Some fifteen years ago, I walked into the office of my very first U.S. casting agent.
I was absolutely thrilled, but I didn’t realize that I was about to make a big mistake.
The walls were filled with posters of all the blockbuster movies the agency had been involved in. Signed thank you notes from famous directors decorated the hallways. Old awards were gathering dust in the renovated warehouse-turned-office that oozed sleek, expensive minimalism.
“Our voice-over director will see you shortly. One of her sessions is running late. Would you care for some coffee?,” asked a secretary.
Ten minutes and a perfect cappuccino later, I was handed an audition script. It would take a little longer, I was told.
“No need to be nervous,” the girl said. “I’m sure you’ll do just fine.”
It’s strange how these things work. When I walked in, I was feeling great. I knew I could nail this. But as soon as she mentioned nerves, I felt like a kid waiting outside the principal’s office, wondering what I had done wrong.
It was my first year in the States and I was green. I even had a Green Card to prove it. I didn’t really know anybody, and nobody knew me. That’s why I had brought a friend along for the audition.
I just needed some backup, a second opinion if you will, to make sure this place was legit. Too many people were being taken for a ride by shady characters posing as casting directors, and I didn’t want to become one of them.
This friend happened to be nosy. Very nosy.
If you were to invite him to your house, he would read the back of the postcards that are hanging on your fridge. He would open up a family photo album without asking permission. I once caught him checking out a closed bedroom on his way to the smallest chamber in the house.
So, while I was learning my lines for the audition, you can imagine what my friend was doing. When the secretary was away to get the coffee, he went over to her desk and looked at some of the contracts she was working on. When she came back, he grilled her about the business, as if this was an episode of Shark Tank or Dragons’ Den.
I tried to give him the Cut it out, You’re not helping me-look, but to no avail. He acted like a pit bull sniffing a hot trail.
It got even worse when we finally met the voice-over director. Initially, my friend was wise enough to let me do all the talking. But when I went into the vocal booth to record my script, I could see him distracting her with all his inappropriate questions.
When the session was over, I heard in my headphones: “Paul, we need to talk…. in private. Ask your friend to go back to the waiting area and tell him not to snoop around.”
ONE ON ONE
“Let me level with you,” the casting director said when we sat down. “You have talent. You have experience and I love your accent. I don’t think we have anybody that can bring that European sense of sophistication to a read. In short, we’d like to represent you, but on one condition.”
I knew what was coming, and I knew she was right.
“Don’t ever bring your friend to this office again. I can understand you’re new to this country and you needed some support, but seriously… I almost kicked the two of you out. He was asking all sorts of questions about how much you would be making and how many jobs we would offer you each month. It was obvious that he knew nothing about the casting process, and we hadn’t even taken you on board.
Let me be clear. Contrary to what your friend seems to believe, there are no guarantees in this business. We can send you auditions, but YOU have to book the jobs. We don’t control our clients. If they ask us to recommend five voices for a project, we give hem five voices. You might be number one on my shortlist, but that’s irrelevant. You’d be surprised how often a client picks the voice I personally find least suitable. It’s all very subjective, and you have to be okay with that. By the way, did you bring some recent headshots?”
We talked for another ten minutes, we shook hands, and I left.
“It’s up to you, but I would never do business with these people,” said my nosy friend when I came out of the meeting. “I got the weirdest vibes off that casting director. You should have seen the way she looked at me. All I did was ask some simple questions to make sure the place was kosher. What’s wrong with that?
Of course it’s up to you what you want to do, but I think you should explore other options. One day you’re going to thank me.”
He was right. I did thank him for teaching me a valuable lesson that day. I also told him that I had signed with the agency. Two months later, he went his way and I went mine. Recently, someone told me he’s now an investigative reporter at some magazine I’d never heard of.
Our choice of friends says a lot about who we are as a person and as a professional. In order to be successful in any business, it’s important to surround yourself with people you believe in, and who believe in you.
I don’t mean people who think that every word that comes out of your mouth is pure gold. That role is reserved for proud mothers and misguided fans. You need people who look out for you in a discreet, intelligent way. Preferably, people who know the territory. There’s nothing as useless as the advice coming from the mouth of a person who doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
And let me tell you something else.
