This 20-part series, written by Team J’s Bjorn Munson, covers the lessons learned during the casting of The Broken Continent web series pilot in 2012. You can find the full Table of Contents in Part 1.
This series is meant to help other independent filmmakers, primarily those who are casting a large ensemble (10+ speaking parts, multiple background actors, etc.). Individual articles may be useful to production companies looking to cast other work such as commercials. There are also a number of articles specifically for actors on how to better submit for auditions, do the auditions, and deal with the statistically inevitable rejections.
The lessons learned have been applied to Team J’s Stonehenge Casting service, an online tool for producers to find actors and actors to find work.
P.S. This is actually a bonus entry in the 20-part series, but for many of you actors, it may well be the most valuable one.
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An Actor’s Casting Submission Checklist
As mentioned in Part 6, Responding to the Casting Notice, there are so many little details to mention about submitting the headshot/resume itself, I decided that it’d be best to separate out this not-so-little annotated checklist as its own article.
Let’s keep it simple: Read over the checklist. If you answer anything other than “Yes” to all the checklist questions below, you’re not doing it right.
“Not doing it right” may not be damaging enough to cause you not to be called in, but it does not help you by any stretch of the imagination. And not only do we casting directors have good imaginations, we’ve seen plenty of actors who can follow directions and keep things simple. All we need is enough actors following directions to submit… and we will work to achieve that end. 
Don’t forget the principle raised in Part 2:
Whatever you can do to make the casting director’s job easier is a good thing.
So, read through the checklist , and if you’re not sure why you need to answer ‘yes,’ read the gory details below for each entry:
- Is everything spelled correctly?
- Does your headshot resemble how you look right now?
- Does your headshot list your name?
- Is your name the same on your headshot and resume?
- Do you have your height and weight listed on the resume?
- Have you listed one and only one phone number?
- Does that phone number work? Is the voicemail working?
- Have you listed one and only one email address?
- Does that email address work? Is there enough space in the mailbox?
- If you’re emailing your headshot, have you resized it to the size they’re asking for?
- If you’re emailing your resume, is it in a file format they asked for?
- Is your resume just your acting resume?
- Are you sending a headshot and resume as requested and not just assuming we’ll go visit some website?
- Do you know what you are submitting for (and is that reflected in the email/cover letter)?
- Do you know what role you’d like to read for (and is that reflected in the email/cover letter)?
- Are you embracing “less is more” in your email/cover letter?
1) Is everything spelled correctly?
Pretty basic, but absolutely essential: make sure you go over the resume even after a spellcheck. Better yet, do what you’re always advised to do with any other resume: have a friend look it over. Easily avoidable spelling errors show a lack of focus. You should know the names of everything you’re listing.
This includes not only spelling your skills correctly (I am always amused to learn someone can speak ‘Spanihs’), but also the names of roles and plays (and playwrights! — it’s Sam Shepard, not Shepherd). If you’ve been in work in the area and misspell the name of a director or production company I know, that’s not a dealbreaker, but it doesn’t help you either.
Note: This also means your phone number and email address are spelled correctly.
2) Does your headshot resemble how you look right now?
For film and video work, this might be one of the key reasons you’ll be called in: don’t underestimate its importance. This actually goes back to an earlier Team J article about “The Best Headshot, Period.” Your headshot needs to look like you really do look, right now.
Not only is headshot accuracy important for being called in, in many cases it can be critical for being called back: because if we can’t remember you among a sea of headshots when we’re staring right at your headshot, you’ve lost the part.
Note that changes in facial hair and hair length are more forgiveable than drastic differences in your age or weight.  If your headshot shows none of the wrinkles you have abundantly in person OR if your headshot shows the slim you of several years ago compared to the full-figured you now, you have metaphorically shot yourself in the face. It doesn’t matter why you haven’t gotten around to getting new headshots, you’ve now attached at least a tinge of dishonestly about you in the casting director’s mind.
3) Does your headshot list your name?
It’s a little thing. It only takes a few seconds to check the resume, but multiply those seconds by 100 — or in the case of Broken Continent, 550.
Also, when we’re looking at your headshots physically, it becomes so much faster. 
4) Is your name the same on your headshot and resume?
I hope most of you answered a quizzical, “Yes. Why wouldn’t it be?” Sadly, I encounter this issue far more than I’d like, and it is not, as near as I can figure, because the actor in question is recently married.
