Martin Bentsen is a New York-based photographer who spent years interacting with actors who had questions for him beyond getting that perfect headshot. To meet that demand, he now runs an actor marketing and coaching enterprise, using successful marketing and business-building tips from other industries, and applies them to the most critical business every actor is always building: themselves.
What’s a common frustration actors have about going on auditions when you talk to them?
It tends to be this: “If only a casting director were more specific. If they could tell me, ‘I’m looking for a character who does this, and acts like this,’ then I could give it to them.” I try to help them see it from a different perspective. For example, when I look to hire a new photographer for my studio, I look for someone funny and engaging during the shoot. But I’m not going to tell candidates I’m looking for that because if I do, when they come to meet in person, they may fake it, even though that’s not who they are. It makes my job of finding the right person that much more difficult.
How does that translate to casting directors?
Casting directors don’t want to give too many specifics about the character away because they’d rather hire someone whose brand is naturally what they are looking for. There are many intangible qualities that an actor has to have, and those qualities are often overlooked by actors who think they need to be a certain way for the character. The result is that they come off as unnatural in the audition, and the casting director doesn’t feel a connection to them. If you’re likable and naturally the character they’re looking for, the casting director will be interested in bringing you back in. And just like with me hiring a photographer, the more specific a casting director is in explaining what they’re looking for, the more actors who will fake it, thus making their job of finding the right person a lot harder. Plus, it can also stifle actors’ creativity — perhaps the casting director doesn’t know what they’re looking for and wants to be surprised by an actor who gives them something different!
When someone is just starting, things can be overwhelming between needing a headshot, a résumé, a reel. What’s the order of importance?
The first question you should consider is what your long-term goals are in this business, and what your preliminary brand is. Then you work backward. A brand is a combination of your type (what you look like and how the industry sees you) and your personality, which is the deepest aspect of yourself. Then you’ll understand which auditions are right for you to pursue and which casting directors you should target and network with. Now that you’re laser-focused on your goal, it will be easier to create marketing materials that work well for you. And in terms of which ones and in which order, definitely get your headshot done right away. A reel is important, but not as important when you’re starting as a headshot and a professionally formatted résumé.
Doesn’t finding a brand and setting a specific goal pigeonhole an actor, which is the opposite of showing versatility?
As a photographer, I can say, hey, I shoot weddings, headshots, interiors for real estate, so that I don’t cut myself off from work opportunities. But if you are the client and want to hire a photographer for your wedding, do you want to hire someone who says they can do everything? Or would you instead hire someone who does weddings explicitly? A casting director is rarely looking to bring in someone who is “general” and who says they can do everything. They want to hire the person confident enough in him/herself to show that they specialize in cop roles, for instance. When you’re specific, you start getting booked for those particular parts. The goal at this point in your career is to get hired and build your brand and reputation from there. Later, you can expand your brand and play other character types if you want.
What if you don’t like the brand you’re boxed into?
I have a whole course on a technique using “pride words” and “dark words.” These words help create backstories to a character that enables you to connect, respect, and like them. In doing that, you do a better job at the audition because you like the character. You’re now playing these roles much more complex, challenging, and enjoyable. You get booked because of that, and you start enjoying the characters the industry sees you as. Later you can begin working on opportunities to break out of that if you want — but only once you’ve paid your dues. And that’s how it is with everything in life — to get what you want, you have to be willing to do some of what you DON’T want for a while.
What can actors be doing right now to emerge post-COVID quarantine and hit the ground running with their careers?
Less production work means fewer audition opportunities. As we emerge out of quarantine, there will be fewer roles but more actors competing for them. Casting directors will fill a third of their audition slots with someone they know, and the remaining 2/3 with people from casting calls submitted by agents or by actors themselves. Those who will have the best opportunities will be the ones who already have relationships with the casting directors. You should already be networking and connecting with them. At the moment, casting directors and agents have more time to look at your submissions and be open to new faces. Now is not the time to sit idly.
What kind of post-COVID effects might we see impact the audition process?
Submissions will be conducted online more than ever because it’s safer from a virus/health standpoint. Therefore, if you don’t know technology, or don’t have proper self-tape technique, or can’t slate well, you should be working on those things. With an in-person audition, a casting director has to watch you. With the self-tape, they can turn it off within the first 10 seconds if they’re not interested. You need to get their attention from the moment the camera is on you.
Also, stage actors should study screen acting. Live performances will likely not return for a while, and many stage productions are moving to a screen format. Even something as simple as live showcases are going digital, so your acting will need to adapt to that format.
Are actors who do extra work also in danger once production resumes? What if it’s used as a way to network their way up to speaking roles?
Extras will have fewer opportunities because post-COVID, productions will limit the number of people on set. I recommend actors start learning about what it takes to become a production assistant or work in other crew positions. If you can get on set as a crew member, you can still be on set, may even possibly play background roles while you’re there, and still network. And of course, you’ll be getting paid!
What’s the basic summary for actors in navigating the business in this post-COVID world?
You need to be hyper-strategic. If you’re submitting to online casting calls, hoping for the best, your chances are worse due to the virus’s devastating impact on production work. If you start thinking about your career methodically, it will increase your chances of booking a breakout role. If you have strategy and understanding behind your career, when you book that role, you’ll know how to turn it into consistent work.
Some actors say they want to focus on acting and all that other stuff should be up to their agents and publicists to handle. True?
Once you become strategic, you will increase the chances of opportunities presenting themselves to you, and you will be prepared to take action on that opportunity. There are three sides of being an actor — the artist, the manager, and the entrepreneur. Any successful business needs all three. Your Artist side needs to be great at the craft, highly skilled, trained, and technical. The Manager side organizes, systemizes, connects, networks, and follows up. The Entrepreneur is the one who will invest money, take risks, be a leader, and believe in yourself. When you combine all three, that’s when you have the highest probability of succeeding. Agent or no agent, publicist, or no publicist, without all three sides put together, you’ll always find yourself struggling to book work (unless you’re extremely lucky). That’s why it’s so crucial to take the business and marketing side seriously.
While we are still in the various quarantine phases, and production has not yet officially restarted, how can actors stay motivated about their craft now?
Something anyone can do from home is finding a deeper purpose for why they act. If you do it because you enjoy the stage, or want to be famous and rich, those are self-based reasons. In general, self-based reasons can carry you only so far. If you come up with a purpose beyond yourself, a purpose other people can get behind, that’s when you get that insane drive and hunger to go above and beyond. I have a completely free course called The Practical Performer, which takes actors through that process and helps them get strategic in how they navigate the industry. It’s fun and completely free, and I highly recommend starting there: https://www.martinbentsen.com/mini-course.html
While your website offers seminars that cost money to attend or access, you also have lots of other free content. Why?
My own deeper purpose is helping talented actors position themselves better, and get the type of work they want. I also believe one has to give before they can expect to gain. In my case, I give out helpful free content for actors to make positive changes. If they like it, they’ll sign up for the mailing list to get access to my more in-depth content, plus some paid services. If the free courses were helpful, and they trust what I have to say, they will feel confident to invest financially in the other things I offer.