Hosted by Koketso Motlabane for her channel Koketso Motlhabane
Written by John-Otto Phike

Actor Koketso Motlabane had a sit down with Actor Spaces CEO and Founder, Ayanda Sithebe, to speak about the actor as a business and brand. Here is what they had to say.

Koketso: What does understanding showbiz mean to you?

Ayanda: At the beginning, as an actor, you are driven by passion. Then you start looking at learning how to do it best and how to be comfortable doing it. You look for training, you look for workshops and you study live performance in general. The biggest thing we miss is the business of learning. You go through all your life trying to perfect the craft and then at some point you realize that you are growing up and frustrated because you have to pay bills. Actors need to start thinking like a business and running themselves as a business. Actor Spaces started as a passion project for the love of the acting and actors. A year or two in, I started realizing that I have to pay for different things to help my business grow. The business of showbiz should be a big part of learning. When people come into the industry, they need to understand the value chain of the industry. How it works, how it operates and how to make money. Sometimes it’s very hard for creatives to think about the money and business side of entertainment. They want someone else to think about the contracts but it is important to start building that structure. It’s a systematic thing as well, it’s how we run the industry. Every stakeholder, from agents to productions, has a responsibility to start empowering actors with the knowledge of how the business works. Some actors do not even know what the agent is doing in their lives, the work that goes in there and the money that is involved. It’s very critical but actors also have a responsibility to look at themselves as a business. You have to start doing a spreadsheet of how much you spend towards your craft and how you plan to cover it. If you take yourself to the gym, auditions, training and everything else, where do you get the income and how do you sustain that? It’s about actors empowering themselves with the knowledge of how the industry works because they are a business.

Koketso: In terms of marketing, how do you make sure that your work is seen in order to get the next job?

Ayanda: The biggest thing is how casting directors look at actors and how actors look at themselves. A lot of actors do not think that they need a business plan for themselves. The first step is to think about it. What creatives need to know about themselves, is that they can tap into other sectors to drive what they need to drive. Brand positioning is a big thing but usually it’s used for products and actors don’t think that as an actor you can work on your brand positioning. It’s crucial.

Koketso: Immediately as you mention brand position to an actor, they already say they do not think of themselves as a brand but what you are saying is that as a business, you need to position yourself.

Ayanda: It’s very important. People buy into people, people buy into stories, people buy into who you are and people want to work with you because of who you are, obviously the timing is important as well. Crafting your narrative, your own journey and packaging yourself is a very critical thing. It doesn’t stop with just headshots. It’s a very critical thing to break yourself down as a business.

Koketso: That means having a business plan, so that you know where you are going, where your goals are and how you plan to get from where you are to your goal. A business is supposed to help you, whether it be the marketing, whether it be sharpening a skill or whether it would be connecting with the likes of Ayanda.

Ayanda: That is how you can create a roadmap for yourself. One thing that I have seen with a lot of actors who get frustrated in their journey, is the lack of alignment with their goals because there is no plan from the word go. It’s ok for it to start from a passion perspective but at some point you need to strategize. If you are not aligned, you start rebelling against the structure. Once you start rebelling with the structure, it means you start getting to auditions late, you are not making enough time to learn, read and to sharpen your craft. Rebelling against the structure also leads to depression and stress. Acting is a commitment to your development. You choose to develop everyday, so that alignment is very critical. Creating that roadmap to say I am here now and ten years from now I want to be there and this is the plan of getting there. Creatives dream a lot but you need to quickly snap out of that dream and plan how you will achieve those dreams. What resources do you need to get there? At the same time, when you get there, what is the fulfillment? Are you comfortable? Are you happy? All those things. You need to sit down and structure your learning space, your leisure space and income in relation to output.

Koketso: As a casting director, what limitations are there as an actor and a casting director?

