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Spotlight Interview: Bonnie Gillespie – Casting Director, Author, Coach

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Photo by Holloway Pictures

Photo by Holloway Pictures

I first met Bonnie Gillespie back in 2008 when I interviewed her for a segment in my vlog called “Walking the Walk.”  Shortly after that, I took her “Self-Management for Actors” class, and it totally blew my mind.  Her book and the corresponding class are two things that I think every actor new to this business should check out.  So here she is via the “Ms. In The Biz email interview,” the awesome Bonnie Gillespie!

Helenna:  Hey Bonnie!  Thank you so much for doing this interview for our “Ms. In The Biz” readers.  You are pretty much a household name with actors in this town, but I’m excited that those new to the business might find you through this blog.  What is it that you love the most about working with actors at the start of their careers?

Bonnie: It’s when everything is possible. It’s when you don’t yet know what you don’t know, and there’s actually great freedom in that, because you are open to discovery. Working with actors at the start of their journey also allows me to become a fan of their work from the very beginning, and cheer them on as they leap from tier to tier over the years.

Helenna:  How do you think the industry has changed for actors in the last 5 years since you started your “Self-Management for Actors” class?

Bonnie: I keep saying it’s all “advantage: actor” these days. If I think back to when I started writing for actors (as a weekly columnist for Backstage in 1999), it took a crowbar to get into some of those casting offices, to get CDs to talk about what to expect, once you finally got in front of them for an audition. These days, casting directors are blogging, vlogging, Facebooking, tweeting, sharing tips for success like never before, and that means there is NO excuse for an actor to show up unprepared for what the auditioning experience might be like.

On top of that, in just the past few years, the globalization of casting, the rise of self-taping, and the sheer volume of *consistent* casting going on in pockets of the world that used to only see one big film every five years has really had an impact on the way actors operate their businesses (and, let’s be clear, actors are creative entrepreneurs, running businesses).

Helenna: Absolutely! For those not familiar with your story, how did you get started in the industry?

Bonnie: I was a kid actor. My dad was in a barbershop quartet, did community theatre, always appeared in local shows or musicals after work and on weekends, so it was something I was interested in. Heck, when other kids would set up lemonade stands or sell Girl Scout cookies in our neighborhood, I would put on shows (and write up programs, sell tickets, market the experience). So, I think I was always a producer, somehow. But I first got into a professional acting career at the age of seven, in Atlanta. Acting was the bait that led me to what it was I meant to do: demystify the business side of the industry for creatives who would prefer to focus on their craft.

Helenna:  Having been an actor yourself, and now a Producer, Author, and Casting Director, did becoming a coach feel like the next logical progression in your career?

Bonnie: I don’t know that anything has ever felt too “logical” in my life. Everything has always felt very ORGANIC. I actually first started coaching actors in 2003, because actors who read my column (at the time) at Backstage and who interacted with me at the old message board there started reaching out, asking if they could “pick my brain” for the price of a big salad at the 101 Coffee Shop. After more salads than a gal can stomach, I reached out to my mentor, Judy Kerr, and asked how she priced her private coaching. She led me to offering an actual *service* and I’ve been doing one-on-one coaching with actors, musicians, professional athletes, agents — even fellow casting directors — longer than I’ve been casting!

Helenna:  Are there any things that are coming up lately with the actors you work with that you feel are detrimental to an actor’s career…a type of self-sabotage?

Bonnie: I think the biggest eff-up is actors seeing others doing SOMETHING and deciding, “Oh, *that* must be the thing that makes them successful. I’ll do that too,” even though it doesn’t track with their GUT to do it. There is no ONE recipe for success in this business. The reason it’s *SELF*-Management for Actors is because it’s different for everyone. It’s like plopping down in Google Maps and realizing you have many roads you could follow. So many actors start down a road because they see it working for someone else. That’s ultimate self-sabotage, because it leads to bitterness, when it doesn’t work. And the most uncastable quality is, you guessed it, bitterness.

Helenna:  Amen to that! On the flip side, are you seeing anything lately that you’d like to share that are examples of actors really taking what you teach and kicking ass?

