NBT Interview: Casting Agent Sharon Steele
with Carol Glover
Changing Your Luck
Is an Actor's Life for You?
Amid the frantic bustle and tension of opening night, the sophisticated blonde in a stylish little black dress is an oasis of calm. She moves from box office to director's booth to audience, unruffled and gracious, dispensing hugs and kisses a la Hollywood.
Sharon Steele is wearing one of her many hats. In tonight's chapeau, she's executive producer for Pasadena Theatre Company. Imelda Marcos may be the record holder for shoes, but Bay Country's Sharon Steele is champion hat-wearer.
Steele's also a founding member and past president of Women in Film and Video of Maryland, past president and executive producer for Pasadena Theatre Company and a judge for many beauty and modeling pageants including Miss USA/Universe and America's Perfect Teen National Pageant. Steele gives workshops for aspiring actors, bringing in experts from around the country. She also gives equal time to her roles as wife, mother and grandmother.
NBT slowed her down long enough to ask her about her career and film-making here in the Baltimore-Washington corridor.
Q Everybody wants to write a book and nearly everybody wants to be an actor. As a casting agent, how can you help us reach our dreams?
A As casting director, I usually work with a director, auditioning actors for specific roles. As a casting agent, I get a call from a casting director, who works for the producer of the film, to send actors for the casting director to look at and audition. Sometimes they want to see lots of people try out; sometimes they'll want to see only a specific number, five or 10.
Many casting agents, like me, do both jobs. I can do both here in Maryland, but the rules are different in LA or New York.
When I act as a casting director, I try to use my people first, pulling from my file of 2,000 faces. Then if they don't fit, I'll ask other casting agents to send their actors to try out.
A production house makes the actual film, but I'll get a script and the director and I will hold tryouts. Sometimes the tryouts are videotaped and sent to New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. Tryouts are also held in local hotels like the Tremont in Baltimore or in the client's office. There's terrible pressure to get everything done. We work our tails off night and day until the project's finished.
I do non-union casting, which means that the actors are not members of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, AFTRA, or the Screen Actors Guild, SAG.
I'm hired by job, as are my actors. A casting agent is not a manager. A manager signs a contract with 25 or 30 people and runs their lives. I just select for a shoot.
Hopeful actors at a Steele training workshop come in many types.
Q What do you look for in a person who's trying to make it in television or the movies?
A The most important things are professionalism and dedication. Also be dependable. Some people don't show up. If you want to work in this business, you have to make efforts. Actors who call at the last minute or don't show for a casting session: I know how they'll be in production so I won't call them. I rely on the people I can depend on.
Especially if I'm acting as casting director, I'll be told, "Sharon, you just cast them." Then I have to be real careful.
I can't stand it when an actor tells me how great he is. There are plenty of actors with ego and attitude; I tell them to leave it at home.
Actors get two chances with me during casting sessions, but not on an actual shoot. If they're not dependable during a shoot, they're gone. I've broken that rule once when I took a chance on a young actor. I followed my gut feeling and he's now working on the TV show New Detective and doing great. He's thanked me and told me, "If it weren't for you I wouldn't be here."
Q What else besides ego turns you off?
A Actors sometimes forget where they came from, their roots. It's important for them to be loyal. I'll get them a job, and some producer will go behind my back so they don't pay my commission. Instead of the actor speaking up they won't, but I'll find out eventually.
People use you; one actor begged me to get him in the union, and I did. I got him in the union and in the movie that was being cast, but when it came time to pay my commission, he wouldn't.
Q What about looks? Does a woman have to be beautiful or a man handsome to make it in show business? Are there certain looks in vogue right now?
A The corporate films want the yuppie, clean-cut look. In commercials, you can't be too pretty or too attractive; they're seeking everyday-looking persons, not 'plastic' people. In one music video I cast, the lead singer did not want someone more attractive than her.
Men with the professional businessman look - middle-age men with graying hair - do well in commercials. I need grandmas with gray hair, but it's hard to find them. Corporate commercials and new product commercials demand well-spoken actors who can walk, talk and look good.
