, why actors get dropped and how pilot season is different
I’ve been working with talent agent Laura Thede of DDO Artists Agency for several years now. As head of the DDO Kids division, Laura has worked undeniably hard at growing her department and cementing a strong reputation for the ever-expanding DDO name. She clearly loves her job and the enthusiasm is contagious. Actors signed to Laura get the love and attention that is rare in this industry, and although I work with many talent agents, the email chains involving DDO Kids may or may not be my favorite. Finally, amongst pilot season craziness, Laura and I found the time to grab some Sunday brunch to catch up on everything Hollywood. The conversation went a little something like this…
Laura, how did you get to where you are today?
LAURA: I grew up a competitive dancer and was on the college dance team. I went to school for Business Communications and double-minored in dance and theatre. When I graduated, my step-mom had family that lived in Orange County so I moved in with them and started auditioning and pretty much right away knew I hated auditioning. Dance auditions are a giant cattle call. You can be there all day and then get cut at the last second after dancing for 6 hours. I was that actor that couldn’t handle waiting so I went to every casting workshop, every acting class but I was completely miserable. One day, I took a casting workshop from Jamie Snow and somebody asked how she got into casting and she said she used to be an actress that at one point she realized she wasn’t happy anymore doing it and that she was too OCD and wanted that office life so badly and I remember sitting there and being like, OMG! This is me! She’s speaking directly to me! I walked out of her workshop and went to Samuel French and bought the casting director directory and called every single casting director in alphabetical order and asked if I could intern. Finally, Terry Berland answered and said I could come in the next day and hung up. I was so scared but that’s how I started helping Terry cast for commercials and voice overs. She ended up hiring me part-time as her casting assistant but I really didn’t love the commercial casting side of it. I didn’t feel it was as creative as I wanted, I hoped TV and film would be more creative. So I started applying to TV casting assistant positions and then Harriet Greenspan called me because she saw Terry on my resume and they’ve known each other forever. She met me at Starbucks for my interview and I had never done any theatrical casting before and I completely lied. She was asking me things like, Do you know how to use breakdowns? Do you know how to use Eco-cast? Yup, yup, yup. But I had never even seen it and had no idea what it was! And she hired me and I loved working for her and that’s when I fell in love with kids because I worked on a Disney pilot with her (Shout out to poor Susan Putnam who trained me!). Had that pilot been picked up, I would probably still be in casting.
But it didn’t get picked up and you were out of a job, I’m guessing?
LAURA: It didn’t get picked up so I was out of a job and panicking. I was trying to wait for Harriet to get another project and she wanted me to wait, too. I went back to bartending, serving, waiting- but again that drives me insane. I had student loans to pay! Harriet’s at the point where she doesn’t need to work back-to-back so she waits for the right projects but I was in a rush to pay rent so I started applying for jobs. I thought that if I went back to casting then it would be this same thing forever. But then I thought that if I found an agency where I get to work with kids then that could be my happy medium. So I got an assistant position at DDO. After about 6 months they let me start doing the kids commercials. I realized after some time I needed a kids theatrical department because I kept loosing kids to companies that had across-the-board. I talked to the partners about it and they agreed. Around that same time we had also just bought out a smaller agency called Stage 9 and they did have a theatrical division, you know Anthony- who still does our adult theatrical, so that was super helpful. Harriet was also very helpful during that time. She gave me advice on what managers to work with and she got me invited to a bunch of showcases and events. I remember in the beginning doing breakdowns and never ever getting any appointments for my actors. I would cold email all casting directors and be like, Hi, My name is Laura, I just started a kids division at DDO, I used to work for Harriet, this is my background, please see my kids, I promise I know what I’m doing.
And now DDO has such a great reputation and you guys are growing so fast! Do you feel that?
LAURA: Yes, it’s been nuts! Our team is just amazing. I’m so thankful for them! Last year was insane. I felt like we worked ourselves to the bone. This year we’re trying to find our happy medium. How do we grow but continue to keep what we’re known for which is being very close with our clients and being very responsive?
You guys respond SO quickly to emails which I appreciate. That keeps the energy so high! When one of our actors writes about their auditions- all 3 of you respond so quickly and I feel like we’re all in the same room.
LAURA: Yes! People make fun of us because they say, We send DDO Kids an email and we’re not expecting all of you to write back but all 3 of you always send individuals responses, and the thing is, we just all want to write back.
