Cher Van Amburg is a commercial agent with the prestigious Innovative Artists Agency.
By Patricia Tallman
Pat: How did you end up as an agent?
Cher: I always knew that I wanted to end up in some facet of the entertainment industry and wasn’t exactly sure what it would be. I hadn’t been exposed to what an agent or commercial agent did. I interned at Jeopardy and at CBS. My favorite thing about the internship was dealing with actors. We had Celebrity Jeopardy and I would help the casting coordinator deal with all the celebrities. That was my favorite part of the job. When I worked at CBS, my favorite part was working with the guests they had on the morning shows. So I realized I had a knack for dealing with actors. After I graduated from Cal State Long Beach, I had a brief stint at The Dating Game doing contestant coordinating and casting. I realized that wasn’t for me. It was freelance, not a steady gig. My first real job out of college was as an agent’s assistant at J. Michael Bloom and Associates here in Los Angeles. I moved into a position in the commercial department and I worked my way up from there. I thought commercials were so much more interesting, the pace was so much quicker. I enjoyed dealing with commercials for the actors rather than theatre which is a long drawn out process. I loved it from day one and just knew it was for me. I moved from J. Michael Bloom to Innovative Artists in 1999 and have been here for the past 9 years.
Pat: Where are you from originally?
Cher: Scottsdale, Arizona. Going to college in Long Beach enabled me to find internships in Los Angeles.
Pat: What do you look for in a new client?
Cher: The clients that we meet with are on a referral basis. They are coming from a casting director, a manager, or other clients. After that, we sit and talk with them, instead of having them read audition copies because if you get to know the essence of who somebody is and if they are comfortable in their own skin, you get the idea of how they will be in the room. As far as what we are looking for in a client, we have to make sure they don’t conflict with anybody who is already on our roster. That’s an important factor. We don’t want to bring on too many people in a certain category.
We also have to make sure we click. That’s when we sit down and talk with someone we are on the same page with what they want for their career and what we can do for their career. So it just has to be a good match, and we go from there.
Pat: One of my favorite words is “proactive”. Do you have a plan for your clients on how they can be proactive?
Cher: First of all, they have to have the right material. The headshots have to represent them in the different roles that they can portray. That’s the most important. Secondly is getting involved in a class. We always recommend taking a commercial class to get the basics down. An improv class is also a very important tool.
Pat: I’m hearing that a lot in the commercial world now, how improv is the thing.
Cher: The clients we have that are consistent bookers are really strong with comedy and improv, and can think very quickly on their feet. We find that helps in the audition process because when you get into that room, you don’t know what they are going to have you do. If you have that basis in improv, it’s always the best foundation.
Pat: I have heard from casting director, Francene Selkirk, in her class that if you get a callback, don’t be married to what you did in the original audition because they may ask you to do something completely different or read for a different role. Improv sounds like a great way to stay flexible.
Cher: Exactly, think quickly on your feet and able to adjust because when you do book the job, they want to know that you can adapt quickly on the set if the clients want to rework the copy or squeeze another spot in.
Pat: We work hard on marketing. Actors are asked to spend so much money on all these tools for their career. What are the ones that are the most important in your opinion?
Cher: Most important are the headshots and having a variety of different looks. Our actors have between 5 and 8 different looks of all the characters they can potentially play, whether it’s the business person, the mom or dad, the quirky person; you want to have all the different shots that show you can do that. Casting directors are casting so quickly that they need an immediate ‘read’ so they can see you can play the role they are looking for. Our agency wants our clients to have photos with direct eye contact with the camera so it draws you in, with a simple, neutral background with nothing too distracting.
The lighting has to be great and we need to see the entire face. Just something very clean, simple and direct. Play around with the different wardrobe options, facial expressions, hair & make up. Show the various characters the actor can play.
Pat: You mentioned quirky type. It’s a very popular now. We were talking earlier about the show ”The Office” and how that created a new kind of quirky.
Cher: People who are just a little ‘off’. It’s not too goofy or off-center, just a hint or spark of quirkiness. Just a facial expression or a pair of glasses is all you need.
Pat: Embrace your inner quirkiness. Francene loves that. Now it’s ok to be quirky. Before back in my early days in this business we all thought we had to be as gorgeous as we could be. And yes, that can be important. But now we can be real.
Cher: More times than not, they want real. I see that in the breakdowns a lot. So you want somebody who looks real. That looks like they could have been plucked off the street but has the acting ability and can handle the spot.
Pat: I have heard a lot of actors talking at sessions with casting directors and many have a hard time with knowing their type and accepting it.
Cher: We have actors who have the very upscale and glamorous look in their headshot and then have the shot without make-up, and their hair is natural. It shows the variety in their looks.
Pat: Having the boldness to be that “real”.
Pat: What about services like Skill Clips where you can have actual clips of you speaking French or doing Martial Arts or any skill like that? I have heard casting people talk about how some actors misrepresent themselves by saying they can do something and they actually can’t.
Cher: I think the more options you can give the casting community the better.You want to make sure your headshots, resume and skills are up-to-date and truthful because casting directors do not want to call someone in if they can’t do the job. Then they waste the time and the audition slot on someone who can’t play the part. So many casting people like the idea of seeing the actual actor doing the thing on film. Absolutely it’s helpful if you are a Karate expert to have that skill on a clip because you are more apt to get called in for an audition for a part that requires that skill. If you have a specific trait or a specific skill that you have mastered, then you want to show that. If you don’t, then it wouldn’t be helpful.
Pat: What kind of advice do you give to someone who is just starting in this business?
Cher: I tell people they have to love it. If you don’t love it and are not terribly passionate about it, then it’s not the business for you because it’s so difficult! It’s always good to start off with a class, see if you like it and if it works for you and go from there. Also have fun with it! Go and have a good time, and when you leave the audition, leave it at the door. Otherwise it will get inside your mind and make an actor absolutely insane.
Pat: That’s an amazing skill to have right there.
Cher: Have fun! You have to have fun and you have to love it. If neither one of those apply to you then it’s not the business for you. I find that the actors who are most successful just have a good time with it. They go to their audition, they are professional, and when they leave they leave it at the door.
Pat: What do actors do that you love, that you think is great?
Cher: First and foremost acting is a business. Actors need to treat it as such. Those that are professional and get their materials together, have great headshots and keep them current, take their classes and communicate with their agent, they are a pleasure to deal with. Treating it like a business but still having a good time with it. I love dealing with actors and I love actors that have fun.
Pat: And the flip side to that, what are any pet peeves you might have?
Cher: People who are still using black and white photos. We have asked them to update them 100 times! It’s the old school actors usually. People who forget to book out. ‘Oh I went to Italy and forgot to tell you!’ It makes the agent and the actor look bad. Communication is key.
If an actor feels like they are not getting out for the right things, maybe we are putting them in a category we think they are right for, but when the actor goes to the audition and looks around the waiting room, they don’t feel like they fit in. Our actors let us know we can make the adjustments for them. It’s all about communication.
Pat: Do you have anything you’d like to say to the actors reading this?
Cher: If you really have a passion for this business, don’t let anyone tell you anything different. If you really want it and really want to go for it then do everything you can to achieve your goals.
Patricia Tallman co created Talent To Go with Judy Kain. Their goal is to help actors hone their acting, auditioning and marketing skills.Go to www.talenttogo.net for more info or email firstname.lastname@example.org for info on casting director Francene Selkirk-Ackerman’s commercial classes.