YOUR ACTING HEADSHOT IS YOUR CALLING CARD
THE CASTING PROCESS
DOES A GOOD HEADSHOT REALLY MATTER?
SPECIFIC OR GENERAL?
WHAT IS THE INDUSTRY STANDARD?
STUDIO OR NATURAL LIGHT?
HOW A CASTING DIRECTOR DECIDES WHO TO AUDITION BASED OF A HEADSHOT
IS MY HEADSHOT RIGHT FOR ME?
HOW DO I KNOW MY HEADSHOT IS WORKING FOR ME?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kenzo Lee has been a working actor in Los Angeles for more than ten years, having appeared in over 30 national commercials, a dozen primetime television shows and feature films, and regional theaters throughout the country. He was a series regular on one of the first streaming short form web series, participated in the CBS Diversity Comedy Showcase, and currently runs “The Actors Support Group” on Facebook. He was a part of the original cast of “All About Walken: The Impersonators of Christopher Walken” which toured to San Francisco and New York. He is a regular performer at the Waterworld Stunt Show at Universal Studios, which won the prestigious THEA Award in 2017. He has also studied photography and has shot with many of the best (and worst) photographers in Los Angeles.
When I arrived in Los Angeles, things were very different than they are today. Actor headshots were in black and white, submissions for auditions were done exclusively by snail mail, there was no Youtube, no Netflix, and not even fast streaming wifi. In my day, (I sound like my grandpa) we had same day couriers drop off headshots at casting offices. Actors purchased stacks of headshots so that they could send them out every day. There were no casting workshops: actors were able to schedule “general meetings” with casting through their agents. In the past decade, Hollywood has transitioned into the digital era. Casting directors take submissions by the thousands instantly via Breakdown Services and other websites, new media and short form media have changed the way that people all over world view new content, and you can get the newest Hollywood blockbusters or last night’s nail biting primetime TV finale instantly online. However, no matter what has changed, one thing has remained the same and will so for the foreseeable future.
Remember the movie American Psycho? Patrick Bateman, played to creepy perfection by Christian Bale, whips out his business card and his associates “ooh” and “aah” at its simplistic beauty. Then, they begin comparing. Each card, one after the other comes out: different fonts, different color backings, one even has a watermark. Everyone has one and each was a little bit different from the others: conveying a little bit of their individual personality. This is exactly what an actor headshot is like in Hollywood. You have thousands of options about looks or wardrobe, types of lighting etc. but what is most important is that the headshot is distinctly ”you”.
You see, more than anything else, a headshot is the first impression of “you” for anyone who sees it. Without being referred to your work, meeting you in person, watching video of you, or even hearing you say one word: this one image of you will be the first thing they see. Casting directors see thousands of these images every time they cast even one role. The trick is to stand out from all of those others and be one of the few that a casting director will choose to bring into their offices. The trick is to find an image that honestly conveys who you are: what is your essence (we are going to use that word a lot) and with this guide, we will give you the tools that you need to do that.
Before we can even begin to understand what a good headshot is, it’s extremely important to understand where a headshot fits into the bigger picture of casting. Let’s start with a hypothetical situation:
Casting Director Sharon has received a call on Tuesday morning from producers telling her that they are adding a character to this week’s episode of the series that Sharon has been casting for a major network. It’s a single camera, half hour sitcom that has a comfortable spot on Thursday nights. This character will be a “five and under” role, meaning that it will have five or less lines in the script, usually amounting to a single scene. The writer’s description of the character is WAITRESS. This role is going to shoot on Friday. That means that they need to cast this role by Wednesday… aka tomorrow.
Now, Sharon needs to send out a “breakdown” for this role: a short description of the character. She creates this breakdown based upon the scene (Waitress – comedy straight man, makes fun of LEAD for ordering the worst thing on the menu.) and sends it out to Breakdown Services: the online database that pretty much all Casting works with in Los Angeles. Within an hour, she has over 2000 submissions from all the agents in town; even more if the role is opened up to direct submissions from actors. She and her associates have a grid on their computer of a dozen or so photos, most of which are about 1” x 1.5”. There are pages upon pages of these photos. These are the actors’ headshots.
Sharon’s phone begins blowing up. Everyone is pitching their next big client: actresses she’s never seen before, actresses she’s read five times, actresses fresh from the East Coast. While on the phone, Sharon and her associates pull up the clients’ actor headshots and decide from the photos whether these folks will get an audition or not. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t. During this time, Sharon and her associates will flip through the other headshots that have been submitted. They may filter these submissions based upon age range, ethnicity, height, or any other feasible metric that they can. If they like an actor’s headshot and are interested in looking at more, they might spend a few seconds browsing their profile to decide whether they will bring in that actress. After about 30-40 people have been given auditions, they call it a day.