It makes me love working with DDO Kids. As you guys grow, I really hope you guys keep that.
LAURA: Absolutely. I feel like we’re never going to have the most kids or the biggest company but I do personally hear from casting directors that we have really good kids. And I prefer to hear that than, Oh, just call them, they have a TON of kids. I prefer to have quality over quantity. But we also continue to drop people! As bad as that sounds, obviously we have to.
What qualifies you to drop an actor?
LAURA: A lot of times, unfortunately, it’s when we’re asking things of people and they keep on not doing what we’ve asked. Simple things like not getting new headshots. There are kids who have not gotten new headshots in years and they do not look like the photos! They’re completely grown up. And we give people a lot of chances. We send out warning email after warning email. At that point we just have to drop you because you’re showing that you don’t want this.
And that’s wasting your time! I hate saying something a second time. Some actors think, Oh, it’s only taking her 30 seconds to send that text or that email reminding me of something. Yes, but if I did that for all of my actors for every thing I ever said then that’s a lot of time wasted. Imagine always needing something said to you multiple times in the corporate world. Your boss would probably give you a bad review, and eventually, fire you. I need things done right away and without a reminder. Or, tell me why you can’t and when you can.
I always tell actors- communicate. If you can’t do it right away then say, Anna, I can’t do this right now because (this is why) but I can get it to you by (this is when). Great! Thank you for being professional.
LAURA: I think often times actors don’t realize how much work it is. Some actors think, I’m going to get discovered. And parents think that of their children often. But that’s not a thing. At all. That’s a huge misconception of the industry. So when you realize the actor isn’t going to put in the work, you just have to part ways.
So how’s pilot season going for you?
LAURA: It’s good. I have 2 actors testing right now. Plus, there are a lot of producer sessions. Also, I feel like a lot of the projects haven’t gotten to the kids roles yet since those are usually the last to cast on a pilot. So every week we’re just checking in on the roles.
How’s pilot season different from the rest of the year?
LAURA: There are more breakdowns and the coverage is what’s so time-consuming. Casting will release a pilot with 10 or 15 roles and it’s going to take them 2, 3, 4 months to cast those roles so I could send a pitch that day when the pilot releases but they’re going to delete that because they’re not seeing that kid role for months so you have to find the right time to pitch on everything because you have to know when they’re seeing those roles. And you have to find out who’s playing the mom or dad so you know the ethnicity of the kid so you pitch the right actor. And there are so many pilots! So keeping track of it all- we have very complicated spreadsheets that help us keep track of every pilot, the kids roles, when we submitted, the date we pitched, if we did a follow-up pitch. Everything is highlighted in different colors. There’s information on who’s been cast, what the script is about, what the characters are like. It’s a lot!
(We discuss our secret magic pitching formula.)
What makes an actor the ideal actor on your roster during pilot season?
LAURA: Its all about materials. Everyone in town is getting pitched by their agents so it’s all about your materials. So if casting looks at your materials and they think, Oh, he looks good, she looks good, then they will call you in. They want to see the best, most experienced people. And the actors that have the best materials, I don’t have problems getting them in. So it’s the actors that are good but don’t have good materials that I’m begging to get in because casting isn’t believing me based off their materials. So sometimes you just have to know that until you have more credits and more footage, you may not be getting called in. And we have to understand that from casting’s point of view. They’re getting BOMBARDED. They don’t have time to see every person with no credits or footage. They’re trying to keep their job. The smart thing to do is see everyone with the biggest credits because you know they know what they’re doing.
Well our actors together are doing really great. I’m so excited about them!
LAURA: Oh my god, they’re killing it.
But I was pretty upset that they didn’t take our actress off hold on that series regular role. I think it’s rude. I understand everyone is busy, but they release holds on co-stars. Imagine our actress found out first through reading the trades and then called me crying. How would that make me look? I always have to have casting’s back by why don’t they have my back? Or does that not matter?
