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Actor Reels: What To Ask Before Your Demo Reel Shoot?

As a producer/director I found that I needed a new perspective on acting. To this end I enrolled in an “Acting For Film” workshop at Maine Media Workshop in Rockport, Maine, with Judith Weston, a Hollywood acting teacher and mentor from LA. Judith is wonderful and helped teach actors like Lawrence Trilling (“Goliath”), Nzingha Stewart (“Little Fires Everywhere“), and Hanelle Culpepper (“Star Trek Picard”), to name a few. What I learned surprised me. She helped me see the hidden treasure of directing is to enable an actor to become the character. She showed us through a series of exercises how to “be” the character. She demonstrated that when you do not use the tools and skills of acting you are doing a “line reading” and merely “trying to express feelings for the camera.” It was a breathtaking awareness for me. At one point she had us speak to each other saying only “A”, “B”, or “ABC”. No other words were spoken, just “A”, “B”, or “ABC” over and over. While we did that, she asked us to concentrate on what we wanted to communicate and what we wanted the other actor to do. Then she had us act out a part with lines from the same posture. I was astounded that I “became” the character. If a camera had been filming, the audience would assume the conversation and conflict were real and genuine. We were not doing a “line reading”. We were acting! It was an awakening for me.

Often the first thing I see through my producer/director lens is the demo reel. I will see a scene or series of scenes and I will immediately see if the actor is expressing a truth or just doing a line reading. When I see the actor's reel, I want to see their skills, talents and the truth, that mystical fabric of who they are and how this is expressed in the scene. I want to see their physicality. How do they move, look, and how does light play on their face? What is revealed in the demo reel? That is the magic of acting.

Which leads us to these 3 common actor queries: So how does an actor decide what should be in the demo reel? What questions should one ask herself before beginning a reel? How should an actor create their “brand”?

When thinking about your reel, questions you might want to ask are, “What is my type? How would I like to be perceived?” This, of course, has to reflect the “truth” of who you are: your soul and character. Your personality will come to the forefront in your career so you cannot “hide” parts of yourself and why should you? This is the power and majesty of acting, to move the audience to appreciate aspects of the human condition.

One great way to start is to ask the following questions: What actors do I admire? What actors do I feel are expressing the power and truth of who they are? Glenn Close, Morgan Freeman, Francis McDormand, Helen Mirren? What actors do I admire and why? This is a powerful exercise. What is it about that actor that has you inspired? This exercise can help you isolate your own talents and skills and help you prepare a demo reel that will capture those aspects of your personality that integrate with your talent to showcase your characteristics. Part of understanding your brand might be to ask your friends, colleagues and family “What adjectives would you use to describe me?” Watch out for this one! Creative people we can be very sensitive, so don't take it personally if they come back with adjectives that you might not appreciate. Instead take these comments and try to settle them into a place of neutrality. Perhaps they might say you are a little “quirky“, for example. That might be just the characteristic that could land you a part on Big Bang Theory or Game of Thrones. Take this feedback gently and ask your demo reel director to look for this characteristic when shooting.

You want to understand where you fit into the scheme of things. You are probably not a big star now (If you are, please have your agent call me!) but you want to see your career unfold. Keep in mind that every actor is a person who started out just like you. They built their career over time doing what they love and bringing their best skills to the job, be that a local TV commercial, a corporate video, or an independent film.

Other good questions to ask when preparing your web site, head shot and demo reel are: What TV shows do I love? What networks inspire me? Perhaps you love the Disney Channel and everything Disney. This tells you something about your personality and your world view. When I was a child living in Los Angeles, I loved everything Disney (watch for my Disney live events at and Disneyland was my dream village. My aunt, Eleanor Audley, was the voice of Maleficent in the Disney film and I loved when she came over to my house. I would listen to her magnificent deep voice and be filled with pride when I would see her on the screen as Maleficent or as the wicked step mother in Alice In Wonderland.

Or perhaps you are drawn to serious drama like Fargo or Mr. Robot? This interest of yours is part of who you are. You can bring aspects of this interest to the screen and incorporate it into your demo reel. Don't believe that your reel is not powerful. Just look at the trailer for Fargo or Mr. Robot and you will see the power of a short segment of excellent work.

Here is an exercise that I love: Reverse engineer a scene. Look at the end goal of the character or scene and try to create it from scratch. I even like to recreate a scene. I love “Curb Your Enthusiasm” by Larry David and will from time to time take one of his scenes and try to act it out. It can be great fun.

Let's take a closer look at your demo reel. What are the elements of that reel? Look at all we have discussed here and try to imagine what you want it to showcase. Take any footage you have from plays, commercials, scenes you wrote, films you were in, and show them to your demo reel producer. Discuss with that person how you want yourself to be portrayed. Be open to their feedback as they may see elements of your acting that you might overlook.

Of critical importance are the production values of your demo reel. The quality of the shooting, lighting, editing and directing is of utmost importance. This is where the skills of your demo reel producer shine. Most actors do not have a great deal of funding when they are just starting out and budget is a major concern. I have decades of experience creating films on a tight budget and I know how to do so without compromising quality. It's an art form. Let me give you an example. I was doing a video for a global company about their marketing and print services.

The company had a sports theme and wanted me to shoot a film that would showcase their best work. Actors were hired, the script was written but the question became how to get the entire film to look and feel like big sports without breaking the bank? The answer: I “borrowed” ( no fee!) the Sports Museum in Boston. The shoot was finished and it looked like a film with ten times the budget because of a simple location selection.

I can't resist telling you one final story about acting. I was in the Sports Museum directing the lead actor for a series of lines about the product. The representative from the museum came in and said, “You have to be out of here in 30 minutes as the museum is opening in an hour”. We panicked! The actor was suddenly very nervous and stumbling over his lines. The crew was very tense about all the technology spread across the floor. Luckily, I had a brilliant idea, if I do say so myself. I turned to everyone, held up my hand and said, “Could I have your attention. We are not doing brain surgery here. We are shooting a product video for a company. Let's all relax.” The tone of the room changed instantly. The actor did the lines in one take, and we got out of there in time. You have to love our industry.

It's a wrap.

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