The reason appears to be because the actor is “experimenting” with different possible stage names, and forgets to end the experiment before submitting their headshot and resume.
The two major culprits of this are:
- Different last names
- Unnecessary and inconsistent use of middle names
Your name, whether an invented stage name or a plain ol’ version of your name is your brand. Be consistent.
For example, if you’re John Smith, then sure, make it John A. Smith — or just adopt the stage name of Aloysius Smith if you like (because of course, that must be what the ‘A’ stands for, right?). However, If you’re John Snuffleupagus, there’s no reason to have a stage name of John Aloysius Snuffleupagus. Casting director sentimentality fades quickly once you’re looking at resume # 207. Less is more.
Okay, “less is more” holds true unless you’ve decided to style yourself with just one name. That’s just a red flag.
Also, unless you’re a Barrymore or your parents are also actors, there’s no reason to be listed with suffixes such as “III” or “Jr.”
There’s also no reason to list any academic degrees, certifications, or other letters after your name. We can read about that in your education.
Please explore variations of your stage name on your own time. Yes, casting directors can eventually figure out who the heck you are, but that time is better spent on considering who to call in. I admit I only have anecdotal evidence, but I will say the people with ever changing names are never as good as the actors who know who they are. 
Extra credit: Make sure your email address is the same as your stage name. More on email addresses below.
5) Do you have height and weight listed on the resume?
You have a little leeway here, especially as to weight. We know it can flucuate, but here’s the deal: if you put your weight on your resume, we won’t carp if we don’t notice.
Yes, you could carp, but then you’d be silly for choosing a profession that concerns itself, at least partly, on appearance. . List the weight.
There’s no reason not to list height. We know what heels are. We know they come in different sizes. We know many men are shorter than 6′ 3″. Just list your height.
The big problem comes when your headshot does not fully reveal your body type, and with obnoxious consistency, both with The Broken Continent and otherwise, the people with misleading headshots “forgot” to put their height and weight.
What do I mean misleading? I mean really, really close-in headshots that hide the fact you’ve put on more than a few pounds since age 15. As if films never need heavyset actors. Sorry, you’re not competing with the inegnue waifs. List height and weight.
Theater is more forgiving of this, but film and video often have specific needs. Are all of them fair? No. Do you have any control over that? Nope. Accept that, as an actor, you are going to be judged, labeled, and typed. So go ahead and list your height and weight. 
6) Have you listed one and only one phone number?
For Broken Continent submissions, a few people did not list a phone number. I can think of a number of scenarios where an actor would choose to do this,  but none of them are convenient for casting directors.
We want a number where we can contact you and at least get a voicemail with the expectation we’ll hear back from you within one business day — unless it’s shorter notice than that. 
In view of this requirement, actors listing two phone numbers (or, on a couple occasions, three ) make things more complicated. The time spent tracking down an actor could be sent making several more calls. This does not make the casting director’s job remotely easier.
Some folks might allow for a leeway regarding listing an additional number for an agent, but I say no. Why not just put the agent’s number on there?  Mind you, I’d expect them to be responsive as well. Several actors I wanted to call in never got called in because their agents never gave them the message.
Then there are the people who apparently don’t want to be too reachable and don’t list their phone number at all. Get a burner phone to be your answering service if you must or figure out something nice and fancy via VoIP and/or Google. I don’t care. But have a phone number we can call and leave a message. 
7) Does that phone number work? Is the voicemail working?
I have tried to call in people who decided to boldly feature no email address and a disconnected phone number. In other instances I need to cast a role within 24 hours, so a phone call is preferable.
Then there’s the cases where the actor’s voicemail is full. We do not stop to think, “Wow, what an in-demand actor this is!” We look to the next name on our list to call.
For extra credit, make sure that your voicemail greeting:
- Actually identifies you by name so we don’t worry we misdialled
- Identifies you by the same name as the name on your resume
- Is short and friendly
8) Have you listed one and only one email address?
I can understand why someone might be tempted to put more than one phone number. Here, I have no sympathy. None.
In fact, there’s no reason in this day and age not to have a dedicated webmail acting address that forwards to your main address, such as firstname.lastname@example.org. Of course, if you can do email@example.com that’s great too, but usually involves some hosting fees at least. Since you can get a distinct and easy-to-identify email address for free, do it! 