LAURA: Listen to this horror story. My kid gets cast in a big feature film. He’s so excited, goes to set and he’s in wardrobe and they keep him in there for a while. Someone comes up to him and says, We’re so sorry, we’re not going to be able to get to your scenes today. We just couldn’t fit it in but don’t worry, we’ll reach out and get you in on another day. So the mom emails me asking if everything is okay and I respond that it’s totally normal for production to be running behind, that they’ll shoot him another day but he’ll still get paid for the day plus now another day, too. The next day, this little boy is on Instagram and another little boy is posting pictures from set shooting his role! And that’s how he found out. He’s 10 so he’s crying like crazy. I’m freaking out and calling casting and they’re not even returning my calls! I finally find out later that apparently what happened was that there were 3 kids that were the top 3 choices, 2 of them had the same name and they booked the wrong kid. And when he got to set, the producer said, That’s not the kid I wanted, and they literally went and lied to his face about coming back another day because they didn’t know what to say. Someone should have called me! The mom was so pissed. She could have dropped me over that thinking that I made a mistake.
I’m in shock. That’s terrible. How is your relationship with that casting director now? How do you ever forgive them?
LAURA: I was so livid so I wrote the casting director a stern but nice email telling them that they need to call my client and apologize because my client was so devastated. He thought of quitting acting! I was just asking for a phone call to my client to explain that it was an accident and nothing to do with his talent. They never even responded to my email. It just went back to business as usual with that CD because it has to be. People make mistakes and you just have to try really hard not to take it personally. Easier said than done especially with kids involved.
And then we still have to pitch to that casting director.
LAURA: Exactly, we have to get our actors in. Granted I’m sure they have their fair share of agent/manager horror stories. I will try my absolute best to never be one of them!
LAURA: I’ve had a kid testing for a project and you know how they call them in and out and in and out from the waiting area? So, the whole network comes out into the waiting area and they grab one kid and they say, Come, take a picture with the cast (because they knew he was the chosen one). So they’re taking a picture with the cast with this one kid in front of all the other kids in the waiting area.
Why would you do that?!
LAURA: You can’t excuse everyone and then take that photo? The business is heartless sometimes.
Speaking of that, I want to talk about actors leaving agents and managers. It’s something all of us agents and managers talk about among ourselves and we have a lot of feelings about it.
LAURA: Yes, we work all day and night on actors before they even make us any sort of consistent paycheck but as soon as they get something big because of the work we’ve been doing on their behalf, a lot of times they leave us for the bigger name companies. Understand how that feels for us. I think actors have the misconception that we make an insane amount of money.
I just did my taxes for last year, and I spent over one-third of that income on lunches, dinners, gifts, traveling.
LAURA: Yes, whatever the actor makes, we make a tiny, tiny percentage. Then we have to pay the company we work for, taxes, expenses. We want our actors to book and we’re rooting for them.
You hear of the bigger agencies that really don’t connect with their actors, it’s probably because they view it as just a business so why get attached? They’re just trying to make money on you while they can before you leave them and don’t waste time on the personal relationship. I enjoy the personal relationships so I have to have it but it’s also painful at times when someone you are so attached to leaves. Thank goodness it’s not very often! We also have a lot of truly amazing clients that are always grateful and very loyal. Even the best of the best of reps have a painful drop story.
I would say, it’s hard to know how much an actor will take care of you, after your years of taking care of them, when the tables have turned.
You know, I tweet a lot, I guess. And when I tweet about auditions or bookings or actors, everyone likes those tweets. And then I one day I tweeted that I got food poisoning and nobody responded or said anything to me. Might sound silly, but it reminded me not to assume that all actors care about me. Sometimes, they’re just trying to get close.
LAURA: Trust me we have our breakdowns from time to time for sure!
This industry can be such highs and such lows.
LAURA: It really is but there are some amazing and truly good-hearted people in it, when you find them – keep them!
Amen to that. Let’s switch back to happy thoughts. Tell me your favorite parts about this job!
LAURA: The kids. Or anytime I have to call with a booking. That lights me up so much! Especially calling someone who you know deserves it so much!
LAURA: Or when someone turns in a really good tape, I get goosebumps! And I’ll watch it over and over. It gets me so excited. I will fight for you because you’re so good! Or finding an actor that has raw talent. Oh man.
Ahhhhh, I totally agree!!!! The talent, the artistry!
LAURA THEDE / DDO KIDS
WHAT’S FOR LUNCH
LOCATION: 11720 Ventura Blvd, Studio City, CA 91604
DISH: Sunday Brunch Buffet
NOTES: Amazing brunch buffet with live music and a warm fireplace in this airy, hidden location. Pictures aren’t doing this place justice. Go for Sunday brunch!