Barbara Shelton of Bab's Casting let me interview her for almost two hours about her job as a casting director, one of the people in Minnesota who put actors together with the commercial work that helps to pay their bills. We talked long enough that the conversation became impossible to summarize, but I'll do my best—right after I thank her for her time. . . Thank you, Barb.

First, practical stuff:

  1. Check in with your agent politely but regularly. They only remember the last image of you in their head. "If someone comes in and they're pregnant, they only think 'O, she's pregnant." If someone comes in with a baby, then it's "O, she's a new mom,' " explains Barbara. "If you've had that baby and you've shown that off, then you have to go back for another visit."

  2. Tell Barbara about stuff you're in but don't overdo it. Send an email or postcard. "I like to know what actors are doing. I do like to know, but I don't have the room or the time or the set-up to keep track of people's photos and they'll send me like ten copies of their head-shots. I don't need 'em. I'm not an agent."

  3. Watch television. You will be cast in commercial work and some film based on the pop culture character you most resemble. "Be aware of a show that everyone is talking about, like Glee. Even if you don't like it, watch one episode so you know the style. Don't come in and say, 'Well, I don't watch television.' " Know your look "because chances are if you look like someone who's on a TV show or in a movie, you're going to get cast to play that role."

  4. Have a current headshot that looks like you. If they call you in because your headshot looks like the part, you should look like your headshot or you're wasting their time.

  5. You don't have to be honest about your age, but you do have to have an age. Don't write 0-99. "If you're supposed to look like a thirty-something, that's what you put. . . Ask at the front desk, if you don't know. Just ask, see what it is that they're looking for."

  6. Don't shake the hand of the people in the audition room. And don't get psyched by the energy in the room. "They're looking at the monitor, not at you. . . Chances are that the ad agency just got canned, the director is going through a divorce or chem-dep [chemical dependency] treatment, and, guess what, you look like the head honcho's girlfriend who dumped him. . . If they could be behind a two-way mirror, so they could just watch and not have to interact with the actor. . . "

  7. Barbara looks at our Talent List periodically. If you have an agent, she'd like you to make that more clear on your profile.

Less practical observations, in no particular order, the learning of which makes doing this information-gathering more fun than not:

  • People in Los Angeles think that all "real people" want to be on television because everyone in Los Angeles wants to be on television. "Real people" in Minnesota aren't nearly as interested in being famous as Los Angeles would like.

  • Before MTV changed the ways that commercials were cut, there was more call for actors because there was more comedy and story in commercials. Now there's more call for "real people" who just look right.

  • "Actors are not obsolete. They're not dinosaurs. They're still much needed, very much needed. What they have to do is get a better handle on how the world really works, and not take it personally." Or, put another way, Barbara has brought in lots of "real people" for roles—cops, garbagemen, etc—and it's often still actors who make it feel most "real" and are most reliable and therefore most affordable. ("Don Bakke always got everything as the cop because I'd bring the real guys in, and no, they weren't right.")

  • Reality shows don't want to pay their talent, and they don't want to pay casting directors to find the talent either. Also, they're generally a "bait-and-switch," meaning that you aren't doing what you think you're doing on them. Barbara will not work for them.

  • Minnesota used to be the #4, and sometimes #3, market for commercials (after Los Angeles and New York and alternating with Chicago).

  • The way Barbara Shelton describes it, her job as a casting director sounds kind of like James Garner's role in The Great Escape, finding what someone needs in the most unlikely places, whatever it takes.

  • She really likes cowboy stuff. The John Wayne DVD Collection didn't explode all over her office, nor is she from Montana, but everywhere, Western gear—even the coffee cups are cowboy boots.

  • She has enough experience with theater to notice a thing or two, like how, in theater, "You can just drop out of life. You're in tech, you're in this, you're in that, suddenly you don't know how the world works. You can postpone growing up and you keep personality things—you can hide."

  • But also: "My experience of actors is that I find them, especially the older actors, extremely well-read, really smart, really interesting, and I admire their tenacity and longevity and creativity because it's a really hard business to be in. . . When I get some of the more established actors in. . . I'm in awe of their work. . . All this training you've had, all this experience, but here you are doing my rinky-dink commercial thing. And rarely do I think someone's looking down on me."


    And finally: "I wish there was more overlap with theater for me. I wish I had more commercial work to offer them because I see so much talent."