James Penford: Talent agent

James Penford: Talent agent

By Amelia Forsbrook 18/01/12

If you thought the point of an agent was to just get you your next job, it’s time to take note. James Penford, one of three directors at Hatton McEwan Talent Agency, will be at the IdeasTap Spa on 25 January to debunk the myths surrounding his profession. In an exclusive preview for IdeasMag, he explains how he builds lasting careers...

The biggest assumption people make about agents is that we’re just interested in making quick money. People sometimes think we’d rather our clients were doing any kind of work than not working at all, but we want to build careers. Sometimes this means turning down a job with more money for a job that will advance an actor’s career more.

We try and cover as much work as possible. We visit drama schools, see fringe productions and view everything that’s sent in – even if it takes us a while. We have to be careful that we’re not just taking on anyone. Our primary responsibility is to cover our clients’ work and we are always expanding our knowledge here. You can see a client you’ve looked after for 10 years do something different – it just adds that extra dimension to them.

It’s so important to be knowledgeable about your clients and their roles. Rather than relying on breakdowns, we focus on reading the scripts so we can ensure we have the right person for the part. We also look beyond the general information we receive, asking casting directors to explain their roles in detail. This job is about being proactive. Rather than waiting for the phone to ring, make the calls yourself and work to maintain the relationships you have within the industry.

Occasionally you hear horror stories from actors who are scared to call their agents. We’re not like that. We say to clients, “If you have questions, call us. You can get in touch with us any way you want, and we’ll respond.” We also want to build relationships with clients. The most successful careers are built when people are working together rather than seeing themselves as two separate entities.

It’s quite strange as most of the work we did on Steven Spielberg’s War Horse was a year and a half ago. It’s surreal and it’s an incredible thing for lead actor Jeremy Irvine. It's also an incredible thing for us as his agents, but this doesn’t alter our focus. We don’t consciously think about balancing our attention because we’re always getting phone calls and always thinking about other clients. War Horse is just one of the jobs we’ve handled in the last year. We always just see it as that and get on with things, looking towards the next job for everyone.

It would be quite easy for us to enter IdeasTap’s Spa with assumptions about what we might be asked. When talking to actors, you often find that they don’t understand what an agent does and they usually have numerous questions. These sometimes throw us – we assume it’s quite a known thing and so it makes us re-evaluate what we actually do. If you’re just steadfast in what you’re doing day-to-day, it’s dangerous. But if someone asks you, “Why do you do that?” or “How do you do that?” you’re forever thinking about your role as an agent and how that can develop.

How to get spotted by an agent:

1) Have something to show them – either a showreel or a piece of theatre you're in.

2) Be concise in your cover letter – a paragraph will do, any more and it probably won't be read.

3) Get a good headshot – it's an investment in your career and the first thing anyone will look at.


Got any more questions for James? He will be speaking at our Ask the Agent Spa event on 25 January. To find out about Spa events before anyone else, join the group and keep an eye on #atTheSpa on Twitter.

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