Thursday, November 19, 2015

HOLAwave: ABC Casting's Marci Phillips on Being a Working Actor

[HOLAwave represents a series of guest blogs by industry insiders giving informative and educational tidbits for the Latino performer. They can range from acting and auditioning advice, tech tips, legal advice, marketing, producing tips, and so on. Get caught up in the wave– the HOLAwave.]

I had met Executive Director of ABC Casting Marci Phillips a few times before I decided to reach out to ask for an interview. Once through an HOLA-sponsored diversity workshop with ABC Casting, and once through a meet and greet at one of the city's many pay-to-play companies. On both occasions Marci struck me as someone who had an insight beyond just acting; there was something more philosophical in her approach that made me want to know more. When she graciously accepted my offer to sit down for an interview, I jumped at the chance to sit down and talk with ABC’s top casting director.

Fueled by my own thoughts of diversity and the changing landscape in entertainment, I headed to ABC studios armed with thoughtful challenging questions ready to blast light on minorities in Hollywood. Unfortunately I fell into the trap most of us do in the industry, I approached Marci thinking of her as a title– “casting director”– but quickly was disarmed by Marci Phillips– the human being– always willing to give and love.

As I sat down and thanked Marci for her time, I asked what it is she enjoyed about her work.

Marci Phillips: I feel so much joy from helping someone else, when an actor gets anything, if they get a job, an agent, a manager, anything. Besides your mom, nobody is happier at your success than me, I feel so lucky to be in this position to help. I feel that some people feel like they are owed something, I feel that I owe the universe– I owe you, I owe every actors something for being in this position to help artists.

Hernando Caicedo: That’s true, sometimes we get caught up in ourselves and view othes as their job or intimidated by the business that we lose sight of the communal sense of the art.

MP: Yes! We are all fighting towards the same goal, in the end, we all have so much more in common, see the commonality in everything. In fact, that is something in casting we look for. We try to find actors whom the audience can share and see their experiences in them. Artists who share the commonality of life.

HC: You have such a passion and energy for the journey of actors, if I may ask, what’s made you so driven to help not just from a business perspective, but spiritually and philosophically?

MP: I wrote a book (The Present Actor) because I felt there was nothing out there for actors on speaking about the spiritual journey. There is so much business and yes, it’s needed. But for me it came from the fact that I grew up in this. When I was really little I helped my dad with lines and sides, to me actors are my family. My spiritual trajectory is because I’ve seen through my own family, I see the unique challenges they faced. Being a performer brings with it a lot of things that can be crushing, if you have that perspective, but I feel that life itself is perspective. If you think the business is cruel and unfair, you’re right. If you think it’s magical and the possibilities are limitless, you’re right. That goes for life in general and, life and acting are intertwined in each other, they both need perspective.

HC: I couldn’t agree more. It can be very hard for an actor to gain perspective when we get caught up in jobs that aren’t bookings, auditions that didn’t lead to anything, you can sometimes get bogged down in thinking about where you want your career to be versus where it is at the moment.

MP: Life feeds the actor at every moment. It’s very easy to get off your path because you have to worry about so many things. You can tend to forget that you do this because you love it and you are blessed to pursue what you love when so many aren’t. That alone puts you in a rarefied place that you should never forget. Always be grateful for what you have, it’s easy to talk about what you don’t have. It doesn’t matter how successful you are, there’s always something else. If you concentrate on being grateful for what you have, you can open doors for other things; if you focus on what you don’t have you won’t see the doors that may be opened to you.

HC: You have to be open to possibilities.

MP: Of course. Be here in the moment. We live in a world of instant gratification, but you don’t know when things will happen. I saw an actor once and I thought when I need “this” he’s it. I didn’t need “this” for three years and I when it came I thought, That guy! I looked through Facebook and finally I tracked him down. He had no representation  and he came in and got the role and he’s pretty big now. He might have thought,  She didn’t do anything for me, but actors should think of themselves like Johnny Appleseed– drop those seeds and you never know what will grow and when you will reap what you sow.

HC: That reminds me of the notion of creating your own content. Plant your own seeds and make things for yourself. Do you think that is a viable avenue for actors?

MP: I think it’s legitimate, people find themselves through that. Seemingly nothing may come from it, but you don’t know, you’re planting your seeds. At the very least you will learn something. Whenever you are proactive for yourself, you will get a lot of beautiful things back. It may not be what you thought you would get. Creating content keeps you artistically fertile, it tells the world that you aren’t just going to sit and wait for opportunity. You have control over how you are being perceived, you work with who you want to work with, you are taking ownership in your creative expression.

HC: Good point. You can learn a lot that will help you when you’re on set. I remember one of the things you said at a workshop was that for series regulars it’s important to “be yourself”.

MP: Of course! Be you. It’s different when you are going in for an “under-5”. You’re exposition. For a guest star there has to be a reason for why you got hired for that specific role. For a lead or series regular, it’s a matter of how much can they write for you. They are thinking, What are the possibilities for writing for this person? It’s important that they get a sense of who you are so they know who are they writing for. They have to feel a sense of who the character will be with you bleeding into it. It’s the only audition where you are viewed that way. In a play, it’s already written, a film's already written but a series, they have a blueprint and they look at you to see what you can add to that.

HC: Very true, I want to put that as a quote on my fridge! I was hoping to hear your thoughts on the East vs. West notion. With tapings, do you think it’s necessary to be out West or here to find work?

MP: Actors on both sides are always thinking, Is there more for me on the other side?
Things shoot everywhere and producers are smart, they realize the East Coast and New York has a good acting pool. A majority or productions want to look here and see what we have. You don’t have to be anywhere anymore in the digital age– we put you on tape.

HC: I do think though that deciding on where to be is a  question an actor has to answer for themselves. Sometimes people go out west and everything opens up for them, some people go out and there’s nothing for them, but it’s good to know. You won’t ever know unless you experience it. In the end it’s very important to be comfortable and happy wherever you live.  Your life isn’t being an actor, as much as you think that’s your total existence it’s not. Your goal should be to live in a place that makes you comfortable and happy, whatever that means for you. 
I was wondering about diversity.  When something comes out, where is that line between opening up casting to more diverse options?

Marci Phillips, center,
with HOLA members at an
ABC/HOLA casting workshop.
MP: I think as a casting director, we listen to the essence of the role instead of just thinking of the externals. I’ll always give producers the specifics of what they’re asking for. But the fun of my job is thinking, Well let me try this and let me try that– sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. For the most part we’re just looking for great actors of all colors and abilities that can bring the essence of the character.

These days, things opening up more it’s making it more fun. It will only get better, it’s not a trend, you can’t go back, the doors have opened and they’ll continue to let more and more people come in.

After we finished our chat, Marci left me feeling energized, empowered but most of all supported.

I’ll share a few words of wisdom I received as I left her office....
Life is a learning experience. Take care of your body– your health is important as you get older. Take care of your body– it will take care of you. Take care of your mind and enjoy the experiences.

Hernando Caicedo moved to the United States from Colombia with his family and settled in Florida. There he attended the University of South Florida (USF) majoring in Mass Communications and Theater. He later moved to New York where he studied film and television at the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts. Upon graduating he had the opportunity to work on several stage productions including Prophet of Borough Park, A Steady Rain, and Transubstantiation (directed by André Glant-Linden). 

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