Working with commercial actors in the ever-changing advertising world
Stephany Burns and I have shared commercial clients for several years now. As a born and raised Los Angeles native, Stephany started as a commercial actor and then worked at several commercial casting offices. I could always tell that she had a true passion for her work and understood the business well since she’s seen so many sides of it. Finding the best talent for her department is something Stephany takes pride in, and when she noticed a lack of female comics on stage, she wanted to level the playing field. With the help of a few other producers, Stephany founded Underwire Comedy, a ‘show of women who can make you laugh, without doing an entire set about their sexual preference or trip to the gyno.’ This creation is just one of the things that make Stephany the badass commercial agent she is. Find out even more about her thoughts on the industry here and check out her website at the bottom of the article to get a taste of the amazing campaigns she’s worked on.
So how do you find your talent?
STEPHANY: I find all my talent from either referrals of actors I already represent or comedy shows. Sometimes, I’ll open an email with a reel and headshots, and if they have credits and I need that type, I’ll meet with them.
What typically stands out to you about an actor?
STEPHANY: What stands out to me is their essence, their personality type. Are they bland and hard to place or do they show me a specific type of a person?
Are there certain types that are really popular right now?
STEPHANY: We still get the shlubby, the dad-bod, the young kid who still lives with his parents, the people in the office that hate their job. Lots of office type people. You know, we have 15 seconds to tell a story so we have to sell a stereotype, unfortunately. Some people are offended by that but if it’s going to make you money, run with it. And then go do what you want to do that is meaningful to you. But for now, be a freaking tomato and dance like a tomato if you look like a tomato. So I look for types. What type are you? I do meet with actors that are not necessarily a specific ‘type’ where the look is more ‘general’ per say, but those are the rare birds, and you sure as heck don’t want a roster full of the same thing. I am also assuming every actor that is referred to me has strong talent, but still, I can’t have more than 10-15 of that look, or it’s overkill. As an agent, I can’t have too many of the same person, otherwise it’s like they say, you’re just throwing spaghetti at a wall. I want my roster of 300 to look like a rainbow of every kind of person you can think of, so whatever casting needs, I have it. We work in sales and people forget that!
Are beards still a big thing?
STEPHANY: Beards are still in!
Do you want your talent to have commercial reels?
STEPHANY: Absolutely yes. Everybody should always have a reel. A lot of breakdowns say to include a reel and if you don’t have one, you might get missed. Now, what kind of reel? I would say light-hearted, likable, and fun unless you have solid TV credits from Criminal Minds, Good Wife, Grey’s Anatomy, etc. The reel I don’t want is that random student or independent film that’s dark, edgy, slow. I don’t use that because I live in a world of likability. When they look at your reel they want to see if you’re a solid actor or if you’re fun and likable. They’re never looking for a dangerous, dark man that lingers in the alleys. You rarely see that.
“I want my roster of 300 to look like a rainbow of every kind of person you can think of, so whatever casting needs, I have it.”
What is your ideal client like?
STEPHANY: Someone that never misses auditions no matter what. Never asks for a time frame under any circumstance unless they have multiple auditions that day in which case I’m happy to help. They get the headshots when I need and the headshots that I like. They get me the reels I need. They basically do what I tell them to do.
STEPHANY: Somebody that is one step ahead of me. Meaning- if I reach out to them about a breakdown where they need somebody that’s really good on a Bird, they write back and tell me that they’re running downstairs right now to take a video of themselves on a Bird and sending it to me. They never respond, “Oh, I’m so sorry, I didn’t check my emails today.” They’re always on it. They’re ready. They’re like soldiers waiting for a command.
I ALWAYS say that! My goal is to have this army of perfect soldiers (with great personalities and minds that think for themselves), but otherwise highly trained and ready to take commands.
Is that okay to say?
STEPHANY: I’m not sure but it feels right!
What do you wish your actors knew?
