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So You’re Not An Ingenue…Now What? Comedy Headshots Part 2

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photo by Amber Ward

photo by Amber Ward

Why are you doing stand-up comedy? Let’s say that you are using stand-up comedy as a vehicle to procure work as a television actor… You are going to need a “theatrical” headshot that you can submit to agents and casting directors.

Todd Rohrbacher is the owner and founder of Actors Comedy Studio in Hollywood. I asked him to let me pick his brain about comedy headshots because not only does he teach at a studio dedicated to comedy (specifically, scripted comedy), but he also offers a headshot consultation service called Smart Headshots and reviews thousands of headshots a year in an attempt to help actors get more work!

So let’s dive in– 

You have to know your type. It’s not enough to just say that you are a comedic actress or a character actress. You have to be more specific.

TODD: Actors have to be specific about who they are in the marketplace. It can be challenging sometimes because as you age you might have to reinvent or rethink. But it all comes down to… Who are you like right now? How are you styled? And do your styling cues match your core essence? Are you in touch with your core essence? Or is that still mystery to you?

It’s often scary for actors when you start articulating that this is just business. It’s no different than any other business. You can’t just say “I want to be a restauranteur”! Well what kind of restaurant? What’s going to be on the menu? You have to make a choice and get specific and serve that up every day, all the time.

If you can tell people, “I’m this” and can say full throated, “I’m great at this, and I’m pretty much this most of the time,” then your odds are way better. Yes, it’s scary, because it takes that vague, ambiguous nature of acting out of infinity and into actual real things you need to plan for and do, so that your odds at least become realistic.

Todd Rohrbacher

Todd Rohrbacher

What happens in a headshot consultation?

TODD: The session is based on conversation, collaboration and real-time research while we’re together. It’s especially fun if I haven’t met someone before because I’m like, “Game on! this is a real challenge.”

The conversation starts like this… What are you like? What do you have to offer? Maybe they’ve previously done a typing exercise and have some information already. I take whatever they have, and if they don’t have any information I ask: Can you imagine what the five closest people would say about you? What do they think? I try to bring actors into the reality that, although we like to use our imaginations and play different things, casting is about who you are most of the time on most days.  Generally speaking, we’re defined by a short list of adjectives and characteristics. If there is any resistance to it or if someone says, “I don’t want to typecast myself,” I challenge that with “Don’t you kind of do that anyway?” If, for every single person you’ve encountered throughout your life, you had no means with which to categorize them, it would be chaos. We all tend to do this [categorize ourselves]naturally.

Then we start going: Who are you? Let’s define your essence. I’ll tell you what I think, you tell me what you think, you tell me what you imagine others think. We usually end up pretty much in agreement.

Then the computer comes in. Taking your gender and age range into account, we figure out who else is like that and currently working. We do a Google search and look at their marketing materials. We know that their marketing has been successful…so since we have deduced that you are similar to them…we look at their stuff and work backwards.

I have headshot consultation as part of my business because no one trains actors how to get headshots. They’re just thrust into this learning curve spending hundreds and thousands of dollars in search of one good shot. And no one really knows what that means. I can at least help. I can’t guarantee someone a golden headshot, but I can work backwards from what my time in casting has taught me and what all my casting director friends say. Because I ask them, and I ask them regularly so that can I update my information.

What do you WANT to do?

TODD: This seems to blow actors minds. What would you want to do? What shows would you like to be on? A lot of actors are bewildered by the idea that this plays a part in it but it absolutely does, because passion is contagious and desire is powerful. If you keep it general — “I just like to act” — it’s hard for anybody to help you move forward or do anything with you.

Again, that twinkle in the eyes…

TODD: The problem with most people’s headshots is that they’re too general – they don’t have real thoughts underneath them. It’s the idea that, the one where I’m smiling enough to show teeth is my comedy or commercial shot. You could have an amazing theatrical shot and I see teeth. Maybe you’re even smiling. But is there something wicked in your eyes? What are you casting yourself for? Why are you standing in front of that camera?

