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Acting Basics: Self-Submission – Eenie, Meanie, Miney This One!

Acting Basics: Headshots and Resumes


Yes, many acting ads call for email submissions, but there are still many that ask for either merely a hard copy or a hardcopy and a link to a website. Go into any agency and you will see a stack of unsolicited headshots three feet high. Go into the office of a company that just placed a submissions ad on the Internet audition sites or in Backstage and their stack of self-submission envelopes might be even higher.

In my second year as a working actress I won an audition and a role via a self-submitted headshot. The director subsequently told me he had received 2.000 other submissions for MY ROLE. And the play had six or seven other roles also being cast by self-submission. Do the math. What are the chances of your envelope even being opened? There is no guarantee–but what we talk about here will make the chances greater that your self-submission envelope, whether to an agent or for a job, at least stands a fighting chance of being opened.;

Let’s work from the outside in since that is the same order that the casting people see your self-submission: First, the envelope, then the cover letter attached to the headshot. If you pass those three tests (envelope, cover letter, headshot) then they flip over and look at the resume. That’s the order we will follow.

So? HOW DO I GET THEIR ATTENTION WHEN I SELF-SUBMIT if they receive hundreds of headshots daily. Woe and alas. First, stop the “woe and alas.” Start the work. If there is any one theme running though my professional philosophy it is that we have to do most of the work ourselves to get auditions and to get jobs. So work. Replace “woe and alas” with professionalism and some good-taste imagination, emphasis on GOOD TASTE.

There are several professional ways to grab the attention of someone who opens self-submission envelopes. Unfortunately, lots of self-submissions annoy rather than appeal. For instance, anything cutesy poo will guarantee a contribution to the round file. Of course, if you are William Morris or ICM you could address the submissions envelope in crayola on a paper sack. But till then..

There are three essentials before a casting office (agent/manager) will take your self-submission seriously.

ENVELOPE (The first essential toward being taken seriously)

First thing they see is your ENVELOPE. As an assistant to a manager I probably opened three or four hundred unsolicited headshot envelopes. Here are some examples of how NOT to get your envelope opened. These make a bad impression before they’ve even seen your cover letter and headshot


An envelope addressed in pencil, or heavy black felt pen, handwritten illegibly or printed so fancy it looks like Louis XIV channeled it.


Addresses typed on regulation labels in black ink. Simple bold font, size 14 minimum for the larger label. For the smaller return label: Smaller, same style font. I personally like Arial. The Times New Roman is done to death. You also don’t want anything too fancy. Arial makes a firm business-like impression. The letters march like little West Pointers, all spiffy and neat


Addresses typed on regulation labels in black ink. Simple bold font, size 14 minimum for the larger label. For the smaller return label: Smaller, same style font. I personally like Arial. The Times New Roman is done to death. You also don’t want anything too fancy. Arial makes a firm business-like impression. The letters march like little West Pointers, all spiffy and neat. Incorrect or misspelled names (people and company). I dislike two “Ls” in my name. Petty maybe, but most of us are a bit touchy about people sending mail with our name misspelled.


Research everything well enough to know the correct name and spelling.


Sending a request to be considered for xyz TV show when that particular casting office only casts commercials. Or sending to a commercial casting office a request to be considered for any appropriate regional theatre role. Not too many casting offices really cast for everything.


Do your homework until you know which offices cast for what. If you are interested in print work, for example, no sense in sending to a casting office that only handles feature films.


Nailing or cementing the envelope flap down so tightly that it takes a champion WWO to open it. I have thrown unopened envelopes in the trash after spending three minutes wrestling with a flap. A casting office weekly receives hundreds, sometimes thousands of submission envelopes. The harder it is to open an envelope, the more likely it will get thrown out (unopened). Certain casting offices even request that the envelope not be sealed.


A couple of pieces of Scotch tape (not covering the clip). Or a lightly pasted flap. Self-sticking flaps cause a ruckus also

PS: Find some color for your envelope other than that pukey tan everyone uses. I love gray. Or a lovely pastel. White is last in my preference list. Be sure to use see through labels if you go the colored envelope route.

Another label hint: Put the name of the role and project on the address label in smaller print. If someone has asked for your headshot, be sure to put “Per Request” on a small label which goes in the lower left hand corner.

COVER LETTER-TYPED, of course (The second essential) Most of these ideas also cover email submissions.

Once you have passed the self-submission envelope test, next comes the COVER LETTER. Here briefly are some simple suggestions.

1..Invest in really handsome top-of-the-line expensive business stationery. WHITE, heavy weight (32 ounces is good), with watermarks; Be sure your stationery and printer are compatible.WHY SPEND THAT EXTRA MONEY? A fine sheet of stationery tells the reader that you have self-respect that you care enough to want to create a good impression and that you have good taste. Even if all this is subliminal, still their fingers feel the difference when they touch your cover letter. No, your resume need not be on expensive stationery. Just the cover letter.