The most important friend you and I will ever have, is the person we choose to live our life with. First and foremost, this friend needs to be comfortable with uncertainty. Although attitudes are gradually shifting, most people still prefer the predictability of a steady job (and income) over the freedom and fluctuation of a freelance career.
If you’re living with a voice actor, you know some months are slow and others are crazy busy. You probably know how much money goes out every month, but you never know how much money will be coming in. That makes it hard to plan ahead. The perfect partner for a voice actor has a steady job with benefits. This is especially important in the beginning of a career.
Because of the ongoing uncertainty, this partner also has to be incredibly patient, flexible, and understanding. Ask any established talent, and they’ll tell you that a voice-over career is not a sprint but a marathon. If you’re still in business after the first three years, you’re either a fool or you’re beginning to get somewhere.
Not everybody can and will hang in there while you’re trying to make it in a field that’s becoming increasingly competitive. You need to sow a lot of seeds, and the harvest might be years away.
BENDING OVER BACKWARDS
Talking about flexibility… I can’t tell you how many times we have had to change our family’s plans at the last minute, because some client needed me to record a script pronto. At times I wish I had the audacity to tell that customer:
“You can’t do this to me. I have a life, you know! When you called this Sunday morning, we were all wearing our bike shorts, ready for a ride.”
Instead I keep quiet, go down to my studio, close the soundproof door and start recording that darn, poorly written script about the importance of family time. When the client says “Dance,” I dance. Meanwhile, the family goes on a bike ride without me.
If you’re not ready to roll with the punches and take life one day at a time, you’re not ready to start a serious relationship with a voice actor. And if you are, you must be a saint!
People with a steady job often have a hard time wrapping their brains around what it means to be self-employed. I’m lucky to be married to a professional musician. She understands that if someone offers you a good gig, you take it. If you don’t, someone else will, and they’ll start calling that person next time.
On paper it sounds great. Today’s voice actor stays home all day, recording short commercials and promos that bring in more money than most people will make in a month. It’s easy to forget that getting the work takes up far more time than doing the work.
Every audition brings new hope. “What if I get picked to be the next voice of ….?” (name a big brand name). “I’d finally have some income I can count on, and the recognition I’ve been secretly longing for.”
Of course you’ll never hear back about the role you thought was made for you, and when you turn on the radio three months later, you hear a complete idiot mess up the lines you auditioned for because they chose him over you. That morning, you will hear that stupid commercial over and over and over again. This will make your day. I guarantee it!
But you’re never going to take your frustration out on the one you love most, right? You always manage to stay calm, composed, and positive. You never take things personally. It’s only your voice they’re evaluating.
Instead, you send a quick email to congratulate the lucky bastard who landed the job, and you put on a fake Facebook smile because it’s so wonderful to be able to do what you love and get paid for it. Meanwhile, you don’t know how you’re going to pay this month’s health insurance premium, or how to fix the fridge that just broke down.
At that point you need a soft place to land. You need someone who has your back. Someone who doesn’t think you’re a failure. Someone who says:
“I love you. Let’s go for a walk. It’s a beautiful day.”
Other times you do get lucky and you hit the jackpot. You get tons of work and you need the house to be quiet so you can finish your recordings. Who’s there to make sure you can work in peace? Who’s taking over your household chores so you can finish editing that never-ending audio book?
When things go really, really well, and your voice is heard all over the nation; when hotshot agents who always ignored you all of a sudden know who you are; when you yourself start believing that you’re the Big Kahuna now… Who’s there to celebrate your success, and keep you grounded?
When you’re too big for your boots, who will gently put you in your place? Who will tell you that there’s more to life than talking into a microphone, or being adored by countless fans? Who’s going to be there for you when the applause fades away? With whom will you share and develop other interests?
I guess it boils down to this:
WHY are you doing what you’re doing?
Does it make any sense if you can’t share your setbacks or successes with someone?
Mind you, even though I am happily married, I’m not advocating the advantages of matrimony per se. I am simply in favor of surrounding yourself with a couple of close friends who can keep you sane in a weird and complicated world. People with whom you can let your guard down, be vulnerable, and be yourself.
It’s about time we give those friends the credit they deserve.
They truly are the wind beneath our wings.
Paul Strikwerda @nethervoice
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