Ayanda: I think for actors, your limitation is potentially your agent. In terms of how many opportunities they give you to get in front of a casting director. As casting directors, we want to find the right person for the part and move. We do not want to be stuck with one character for weeks and not finding the right person. So by the time you walk into an audition room, I want you to win because I want to win. So I do not think there are many limitations for actors. For casting directors, especially in the South African landscape, there’s a lot. First, there are not enough black casting directors who understand black actors or black narratives and casting directors do not talk to each other. For a lot of black casting directors, it’s a new space but I have good friends that are casting directors. I wish there could be more of us talking about how best we can make the actors experience better in an audition room. We need to have a dialogue like that and the relationship between director and producer, casting director and producer and casting director and channel could improve. There is a lot of red tape that you go through as a casting director, you find yourself facilitating the process more than casting. You cast, put your three options together and you submit to your producers and then your producer says “I do not think this person fits that.” Then there’s a lot of debate around that, then you land on your top 2, then you take that top 2 to channel. The channel says whatever they say, so by the time it gets there, it’s out of your hands. The best thing you did was to take these top 3 to your producers and sometimes that top 3 is not enough and you have to go back to the drawing board and bring another bunch. There is a lot of that happening. That is why I am so grateful to The Estate and Clive Morris because there is so much freedom there. They would just say, “go cast.” Even the conversation around the top 2 or the top 3 were very much about the art, how fitting the character is or how fitting the actor is to the character, so that was fun because in some castings, we fight a lot. You fight for actors. You can be exhausted to a point where you just move on. That was something I was speaking to Lebo about, I was saying that I wish channel and producers could just tell you when they know what they want before you waste time, resources, money and actors’ emotions. These are not limitations but they are things to talk about and find ways to make sure that actors can have the best experience.

Koketso: At the end of the day, when the actor gets into the audition, the casting director is expecting confidence and character. The actor needs to be psychologically prepared and present, so when there is a lot at play, it’s a problem.

Ayanda: it’s a big problem, we need to look into what the actor’s audition experience is. When I was casting for Mqhele and Hlomu, it was a beautiful process because we gave it time. Everyone had the opportunity to find it. Obviously sometimes you are working under pressure with timelines, channel and everyone else wants to meet their TX so everything is a rush but I do think a casting director can do more planning when they are given time. If only I could have 4 weeks to cast 5 people. The one thing that we forget is that if I am casting for a character I will possibly be seeing over a hundred people, from headshots to self-tapes, to physical auditions, to callbacks, to chemistry tests, so by the time you have reached the person that you want, you have seen a lot, but you want to give every actor that comes to an audition, the time to figure it out.

Koketso: What is the actor’s responsibility in an audition? One casting director once said to me, as an actor, you are a walking billboard and you must know that when you walk in the room, that is when your audition starts.

Ayanda: It’s slightly different for me, and I have shared this with a lot of people. When you walk in, for me, I want you to come in as yourself. There is a lot you go through, like imposter syndrome and all that. I have seen a lot of actors come into an audition room and they are not present. I know that they are not present because when you leave as an actor and you close the door and you walk into your form of transportation, then you start having a conversation with yourself about how your audition went. Who are you talking to now? It’s the guy you left outside. The best thing you can do as an actor, because you have done the work before the audition, is bring yourself in that room. Like you said, presence, presence of the mind, presence of the body and presence of the soul. Be there so that when I am engaging with you, I see you and not a shadow of you. I always say be present in the moment and then the rest sometimes takes care of itself because you have done the work before. I have seen a lot of actors sometimes coming in and they have not done the work. The flip side is that I have seen older actors surprisingly come overly prepared. One time, for The Estate, I had one actor come in and we had given the actor 4 sides. In our mind, we are not expecting them to do all four sides, we are expecting them to do 2 but we want to give them a bigger picture of what the story is about. When we ask them which one they want to do, they would say anyone. Then we do 1, we do 2, we do 3, we do 4, all of them.

Koketso: Do you think that is the power of retention? Old people have a better memory than young people.

Ayanda: No it’s vice versa. It’s a discipline thing and a commitment thing. Sometimes you look at the script and you say I got it and you move on but you have not done the work. Do the work. If you have four sides, challenge yourself and do four sides. If you can’t memorize your lines, that means maybe it’s not ready to be in front of the casting director. We are talking about 4 sides, but you’re gonna get a file of a script, especially if you are lead. Do the work before the audition and be present, body, mind should just be there in the moment.

Koketso: What do you think about the digital space? Creating work in the digital space. What do you think about all these things young kids are doing on social media?

Ayanda: It’s a beautiful space. People are consuming content differently now and people are on their phones more than the tv screen or laptop. So if you can capture your audiences on that device, why not? It’s a big opportunity for actors to find ways to diversify in terms of how they approach things. It’s a space we need to embrace.