Bonnie: I’ve been so lucky to experience a ton of actors living SMFA. It’s both humbling and inspiring as hell. I’ve spent a lot of time traveling, teaching, speaking at universities that have created courses based on my book, and to get to work with actors who are LIVING the principles of Self-Management for Actors is awesome. I especially adore meeting actors who are at the very beginning of their game (say, in their early 20s), who are totally secure in who they are, who are down with their authenticity, who are not trying to figure out what the buyers want and how to become something they’re not, and who are aware it’s not about making everyone love them; it’s about finding those who most NEED them to help tell stories they’d like to help tell. I freakin’ love all of that. And I’m seeing it more and more. That unapologetic embracing of specificity is how I know my work — whether in my weekly columns at Actors Access, podcast at iTunes, my classes, or my book — has had an impact.

Helenna:  Being a big advocate of actors creating their own work, and because you’ve seen a lot of actors venture into this, are there any words of wisdom you have for those who might be nervous to self-produce?

Bonnie: As my ex-beau and dear friend Dom Hughes says, “If you wanna make something OF yourself, MAKE something yourself.” There’s no excuse for NOT creating your own content, today. It’s not enough to *just* be an actor anymore. Creating your own content assures you can teach the buyers you’re low-risk. They can SEE what you’re made of. If you’re nervous, just surround yourself with brilliant people with whom you’d like to jam. Stop seeing yourself as an actor and see yourself as a musician… you’re making music, you’re jamming, you’re collaborating to see what comes of it. And, most of all, you’re having fun.

Sometimes, what you create is a masterpiece. Sometimes it’s dreck. Who cares? You started. You put something out there. You are building toward the next, beautiful thing. It only feels scary when you’ve never done it. So DO it, and then learn it doesn’t kill you to do it. Then do it again, and better.

Helenna:  You always seem to be ahead of the curve.  For example you were one of the first casting directors to really encourage actors to self-tape for auditions.  Are there any trends that you see coming up in the industry that you think actors should be aware of?

Bonnie: Gosh, this is such a good question! I think it’s gotta be an offshoot of your previous question, Hels. Actors have to get down with being MORE than “just actors.” Even if you’re not ready to full-on self-produce, getting together with a team of content creators and jamming is going to make a difference in your perceived viability as a bankable commodity, which, very soon, will be the only type of person an agent or manager wants to sign.

It’s brand management at its ultimate level, really. Buyers are done with people who can do that ONE thing. They want brands they can get behind.

Helenna: If someone is interested in casting as a career, what would be the best way for them to get into that line of work?

Bonnie: Y’know all those awesome self-produced projects going on? Volunteer to cast one, for a friend who’s creating content for her reel. Get well-versed on the SAG New Media Agreement (and on whatever comes next, in a post-merger contract negotiation environment), attend the free talks for producers at SAG-AFTRA, and create relationships with the folks at Breakdown Services by actually putting out a breakdown (which will be a hugely eye-opening experience in itself). Don’t be afraid that you don’t know what you’re doing. Just start the process for someone whose low-stakes project needs your help. That’s the new way in.

The best *traditional* route is launched best probably via interning. If you intern in a casting office (and I recommend interning in lots of different casting offices, to learn the difference between an average day in a commercial casting office and a studio feature film casting office, or a TV office and an indie webseries office, or a theatre office and a voiceover office), you can learn what’s going on at each level of casting and decide if there’s a good fit for you, out there.

Be willing to work for cheap (or free) at first. I’ll never forget the part of my casting career that was a total rerun of the “copy, credit, meals” stage of my acting career. I actually took on unpaid casting gigs (technically $100 for working six weeks on a feature film) at first, because I knew I was ready to earn the credit of “casting director.” I wasn’t interested in working my way up from intern to assistant to associate to (eventually) casting director. NO OFFENSE to those who choose a more linear route! I was 33 when I first got paid to work in casting and I didn’t want to wait ’til 40 to be a full CD on a project. So, that’s what worked *for me.* After starting out in TV for FOX and E!, I worked on microbudget indies, which it turns out was my preferred niche, because of all my work at the Sundance Institute, years before. I love working with filmmakers at the beginning of their game (just like I love working with actors at the beginning of theirs). It’s where the best creative collaboration takes place!