During the time I was an assistant to an acting manager, I saw a letter written in pencil on lined notebook paper. No headshot. Just a letter in a small plain envelope addressed in pencil. Actually I felt like crying when I read the heartfelt desire of this twelve-year-old from the Southern backwoods. (Perhaps because I too was once twelve in the Southern backwoods.) She wanted to be a movie star and make lots of money. I wrote her that it was impossible to represent someone who lived more than an hour from Manhattan. But I really wanted to tell her to get an education, prepare for a profession where she could earn a decent living, and to live a normal happy life. Although my sympathy went out to her, I promise you, a white typed beautiful sheet of stationery will create a better impression than a handwritten note in pencil on lined school paper.

2. Design a handsome, heading for your handsome stationery. Have your name, Website, e-mail and cell phone info in this heading. No personal phone numbers. No address unless it is a Post Office box.

3. The letter MUST follow the acceptable formal format for a business letter.

Type the letter in print large enough to be read in a hurry. I’ve seen letters that only an adolescent ant wearing bifocals, crawling across the page could read. And please print dark enough so that we don’t need a flashlight to decode the information.

4. Dear Mr. or Ms. is the correct salutation. If you cannot tell the gender from the name, then address the letter “Dear Mr. / Ms. Smith”: But it’s better to call the office and ask if “Avi Smith” is male or female. And keep searching until you find a name to address the letter to. Just “To Whom It May Concern” isn’t good enough. If necessary, phone the office and ask to whom the submission envelope should be addressed. And do not address this stranger as Dear Sam. He is Dear Mr. Jones. Yes, I know that demand for that kind of politeness dates me. Just do it anyway. Dear Sam will appreciate your courtesy if you address him as Dear Mr. Jones. Do not be cute, or “hi guy” friendly. Don’t even try to be clever. Be simple, be polite. Very simply, state your reason for writing. Always do a spell check Use correct grammar

5. KEEP YOUR LETTER SHORT. Do not compete with War and Peace. Remember a lot of information is on the resume. Tell why you are writing. If you have used 12 words in a sentence, rewrite, edit, and revise it until you give the same information in 9 words. Be courteous by recognizing the necessity not to intrude on their time. I have seen lengthy letters used as ideal examples in “How To” theatre books. This is wrong. NO ONE has that kind of time.

A one sentence introduction [“This is being submitted for consideration for an audition for etc.”] Three short sentences stating your special qualification. A one-sentence conclusion. PERIOD. NO MORE. Have a point and get to it! End with Sincerely, or Yours sincerely, or Very truly yours. These are professional business letters. Follow the Go Googling if you don’t already know the format for business letters.

Do not presume anything. I really dislike “I look forward to meeting you.” Do not for one minute think that is a positive upbeat ending. NO. It is presumptuous. It is much more courteous to say that you would like to be considered for an interview. Someone lost a role because, at the end of a fabulous call back, he said, “I look forward to working with you.” You cannot make that statement until they have offered you the role. You cannot “look forward to meeting” someone until they have invited you to come in to see them.

6. Staple your cover letter to the headshot in the upper left hand corner. Check to be sure the staple is not covering some vital contact information on your resume. Be sure the staple is properly attached. You do not want their jabbed finger dripping blood down your cover letter because your errant staple had a jagged point sticking out.

People are still judged by their appearance and their language. Have the appearance of your envelope and your letter create great expectations. Have the content of your letter fulfill those expectations.

So now let’s look at what the cover letter is attached to, the headshot

HEADSHOTS (Third Essential)

Now for the thing that will make them either throw your submission in the trash OR turn it over to read the resume.

Once the envelope is opened and the handsome ultra short cover letter is read (or just glanced at), the next thing a casting office looks at is your headshot. What constitutes a good headshot? That is IMPOSSIBLE to answer. However, here are some general suggestions but remember they are general.

1. Like the envelope and the letter, the headshot must also look professional. 8×10. I prefer a matte finish. NY still opts for a decent sized white border with your name printed in the bottom border. No fancy fonts here either. Even the print style you select says something about you. Neither the border nor the printed name should draw attention away from your face! The aim of a headshot is to have your face grab their attention.

2. What should the picture look like? YOU!!! Women: Please do not try to look like the next Miss America. “Ordinary” is very much in these days. A pretty woman trying to look glamorous has fewer chances/fewer roles than a pretty woman who presents herself as she is: pretty. Or plain. Or intelligent. Or humorous. Or whatever she is. Teenagers, please look teenager-ish. If they want someone who looks 22 there are thousands to choose from. If you look 15, then look 15. The more your headshot looks like you, the better the headshot.

Men, one nice outfit and one casual. If you aren’t the Wall Street type, go for tee or sports shirt only. It used to be one legit (soap, theatre) shot and one commercial. (That is, one glamorous pose and one girl/woman/boy/man next door.) Today I would strongly suggest that if some of your roles will be business types, then men wear a tie and jacket and women wear a suit and blouse as one pose and tee shirt or more sporty outfit for the other pose. The exception is Soap Opera. If you are pretty enough / handsome enough to be a soap “type,” then have a glamorous look-clothes, makeup, hair. Just be sure that you can reproduce that look if you are called in to read for a soap role.

