Producer and casting director Bonnie Gillespie is the author of Self-Management for Actors: Getting Down to (Show) Business, Casting Qs: A Collection of Casting Director Interviews, and Acting Qs: Conversations with Working Actors. She specializes in casting SAG indie feature films, and is the founder and producer of the Cricket Feet Casting Actors Showcase and Hollywood Happy Hour. Her weekly column, The Actors Voice, is available at Showfax.com. Gillespie speaks with Write On! about how she turned her passion into a successful career as an author.
What led you to become a casting director?
I was an actor. And, as most actors must, I had a survival job, interviewing casting directors for Back Stage West. Through Back Stage West, I interviewed a couple hundred casting directors when one of those casting directors—Katy Wallin—called me up and asked me to be her casting coordinator for Mr. Personality, a reality show on FOX. I resisted, because I really liked my freelance lifestyle, and had recently published my first book (Casting Qs: A Collection of Casting Director Interviews), so I was doing a lot of public speaking and book signings. But the pay FOX was offering was outstanding and the commitment was only five weeks, so I did it to fund the production of my second book, Self-Management for Actors: Getting Down to (Show) Business.
I had worked for the Sundance Institute prior to getting into casting, so I knew I really loved indie film and working with indie filmmakers. Casting for TV is very hectic and not necessarily as creative as I wanted to be. So, after working on two shows for FOX, I put together my meager first casting resumé and submitted it to a filmmaker who had a “crew wanted” listing in Back Stage West for his $25,000 SAG Experimental feature film. I worked on A Dull House for six weeks, cast a dozen speaking roles, and earned $100. I was hooked. This was in 2003. I specialize in casting low-budget festival-bound indie films, web series, and theatre. I have done some commercial, industrial/corporate (non-broadcast), and pilot casting too, but my heart is really in the indies. The process is more collaborative. (I don’t work for $100 a project anymore. Heh heh. Also, budget levels are in the $1.5M to $5M range for features I cast, these days.)
Why did you write Self-Management for Actors?
Self-Management for Actors was the blueprint I gave my then-boyfriend (now husband), Keith Johnson, for how to navigate an acting career without making the mistakes that most actors tend to make. Everyone is so very focused on craft, which is great, but acting in Los Angeles is so much more business-oriented than craft-driven that the only way to stand out and have a career that an agent or manager wants to be a part of is to “self-manage” to a certain level in order to get on the industry’s radar. That’s what SMFA is. It started out as all of the advice I gave to Keith, as well as the answers to hundreds of emails I received over the years I wrote for Back Stage West.
What was your process for writing it?
Because I had saved all of my best answers from emails, fielding advice, I actually had a ridiculously easy time putting the book together, even though it looked terrifying at times. I printed out hundreds of pages of answers I had provided—both from emails and at message boards frequented by actors and other industry types—and began categorizing them. I had these huge stacks all over the floor of our cute apartment in the Hollywood Hills. Visitors were appalled! But it was just—to me—the same as writing my masters thesis for the journalism school at UGA. I had a ton of information. I needed to see it, out, in the floor. And then I could start grouping it, eliminating duplicate info, prioritizing the material by “said it best” or “can say it better” or “ask an expert to contribute,” and the rest was just filling in the gaps.
From the day I did the huge print job of “everything” until the day the manuscript went to the printer, it was six weeks. That included time to get contributed essays from working professionals, photo releases, the cover art, and review blurbs from peers based on a sample chapter I had emailed to them. It actually took longer for the physical printing of the book than it took for me to put it together.
Was the process different from Castings Qs and Acting Qs?
Very. Casting Qs technically took years to put together, because of the driving all over town, meeting with casting directors, transcribing interviews, and editing process as a part of publishing these interviews weekly for Back Stage West. Luckily, I was also paid for all of that time, which is why doing a book of interviews is only something I would recommend if you are on someone else’s dime.
The actual writing of Casting Qs, in book form (since “Casting Qs” was also the name of the column as it ran at Back Stage West), took about two months. It was just reshaping the interviews into a book format, doing some editing to remove “timing” issues (like, “her latest casting gig was such-and-such,” would need to go), and cobbling together some theme chapters in which I lumped all interviewees’ opinions on a certain topic. The biggest lesson in publishing Casting Qs was an ego slam: Never proofread your own book! Holy cats, did I make a newbie mistake, there. I was so certain I could catch my own typos that I only had another three people look over the manuscript before it went to the printer. I won’t tell you how much money I spent on the gift basket I sent to one of the casting directors I misnamed in 70% of her chapter! Lesson learned.
My favorite lesson from doing the interviews with Blake Robbins—my co-author for Acting Qs: Conversations with Working Actors—was that there was a lot to learn about a life as a writer, from spending time with these actors. See, every actor feels alone at some point. Every actor wonders where the next job is going to come from. Even a series regular feels “out of work” for more than half the year. I figure, if actors can get okay with that sense of uncertainty; that awareness that they will spend most of their career in search of future work, investing in relationships in order to build potential opportunities for work; and that need to push all of that out of their minds while they’re creating and auditioning—they’ll do just fine in this business. But if they walk around sure that their lives will change the second they earn their first big paycheck as an actor, they’re both wrong and setting themselves up for a much harder road than they need to experience. Writers need that lesson too.
What was your favorite part of writing Self-Management for Actors?
Just getting all of that advice into one place, probably. I knew it was good info and I knew it was stuff that other books for actors simply didn’t cover. I knew the book would be a required textbook in drama departments all over the world, if I could just get it written. So, my favorite part of the writing process was seeing it all come together, knowing we had something really wonderful that would soon be in actors’ hands, allowing them to take more control over their careers.