Helenna:  What do you think makes someone a good Casting Director?

Bonnie: Encyclopedic knowledge of actors. The ability to retain your opinion on every performance you witness, because it may be YEARS before you need the actor whose work you’ve fallen in love with, at any time. Willingness to watch EVERYTHING and know who’s on the rise, who’s poised to make an impact, who’s just coming out of some great college program and showcasing… and being open to having your mind changed at every turn. Every project I’ve cast, I’ve had some impact on the casting, because there’s a name I’ve added to the breakdown (in the “Think: so-and-so” part of the character description) or there’s an actor I’ve brought in (even though producers weren’t into her) who has ended up being cast, and I think that’s why indie projects are SO the right fit for me, in casting. Corporate casting is more about “here’s your approved list of actors. Go get.” Indie casting involves the casting director’s hands in the clay. And I love having my fingerprints on the final cast list. I love exposing the creative team to actors they fall in love with (it’s like being the best matchmaker ever).

Helenna:  What are some of the things that an actor can do to help make your job easier?

Bonnie: I love this question because it’s one I asked in my weekly column for Backstage, starting in 1999.  So, thank you for the full-circle-ness of it all. The answer is: Read everything. When I put out an audition notice at Actors Access, there’s a TON of detail there, and yeah, it’s a long read, but it’s sooo worth it. The actors who book are the ones who’ve read the fine print. They’ve been given an edge and USED it. So many actors are just too busy, too lazy, too I-don’t-know-what… but they DON’T read. And then they rage at the people who won’t give ’em a chance. Dude. Know your buyers. Study them. Today, everyone is Googleable and there’s so much information available to you, BEFORE you submit a headshot.

Coming in saying, “Cool. I read everything you sent over about this character. I have a follow-up question…” gets you way deeper in the fanbase than, “So… is this a comedy? I just got these sides. And man, parking was a bitch,” after I sent a big-ass Cmail detailing the drama that is parking in the area, lately, along with all the details about sides (and the whole script, which I always try to make available), as well as the effin’ genre of the project. No. No fanbase created in the latter example.

But that’s just Actor Darwinism. I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing.

Helenna:  What about the team on a project?  Are there certain things that the Producers, Director, and Writer can do to help the Casting Director do their job to the best of their ability?

Bonnie: I’m a big fan of getting clear on “who’s the voice” on any project. If I’ve not yet worked with a team before, I’ll ask, “Who’s my point person?” because there’s nothing but chaos if the producer, director, writer, and financer all think they’re the ONE who gets to tell me what’s what. So, I ask for a clear voice, a singular person from which all team decisions will come, because I know we’re a committee at some point, but also we’re trying to get a job done, and sometimes it’s tough to get the suits to agree on LUNCH, much less where we’re going with an offer or who’s coming in for sessions.

Having an AMAZING script is also ridiculously helpful. Because I specialize in low-budget indies, I have to always be able to say to agents and managers, “Read it. It’s great. Even if your top client isn’t right for it, you’ll enjoy the read.” The reason I only cast a handful of projects each year is because I’m VERY picky. If I’m not behind a project, I can’t expect anyone else to be.

Helenna: I saw that you have an indiegogo campaign running for the next edition of “Self-Management for Actors.”  Why did you decide to crowdfund and why indiegogo?

Bonnie: Last question first: We were rejected by Kickstarter. Not unexpected. On 6/29/13, Kickstarter rolled out new rules (thanks to a book called “Above the Game” — Google that and RAINN for the gory details) stating they could not allow self-help books to be backed at their site, due to the subjectivity from which self-help originates. We get it. And we also couldn’t avoid it. Hell, the world SELF is in the title of “Self-Management for Actors” and most of the reviews at Amazon are about actors finally feeling empowered, having taken their careers into their own hands, using SMFA principles. So. We GET the rule. We tried anyway, hoping that the whole “fourth edition, textbook in universities worldwide, on Tom Cruise’s list of must-reads for actors” factor would be enough to legitimize us. Nope. We were rejected, and we respect that. We were prepared for that. So, on to IndieGoGo we went. 🙂

Why crowdfunding? Well, that’s a little stickier and it involves some personal info as well as info that actually affects all creatives, which is the part I’ll share first. In 2002, when we first walked away from a book deal at a major publishing house, choosing self-publishing instead, we were considered idiots. Today — in the era of Louis CK, Tim Ferris, and all the bands who leave their labels to sell directly to their fans — we’re brilliant. We were doing this before it was the norm.