The ethnic look is in demand: African Americans, Hispanics, Orientals.
Q Are there professions that mold likely actors?
A With theater experience you build a character, learn to be somebody else. If people have heavy theatrical experience, they can make it in film - but not necessarily the opposite. An actor can usually be a successful model, but it doesn't usually work the other way around here either.
Q So if a person wants to approach you, what should they do?
A People should send me a resume and head shots. If they just send me a snapshot, I know they're not serious.
I get five head shots a day and have three file cabinets full of them. Actors must keep me up to date with their address and telephone number. I tell people who are serious about making it in film to get a New York address also, a post office box or telephone number.
Q Let's say I'm a director and I've called you wanting actors. What do you do now?
A A casting director will call me and say, "I need a white male, 30 to 40 years old, and two children for a commercial."
I've got files of people from teenagers to 100-year-olds, not usually kids.
I'll look through my files and send as many people as were asked for.
Q What does a person have to do to get in your files?
A I like people who have had some experience, taken workshops or classes in acting. I run seminars and workshops for non-actors who want to break into this business. Such professionals such as Halle Berry's manager Vincent Cirrincione; Mike Fenton from General Hospital and All My Children; and Richard Rosenwald, a talent manager (former personal manager of Sandra Bullock) lead the seminars. They're usually held in the Baltimore area at the Tremont Hotel, Admiral Fells Inn or near BWI International. I teach a seminar called "How to Stay Out of Trouble in the Film and Video Business."
Q Who gave you your first big break?
A Steve Yeager, director and writer, gave me my break. He was director for On the Block in 1988 and recently won an award at Sundance Film Festival for directing Divine Trash by Baltimore's John Waters. I met him while I was working at Harbor Hospital in Baltimore doing PR. He was directing industrial films, and I supplied the extras. Industrials are corporate films that can either be used for training employees or to promote sales.
Steele, seated third from left, with Pasadena Theater Company's cast from Little Shop of Horrors.
Q Where's an aspiring actor likely to find a break?
A Usually when a studio film is shooting here, they look for extras because all the big roles are filled with union actors who are already cast in New York or LA. We add non-union actors as long as the union quota is filled.
There's also a demand in this area for voice-overs: The voice you hear in commercials but don't see the person. You can make $150-$225 the first hour and then are paid in 15 minute increments. This is a good way to earn a living, get experience and training.
Independent films are another stepping stone. Actors don't get a salary, but big studios can pick up an independent film from a film festival such as Sundance and you're on your way.
Payment ranges from none - independent films are done for the experience - to $35 to $125 a day. For commercials, actors can make up to $700 for two hours of work with no residuals, but that's tops.
Q How would someone go about being in a crowd scene ?
A You'd submit headshots and a resume, you'd try out here, the video tape would be sent to New York and it would either be okay or they'd turn it down. For example, for a music video with Vonda Shepard, I sent 10 head shots of people, and she picked from them.
Q Is the Baltimore-Washington area a good place to get into film?
A This is a big corporate area. There's work in training and corporate films and some independent film work and commercials.
Q Any advice for aspiring actors or filmmakers?
A If you think you want to act, go for it. You'll never be satisfied until you do. Don't wait for it to come to you. Make it happen. Take the risk.
Q How many casting companies are there in the area?
A There are about ten companies like mine in this area. It's very competitive.
Q What is the economic impact of film here in Maryland?
A Film brings a lot of money into the state. Restaurants, hotels and shops thrive from film-making.
(In 1997-98 film-making enriched Maryland's economy by $77 million. 1998-'99 topped that figure.)
Q What films have you casted?
A I've done the studio films Meteor Man and Die Hard With a Vengeance. Local actors got roles as extras.
For Bill Cosby's Meteor Man, they rented a row house in Baltimore. People moved out of it while they used their house. They were put up at a hotel. The company paid rent per day and then cleaned up. I cast extras for it, and when I went in the house, Cosby was in the basement.
