The class assignment in the bright, spare room of a West L.A. casting studio is simple: Turn to the stranger next to you. Then write down everything that comes to mind.
"If somebody is ugly, write 'ugly.' You do not do anybody a favor if you are kind," Keith Johnson tells the students as they study one another and begin scribbling down adjectives. "If I look like a buttered popcorn-eating child molester, you know what? Cop shows need them every week!"
Being stripped down to a first impression is both tantalizing and terrifying. But for the actors in this class, who are already at the mercy of others glancing over their head shots, the exercise is empowering. The words jotted on those cards could map out a Hollywood career: Hunk. Hippie. Cougar. Druggie.
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Week by week, the students use those blunt words to help them pin down the one thing they do better than anyone else just by walking into a room — their "bull's-eye," says Bonnie Gillespie, who created the class. The actors then rehearse pitches, a sort of human commercial, as practice for that moment when someone in the industry asks, "So tell me about yourself."
"I'm a tempestuous tomboy, fiery and wild," Cait Mathis, a whirling dervish of inky hair, pink neon and black leather, tells her fellow actors. "Hanging out with me is like getting blackout drunk.... I put the hot in hot mess."
Mathis, after a year of work in and out of formal classes, discovered that the poise she learned as a debutante can come off as "bitchy" to strangers, that the pain in her past follows her like a fragrance, that her intensity can seem, well, a bit crazy. Even outside this class, she's handed out cards to strangers and told them to write down what they see — "bad girl," for instance.
Gillespie, an author, casting director and self-described sherpa to creative people navigating their careers, coaches her students to hone a brand that oozes through everything they do, from the answers they give at an audition to the drink they order at a bar. Even in the grocery line or Starbucks, she urges actors to dress the part and market themselves as the nerd or the babe or the Eastern European spy. She calls it "living on brand."
"I roll around my house in sweats, but I go to the gym in black leggings and a black tank top," says Amber Plaster, a slim redhead with a curling smile whose brand spans "smart bitch" and "nerd fantasy girl."
She would never wear a yellow sundress out — too innocent, she says. And unless someone asks, she's unlikely to mention she's from the South. It's just not on brand. During her pitch, she tosses out this zinger: "If there were a zombie apocalypse, you'd want me on your team."
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Beyond these walls, "typecasting" gets a bad rap, a death knell for the actor yearning to stretch from one extreme to the next. But as Gillespie puts it, "The second half of that word is 'cast.'"
Los Angeles is "full of people who are really talented," says Gillespie, who teaches the class with the help of her husband, Johnson, and other facilitators. "We don't want people who can do everything. We want someone who does one thing really, really well."
Classes like Gillespie's are part of the quest for an edge in an intensely competitive industry. Though Hollywood is already crowded with advice for actors — the casting website Backstage advertises more than 900 classes and coaches on both coasts — branding or type is a niche promoted by a diverse set of teachers.
In North Hollywood, Sam Christensen, a former casting director turned consultant, guides students to develop the vocabulary to talk comfortably about what makes them unique, using adjectives checked off work sheets by fellow students, their own reflections, even the words jotted in old yearbooks and greeting cards.
"You all have this miracle of identity," Christensen tells his class one February night. "We're not going to do anything to change it, to make it more presentable — we're going to facilitate it."
Gillespie, who makes her branding advice available in free podcasts and online columns, charges $500 for her five weekly sessions, which includes extra help outside class. Other Los Angeles instructors, each with their own take on the idea, from branding tailored for voice-over actors to finding your comedic type, offer classes that can cost as much as $700.
But the strategy has its skeptics, including some of the casting directors that Los Angeles actors are trying to woo.
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"Anything that gives an actor confidence can be worthwhile," says Sharon Bialy, who wrote "How to Audition on Camera" and casts roles for "Breaking Bad" and "The Walking Dead." "But my concern is that the industry tends to typecast people so much. If I was 'branding' actors all the time, I would never cast the dad from 'Malcolm in the Middle' as Walter White."