Extra credit: Only send information from that one email address. I know this may be hard if you’re trying to be sure to shoot off a resume during work hours or whenever you may not have direct access to your actor email account, but it opens up the door to the casting director or a casting assistant replying to the “wrong” address.
9) Does that email address work? Is there enough space in the mailbox?
Your email is ready to receive. I will not get bouncebacks because you misspelled it on your resume or your mailbox is full. You’re going to make sure of that because you know that I could just as easily move on to the next actor whose email address does work.
10) If you’re emailing your headshot, have you resized it to the size they’re asking for?
Most likely, you’re getting your headshots as big electronic files in excess of 4mb that you can print out on demand or take to your favorite place to get beautiful 8″ x 10″ copies.
When you’re emailing a headshot, we’re not planning to print it out. If we call you in, we’ll get your print version. For now, we want a headshot that shows us what you really look like, and one that we can view not only on a computer, but our mobile devices. Besides downloading huge honkin’ headshots eating up our data plans, it takes longer. If you’re trying to review actor submissions in a hurry, this takes extra time for each. huge. headshot. 
Do you really want to add potential cost and inconvenience to the casting director who now already knows you can’t follow directions?
If you are an actor, your job, now and for the rest of recorded time is to know how to resize your headshot or find someone who can. This is non-negotiable. It is an actor requirement just like needing to dress appropriately for auditions, memorizing lines, and not getting lunch all over your costume (unless called for in the part).
The actors who glibly imagine they are above such sordid technical details have relegated themselves to a place of special dishonor in the casting director’s minds. 
If the filmmakers are foolish enough to not ask for a headshot size, have an under 200k headshot ready to go.
11) If you’re emailing your resume, is it in a file format they asked for?
Again, following directions means you are far, far more likely to keep things simple for casting directors. The less trouble they have opening your resume means they have more time to study your roles and consider whether they want to call you in. The more trouble they opening a resume is rarely worth it.
I don’t care how cool you think Macs are: iWorks is not a standard application and you should not expect casting directors to be able to open anything with a .pages extensions.
If the filmmakers do not specify, it is hard to go wrong with a PDF. Granted, you should make sure that your PDF is well under 500k and hopefully under 200k. It helps not to have the PDF include your 5mb headshot too. We can deal with the two files. Really.
Runners up include .doc and .docx. They do not include .rtf, .txt., .odf or any other “open source” extension.  Google Docs can open .doc. OpenOffice can open .doc. PDF is better to preserve your crafty formatting, but .doc will work.
12) Is your resume just your acting resume?
Dancers, musicians, and assorted variety artists (e.g. clowns, jugglers, sword swallowers, etc.) get a little bit of leeway here as those are related performers.
Furthermore, there’s no problem with highlighting your different acting work on stage, film, voiceover, and even modeling or commercials. People have to start out somewhere and it may take a while before you can have the fun of putting “selected list” or whatnot next to your headers. 
However, here are credits that, when I am looking for actors, I do not want nor care to see on an actor’s resume:
- Writing credits
- Directing credits
- Stage manager credits 
- Production crew credits of any kind 
- Art gallery opening listings (really, this happened)
- Anything other than acting credits
Why? Because we sent out a casting notice and we’re looking to hire actors. Actors, not jack-of-all-trades. Those resumes that try and pack in those extraneous credits do not look impressive. They look unfocused. Besides, you can always note some significant other experiences in your “Special Skills” section, or even mention you have additional targeted resumes at their request.  (Hint: they may not request it).
13) Are you sending a headshot and resume as requested and not just assuming we’ll go visit some website?
If for some reason the casting director is asking you to submit/upload to a particular website or mentioning they’re only looking at actors on some website, I suppose this step is moot. However, most casting directors are going to want you to email them your headshot and resume.
For the Broken Continent, as mentioned in previous articles in this series, we arranged for all the headshots and resumes to go to one web-based email address. This meant that all three of the producers, the core creative team, could view the submissions. That’s what we wanted. That’s why we asked for it. Now we had a repository of all the actors who submitted in our webmail. A quick search by name meant their files would come up. Easy and convenient.
Nevertheless, we got several submissions that simply pointed to some website or another. I’m sure the actors thought this saved time — and it did for them. For us, it meant an exception. We needed to go — and in some case create an account — to view the page. More time spent and it interupted our webmail-based groove.
Oh wait, it didn’t. We focused on the actors following directions.
14) Do you know what you are submitting for (and is that reflected in the email/cover letter)?
