How did you get started—and what led you to form your own agency?
I started acting professionally when I was five. Upon becoming a theater major in college, I realized I couldn’t handle the rejection of the business. So I transferred to communications, and became a PR professional, cutting acting out of my life altogether. At the age of five, my son told me he wanted to make people laugh like Jim Carey in The Mask. He started acting, and I wound up producing a film, which opened the door for me to be an agent. I am so happy to be back in the business, and feel like I’m finally doing what I was meant to do.
I had been working at another agency for eight years, and as my children started to think about college, I started wanting more involvement in the business. After the owner turned down my offer to buy the other talent agency, I decided, being a true entrepreneur at heart, to start my own business.
I have a very distinct viewpoint on acting, and how actors should conduct business. I am very honest and direct with actors and expect them to be as driven towards success as I am. I hold myself to very high standards and do the same with the actors I represent.
What makes the Chicago market for film television and commercials different than LA and New York? How does that impact your advice to actors building their career here?
The Chicago market is more nurturing and helps to develop talent. New York and LA focus more on the business and the next hot thing. Agents on the coasts generally don’t want to develop actors; they want to sign whoever will make the most money.
The good thing about New York and LA is that there is more opportunity. There are more television, film, and commercial auditions on any given day. If you work, you can build a much more impressive on-camera resume and get some significant credits.
Actors building a career in Chicago need to do good work so they can build their self-esteem. They need to have a plan. Sometimes actors have goals like, “I plan to get a show at a big theatre,” but they don’t know what to do or how to get there. Knowing how to achieve success in Chicago will help actors develop what they need to do well in NY or LA.
What is the most common misconception you see among actors trying to get in to television and film work?
There are many.
—“Acting is easy.” It is incredibly hard to do it well and takes significant work. It requires as much effort as training for the Olympics.
—“Theatre is not important if I want to do on-camera.” This is Chicago—a known theatre and improv town. You grow as an actor by being on stage and your reputation as an actor grows which opens up opportunities for actors to audition.
—“The bigger the project, the more people there are auditioning.” The reality is that if a casting director is working on a large project, they may see 3–5 people per role because they have so many roles to cast. The actors that get seen are the best actors around, so it is tough to even get an audition.
What advice do you have for people who are starting a career here—as opposed to New York or LA?
You can make a career here in Chicago if you embrace all elements of the business and do, theatre, voiceover, on-camera, and commercials. Take advantage of all that is offered here. Work hard and do your best.
Dawn Gray has been a talent agent for the past nine years, placing actors in television shows such as Shameless (series regular), Level Up (series regular), Chicago Code, Boss, and Detroit 187; in films such as Conviction, Contagion, Real Steel, and Machine Gun Preacher, as well as in national commercials and Broadway shows. Prior to that she produced the film, Stray Dogs, which is available on Netflix. Dawn previously ran a successful business, MOMents Inc., which provided support to working mothers and also has extensive experience in public relations and marketing. A proud graduate of Northwestern University, and a former child actor, Dawn is delighted to pursue her passion of helping actors find success in this wonderful, wacky business.