The Blog

The Fame Factory: Inside an Actors' Agency

Although I never came across the phrase "A-list" while at the agency, I began to think of the client list in terms of a "postal list". That is, ranking clients according to the postal mode used to deliver their scripts.

It's the morning after the night before. The awards season has officially ended and now it's time to pour over the winners' lists and red carpet fashion, while re-watching the sobbing stars deliver their much-rehearsed award acceptance speeches.

At this time of year, I reflect on my five years working part-time in a talent agency in London - a temping job which I took to support my postgraduate study, but which also provided a privileged perspective behind the scenes of the film and television industry. I spent most of my time assisting various agents in the Actors department. The agency represented a mixture of clients, comprising A-listers, household-name jobbing actors, and up-and-coming young drama school graduates.

In this blog, over the next few posts, I will share some of my observations on the mechanics of the star system in action and on the influential role of the actors' agent. I'll be writing about how stars are made and managed, and the people behind the winners in the fame game.

Fledgling Stars - standing out

How does a fresh-faced, inexperienced youngster make it all the way to the red carpet? Certainly not without the help of a good agent. But with such fierce competition for representation by an agent in the first place, those destined for stardom must stand out from the crowd.

The main tasks of an agent's assistant are to answer the phones and to manage the paperwork. Paper, paper, paper. First up is the post pile. The agents received about ten to fifteen unsolicited CVs and headshots a day from aspiring actors seeking representation, and often more around the time of the drama school graduation shows and University productions. How is our young lad - let's call him Fred (not his real name) - going to rise above the pile in order to shine? Well, there's not much point sending in graduation show details unless your drama teacher, who already knows the agent after several years of contact, has already been in touch with a special recommendation of his or her most dazzling students of the year. Fred's name is already marked (perhaps even since his secondary school days), and out of the casts of maybe twenty graduate shows and student theatre productions, Fred will be among three or four actors lucky enough to have a chat with the agent - let's call him H. - which may lead to the young hopeful being taken on for representation.

Kid gloves

Although I never came across the phrase "A-list" while at the agency, I began to think of the client list in terms of a "postal list". That is, ranking clients according to the postal mode used to deliver their scripts.

Administering scripts is a large part of an assistant's job. For each "meeting" (never call it an audition), an actor will be sent a script and selected scenes to read. Occasionally actors were emailed the documents, particularly if the meeting was at short notice, but this would require them to print it out themselves and therefore I put these clients at the bottom of the list. Next up are actors whose scripts were sent by Royal Mail, and above these are the actors who received Special Delivery. Some clients would regularly receive scripts by courier; and you know you're dealing with a star if you are asked to send something by international courier.

One day, I was wading through my paper-based tasks and about to stuff an envelope for an actor who was just starting out, when H., the agent, intercepted me, "No, not for Fred! I'll deal with that!" I was surprised (and relieved, one less envelope for me to manage), for since when did an agent stuff and seal his own envelopes? Nor did H. give the package to his first assistant to check. He actually took it into his own office. It was the showbiz equivalent to being given the royal seal. Fred, who to my untrained eye (I had, at this point, never seen him act) seemed little more than a pubescent toff, was obviously set for great things. He's now at the top of every movie star list.

This incident stood out to me because it revealed how assured the agent was that this young actor was destined for stardom. Since my days at the agency, I have watched young actors rise through the ranks of British and Hollywood filmmaking, all the while supported by committed and confident agents. But was Fred destined for stardom because of his talent, charm and telegenic face? Or was he made into a star by the agent, the careful handling, the direct line, the international courier and the long after-hours calls to L.A.? Who is really the winner - the actor or the agent? I am certainly listening out during the awards acceptance speeches to hear who gets the tearful thanks of gratitude from the podium.

Next time: Casting and Crisis Management - How a Career is Managed