Michael Verity: Welcome to Portland Industry Insider. This is our monthly sit down with an expert in the acting industry here in Portland to find out what's going on in town and how actors can be more successful with their business. Our first guest is, indeed, a key player in Portland. She's one of the best known agents in town; she's also the owner and president of Ryan Artists: Cholee Thompson.
Cholee Thompson: Hello. Thank you for having me.
MV: Thank you for coming in and joining me. I guess the best way to start this is with a congratulations. It was back in April … 10 years.
CT: Yeah. So it is 10 years that I have had the agency. The agency itself is fast approaching its 40th year in the business here in Portland and it was my initial agent. So I was repped by Ryan Artists here locally for many years and then the opportunity came up for me to be able to purchase the agency 10 years ago.
MV: So what was the driving motivation behind that? ‘Cause this is kind of a crazy business … I’ve known you almost as long as you've had the agency and you definitely have a few things going on on a daily basis.
CT: Yeah, I spin a few plates. For me, I was kind of doing simultaneous. Most people in this market have a day job and this industry kind of works as a “professional hobby.” I was doing the same thing. I was modeling but I was also in management for different companies. So when the opportunity came up that Ryan Artists was potentially for sale, it was like the perfect meshing of my two worlds. I knew that I was taking a really big leap because I wasn't as familiar with the acting side and the acting community. I did know the modeling side but it was long nights of reading the SAG/AFTRA actors rules and regulations books and going to every possible event and theater production. I was just swallowing big gulps of information for the acting community so that I could be some sort of a resource.
MV: I have to imagine that reading the SAG/AFTRA manual was a very good sedative.
CT: It’s brutal. And you're like: I think I just read three pages but I don't know what I read.
MV: Right, and very small text.
MV: What's the biggest single change you’ve seen in the industry, in general, but also specific to Portland over the course of time you've been the owner of Ryan?
CT: To put it very simply: it’s speed. Everything is so much faster. Originally, back when agents were working for me, they would create a package of physical comp cards and they would send it via messenger to a client across town and then they would sort through. The process was just that much slower. You pretty much always went into a “go see” or an audition: you took your materials and now everything is digital. Everything is a stream, you know, so TV and film auditions, most of them are done on camera. So it's rapid fire.
MV: What are the common mistakes that actors make when they're dealing with the changes? Being slow would clearly be a big one. But what are common mistakes that actors make in dealing with this new paradigm?
CT: It's hard because, like I said, most people also have a day job. And so it's really hard to be able to accommodate those two worlds in such a fast paced environment. So when we reach out via email and we need a response in two hours, but someone's at work: how can they quickly respond with the information needed? I also think keeping up the technology is a really hard one because now you have to put yourself on tape. You have to know multiple casting sites, to be able to log in and download information. Even emailing your headshot, emailing your resume, those kind of technical things can hinder someone really quickly.
MV: You have to learn that this site will take the small file and this site will take the big file.
MV: I mean, it's funny. We're joking about it, but it's true: this site won't take a file larger than whatever.
CT: And that's why it's not of uploading. So I think it's really important to be proactive and do the research ahead of time. How do I work this site? What is my login information? Is my head shot already current on there? Is my resume current? So when it comes for that audition time, there's not a mad scramble to make sure that they have everything. Know how to email your resume over so that, at the last minute, when you have to email a casting director, it's not a panic.
MV: Or two hour process.
CT: Or a two hour process, or calling an agent going, oh my god, I don't know how to do this.
MV: What hasn’t changed in the ten years?
CT: The expectation of professionalism. Because it is technically a hobby here for some people, for most people that are doing it, it has a tendency to become second burner. And instead of it being: “I have to have most recent head shots and most recent pictures, I have to always provide my most current resume. I need to keep my sizes up to date.” Instead of pushing for being the best, as though it is a career path, sometimes it doesn’t stay at the professional level.
MV: How do you coach people gently to .. how do you coach people on that and say, “listen, this is fundamental?”
CT: Well we start by giving a lot of information when we bring talent on, and then we coach and we guide and then we nag. And we pester.
No, it is a constant conversation because there is a lot of information and sometimes an actor has a hard time realizing that current sizes, a men’s suit size, is really important information. Sometimes that could be the difference between booking a job or not booking a job.
We normally have between four and six hours to submit on a project. So it comes in, we have to turn it around very quickly. So when we have a client that's asking for a specific suit size or a dialect or a language skill set, if we don't have that information already in front of us, that actor or model is probably going to miss out on that submission. Because we just simply don't have time to reach out to everybody and go: “How's your Spanish and is your shoe size still an 11?” So we really, we rely on our talent to make sure that we have the most current information. Otherwise it's too late. We miss that.