What you are like in the middle of the day, every day…

TODD: You want to replicate what you’d look like on a TV show as much as possible in the headshot.  If you’re still doing co-stars, you are going to be a person in the lead character’s world, and we [the viewers]are going to experience you in the middle of your day. You’re not going to be pristine; you’re not going to be perfect. You’re gonna be busy–and made up accordingly. I was on Happy Endings this year. I went in to hair and make-up and the make-up lady looked at me and said, “You’re good.”  I didn’t even get powder on a TV show! When I say that you need to look as real as you do in the middle of every day, every day–that’s what I mean. They will shoot you with high-definition cameras and not put make-up on your face, and that blows people’s minds.  So when you understand this and then look at what people are doing in their headshots, it’s bananas. They wear clothes they wouldn’t wear in day-to-day life. They wear their “audition clothes, ” but that’s not real. It’s not honest. Find the honesty of who you are and figure out how that fits into the marketplace. The things that are the most vulnerable and effortless work. And you have to trust that.

Actors tend to idealize especially when it comes to their marketing materials and literally their headshot. But the characters you’re gonna play are either part of the family or part of a group of friends who function as a family and it will take place in a house, an office or a school almost exclusively (about ninety percent of the time). The camera is going to catch you in the middle of your day. So why does your headshot look like you just walked out of the salon? Why do you have false eyelashes? Why do you have on that thick eyeliner? The color of your lipstick against the shirt you’re wearing could completely confuse the issue. Generally speaking, women during the day or at work wouldn’t wear their brightest red lipstick. Just one off choice like the wrong earrings, and all of a sudden, the picture doesn’t make sense because that would never exist on the television set.

If you are doing a “what’s my type” exercise and you’re going out to poll strangers…

TODD: If you’re polling the general population, wear what you would wear to run errands. Not necessarily what you would hang around the house in, but what you’d comfortably leave the house in, knowing that you weren’t going to do anything but run errands. It really is kind of that literal and consistent. People don’t have costars in costumes.

Women and their hair…

TODD: Actors need to understand the consistency, especially for women, in haircuts, hairstyling and length as related to age.  If you’re twenty four and a character actress and you’ve still got your hair all the way down your back, that doesn’t make a ton of sense. There’s an asterisk, though: If you’re model-gorgeous, you can get away with long hair but you’ve gotta have the figure and wardrobe to support that, all the time, every time you go out the door. It’s a generalization, I own that. A woman who is in her mid-twenties and reads that age on screen… What would she really be doing in life? She’d be trying to build a career.  She needs a wash and wear haircut. A collar bone length is a really good length, generally speaking. Something that frames your face, showcases your face, and is easy to deal with on a day to day basis.  The characters you’re playing are going to be working to build a career; that would be the truth for the character, so it should be true for you.

Know the trends

TODD: I think we’re trending toward just real, sincere. I think most represented actors are pretty on point that you can’t be pushing a character in your headshots. And with everything going online, headshots are so small on the computer screen that pretty much anybody who’s got a clue knows they’ve gone back to just a natural headshot–mostly of your head. There was a period when we liked full body shots. Or “Look at me, I’m on a swing!” There’s been an evolution.

There’s very specific criteria for what most casting agents, managers would agree comprise a good headshot. Right now it’s pretty simple: just your head, or head and bust, head straight toward the camera. No angle this way, no chin down that hides half your face. They just want to see you. And they’ve got two seconds to do it. A headshot photographer is responsible for knowing the trends, framing you appropriately and great lighting, no shadows. That’s really mostly their job. If they can help draw personality and energy out of you, that’s great too.

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About Marilyn Anne Michaels

Actress/Waitress/Writer/Comedienne - Marilyn Anne Michaels is a member of SAG-AFTRA and the WGA. She trained at the Second City Chicago Conservatory Training Center and did tons of theatre before moving to Los Angeles in 2006. Marilyn co-created and starred in the award winning web series The Best Friend. Marilyn does not like writing bios.