As a director and casting director of short films, I regularly go through hundreds of actor profiles on platforms like Lacasting, Spotlight, Mandy, Castforward and many others. It always strikes me how little aspiring actors seem to be invested in their showreels. In this article I would like to highlight five points that I believe are essential to improving your showreel and standing out to casting directors and filmmakers.
#1 Deliver soft tones
Rage outbursts and shouting may give the appearance that your performance is intense, but in reality they rarely impress and don’t necessarily demonstrate acting ability. Imagine listening to a musician who plays loudly all the time: The performance quickly falls flat and fails to hold the audience’s attention. The true art of competence is revealed in the more quiet passages. Remember that cinema has a lot to do with atmosphere and tone. Good movie characters have a complex inner world. It’s the subtleties of your performance that show your skill. Trust your charisma, don’t just think about “doing” but consider “being” as equally important in your screen presence. Showing a character who is a good listener or a quiet observer may be more effective than a character who is involved into constant yelling.
#2 Less is more
Avoid overacting, it generally doesn’t fit cinema, yet it’s prevalent in so many showreels. Be very aware of the difference between acting for stage and acting for camera. While on stage you need to amplify for an audience at a distance, acting for cinema is all about reduction. For example, notice the facial reaction of famous actors when their characters hear terrible news over the phone. There is hardly any facial reaction, sometimes none at all. Overacting makes a performance feel inauthentic. It may be a deliberate stylistic expression in certain comedies or television shows, but most of the time it makes your acting worse. Just as good screenwriters don’t over-explain in their written dialogue, try not to over-explain with your facial expressions and gestures. Leave room for interpretation and your performance will be much more respected.
#3 Be proactive
Don’t wait for someone to discover you. Become your acting entrepreneur and invest in your showreel as if you were a film producer. Research topics, texts and literature that really interest you, get fellow actors and filmmakers on board and try to shoot a series of short scenes in the best possible quality and in the most cinematic style. Make your demo clips look like they are clips from larger film projects. Cinema is a visual art form, and demo footage with beautiful lighting and shallow depth of field will subconsciously signal to your casting director that you are knowledgeable about the art of filmmaking and professional, and that you’re expecting nothing less with projects hired for. Certainly, any casting director can distinguish between image quality and performance quality, but as in any portfolio, a professional image is a big reinforcing factor. If the result of your demo clips is good, everyone involved in it can use them for their showreels. This increases the number of people who watch the footage and may take notice of you. As for the content of your demo scenes, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. In some cases, re-enacting a scene from an existing film may even generate more interest than something written from scratch.
#4 You don’t always have to be the lead
Sure, you are striving for starring roles, and social media has taught us to always be at the center of the universe. However, we aren’t. Proving yourself as a good actor doesn’t mean you always have to be the lead in a demo scene. Many casting directors look for talent that can be cast around an already designated leading man or lady. Don’t worry about being labeled a sidekick early in your career. Most famous actors started with small roles or guest appearances before moving on to leading roles. By offering other actors to be an acting partner in the creation of their showreels, you demonstrate that you can work with other people. It may not be a priority for you, but the ability to cooperate well with all kinds of folks is important on a film set. Filmmaking is a collaborative effort.
5) Timing is key
I can’t tell how many times I’ve looked at a showreel and thought that a demo scene didn’t feel quite right in terms of pacing, phrasing and rhythm of speech and action. Good actors deliver their lines with perfect timing and make sure the emphasis is in the right place. They are masters of time and never mix action and speech hastily. It’s a blessing when a director doesn’t have to waste time on this during rehearsals or on the actual set. Think of a scene as a linear sequence of actions. For example: “He looked up, then he said.” Inexperienced actors often tend to mix action and speech, starting their sentences while turning their heads. This can cause real headaches for editors in post-production (not to mention that maybe some of your better takes can’t be used because of continuity errors). I can’t stress enough how important this last point is. That’s why I believe that every aspiring actor should take some training in film editing and have done at least some editing themselves to be aware of these issues. Also, record your voice as much as you can, work on natural phrasing, nuances of speech, and different types of emphasis. Study how famous actors round off a scene with a blink of the eye, a subtle shift in gaze, or a small gesture with perfect timing. Mastering this makes a world of difference.
As an aspiring actor, following the above five points can massively enhance your showreel and make you stand out from the crowd. Don’t forget, a killer showreel is the most important asset in your acting profile. Investing time and effort into it is the most effective way to get noticed by casting directors and land more acting jobs. It will definitely pay off.