Koketso: It’s an opportunity for you to grow your craft.

Ayanda: Earlier on, we spoke about how you position yourself and how you sell yourself. That is the short form content that we are doing. That is another way of getting the muscle active.

Koketso: A lot of traditional actors fear that nobody will take them seriously. Do you find that that is a thing for you as a casting director?

Ayanda: It’s the how and it’s about what I am looking for at that time, but I do not think we as casting directors go on social media and judge the person by their social media. First you are searching for the talent. Secondly, you are looking for the right person who can represent that character. Obviously there are things now that we are advised to look at by channel, from a reputation perspective. Is this person racist, or homophobic or xenophobic, all those things. Those things are very important because if you are representing a character but your real life is a different belief system than the character, then it would conflict with a lot of things, but we do not do a lifestyle audit. It’s about personal branding and personal brand positioning. It’s about how you want to position yourself and how you want to sell yourself. There’s this beautiful exercise that a friend of mine does, Lilian Tshabalala, acting wise. She does this with our students, what she does is she comes in with forms and gives them to the people in the room. The people write down what they think they see when they see you, they write your age, what characters you play, etc. Then you put all these 24 sheets and you get to decipher what characters best suit your look. You start investing in those looks as well. Obviously this is not an exercise that lasts a lifetime because we evolve as people. You want to revisit it every now and again. There are exercises an actor can do to make sure that their brand position is aligned with what their narrative is or what casting directors see. But at the same time you are not limited to those things.

Koketso: I find that looks are very important. Your look gets you classified. From a casting director’s perspective, what do you say about representation in terms of looks? In terms of looks, what would you say disqualifies a certain look for a specific character?

Ayanda: Nothing disqualifies any specific look, It’s always about what the brief says. It’s either we get the brief right or we miss it, but I do not think there is a specific look that you look for. Like I said, you are a canvas, you can adapt to any look you want to take as well. Depending on the team they put behind you for make up and wardrobe.

Koketso: But do casting directors really think that way? Because like you said, most of the time, you are working under pressure and then you have a 100 pictures where you have to select 20 people. So what happens there? Do you choose 20 that look like the character? Where you do not have to rely on wardrobe or make up?

Ayanda: You are right, you want to be closer to the representation of that character. You are looking at that but sometimes that becomes a miss as well, for e.g, Mqhele on The Wife, the brief is looking for this hard beautiful man and then you start thinking “where do I start looking for a beautiful man?” Then you start thinking about “what is the box of a handsome person?” Because when you read a character, the pictures that I see may be different from the pictures that you see, but obviously when people do their profiles, they give you examples of what they would like the person to look like. Most of the time, I like challenging the writers. I like giving them options that they did not ask for or they would not consider. Last time I got a brief that said, “must be a DD” and I was shocked. As a casting director, you are trying to find the human being in the description, not just a labeled character. I understand that writers see it and can be limited by words when it comes to describing the character. Its good to know how you want to present yourself and put yourself out there, what energy do you want the casting director to get when they are looking at your headshot. When you are taking that headshot, what is the energy that you are giving? Sometimes when I am looking at a headshot, it’s almost like I can feel the energy of the actor. I think it starts with the headshots when you put yourself out there.

Koketso: There are certain actors who are specifically seen as a specific type of actor, how do you maneuver yourself around that?

Ayanda: It’s a dangerous trap, there’s nothing wrong with typecasting if you choose to only play specific roles. You also see it in Hollywood, it happens all the time. Sometimes you think in Hollywood, characters are different but they are not different. One of my favorite actors, Denzel Washington, is an amazing actor but the type of characters that he plays are the same. Then you get a Tom Hardy who is different all the time. People do not even know Tom Hardy because that is how different he is in different films. You have to mention his character. As I am saying, it’s not a bad thing, it’s about you and what you want as well. Do you want to be different in your characters? The power is in your hands.

This is dedicated to the South African actor who is still finding themselves in their actor’s journey. Take these lessons and challenge yourself to apply them in your career in 2022.

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Renate Stuurman

Images by: Mlungisi Mlungwana | Creative Director Ayanda Sithebe | Make-up by Phumzile Mhlongo |dressed by Chipo Mushwana Editor: Mandi Vundla | Feature by: Mathunzi ...