The Hardest Part...Getting Started: 4 Tips for Finding—and Keeping—Good Actors

A lot of the inspiration for starting my First 15 project came from my friend, Austin Meek, who recently started hosting his own radio show on local public radio. I was surprised when I heard his voice in my car one day, so I called him to ask how he made it happen. He told me about having the idea to hear the inside scoop of Waco’s growth and, instead of showing up to the radio station with just a good idea, he wrote out 30 basic episodes of who he’d interview and what they’d talk about. The station was fully on board, and now you can hear Austin every Friday at 11 a.m. and 8 p.m.

His idea clicked with me.

I don’t want my own radio show, but what’s stopping me from writing and shooting my own films? And, one-by-one, I can build up a more narrative based portfolio and pitch it to a company. I got to work right away.

To start, I took down a few notes that looked something like this:

Faith is central to my story and the story I want to tell, but I really don’t want to do faith-based stuff the way it’s usually done. I want to do something that I actually want to make and that I’d like to watch.

I love and am influenced by action movies from the 80s and 90s—Jurassic Park, Terminator 2, Big Trouble in Little China, Blade Runner, Alien, Escape from New York (Man, HOW GOOD IS ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK?! I could write a blog post entirely about that). And the show Eerie, Indiana. (Does anyone remember that show?) So, I want to shoot something with fun action scenes and some sort of training montage and figure out how to pull it all off.

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Those were my starting points for the first of the First 15, and the plot I put together goes something like this: a young woman goes for a nice, leisurely jog on a trail in the woods (what could go wrong?) and crosses paths with…something. She’s not sure what it is but knows it’s not human (an animal? A monster? An alien?). When she’s tries to tell people about it, no one believes her. So, instead of waiting around for someone to take her seriously and come to her rescue, she trains so she can confront it herself. Eventually, she heads back into the woods for a final showdown. On her way, she’s confronted by a hermit who tells her she should turn around. Will she listen to him? Will she keep going? Stay tuned to find out.

Obviously, I put together an awarding winning storyline. (Check that off the list.) All I needed to do after that was bring together a cast. That’s when things got real, and that’s the first lesson I gleaned in the First 15: How to Find Actors.

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Unlike big-budget, Hollywood films, I didn’t have agents lining up to get their clients a part in my short film. I wasn’t sure where to start. I know how to shoot video, but for the commercials I’ve done, the actors were already there. This time I had to find them myself. I put out a call on social media, but I didn’t get many hits. I handed out cards and tried to explain my story to people at my gym but, surprisingly, that didn’t work well either (I am, however, now avoided when I go work out, so I always have plenty of space. Maybe that counts for something?). From hits and misses, I’ve put together 4 tips for finding, and keeping, actors for your short films or commercials:

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1.     Contact your local film commission. Local film commissions are great resources. Their goal is to promote your local film and videography scene—for those behind the camera and those that want to be in front of it. Film commissions already have an established network and can send your info to their contact list. Once I reached out to the film commission in Waco, I quickly heard from people who wanted to act. If you’re based in a smaller town, reach out to commission in near-by larger cities. In Waco, I also use the Dallas and Austin film commissions as resources.

2.     Set clear parameters for your time and how you want to be contacted. I hadn’t worked much with local actors, but I’ve learned they are…passionate. One meeting over coffee lasted almost two hours. Another actor was excited to text me his ideas for the film, at 6 a.m. Maybe you’ve got time to spare and are a morning person, but that didn’t work well for my schedule. So, be up-front about your expectations and what you’re looking for. If you’re meeting with potential actors, tell them you’ve got 30 minutes to hear about what they’ve done and why they’d be a good fit. If you’re giving out your contact info to someone, tell him that he should only contact you during business hours. Clear expectations and parameters at the beginning make things easier for everyone. 

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3.     Auditions are probably unnecessary (and probably awkward). Auditions take up time—your time and your actors’ time. If a person wants to star in your commercial or promotional video, he/she probably has done some acting that has been recorded. Instead of in-person auditions, have people send you video of their work. This way, you can look at their work on your own time, and they can send you a variety of pieces where they’re at their best. Plus, you won’t have a bunch of people lined up in your living room reading lines to you. (Surely that’s happened to others, right? Right?!)

4.     Have everything planned out in advance. On a low (zero) budget film, your actors are likely volunteers. Don’t make them wait around while you’re trying to decide how to frame a shot or where you want the plot to go next. Make a plan and stick to it. Not everything will end up going according to plan, but when you control the things you can control, your actors will give you more grace for the inevitable hiccups that arise.

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Putting together the pieces for my first short film in my First 15 project has made one thing clear—I’m going to learn a lot. Hopefully, the things I learn—the do’s and don’ts—will help you as you begin filmmaking or shoot a commercial for your business. But, if my pitfalls have made it clear to you that you don’t want to do your own videography, I can help with that too! Contact me at jake.mcghee@hisgraceproductions.com or visit my hisgraceproductions.com to learn more about how I can help you with your video production needs, or if you just want to share your own “interesting” filmmaking stories.