Wednesday morning, auditions begin. Sharon and her associates read between 30-40 actors in the day over a 3 hour period. For a role such as this, they will send their top 5-10 picks to producers and the director for approval. If they’re lucky, they find the person they are looking for. They put out an offer. The agent (or actor directly) responds to the offer and agrees to it. If not, Sharon and her associates will go for a rush call and start it all again. Thursday, the actor comes in for wardrobe, Friday is the shoot day.
It’s that fast.
Of course, the process becomes a little more intricate when the roles become bigger or more specific. Sharon might release the breakdown to multiple websites which could bring in more submissions or cast a wider net if the role is calling for something specific. (Waitress has one leg and a lazy eye… as it’s written in the script). If the role is a recurring role or a larger role, there may be Producer sessions or Callbacks where the top 5-10 choices may come back to read again. These can happen anywhere for immediately after the first audition to weeks later. There may be a screen test, a network approval test, or a chemistry read.
The bottom line is that this all begins with your headshot.
The easy answer is YES to both.
A good actor headshot absolutely matters. A GREAT actor headshot matters even more. Professional headshots by a professional headshot photographer are a MUST in today’s competitive acting market. However, the age old adage still applies: you get what you pay for, and if you want to be taken seriously as an actor, your materials need to reflect that. We live in a culture today where everyone has a cellphone that can shoot a high quality photo, but only a professional headshot photographer has an eye that can catch the specifics that turn a “pretty photo” into a great headshot.
Also, it’s notable to point out that we human beings are NOT used to seeing what we actually look like. We are used to seeing ourselves in mirrors and selfies. The angle that we see our own faces in the mirror, or from a front facing cell phone camera, is slightly distorted. It is the responsibility of a professional headshot photographer to photograph your face in the best possible light while still accurately capturing the essence that makes you… well, you.
And yes, Casting Directors, Producers, and Directors do want to see what you look like. However, a great headshot is more than just that: it’s you on your best day, and it’s also a specific image of you that personifies what casting is looking for. A smile, a smirk, a certain angle of the eyes are needed to convey a certain attitude or trait that can make all the difference between being called in for an audition or being passed over. A professional headshot photographer will know what those are.
For the first five years of my career in Hollywood, I had only “passable” headshots. My first actor headshot was taken by my father in my grandparent’s backyard on a professional digital camera. My father had experience with professional photography, and he was able to bring out a lot of my “essence”.My next headshots were taken when I had arrived in Los Angeles, and were done in a professional studio, but because the photographers were more preoccupied with getting an “artistic” shot, the shots that came out of those sessions didn’t actually describe who I was as a performer and an actor. Still, I used them because they were “done by a professional.” I got some auditions from them, but then when I walked into the room, Casting was disappointed to learn that I wasn’t the same person that was in those photos. It took a combination of a professional headshot photographer (someone who knew how to technically take a great photo, work specifically with actors, AND find my essence) and me bringing the right mindset and confidence to the photoshoot to get the headshots that have gotten me a majority of my work for the last few years.
Make sure the headshot captures not just your look but your “ESSENCE”
Matt Laroux (Brooklyn 99, CSI: NY)
Just yesterday, an actor asked me if it was important to own a pair of scrubs and a police uniform just in case he was ever called in for an audition to play one of them. I asked him how often he went in for those types of roles, and he said, casually, “well I have them in my headshots…” and he pulled up his shots on his phone. He had fifteen headshots on his website: all in different costumes and uniforms. They were less than professional at best, and ALL of them had the same facial expression.
I held my breath… and a snicker.
Let’s look at this from a casting perspective. Our Casting Director Sharon is now looking for a person to play a Doctor. Our actor above submits himself, and perhaps his “scrubs” photo catches just enough attention so that Sharon clicks on his profile. She is then surrounded by fifteen headshots: they all have the same expression on the face, the same half smile, almost the exact same body posture. The only difference between any of them is the wardrobe of the actor. This is a negative. Now, Sharon can’t tell whether that half smile in the “scrubs” photo was a genuine character. Does this actor have range? Will he present a doctor to her the same way he’d play a lawyer? The only thing these changes in wardrobe achieve is to tell Sharon that she has no idea how our actor actually sees himself. Sure, he can change clothes, but there is NOTHING below the surface. These photos do not bring out his essence.
There’s that word I used before that we artists like to use: essence. A professional actor headshot is about capturing the essence of a character.
Now what, you may ask, is essence? To put it very simply, essence is the core of your being. It is the first impression that people would get if you walked into a room of strangers. It is how you carry yourself, how you engage an audience, how you make someone feel. It is what we call in the industry, “the lowest hanging fruit.” It is specific and it is unique only to you. If someone looked at you without knowing anything else about you: the first seven adjectives that would describe you would be your essence. The more descriptive the adjectives, the more defined your essence.