Whatever you wear, LOOK LIKE YOU. Try as truthfully as you can to figure out what kinds of roles you are likely to get cast in. Chances are if you are not a hunk or a model, you are not going to get hunk/model roles. Chubby 5’3″ will not a Hamlet or a Juliet be.

3. Make up? Exactly the same that you yourself could apply. Horrors! I can hear the women screaming. There is only one exception: If you have very dark circles under your eyes, then lighten them under careful makeup. Men, unless you are only the “scruffy, unshaven type” then please shave. LOOK LIKE YOUR HEADSHOT AND HAVE YOUR HEADSHOT LOOK LIKE YOU. Unless you are stunning, please do not have your face all glamored up. Unless you are willing to pay a make-up artist every time you audition.

4. Just be sure the picture is about you not about hair or boots or glamorous makeup. What does that mean? I once saw a headshot of a young woman sitting on the floor wearing boots. The shot was angled from the bottom of her boots. Those boots, consequently, were twice the size of her head. That was a picture about boots. After I first saw the boots, five minutes later I had forgotten the face, but the image of boots has lingered five years.

More and more I see headshots with distracting backgrounds–wrought iron fences with parallel lines, cityscapes, angles, circles, cars. STOP. Your headshot must have NOTHING that takes the viewer away from you. NOTHING. No housetops, no trees, no nothing. If the photographer insists, run–run very fast to another photographer. The photographer with distracting backgrounds is more interested in his own clever shots than in capturing your face.NOTHING MUST TAKE AWAY FROM YOUR FACE. That is what people must see.

5. If you smile, get your whole face, especially the eyes, into the smile. Otherwise just a “real you” look is best. If you are self-conscious about your teeth, your smile will show it. No, do not smile unless you can commit to it completely. (PS. You CAN teach yourself to smile!) Today the trend is away from the huge ear to ear smile UNLESS yours is a great smile. If you go smile or serious, just be sure your eyes are alive.

Truthfully, I would have to look at every person’s contact sheets before making a judgment on headshots. However, don’t merely rely on your family to help you select the appropriate pose. Get the opinion of someone in the profession who really doesn’t know you or else who doesn’t have a vested interest in you. An impersonal unbiased opinion. Don’t believe the photographer; He’s looking at his work, not at your face.

A note (personal) about headshots. I love to laugh. Mouth wide open, tonsils showing, eyes squinty closed, head thrown back. The kind of unladylike laugh/face that embarrasses proper mothers from coast to coast, but especially one from England (as was mine). My first headshot session captured one of those laughs. Against EVERYONE’S ADVICE, I had “the laugh” made up into a postcard. That “forbidden” pose, the laughing postcard, landed on a casting desk (because I had mailed it). And “the laugh” led directly to my first agent. That’s a pose against every rule of headshots. But I just knew it totally captured a major side of me.

My advice to each of you? Go and do thou likewise. Capture YOU. Like acting, the you in the headshot MUST have tons of energy. (I have an article solely addressed to energy.) A head tilted to one side is less energetic than a head straight up and down. And unrelated to any other subject here; your eyes really should be going more or less in the same direction as your nose.

Here, briefly, are some A+ headshots I remember from the past 15 years:

1. 34-year-old man in a winter coat, shot from just below shoulders, snow pile, almost frowning as if he were looking into the sun on the snow.

2. 28-year-old man in sleeveless tight tee, jeans, arms spread out as if taking a bow, “I just did a marvelous performance” expression. Shot cuts just below waist.

3. 30-year-old female. leaning against plain background, one arm above head pulling her hair up on top of her head, grinning at her own semi-sexy pose. Mischievous “Isn’t this a “Hoot!” expression. Shot from waist up

4. 47-year-old female with wonderful bones. Shot from long neck up. Hair pulled very tight off face. Serious, but almost pleasant look. No smile. CEO but Pleasant.

5. 24-year-old hunk! with hands in pockets, weight on one foot, just sorta hanging out Tee & jeans. Pleasant expression. Full length shot exudes American Ivy league NICE confidence.

6. 40-year-old Haitian, great upper chest, raincoat with collar up, serious macho, “I mean business” look. Same man squatting on heels, facing camera, “Don’t mess with me.”

7. A 15 year old female who is captured in a leotard, leaping into the air. It is a full length body shot. Her hair is flying wildly. Her arms flung out. Energy, vitality and life captured as she just high into the air. A cheer leader, a ballerina, a gymnast, a sprite, a firefly, young All-American girl-next-door in an ideal world.

I am not sure what common thread runs through these poses, except that they are all NATURAL, unposed, nothing actory about them. And all very strong. ENERGY. LIFE (Energy and life will get you further than mere talent.)

The hardest advice of all If a headshot is not working (that is, if you are not getting called in for ANYTHING) heave your picture out and get another set of shots. That is why it is so terribly important NOT to pay a fortune for headshots. You do not have to use the biggest name photographer. Your headshot is not about the photographer. It is about your face and your inner life and energy and vitality or your threatening bad guy face. And if one picture isn’t working on to the NEXT.


Present the best you in your envelope’s appearance.

Present the best you in your cover letter’s appearance and content.

Present YOU in your headshot.

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