For one film, I met with a casting director from Philadelphia in the Tremont Hotel. He was casting for 12 Monkeys with Brad Pitt. Pitt's hair was all white and he had these contact lenses in his eyes that were weird. I ran into him in the lobby.
You're not allowed to approach an actor when he is in character; he needs to stay focused. But Pitt was so cool after the shoot that, when the cast started to leave, he asked, "Where are you all going? Can't you stay here for a while?"
I've cast for music videos also: KIX and two with Mary Chapin Carpenter. I also cast the boyfriend in Vonda Shepard's video.
Q What companies have you worked with?
A I've done work for Fox, Channel 13, CBS. I've cast for Starter Sports Wear. I spent three days as casting director. Cal Ripkin and Emmitt Smith were cast already. Then I got everybody else.
I've also cast for commercials for Tiger Toys, Ryland Homes and BG&E.
(Steele's credits fill two pages.)
Q Tell us about the organization Women in Film and Video in Maryland and your role in it.
A I'm a founding member of Women in Film and Video of Maryland. Started in 1978, it's part of an international organization found in 43 states as well as internationally. I was on the board of directors for 10 years, did fundraising and public relations, then was president for three years until the end of 1997.
We promote women in film and our members are producers, directors, make-up artists, casting directors, agents and actors. We do a lot of networking and try to help each other. At meetings if we have a job we'll ask a member, "Are you available for a commercial?"
We also hold seminars and workshops and have a scholarship program for women who want to produce film. This isn't just a man's business any more.
Q When did your love of show business begin?
A When I was a kid I put on backyard plays, Tarzan and Cinderella. I'd always wanted to be in theater but didn't know how to get a start. In the mid-1970s, I worked at St. Bernadette's Parish in Severn and co-produced Jesus Christ Superstar.
When my daughter was a year old, she acted in Tom Sawyer at Pasadena Theatre Company; that's how I became involved. Fifteen years ago I was president, and now I'm doing it again.
I'm a hands-on person and learn by doing. While working for a film company in Annapolis that made documentaries, I contacted actors and spokespeople including John Chancellor, Johnny Unitas and Jim McKay. I did administrative work and marketing also.
At Harbor Hospital, I worked in the public relations department; then I began casting for corporate films to train employees. I worked on films for Bell Atlantic, MCI, IBM and BGE.
When I decided to try making it in the casting business, I worked part-time in healthcare and built my business with my family's help. We worked from my home, my daughter, sister and mother and me, for 10 or 12 years.
Now I do it full-time by myself with interns from Villa Julie in Baltimore.
Q What's coming up at Pasadena Theatre Company?
A Godspell just closed. California Suite, a Neil Simon comedy about couples staying at the same California hotel, opens July 17 and runs to August 1. Productions are staged at the Humanities Hall of Anne Arundel Community College.
The 21-year-old company was started by Terri Askew, JoEllen Hardesty and Nancy Weisenborn to produce musicals as fund-raisers for local organizations. The company still raises money to bring theater to Anne Arundel County schools. This year it received grants from the Anne Arundel Commission on Culture and the Arts and Maryland State Arts Council.
The sophisticated blonde turns out to be very approachable. At a workshop for aspiring actors, she praises their efforts, pointing out exactly what they're doing right. She knows all about their lives, families and aspirations. Sharon Steele is a lady of film and a down-to-earth Bay Country neighbor as well.
Pasadena Theatre Company on the Side
The 1998 gala opening of Pasadena Theatre Company's Little Shop of Horrors, with music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Howard Ashman, raised money for AIDS treatment locally. The company dedicated the performance to Shirley Ashman, a resident of Annapolis, and to the memory of her son, Howard, the play's lyricist, who died of AIDS.
The Grammy- and Oscar-winning songwriting duo of Menken and Ashman are remembered for their scores for Disney's Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Little Mermaid, as well as Little Shop of Horrors.
Parris Lane opened the evening's festivities with the first live performance of the Menken-Ashman song, "Daughter of God." Found after Ashman's death, it is featured on Lane's CD Songs from My Heart.
| Issue 25 |
Volume VII Number 25
June 24-30, 1999
New Bay Times
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