This is not the same as a specific “look”. A “look” could be interpreted as what you are wearing, hair, makeup, etc. These can go also into the realm of wardrobe for specific characters. I will say it right now. Specific character headshots are unnecessary. No scrubs, no uniforms, no badges or helmets or emblems. A nice suit and tie headshot with the correct expression, angle, and flair can portray lawyer, police officer, doctor, insurance salesman, governor, even President. With a leather jacket and no tie that same actor could portray a biker, a party goer, a bad boy, or a gangster. The essence is what matters as opposed to the specifics of the wardrobe.
A director friend of mine recently said it best: “if an actor comes in for a role as a doctor and they’re dressed in full scrubs, then I feel like they are showing me a finished product. This person isn’t rehearsing or creating: they’ve already got an exact vision of what they are doing. I don’t think they’ll be flexible.” You always want to leave your audience with the idea that what they are seeing is just the tip of the iceberg.
Now there ARE “general” headshots: a simple smiling actor headshot that can be used for commercial submissions, or sit-com and comedy shows, a more serious actor headshot that can be used for hour long procedural shows. Men may prefer to have different shots with different lengths of facial hair: women may prefer to have different shots with different hair color.
Most actors who are auditioning consistently will not overdo it with headshots. Casting and representation would agree. They would rather have 3-4 GREAT headshots than 25-30 acceptable ones. It took my representation and I three years to find a great headshot that would work for a majority of my submissions.
So what exactly IS a headshot?
Let’s start off by saying this: shooting a great headshot is an artform, but a headshot itself is NOT a piece of art. A headshot should not be left up to interpretation: it shouldn’t be blurry or have bizarre shadows. A headshot should not have distracting backgrounds or props or even hands. A headshot should not have anything that would draw focus away from the actor.
There are some specifics that are expected from headshots. The industry standard for an actor headshot is to be framed from the top of the head or hair (with nothing cut off by framing) to the middle of the chest. If the actor has longer hair, the length should be shown as best as possible. Bare shoulders or distracting clothing take away the attention from the actor and should be avoided. The face should be front and center, and the focus should be on the eyes.
Anything more than this framing is not a traditional actor headshot, but it can be used for submissions. Actors will usually have one ¾ body shot (showing the body from the top of the head to the knees or a little lower), and this is especially seen with stunt people, as their body may be used to double another actor. These shots can also be used to show those traits that might not be distinguishable for a traditional headshot, such as tattoos, body type, or even missing appendages. Yes, there is an entire subsection of casting for amputees and disabled actors. Actors may also have headshots that include props such as puppets or other specialty acts, swimsuits or workout attire for actors pursuing modeling, fitness, sports, or specific makeup, but these are not standard.
The industry standard of an actor headshot is exactly that: a photo of the head and shoulders.
There’s are a few reasons why this has become the standard. First off, there are two ways that Casting Directors specifically look at actor headshots: hard copy and on a computer screen as a thumbnail. Hard copy headshots are an industry standard 8”x10” with the actor’s name at the bottom of the photo in a white border. In our hypothetical situation described above, we talked about how a Casting Directors and their associates view headshots on a grid on their computer after an actor has been submitted. A great headshot needs to look good either way.
The choice between studio and natural light has been debated for a long time. When used by a professional headshot photographer, both have their benefits. However, a majority of the time, the decision between studio or natural lighting can be made based upon the essence of the actor headshot desired.
Studio lighting is great because a good professional headshot photographer can control all aspects of the shot. They can eliminate shadows, adjust bright spots, and make a headshot look exactly how they’d want. Actor headshots that are shot in a studio can sometimes be lacking in depth, since they usually involve a backdrop as opposed to a physical background. However, as you’d never want to have something distracting in the background of any headshot, this can also be seen as a positive. Commercial Agents and Casting Directors have said that they prefer studio backgrounds and lighting, when done correctly.
Natural lighting requires the photographer to have a keen sense of shadow and use of background. Usually natural light will be accentuated by bounce boards to reflect light in the correct direction to give the most flattering effect. Photographers using natural light will shoot with a shallow depth of field, creating a blurry effect behind the subject which is called bokeh. When the background is not distracting and can be, in fact, pleasing to the eye, this can emphasize the actor in the headshot. Just as certain outfits and colors accentuate different personality traits, so too can the bokeh and background of a photo. These can also bring out character. Place a leather jacket and a dark colored shirt on anyone in an urban concrete setting, and they can instantly be seen with more depth and clarity than they would in a studio setting.
When you walk into ASG Casting, a well known commercial casting office in North Hollywood, you are met with a sign on the wall.