MV: So to summarize: the fundamentals are: have your basic information and your basic content ready to go and then work fast when the bell rings.
CT: Because we have to do the same thing for our talent. We have to always be at the ready to quickly get that information out to casting.
MV: So basic information, head shots, of course. What are the others … and I'm sure you can give a long list of what actors need to do. But beyond those couple fundamentals, what else really needs to be in the toolbox to be successful in this town?
CT: You have to keep training. You have to keep current. You have to keep relevant and be ahead of the curve. If we get a project that requires a lot of stunts, like Leverage and Grimm that were in town. They required a lot of basic stunt work. And we were always searching for people with stunt training. Driving. Have a driver's license, have a passport. Just different things that make you more accessible so that you don't have to say “no” to a client. So you don't have to go, oh, you know what, I don't know how to drive. Learn! It sounds so simple, but basic life skills a lot of times roll right over into the acting community.
If you know a language, be really good at it and practice at it. Knowing dialects that fit your look are always requested. I wouldn't go for a Jamaican accent because it doesn't fit my look but go for something that is realistic for you to portray on TV. Those roles come very often and we're always searching for talent that fit those demographics.
MV: Seems like anybody with a good New York accent …
CT: You can't go wrong with a good New York accent.
MV: Yeah, a Brooklyn accent, you know.
CT: An English accent. Spanish.
MV: I come in contact with a lot of people who are new in the industry, particularly moms with kids who are interested in modeling or acting and they're always looking for information about how to manage that. I think that in their minds once they have an agent, I'm golden. You know, it's like I've got an agent today and I'm going to Disney tomorrow.
MV: So for people who are new to the industry who think like that, besides connecting people with the opportunities, really what is it that an agent does to serve the actor?
CT: Well, here in our market, what an agent does is different than a larger market. Here locally, because it is smaller, we work both as a manager and as an agent. So we're a bit more hands on, I think, than some of the bigger markets.
Here locally it is guidance on which pictures to use, when to get new pictures. We try to provide different workshops and training opportunities or at least give them a location. We use our Facebook page: here’s a class coming, here's a workshop coming, here's a voice over workshop coming, so that they're constantly training.
It's also just that guidance through the process, because the process can be overwhelming. We'll send out an audition notice and it's different every single time. What you need to wear, what you need to take, how you need to respond, how it needs to be scheduled, where you need to confirm your time slot. It's all different.
MV: How to slate …
CT: How to slate. When you self-tape, which way to hold the camera. Whether it's okay to email your head shot or whether you have to take a hard copy. There is so many details. My team and I are constantly filtering those kinds of questions to walk people through. Eventually you kind of get used to it. It becomes a path, you read the emails completely and it's not as overwhelming or scary. But it's definitely a step by step process.
How do you prepare before you go to set. We're reminding parents: Okay, take snacks, take quiet entertainment. It's going to be a long day. Communicate to us when nap time is, if it's a little one. We have to have that really open, fluid conversation so that they can be as successful as possible.
MV: I think you answered this question, but let me make sure it's real clear. You said that Ryan's a combination of manager and agent. That's not the case in a lot of other markets. LA, is a good example, where those are two different situations.
So maybe you can explain a little bit for those people who are looking outside of Portland for another market: what is the difference between a manager and an agency, on fundamental level. I think you answered that question, but maybe you can just clarify.
CT: Yeah. So traditionally a manager is somebody who manages your career for you. They're going to be the ones that are helping you choose your photos, pick the right photographer, potentially have lunch at the right cafe, ‘cause there could be a good director there. They're going to help you find the right agency for you. They're going to be more of a guide. And then the agent is the one who provides the opportunities. They're getting you out to casting. They're submitting you all the projects and they're going to walk you through the actual booking part of of the project.
MV: And Ryan Artists does both.
CT: In large markets you would pay an agency fee and a management fee. We just take the one fee, but it's in our best interest to make sure that our talent do have all the right materials and that they are ready to go and that get out to the right networking events. It’s not the same scale as a larger market like that.
MV: Other than the aforementioned “Today I’m signed, tomorrow I’m on Disney” what would you say is the biggest misconception of a new actor headed into the agency? Whether they're looking for an agency or they're just signing. Hopefully when they sign they read that package of paper and they get the idea of what exactly the reality is about it. But standing on the outside looking in, what is the big misconception people have about agencies?
CT: Yeah, the Disney one is a big one.
We’re there to make money. We make money off of bookings. We don't make money necessarily off of you becoming famous. That means you probably going to go to another market anyway.
Our agency wants to help people really have a good life, an enjoyable life. And I don't feel the fame is part of that. I think that you can pursue your passion and you can enjoy this career without it being life altering. My two cents.
