SMOKE: Get An Agent, Dahling

Originally published: 25 February 2005

The telephone.

Without a doubt the most influential instrument on any aspiring young thespian's life. Bearer of tidings, good or bad, it sits accusingly at arms' length, one ring away from Fame and Fortune.

One ring away from: "Dahling - it's you they want!" One ring away from getting out of here, from escaping oblivion and mediocrity; one ring away from a one-way ticket to Hollywood and stardom.

Problem is - the damn thing doesn't ring.

"Where is my bloody agent? She's sitting on a goldmine here, man - doesn't she want a huge commission? Look at that oke on TV - you call that acting? I call it ass, man. That tosser is raking in millions for being an idiot and his face looks like - well - ass.

"Why is he making millions? Why am I not making millions? Who's his agent? Mine must have died or she would have called by now.

"I hope she bloody died. Dragged for three kilometres under a bus would be nice."

Ah - what it is to be an actor in South Africa. Damned if you have an agent, damned if you don't. Former South African cricketer turned English superstar - Kevin Pietersen - said while on tour in South Africa recently, about something or other: "It's a Catch-21 situation".

I'll go one better than Kev, I think.

Agents are incredibly important to actors, primarily for the television and movie work they bring their charges. When a film is casting small roles they don't just look through the telephone book and try guess who might be interested in auditioning - they send their briefs around to the various reputable agencies and the agents then call whomever they think is appropriate for the parts on offer.

Sometimes, that is - I've been sent to castings before, only to get there and find myself in a room full of 50-year old black men, or on one particularly embarrassing day when I barged late through the doors only to find myself staring at a room-full of 20-something models in swimsuits.

On both occasions I left quickly, realising that despite my unique and precious gift I probably wasn't going to land either role.

Pity, that, as I've always wanted to play a black man - just like Laurence Olivier who played Othello and got away with having his face painted with boot polish. Back in his time black folks were apparently unable to act for themselves.

As for the models - much as I would love to say I stayed awhile and chatted idly, I didn't. You have no idea what it feels like to have 60 pairs of long-lashed eyes scrutinising your every inch, and I got out fast.

They feasted on my ass as I left - feasted on it - and it was all I could do to prevent myself from breaking into a high-paced gallop. I resorted instead to surreptitiously scratching my armpits, which had become prickly from nerves.

I know what it feels like now, girls - believe me I do. Even if they were looking at me more in contempt and disgust than adulation. It's not pleasant.

South Africans are lucky in that agents here don't always take huge commissions - I've never had an agent who's asked for more than a 15 percent cut, although I believe in Johannesburg they get a little greedier and the really top agents can take as near as dammit half of your earnings.

But the commission is more than worth it - actors gladly give agents their cut, because it means they are at least earning money to cut.

If you're an established actor most agencies will take you and there are certain agencies in Johannesburg and Cape Town that most actors want to join (although more so in Jo'burg, because most of the film and television and radio work is done there).

An actress friend of mine famously tried to quit her agency as she believed they weren't doing enough for her, and she was told by her agent not to bother:

"Changing agents is like swapping deck chairs on the Titanic, dahling".

It's true, in most cases. Some agents do get better briefs, but most of the top ones get the same stuff.

But an agent can really hit it big with an actor, particularly agents whose actors also do voice over work. Voice work is just about the best-paid performing art in this country and it is an incredibly difficult market to break into - once someone is established as a voice artist they get used time and time again, racking up ridiculous sums of money for a very small amount of work.

They can become the bread and butter of an agency, while everyone else's earnings are extra icing on an already rich cake.

Here's the problem, though: so many actors and models go to the few auditions and castings there are around town that it's a complete lottery as to whether you get work or not, and you hardly ever get work based on talent.

I got one advert for a British shoe range because I walked into the casting room with a bright orange shirt on and the director loved it. I didn't even audition - when I walked in he exclaimed and fussed and twittered, then asked if I would be prepared to wear the shirt for the shoot.

Naturally I said yes, I was booked on the spot and then had the satisfaction of walking out and through the madding crowd in the casting room, all waiting their turn for what had now become a fruitless exercise they would never know about.

Another time I landed a Bulgarian beer commercial (fortunately I didn't have to speak - my Bulgarian isn't that hot) because I had just the right expression.

The director spotted it, loved it and we parted ways after he booked me, but when the day of shooting came I'd completely forgotten how to pull the expression.

It was a disaster - this oke kept stuttering on in bad English about the expression I had pulled in the casting, imploring me to do it exactly as I had back then, and it took quite a number of takes before I lucked onto it again.

I shudder to think of it. Nasty.

But if you go through a lean patch - and you aren't quite right for any of the castings your agent sends you for - you start moving down your agent's list of priorities, as new hotshots start getting all the work.

This means that you aren't called for all suitable castings and very often have to rely on actor friends to tell you when a casting is happening. All the while new actors are signing on and pushing you further and further down the list.

So actors spend a lot of time on the phone to their agents, pestering them non-stop for casting information and keeping themselves at the top of their agent's minds.

If they have a good summer (castings and auditions fade away dramatically in the winter months) they spend even more time in casting queues, just knowing that the model in the leathers - three places in front of them - is going to get the part.

Actors generally loathe models as they see them as taking away work that should rightfully be theirs, but models simply couldn't give one bitchy little shit about actors and their problems. Who could?

And at the heart of it all is the agent, whose call you spend many, many hours waiting for.

Even a walk-on role with one line in a B-Grade movie will net you a handsome fee (I made 20-grand in 45 minutes acting for a commercial, once), so an agent calling to breathlessly tell you that you've been booked for something is about more than getting some cool work - it can keep you resting easy for a couple of months, providing that unemployment buffer actors need so badly.

I've apparently still got an agent, I believe - you never call me anymore, Em. I'm a goldmine, Em - your goldmine, baby. Let me make you wealthy, just like you deserve.

Call me, dahling.

All Smoked Out,
Luke Tagg
Spending time online does bad things to a person, but I'm OK.

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Copyright © Luke Tagg. All rights reserved. A few lefts as well.

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