Congratulations. You are 1 of 36 actors chosen for your role today. FYI, You were selected from a pool of 600-3000 submissions for this role. So please do us, yourself, & your fellow peers a few favors: 1. Be prepared, 2. Be on time, 3. Be professional. Please realize that this is a great opportunity that many actors will not have. Please do not take it for granted!”
Agents say, “A great headshot is one that draws you in so that you want to know more about this person. But you don’t want to get tired of them ”. There is a perfect tipping point with a really good headshot between not enough, and too much. Casting directors look at a grid of 16 or more photos at a time. What will make your headshot stand out in a good way? Usually, it’s a slightly brighter background, a well framed face, or even a good smile.
However, there’s more than just the setup and layout of the headshot that will get you that audition. It’s a combination of the right role and the right choice in headshot that can get you there. Sure, every actor who submits for the role of a “lawyer” is going to have a headshot in a suit, but being chosen is a combination of timing, skill, and luck. You need to have the right look combined with the right timing of when a Casting Director sees your headshot combined also with the right skill set on your resume (in case they look at it) and even after that, they still have to choose you.
The Roman philosopher Seneca said that “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” So what do you do? Increase the number of chances for auditions by being prepared and being professional. You only get one chance to make a first impression, and there are only a finite amount of casting directors in town. Therefore, it is important to not only have a great headshot, but to have the skill to back it up. A majority of auditions will come from repeatedly seeing the same casting directors. For example, my first role in a primetime television series was my FOURTH audition for Susan Vash, the Casting Director for the ABC Television show, “Happy Endings”. That day, Susan say me down and said “Alright, Kenzo, fourth time’s the charm.” And it was.
There’s an exercise that is used at The Actor’s Salon, a life and career coaching company that supports artists through classes and coaching: Kimberly, an actor, waits outside of a room of 10 of her peers. The moderator hold up her headshot for everyone in the room to see. In front of each of Kimberly’s peers are a stack of papers. Each paper has 100 specific descriptive adjectives ranging from “innocent” to “confident” to “intense”. As the peers look at Kimberly’s headshot, they circle the adjectives on one page that describe her headshot. They put those in one pile marked “headshot.” Then, Kimberly walks into the room and sits in front of the class and says nothing. Her peers now circle adjectives on another page that describe Kimberly herself, based on nothing more than the person sitting in front of them. They put those in another pile marked “actor”.
Now, Kimberly begins to talk about herself. It can be simple questions such as “what did you have for lunch?” or complex questions about character and personality. Her peers circle adjectives on yet another page and put these in a pile marked “interview”. After this process, Kimberly has 3 piles of paper, each describing her in terms of her headshot, her actual look, and her personality. The goal of this exercise is to have all 3 stacks match up as succinctly as possible.
We call this the theory of the “lowest hanging fruit”. It’s in our nature as human beings to associate someone directly with our first impression of them: a young looking short girl is an ingenue even if she is 35 years old, a taller older man may look like a father figure even if he has no children. However, our SELF PERCEPTION can sometimes get in the way of what we think is an accurate depiction to others.
Casting Directors aren’t looking for someone who can do ANYTHING: they are looking for the right person for THAT role. For example if you were getting a heart transplant, which would you prefer to operate on you: the best cardiovascular surgeon in the country or the doctor that has done “a little bit of everything”. When you walk into the room, your headshot has created the first impression of you, the way that you present yourself when you walk in creates the second, and the way that you read the scene creates the third.
This is a concept that many actors have a problem with. Actors are taught through their training that they can be anything they want. A great actor is supposed to be able to play ANY role. This is true of many actors: Tom Hanks, for example, has won Academy Awards for his roles as a man dying of AIDS in Philadelphia, and a simpleton in Forrest Gump and has garnered numerous accolades in movies as diverse as Castaway, Big, The Green Mile, the list goes on and on. However, for the first half of his career, Hanks was a funny man. His goofy smile, big 80s hair, and charming demeanor made him the perfect “guy next door”. He used his success in this field to springboard his dramatic career.
There is no doubt that if you’re coming to Hollywood you have to be talented. That is a GIVEN if you’re coming to this town to perform. Casting Directors expect you to be trained and prepared. They also expect you to be what they see in the photo that you’re presenting to them, and to act like the photo that you’re presenting to them.
One of the first things that actors need to understand is that acting is a BUSINESS, and businesses change all the time based upon the tools at hand. The best way to gauge that a professional acting headshot is working is pretty simple: if you are submitting your materials to casting directors and you are getting called in for audition, it’s working. If you submit a headshot for about 6 months and have no success, it may be time to reevaluate whether it’s working for you.
Now, there’s also the situation in which your headshot may get you in the door… and yet you may not be getting callbacks, pins, or bookings. This may ALSO have something to do with your headshot. You may not be coming off in the room the same way as you were in your submission. It is important for the complete package to match up.