It may sound basic, but it really helps to know what you’ve applied for. You’re not applying for some film gig, you’re applying for that particular film gig. You’ve followed the steps in Part 6 and can speak to what research you’ve found in the project.
We’re hoping to pick actors with care. We hope the actors who are submitting are picking us with some care. Remember, indie projects need a healthy dose of passion. I can’t say I always see that passion in submissions, but I certainly pick up on a lack of it. I don’t want to cast someone who wants an acting gig, any acting gig at all, which leads to….
15) Do you know what role you’d like to read for (and is that reflected in the email/cover letter)?
The Broken Continent has over 40 roles to cast. Way too many actors responded with some variant of:
“I’m interested in all the roles that might fit me.” 
I suppose some people might feel stating a role you’re interested in smacks of presumptuousness, but that puzzles me. These are actors we’re talking about, not wallpaper. They should be interested in something, show excitement, and have passion. If you were applying for another job, wouldn’t you mention something about why you thought you’d be good at that particular job or perhaps why that particular job caught your eye? Of course you would!
So the trick here is to first have actually read the casting notice carefully, and second, decide on a role you might be good for, but third, leave the door open for any other roles the casting director might want you for. 
Accentuate the positive. If you don’t want to do background, you don’t have to say, “Frankly, I won’t do background” in your email. But if you do think it’d be fun to be background in a project, say so. We needed to scramble to find additional background actors for The Broken Continent and when I looked through the emails, those people were some of the first we called in.
16) Are you embracing “less is more” in your email/cover letter?
Ah, but not so fast. Yes, you can only benefit by addressing questions 14 and 15 above, but you need to do so economically.
About 2%, or 10 submissions we received had tomes. We don’t want tomes. We don’t have time to read tomes .
Give us enough to answer our casting notice, ask any clarification questions (if needed), and be on your merry way. If all goes well, there will be a far greater dialogue during the audition.
FOOTNOTE # 1: In case you hadn’t picked up on some of the tone already, this is indeed “tough love” time. My goal is not only to reduce annoying submissions to casting directors, but also to help actors get a better chance of being called in. Everyone benefits here.
FOOTNOTE # 2: Remember, for the types of projects we’re talking about in this series: indie features and webseries, we’re looking to get at least 100 and probably over 200 submissions. A given role needs only one actor and we’re looking to have at least 10 candidates per role.
FOOTNOTE # 3: However, men should always try and have a clean-shaven and bearded headshot. In fact, I’d suggest having the current facial hair style as the main headshot (the one we’ll most likely look at first) and the alternate as an inset in the resume. I know this isn’t always possible, given when you need to grow a beard and when the audition is. Casting directors understand, but again, make it easier for us if at all possible. You will benefit from the thoughtfulness.
The equivalent for women is hair length. I already know many women who have headshots with their different wigs and extensions as the case may be. It always helps to have the headshot be your current “default” hair length and color. For the right project, we can always find the right hair and wig people, but we need to know (this goes double for shorter-term commercial projects).
FOOTNOTE 4: Yes, I know I am a former 20-something white guy, but seriously, all you 20-something white guys begin to look alike. Names help.
FOOTNOTE # 5: I knew one actor who changed not only their first name, but their last name constantly, so that, at last count, I had seen at least seven variations of a very thin resume under different names. The time spent being creative with their name would have been far better spent making creative acting choices.
FOOTNOTE # 6: I know that there are many stereotypes and prejudices when it comes to appearance in casting. That’s worthy of another article or series of articles in itself. However, the bottom line is that film projects are going to be concerned about appearances and audiences, rightly or wrongly, respond to a certain visual shorthand. That shorthand can change over time and with each project. Good casting directors will always offer their filmmakers options in terms of casting looks. You’ll never be able to assume what the casting director is looking for with 100% accuracy, but you can be very self-aware of what you look like, and hopefully some of the default “types” you might be labelled with. You can always say no to any part. This goes back to choosing whether to submit to a project at all.
FOOTNOTE # 7: Maybe responsibilities at the home or office mean you’re trying to filter most queries through email. Maybe you want to save on cell phone minutes. Maybe you don’t want phone calls from random strangers. I don’t know what to tell you besides: it’s insanely inconvenient and the overwhelming majority of actors have embraced modern telecommunications.
