“Folks, is there anything else I can get for you?”
It’s something I say about a hundred times a week as a restaurant server. The answer is almost always some form of “We’re good.” Or “Salt and pepper.” This time, I delivered the line to a table of two women, a mother and daughter, both beautiful and happy and pleasant. Instead the mother replied, “Are you an actor?”
Her daughter had bet her that I was.
“I am, occasionally. But mostly I'm a waiter,” I answered. It’s the only way I can reply without feeling like an ass.
Her daughter Natalie was an aspiring actress who was studying dance and theatre in high school. She was young and hungry and wanted to know all about it. She asked me point blank, “How do I do get started? How do I get an agent?”
It’s a good question. Eventually, you do need an agent. Every actor who is working consistently in the business has one. Except Bill Murray (he has a lawyer and voicemail on a phone with a number that only twenty people know), but he’s BILL MURRAY. Natalie really wanted answers, but I’m an old man who’s last three agents have come from referrals. Plus, the game has changed over the years, so I was no help. There is a list of legit agencies in Chicago from Acting Studio Chicago that covers them all, but I thought I’d enlisted the help of my wonderful, talented agent and friend Marisa Paonessa.
I sat down with Marisa in the buzzing Paonessa Talent Agency to get some answers for Natalie.
Patrick: Natalie wants to know where to start.
Marisa: First, when actors just get out of school, it’s okay for them not to seek out representation right away and don’t feel like they need to have an agent. I think it’s okay to kind of take your time and do your research and do shows. A lot of the talent that I see, is in shows. I take them in or invite them to audition. Build your resume. Take the classes that you need. Ultimately, yes, an actor needs an agent but it’s ok to not have one [in the beginning]. It’s your learning time. Do that until you feel confident enough that you can go into an audition and feel comfortable in the room and you have the tools needed.
Patrick: What steps should Natalie take before even approaching an agent?
Marisa: On-camera training. It’s one of the main things we are looking for. On-camera presence. Being comfortable in an on-camera audition. It’s so much smaller than theatre acting. You need that training. You need to be able to learn how to listen. You also need to know who you are. I feel like when actors know who they are and know what they want, they’re also go-getters. They do better, in general, being an actor.
Me: After that, how does Natalie land an agent?
Marisa: Again, you have to do shows. You have to do theatre. Obviously, we’re not expecting you to get on the Steppenwolf stage right away, but a good store-front theatre. I’m seeing three shows this week starring un-repped talent. Classes. There are acting schools and they do showcases and they invite talent agencies to come. Internships. Volunteering yourself to be a reader at a casting agency. Stand-up. I see everything. Increase your exposure by any means necessary.
If you can’t get an agent, it’s okay. Maybe it’s your look. Grow a beard. Cut you’re hair. Change things up.
Get a good headshot and resume and submit to the agencies and invite them to your shows. And when your in those shows you are acting with people who are repped by the agency you want to be with. Say ‘Hey, can you put a good word in for me?’ I will meet them because I trust my talent. I get 300 headshots a week and I look at every one. If you can’t get an agent, it’s okay. Maybe it’s your look. Grow a beard. Cut you’re hair. Change things up. Do not walk in to a talent agency! People make that mistake a lot. We will not look at your stuff. Submit by mail.
Me: I’ve heard stories of unorthodox, creative approaches to people getting agents. Like a guy who had a mannequin’s arm shipped to an agent with a signed headshot that read: “I’d give my right arm to be repped by you.” And it worked. Do you have any stories?
Do not walk in to a talent agency! People make that mistake a lot.
Marisa: [She thinks a while then smiles] I like fat babies and I taught a workshop about getting started in the business that I told about how much I love fat babies and later I got a submission envelope that was filled with pictures of fat babies. [laughs] They were everywhere. And I brought that person in. But I also had a guy come in and the first thing he said is, ‘I’m so sorry. I’ve been so sick and I’ve been throwing up.’ I said, ‘Go home.’ We had to Lysol the entire office. Not a good first impression. Don’t do that.
Me: Finally, I am rooting for this young woman. She seems cool and driven. If Natalie submits to you, will you take a look at her?
Marisa: Yes, of course! Anything for you.
Now, the ball is in Natalie’s court. She has to put in the work to convince Marisa that she wants join this circus and decide if she is prepared to fully commit to the struggle and sacrifice that this business demands. It can get ugly, like soul crushing, cry-alone-in-your-studio-apartment-with-cockroaches-skittering-across-empty-pizza-boxes ugly. But when it works, it can be absolutely glorious.
The first step is not being afraid to ask, “How do I do it?” Natalie wasn’t scared and now she has this opportunity. I hope it helps her as well as anyone else who wants a shot.
Break a leg.
A Detroit native, Patrick Gough began acting in 2001. Since graduating from the University of Detroit in 2003 with a degree in theatre, Patrick has been working steadily in television and film. Some of his credits include "National Lampoon's Totally Baked," Starz network's "Boss" and Will Gainey on Fox's "The Chicago Code." He currently resides in the Chicago area.