Actors are always asking me to critique their headshots. And I don’t know why. Because I just want to tear most of them up, throw them on the floor and stomp on them.
I know that sounds harsh! But I’ve seen tens of thousands of headshots from my days working at the Strasberg Institute through my many years as an acting and branding coach. And I know the headshot drill quite well. You hunt and hunt for the right photog. You spend anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars to get your shots.
Then, hoping and praying that they’re the best pictures you’ve ever had done, you proudly distribute the proofs (or the URL) to all your friends. You expect us to “OOOHH” and “AHHH” all over them. You then gingerly ask us to help you pick the best ones. Friends know how much time, effort, money . . . and emotional energy . . . you’ve invested. So even if we think so, we just hate to tell you we don’t like any of them. Instead we diplomats say, “these’ll do” or something to that effect.
John Barrymore had a convenient way of dealing with actor friends whose performances he didn’t like. He’d say to them, “you just don’t know what you did out there . . . you just don’t know!” Barrymore was being kind. But I’m going to be bold, be a real friend to you and name the big pink suede elephant in the room! I don’t like many headshots.
If you want to know why, just go to Now Casting or any other actor-resource site and scroll the many, many photographers displayed there. See how many photos pop out at you. If you’re like me, only a few do. And I don’t think it’s the photographer’s fault.
Can you honestly answer this question about your headshot . . . “What do you want it to reveal to the world about you and your acting?” Most actors haven’t a clue. If you’re one of these, no matter how good your photographer is or how many thousands you pay, your headshot will appear as generic as the next guy’s. Remember that Casting Directors sift through THOUSANDS of shots. And if you look like the next guy where do you think yours will end up?
So how does your headshot end up in the “audition” instead of the “circular” file? Well, the first thing to do is to answer the question above . . . to figure out the best way to put yourself on display. Branding can help you get there. Because when you brand yourself you’re not only looking at what you have to offer as an actor. But also what’s special about you as a human and spiritual being.
Branding taps into your soul. And I want to see nothing less than your soul on that eight-by-ten glossy. Flipping though headshots today, actors who exposed even a hint of inner life caught my eye and made me linger. And that’s our goal!
Branding also DEFINES this inner life. If your brand is, for example, “Peaches-and-Cream with a Poison-Tipped Tongue” your headshot is going to look a whole lot different than someone who has named and claimed themselves as “Top-Cop”. Not only will your demeanors be different. But your energy and color considerations will be too.
Color is vitally important in headshots today. When I was acting, everyone was black-and-white. Now you have to consider your many hues. This can be a blessing. Because color can spotlight you and your brand. Ms. Peaches-and-Cream, for example, was photographed in a poison-teal tee against a peach background, which highlighted her peachy-pink hair and complexion. Five years later, her headshot is still proudly displayed as one of her photog’s best. Conversely, Mr. Top-Cop went for beiges and browns that reflected his branded mustachioed scowl.
But color can also be a curse. So if you can’t figure out what colors go with you and your brand, consult an image consultant. Or a photographer who really understands how to advantageously use color. Fortunately, there are now many out there who do.
Color begins a harmonious self-resonance. But branding helps you go even deeper. Ideally, a brand communicates your essence and gets people to hire you. You’re an actor. And, as an actor, you expose yourself through your roles on a daily basis. A headshot is no different. So be brave and reveal yourself there also. How do you prepare for this crucial role? Just ask yourself, “what does ‘Peaches-and-Cream with a Poison-Tipped Tongue’ look like in print?” To find the answer, use your actor-tools.
First of all . . . relax. Relaxation sparks spontaneity and energy. Nothing turns me off more in a headshot like tension, especially around the eyes and mouth. So if you haven’t studied a way to relax . . . and I’m thankful that I did because it’s been one of the handiest life techniques I’ve ever learned . . . do this. At your shoot, deep-breathe in a few times through your nose to about 2/3rds of your lung capacity, gently hold for a couple of beats . . . and breathe out. Then stretch the muscles of your face. Finally, ask these muscles to let go. Then, if you begin to feel tension return, stop and relax again. It’s your shoot so take the time to prepare just as you would when acting a scene.
Second . . . compose a story or recreate an event that typifies your brand . . . one that you can portray in front of the camera. I can’t remember who said it but I love the quote, “a film actor talks softly and thinks loud”. Or something like that. So think loud! If you’re “Ms. Peaches-and-Cream”, you might want to remember a time in your life when you maintained your peachy cool while you lashed out at someone who hurt you. Or write a monologue using that situation and recite it in your mind. Or imagine that you’re telling your first love who cheated on you that you don’t want to see him anymore. Sit in that situation. Look down. Then look at the camera and have your photog snap away. Shake it out and then create another imaginary situation. Instead of “three-looks”, consider your session “three-thinks”.
Even if you don’t have a brand, creating inner spark in your headshot in any way you can is crucial. Because headshots act as a sort of pre-audition. If you look relaxed and reveal your soul you’ll jump off the page. Otherwise, you’re just a two-dimensional cardboard type. Just keep remembering what Rosalind Russell said . . .”acting is standing up naked and turning around very slowly.”
Leave Your Comments About Headshots from a Soul View Below
Be honest . . . what do you really think about your headshot? If you’re not happy with it, what tools did you learn from this article to improve it? Do you know how to relax parts of your body, including your face, to allow your soul to show through?