FOOTNOTE # 8: In my experience, casting directors are very clear — and should be — when they make these time-sensitive calls. If your dayjob or other responsibilities preclude you from being able to have a phone number that’s virtually available most of your working hours, you simply have to accept that you might miss urgent jobs. Remember, “urgent” doesn’t necessarily mean “important.”
FOOTNOTE # 9: I would not list both your number and your agent’s number. Given the choice, I can’t think of any indie filmmaker who’d prefer to talk to someone’s manager or agent over the actor themselves. If you need the agent to safeguard your time for projects you’re really looking for, then just list ’em from the get go.
FOOTNOTE # 10: You can always not answer a phone number you don’t recognize. Heck, I don’t answer my phone sometimes if it’s a number I do recognize as food, sleep, and family time may take precedence.
FOOTNOTE # 11: And make sure it actually has some element of your name in it. The best option is firstname.lastname@example.org, or perhaps email@example.com. Leave the creative and esoteric email addresses back in the 1990s where they belong. I’ll see your creativity in the audition.
FOOTNOTE # 12: And you just made me upset all the fans of pristine sentences. Have you no shame?
FOOTNOTE # 13: Yeah, I know this won’t change anytime fast. Easily 20% of submissions for The Broken Continent, or at least 100, had some oversized attachments. I’m sure some of the actors were thinking they we simply must be mistaken, we needed to see every pore on their face, even on our mobile devices.
As one of the other producers pointed out: “If they can’t get that right, what else are they going to get wrong?” We don’t want to find out.
FOOTNOTE # 14: Yes, yes I know “.odf” stands for Open Document Format — emphasis on ‘open’ –and I’ve read up on how it connects to the work of the OASIS consortium and the ISO/IEC 26300:2006 international standard. You know how many other casting directors have read that? None of them. If you find yourself morose at an unkind world that refuses to embrace truly open source solutions in computing, do what I do in such instances and read some XKCD. But first, send your dang resume in PDF or .doc form.
FOOTNOTE # 15: Smart actors tailor their resumes (and headshots) to the project at hand, and often have a theatrically slanted resume, one with more emphasis on film, and so on. It can be tricky and may not always be possible for all submissions, but changing up the resume to better fit the casting notice is almost always worth it (assuming you’ve correctly identified what they want).
FOOTNOTE # 16: Yes, yes, I know actors and stage managers co-exist in the same theater union, but it’s still gloriously irrelevant on an acting resume.
FOOTNOTE # 17: We know people do more than one thing (even though many multi-talented people I meet seem to be under the delusion that they are the only one). If you have significant skills in, say, carpentry, photography, or other areas that might ordinarily be jobs filled on a film set, feel free to put them in your “special skills” section, which is a perfect “And I also can do this besides acting” section.
In fact, you may wish to put “Stage technician resume available on request” or “Film Production resume available on request” on your acting resume — and have that resume on you when you audition (assuming you wouldn’t mind being considered for some position like that).
But first, you need to address what they’re asking for in the casting notice, which is actors.
Oh, and for all future casting notices, I’m going to say we have a composer, whether or not we have one.
FOOTNOTE # 18: You know, any of the male characters. Or female characters. Or, really anything. It’s not my choice.
What?!? Good actors make choices. They make choices all the time. Sure, you’re not the casting director, but the casting director wants to hire actors. Actors are passionate people who make good choices and elevate the project by the nuance and skill of those choices. We need engaged actors. Otherwise, we’d just videotape the director and writer talking about the film.
FOOTNOTE # 19: Is this a minefield? Yes, but it’s really not that hard. Directors want to see you make your own choices, but be open to taking direction: the former because they want you to transform the text and their direction into something greater than the sum of its parts. The latter because you’re not going to get it right 100% of the time (in part because you’re not looking at the big picture as the director hopefully is).
So, with that in mind, it’s fine to say that you’re interested in this part or that part, but hey, whatever works. Or say that you would love to audition for any part they thought was suitable, but were really interested in so-and-so.
If you picked roles we never would have thought of for you, well, maybe we’ll ask you to read for it, maybe not, but we’ve learned more about your choices. Do you have a solid handle on your type? Good or bad for you, that’s vital for us.
FOOTNOTE # 20: Again, realize that any of these indie feature projects or webseries are going to get 100 to 200 submissions. We don’t have the time to read essays. Besides which, if I wanted to read a tome, there’s some Dostoyevsky novels I’ve been meaning to get to.