STEPHANY: I wish actors knew that every move they make affects everyone involved with the casting process. It’s a domino effect when an actor cancels or requests a time change. Casting gives an actor an appointment time for a very specific reason, and canceling it or trying to change it affects everything in a negative way. Actors don’t realize that sometimes they get a specific time because the director knows you will kill it and doesn’t want you to go first. Or it could be that casting is pairing you with a ‘dad’ that they know will work well with you. Or It could be that they put you at noon because the producer will be in the room at that time and they wanted him or her to be there when you audition. So when you ask to go earlier or later, it’s screwing up other people’s days, too. It’s messing up the intricately choreographed dance the casting director took the time to put together very carefully. Agents cringe when actors ask for a time frame because we know it annoys the CD and try to avoid it as much as we can. Obviously life happens, but actors that do it constantly are not at the top of our pitch list. Be reliable if you want to get pitched. It’s so simple!
Which factors stand out when casting directors pick your actors?
STEPHANY: Headshots! It’s so different than theatrical because with theatrical jobs, they’re going to dive so much more into everything, but with commercials, they’re looking at your headshots first. Do you look like the type that they need? You do? Great! Now they’ll look at your resume and credits. If you don’t have credits, they’ll look at your training. Are you at the Sunday Company at the Groundlings?
The Changing Landscape of Commercials
How has the commercial industry changed over the years?
STEPHANY: The celebrity factor has changed. It’s mostly celebrity-filled. Also, union vs. non-union. There’s way more non-union than there used to be.
Why is that?
STEPHANY: I think that the advertisers and their clients want freedom. It’s the freedom of not needing to ask permission for 3 edits, 5 edits, this platform, that platform. They just want to do whatever they want with this commercial for a year and put it on any site that they want to put it on. In my opinion, I don’t think it’s these companies not wanting to pay pension and health. I don’t think it’s the 21 month contract that’s bothering them. I really don’t think it’s the $3,000+ for holding fees. Honestly, I think it’s how and where they want to use the ad. I just notice that non-union commercials that are high-paying are basically saying, ‘We want to do whatever we want with this spot.’
And social media must have changed the landscape too.
STEPHANY: So much! Within the last 10 years, social media has started a whole new wave of advertising. Now all these advertisers want to advertise to the masses of people that don’t watch traditional television anymore. I’ve seen so many SAG breakdowns that are social media digital waivers. I’m a strong supporter of the union and want to help in any way that I can, but at the same time, I’m not finding the union doing a lot to keep the companies. I really hope this new contract will change everything! I want it to work and I want everyone to work.
Where do you see the commercial industry going?
STEPHANY: Digital. That’s where it is and will continue going. I hope the union is figuring out how to make union jobs worthwhile financially for everyone involved, because right now the rates are so low even though these companies have SO much money. For example, let’s say you have a holiday party at work every year and they spend $10,000 on it. But then one year, they realize that if they just spend $1,000 and deliver pizzas to the office, everyone will be just as happy and love the party. Why would they go back to the $10,000 party the next year? No! They just saved a lot of money.
What do you wish you knew when you started in this industry?
STEPHANY: I wish I knew how to navigate the stress. Working in commercials, it’s constantly diffusing bombs. It’s, “Everything is urgent.” Everyone needs everything yesterday. It’s a daily panic attack at the beginning of the day and at the end of the day. It took a toll on my well-being. When you’re constantly going, going, going, non-stop and you’re working on commission and actors are flaking, it’s stressful. But after 10 years, I’ve learned how to work-balance my life, make a lot of people’s dreams come true, make a lot of money, but also learn that when someone says ‘it’s urgent’, it doesn’t necessarily mean that.
FOLLOW STEPHANY & UNDERWIRE COMEDY
WHAT’S FOR LUNCH
RESTAURANT: Spare Tire Kitchen & Tavern
LOCATION: 5370 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90036
DISH: Avocado Toast (sorry for being so basic here guys- I was really craving it!)
NOTES: Cool atmosphere, pretty empty at lunch time, menu has everything you need, easy parking in the back.