Why did you go the self-publishing route?
Let’s go back to my life at Back Stage West, before I went into casting, while I was writing “Casting Qs” as a weekly column there. After two years of interviews (about a third of the entire casting community), I was offered a book deal with the publishing company owned by the parent company of Back Stage West. I had to write up a proposal and then I started getting excited. I wanted to do the book rightnow! But the offer letter took longer to materialize than I had anticipated it would. I had all of this energy for wanting to do this book, now. And I was antsy. While I was waiting to learn the terms of my book deal, I read Dan Poynter’s Self-Publishing Manual (which I learned about by reading Survival Jobs). Note: These two books changed my life entirely (one in 2002, the other in 1999), and really, you could say they are very similar to the philosophy of Self-Management for Actors, in that we have more control over our careers than we may think we do, if we’re willing to do more of the heavy lifting for ourselves.
While on a flight, Keith and I went back through The Self-Publishing Manual and one of my mom’s old books called Inc. Yourself, about starting your own small business. During the flight back to Los Angeles, we decided to start a small publishing company and do my books ourselves. Then the offer letter arrived from New York. It was peppered with typos and grammatical errors and an offer to release all rights and any editorial control to my material. No way was I going to turn over my baby to this company in exchange for a $5000 advance! Instead, we invested our own money into Cricket Feet, Inc., and published Casting Qs on our own in late 2002.
Really, the secret is distribution. As long as you have an international distributor—which we do—you can get your book anywhere that the major publishers can. Now, back in 2002, self-publishing was really looked down upon. People saw it as an extension of publishing on demand (POD) and likened it to vanity press experiences. We didn’t care. We knew that we were putting out books for a very specific niche and we understood this niche better than any major publishing house would. We knew our relationships would get us a book tour and speaking engagements and book signings in the actor-focused bookstores—and at college drama departments and independent acting studios—around the world. And as publishers, we keep a much larger percentage of our per-book sale price than we would if I were “just” the author. Bonus: We can sell a copy or two out of the trunk of the car and we keep all the money!
No, my books aren’t showing up on the New York Times bestseller list, but would they ever? They’re non-fiction books for actors, focused on the business side of a very creative and often sensationalized, craft-driven career. We’re not talking Oprah’s book club territory, here. But an actor can walk into Wal-Mart in Dallas, Texas, and pick up a copy of Self-Management for Actors. We’re at the top of every semester’s required reading list in colleges and universities worldwide. We’re in Barnes & Noble. We’re on Amazon.com. Heck, SMFA is even available for Kindle! Who publishes your book has nothing to do with that. That’s all about your distributor and the relationships you maintain within your industry.
Basically, I’m “walking the walk” of exactly what I recommend actors do, in Self-Management for Actors. Sure, you can wait around for someone to “discover” you. You can also take the wheel and drive your own career forward—and faster—if you don’t mind working your ass off. And why should you ever mind that? It’s your dream job, right? It’s not like we’re digging ditches!
Advice for creative people?
Live with authenticity. Be yourself. Cultivate your voice by using it daily. Blog, post on message boards, volunteer to do Q&As that help demystify the process for someone who may be inspired by what you’ve shared. Get so clear in what you have to share with the world that the world starts coming to you—with money—in exchange for your sharing it. I answered a lot of emails for no money, without any idea that it would ever lead to a top-selling book for actors, now in its 3rd edition. I did it as a part of my weekly column. The emails came, and I answered them. No one paid me to do that, yet it has led to a life of checks coming in from all over the world.
I’m not trying to make it sound like I’m all about the money, but to be paid for what you would do for free anyway is such a gift and such a huge reward for creatives like us. So, when I say that by removing focus from how to get paid for doing what you love and just doing what you love because you love it is exactly when you will start getting paid, trust me. It’s as much a way to get that reward for your work flowing as it is a way to stay in the flow. Keep creating. Have fun. As I love to say, “Live your dreams. If you don’t, someone else will!”
Additional advice for writers?
Know the rules so you know when you’re breaking them. I break all sorts of rules of grammar. I make up words. I split infinitives. I start sentences with “and.” I will always throw in swear words and a “y’all” and other things that make my writing truly me. But I know the rules. Know your world. If your world is words and phrases, know grammar. Know spelling. Know your homonyms and get ’em right.
Read. Read your old stuff. Read what your peers write about your shared world. Read for pleasure.
Blog. Journal. Give back. I volunteer with WriteGirl and I strongly recommend that all writers—whether you’ve ever earned a penny or not—find a way to give back by inspiring kids who might otherwise never even believe they could go to college into believing they have a voice worth sharing.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you started writing?
Honestly, the biggest gift I gave myself, as a professional writer—in addition to my degrees in journalism, which I treasure—is something I didn’t even realize I was smart to do, at the time. When I was offered my first ongoing professional writing gig, I said I would do it as long as I retained the rights to my work. I don’t know how I knew that I would need and want to use my words again, but it was a part of the first deal I made, and has been a part of every deal I’ve made since then. I would say I wish I knew then how smart that was, but actually, if I had thought I knew it all in my 20s, I probably would’ve been impossible to be around. I was always pretty sure I knew what I knew, but that there was a hell of a lot more out there I didn’t know. I still feel that way. And the process of discovery is such an exciting one!
Tags: Acting Qs Back Stage West Bonnie Gillespie Casting Qs Cricket Feet Cricket Feet Casting Actors Showcase Hollywood Happy Hour Self-Management for Actors The Actors Voice The Self-Publishing Manual