BACK STAGE WEST
August 07, 2003
by Rob Kendt
Agents tend toward hyperbole about their prize clients, but in the case of 23-year-old Kristen Bell, you can't blame her agent, Mitchell Gossett of Cunningham Escott Dipene, for his enthusiasm. She just wrapped a lead in David Mamet's next movie, Spartan, and is appearing in the long-running musical Sneaux! at the Matrix, and, raved Gossett, "There's not a single door in Hollywood that she can't open."
A Detroit native who moved to New York after high school and started working on and Off-Broadway, Bell has been with CED since she was 12, first with its Chicago office, then with Mara Glauberg in its New York office. Last year Bell appeared in The Crucible on Broadway, but it was a previous gig--the Off-Broadway production of Reefer Madness--that convinced her to move West. Specifically, it was Reefer director Andy Fickman, who also helmed Sneaux!.
"Andy Fickman convinced me that I would basically be insane not to move out here," said Bell in a recent interview. "I moved out here and it's been the greatest thing I've ever done."
Indeed, less than two weeks after she hooked up with Gossett at CED's West Coast office, she booked a meaty guest spot on The Shield; a week later landed a recurring role on a short-lived WB series, The O'Keefes, and the following week nabbed a lead in a Hallmark MOW, King and Queen of Moonlight. She's since booked parts on American Dreams and Everwood, and looked at several test deals last pilot season.
As her reputation has spread, Gossett has had little trouble getting her in the door.
"She has an enviable emotional range, combined with a unique innocent beauty, and theatre training," said Gossett to explain her popularity. But it's more than that, he said: "It's her instrument itself, the whole package--it really attracts people. People get connected. It's not, 'Oh, hire her.' People love her; people say, 'We've got to have her back.' Whenever she works, she creates a base of fans that will serve her well in her future career."
Gossett doesn't hesitate to use the word "star" about Bell, and he explained what he means: "Someone whose talent is coddled, developed, and cared for. We're always looking to secure employment for clients; with a star it's the right kind of employment, not just taking a job. A star doesn't just audition; she meets people who will be attracted to her talent to develop things around her--to hear her voice and see her when they read a script. She's the kind of actor you feel comfortable about putting into a room with a studio head or a network executive, and you'll be confident that she can represent herself."
What is Bell's secret, we wondered?
"You have to walk into every audition as if you already have the part, and you know it; if they don't know it, that's their problem," Bell said. "That is the only way you will get it. If you go in and you're very meek and apologetic, it's not as appealing. There's something very sexy, very attractive, about a person with confidence. Not arrogance, but confidence. So you give yourself that little pep talk before you go in."
Hard-to-get can also be attractive: One key to Bell's impact so far has been her clarity about what parts she does and doesn't want.
"She's true to herself and true to her talent," said Gossett. "A lot of actors in her position get so much advice--that's good, but it's like with an acting teacher: A great acting teacher can teach you 10 things, and if you can come away with two things that work, that's a good ratio. You've got to take what will work for you, not just go down so many obvious roads that other actors have gone down and lost their way."
This kind of attention is likely to keep Bell with CED, a mid-sized agency, for the foreseeable future.
"I hate when I hear my friends talk about, 'I can't talk to my agent,' or, 'I'm scared to call my agent,'" said Bell. "I'm like, 'What? Who are you talking about?' You've got to be able to talk to your agent. Personally I don't plan on switching [from CED] anytime soon. Being with a huge place like ICM or CAA is ridiculous if you don't have a good relationship with your agent."
About two years ago, actor Matt North had the moment all actors dread. A network audition for a sitcom pilot had gone well, but as he left the room, one suit piped up.
"Someone in the sea of faces said, 'Can you do that scene again, just more peppy?' " recalled North. "And I said, 'With all due respect, I'm just not a peppy person.' They loved that; they all laughed. But that was the audition I was like: I can't do this anymore.
"Was it monumental? It wasn't, but that was the day I just realized the negatives were outweighing the positives. I love everything about what acting can be in theory, in those rare films and in acting classes, but acting in Hollywood, the day to day of what a working actor goes throughÉ I just had to admit defeat. It was a business decision. I was like a company going out of business." He added, "It was one of the happiest days of my life."
A versatile talent, North had written for Mother Jones, worked as a touring standup comic based in the Bay Area, and played drums professionally in the Chicago area, near his home town of Champaign, Ill. While this versatility gives him alternatives when acting work is slow, it's also been a source of conflict in his search for representation.
When, in 1997, a one-year holding deal for an ABC sitcom collapsed, he used the downtime to write a screenplay that got optioned. But when he later sought management as an actor, he found that managers also wanted to produce his screenplay--a practice North frowns on. "The minute they become a producer, they're no longer your manager, because they're acting in their interest," North said. One company wanted to package his script with talent from its roster, and, according to North, "Their casting choices were laughably wrong."
With another manager he landed a dramatic lead in the HBO film Dirty Pictures opposite James Woods--an experience that taught him "not to think about my 'type,' because nothing in my resume would have prepared me to think I'd be cast as a right-wing Christian homophobe." That manager, however, not only wanted a piece of North's screenplay, he prevented other bidders from getting to it.
"I lost a lot of opportunities from that," North recalled. "This was when I decided, Fuck management. It's pointless. Managers only count when you have a career to manage."
He signed on with agent Joanne Halpern (who, ironically, recently closed her agency to work as a manager) and soon landed a part as Jason Alexander's agent on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Then came that fateful "peppy" network audition and his decision to give up acting for more writing and drumming. Acting work still came to him: While playing drums with The Buxotics, he was noticed by L.A. rocker Andy Prieboy, who cast North in the chorus of his cult musical about Axl Rose, White Trash Wins Lotto--a credit that may not loom large on his resume but which North considers "one of the most fun experiences I've had."
Then one day, while cleaning house, he came across three copies of his old demo reel.
"I popped it in as a joke and I thought, Why not? So I flipped through a guide and found three agencies that were small enough that they would pay attention to character actors. I decided, I'm not going to spend any money; I'm going to take whatever [marketing materials] I have left in this closet. I'm also not even going to follow up with phone calls. If they're interested, they'll call."
Agent Sid Levin was interested. He looked at North's material, remembered his TV work, and called him in. Levin signed North three weeks ago.
"Matt is very versatile," said Levin, who with his wife, Patricia Levin, handles just 60 clients. "He can do one-hour dramas, sitcoms, he can do improv. And he's a smart actor, where he can create something in a part that most people would overlook. And he's very believable. His self doesn't change in the part--I think that comes across." What's more, they agreed on their approach: "We both want the long-term, not the short-term. I don't go for the quick buck." Which doesn't mean Levin is going to twiddle his thumbs this fall season: "We're going to hit the boards hard and heavy, and he's gonna work."
Levin's modest size and approachability appealed to North, who advised, "If you can find an agent who shares an understanding of what you will and won't do, and who will behave as a manager, that's the best of all possible worlds."
Previous setbacks have taught North to be realistic about his expectations--and wary of over-thinking a career strategy.
"My strategy is to not do 99 percent of the things managers tried to get me to do my first five years in Hollywood," said North. "I knew when I stopped acting that if I ever went back to it, I would think of it as a job skill, not a dream. If a role or project comes along that makes it more of an acting experience, like Dirty Pictures was, great. But those happen once every few years. A guest part on Nash Bridges and Angel and Buffy--it's a job, it's not art."