And in 2002, getting a bank to loan us $20K to do a print run of a book was no problem. Today… banks don’t believe print books exist. So, I could get a $45K loan on my signature if I said I wanted an SUV (I don’t), but to say I need even $10K to help print a book is to be laughed out of every bank out there (and I have a 788 FICO score). So, because big banking has decided the print model is dead, I didn’t want to spend every penny I have printing a book that would be more popular on a Kindle, a Nook, an eReader of any kind. If we’ve changed how we consume the printed word, so be it. I’d like to know that BEFORE going to print, not after. So, for less than the price of the book itself, backers GET a copy of the book shipped right to them, as soon as it’s back from the printer! We’re basically doing pre-sales. Who knows, maybe this is the new business model.

For the personal part of it, it’s this: We had saved up enough to print the new edition (as we always do), and then I had emergency surgery in February. That took a chunk out of the book fund. Okay, fine. Then I had follow-up surgery in May. Dammit. That’s the rest of the book money. And, like most creatives, I rock it freelance, and that means I’m uninsured and that means any spare money goes to deal with LIFE stuff. That’s the way it is. Unfortunately, there’s a third surgery coming (AFTER the book goes to print) and honestly, THAT is why we have no choice but to offer pre-sales through the IndieGoGo campaign, because the book will ONLY be in print if enough buyers say, “Yes. We still value an in-print version.” If it turns out that everyone is cool with an eBook version, that’s totally do-able, and, as we’ve discussed above, I’m not afraid of changes in the industry. 🙂

Helenna: Bonnie, thank you so much for the in depth response. I hope your third surgery is a breeze and that you heal quickly. 😉 Many many thanks for taking the time out of your crazy packed schedule to do this interview!  Before we sign off, any last thoughts for the ladies of the industry out there?

Bonnie: Do YOU. Have fun; don’t suck. We spend so much CRAZY time judging ourselves, wondering what THEY want, shucking and jiving trying to BE something other than who we really are. Ladies, lemme lay it out: You’re more delicious AS YOU ARE than you’ll ever be, *trying* to be ANYTHING else. It may take time to grok that. Okay. So be it. But just trust that you’re in this for the long haul, that it’s not about a formula, and that the goal in life is to create things from a place of HAPPY, because that’s all anyone wants to consume, ever.

Hels, thank you for having me here. If anyone is moved, a visit to http://igg.me/at/SMFA4 would be awesome in the next few days, and hopping on my mailing list at http://bonniegillespie.com is great, ongoing (weekly inbox love and a free MP3 upon signing up). I think the punchline on all of this is that we’re all constantly evolving, always growing, and hopefully sharing our toys with others so there’s goodness to “yes, and…” wherever we start.

What a wonderful time to be a creative! 🙂

Helenna Santos

About Helenna Santos

Helenna Santos is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of Ms. In The Biz. She is also an actor and producer with Mighty Pharaoh Films and can often be found on panels at conventions such as San Diego Comic-Con, and has been interviewed by major press outlets including CNN. Her work as a contributing writer has been featured in MovieMaker Magazine, Backstage Magazine, IndieWire and BUST Magazine. She has produced numerous award winning short films, digital series, and feature films. As an actor, she can be seen in CW's "The Flash," as well as ABC's "A Million Little Things" and "The Good Doctor", and the highly anticipated Netflix limited series "The Baby-Sitters Club". Her latest feature film as producer and actress "The Shasta Triangle" was recently acquired by Giant Pictures and will be available on all major VOD platform on December 3rd, 2019.