I think a big misconception is that it's easy money. We get it on the modeling side, too. We have a lot of people that come and maybe they did some theater in high school or they did some modeling at some point. It’s: “oh, you know, I can fall back on this.” And that the biggest requirement is that once I get an agent, then they're going to provide the opportunities and it's easy money. The money will just start flowing. I think it is underestimated how much work goes into it. It is a constant, it is a focus at some point every single day on your career. Even if you have another full time job.
MV: As a father of two teenage actors, I know that all too clearly. What we talk about a lot is the difference between looking good and being good. A lot of energy gets put into looking good. There's not a lot of energy put into being good and at the end of the day being good - I should say being good at your craft - it can may not seem like the quickest way to get there but it is the most sustaining. And in that process of always working to be good, there’s a lot of disappointment.
CT: A lot of “no’s."
MV: A lot of “no’s." When I have parents of kids who are new coming in and asking me questions, I try to speak from that point of view, of the parent. I tell them: “If they don't love it, then you should probably play soccer. When they stop loving it, go do something else.”
But then on the positive side of it, not to get off on this tangent too much, my children have developed a fair amount of resiliency because they've been hearing “no” since they were six years old and realize that they're out to do the best work possible. And “yes” or “no” can be determined by a thousand different things that are completely out of their control.
CT: So true. If you did your work, if you've worked really hard on it, if you went prepared, if you were there on time, you've wore the right outfit, if you had your head shots, done and ready, then you can leave going: “I did everything in my power to book that job. If it happens, it happens.” I think the biggest disappointment comes when you know that, maybe you didn't get enough sleep the night before, you didn't read over the lines properly. You didn't print them out, you tried to do them on your phone. Then you can criticize yourself but if you know that you did everything that you've been trained to do, you can walk away with head held high.
MV: No shortcuts.
CT: No shortcuts. In any business. You know, as a business owner, it is a hustle. Every day you are adapting, you are assessing. You know there's going to be daily little failures and daily successes and you keep pounding away at it.
MV: Let's wrap it up with a question about the Portland industry. As someone who's on the inside … we’re looking for inside information. We put this at the end so we make you watch all the way through, not scrub to the end. So, what is your prognosis? The health of the acting industry in Portland, what do you see coming down the road? And, of course, this is where you give us all insider information.
CT: Insider information. So, you know, like we talked about earlier, I've now been an agency owner for 10 years. So I took over in '09, the bottom of the barrel economy-wise, and the Portland industry survived because we started getting shows like Leverage. And Leverage brought Grimm, and then Librarians. And it has literally just snowballed from there.
We've been super fortunate that we have great tax incentive programs, that are supporting companies to shoot here. We need to make sure that we're fighting for those and keeping those incentives at the forefront of everyone's mind. So, it's good to kind of do research on how an actor can focus on that, help with that.
The streaming process … HBO, Netflix, Facebook streaming, everybody has a way to stream TV and film now and that is creating content super fast. It's also allowing actors to stay busier because they come into town - those projects come into town - and they shoot in a very short period of time. And then it's onto the next one. When we had Grimm - one of the bigger TV shows - you'd be on season one and then you probably weren't going to be on that ever again. And so you're sitting for potentially years until the next TV show came into town. Now, it's one after the other and we have a TV show and a film and a short film and another TV show and it's back to back to back.
So it's only getting better. But we just have to be ready for it. If at any point that we don't have enough actors to supply those projects, if we don't have enough diversity in our actors to supply those projects, if we don't have enough crew or casting. We have to support each other as an entire community, in order to be able to keep those projects coming. And then feeling like they can get the best quality by shooting here.
MV: It's usually people leave here happy. Production companies, they leave here happy because people here are very nice.
CT: We're nice and we're hungry ands we’re thankful with good people with amazing locations to shoot at. But obviously all of our goals is to have multiple things going on at one time. We have this year quite a bit, but we want that to stack even higher. In order to do that, we have to be a huge community that's really supportive and have the numbers behind us.
MV: It's not so much a competition as a community. Right?
CT: It's silly if we tried to back stab each other.
MV: Thank you so much for doing this. I love you, you know that. We've been friends for a long, long time. We've been family for a long time, so I really appreciate you coming in and doing this. And best wishes for another 20, 30, 40 years.
CT: Thank you. Yes.
Michael Verity is the owner of Michael Verity Photography and specializes in headshots, modeling portfolios and fashion magazine editorial.
Cholee Thompson is the owner and president of Ryan Artists, a full-service union-franchised talent agency. They represent professional models, actors, voice over talent and stylists, placing them with their broad range of local and national clients.