Industry expert Karen Workman is the mom of three young actors and the author of Baby Steps to Hollywood. The term “stage mom” sometimes has a negative connotation but Karen single-handedly makes that label synonymous with teacher, student, life coach, cheerleader, adventurer, and fun-loving risk-taker. She wholeheartedly supports her children’s dreams and talents but her main objective is to nurture their health, well-being, and confidence as human beings independent of Hollywood. Karen regularly speaks at industry events and her book Baby Steps is an invaluable resource for parents of aspiring child actors. We were lucky to steal a few minutes from her busy schedule to find out what it takes for child and teen actors to find professional success as well as personal fulfillment in Hollywood.
We continue with the second half of the interview below. Read Part 1 of the interview here.
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Helen: Switching gears, can you talk about how you brand each of your kids?
Karen: Oh, that’s a whole can of worms. I’d say 90% of your branding is what you look like, how you can look. So the first thing for the branding is their headshots. We just did a shoot with Amy about a month ago and she came out looking like a model rather than an actor. We had to reshoot the whole thing.
H: What’s the difference between headshots for modeling and for acting?
K: For modeling, you wanna have full body shots and different poses and looks. With acting, you want different characters rather than looks. It’s not just about looking intense or looking pretty or looking happy. You want headshots that say, “I can play the mean girl, I can play the girl next door, I’m the innocent girl, I’m the nerdy Asian, I’m the kick-ass villain, I’m the heroine.”
H: I see.
K: When the family first came out to LA, I did not get a good photographer. I got him because he was cheap and I didn’t know if we were going to be doing this for very long. We were able to get away with those photos because the kids were so young. But now that Tia and Amy are adults and David has changed from being a kid to a teenager, we’ve had to update their headshots. We choose five different looks for each kid to put up on LA Casting and Actors Access and so on. And then depending on the role that we’re submitting for, the agent, manager, or I submit different pictures. If David’s up for a comedic role, I’m not gonna put in a serious shot.
H: Say David has a variety of looks but he naturally sells best as one type. Do you make headshot choices based on that?
K: I do. He’s been sent out for the bully role a lot. He’s muscular so he can pull it off — as long as he doesn’t have to talk! The moment he speaks, you know he’s not a bully. I think at this point in their careers, the kids play best who they are. Actors who are really well-developed or really well-taught or like Meryl Streep — she can play everything — can stretch beyond their “type” but that comes with experience and time. For example, Amy has been the sweet girl all along and she’s just now starting to eek into a little bit of the mean girl roles. Not because she’s becoming a mean girl, but because by now she’s observed some of this behavior out in the world that she can tap into.
H: That must be fun for her, to play something different.
K: Yeah, it is. She recently played a really horrible brat in a short film. I watched the film and cried because she made the mom so sad!
H: Your kids have enjoyed pretty consistent success, and it sounds like Actors Access and LA Casting are a big part of that. What made you decide that the kids needed something like Actors Compass to create their own websites? (See Tia and Amy‘s Actors Compass websites.)
K: If a casting director likes your look, they are savvy enough to say, “What else can she do?” and look you up online rather than being limited to what’s there on Actors Access or LA Casting.
A website is important for two reasons. One, you can easily curate and manage content on your own site. When you put a reel on LA Casting, it costs you extra money per month. I want the flexibility of changing a reel when we get it updated and when new things happen without having to incur that cost over and again. Also, I put all of David’s new headshots up on LA Casting recently and it cost me $25 to change one picture and an additional fee for each picture after that.
If you’re a child actor, you need new headshots every six months because you’re constantly growing and changing. A shoot could be anywhere between $300 to $600. Some photographers charge for the edits and then of course you have to get the headshots printed. So changing headshots can cost $600 to $700. Then, like I said, you incur the extra costs to make all the changes on the actor platforms as well. But, you know, it’s your marketing budget, really.
H: And what’s the second reason why an actor website is important?
K: The second reason is that I think it’s smart to have everything that’s current in one central location. Having links to social media from your website is much smarter than expecting people to find you through social media. There are like six Amy Workmans so Amy changed her stage name to Amy L Workman but there are still productions that have linked to the wrong social media profile.
H: It sounds like the point is to empower yourself as the actor, and to be in control of your content as much as possible.
H: Let’s put the focus on you, Karen! How did you transition from being completely new to the industry to becoming an industry expert and speaker?
K: When we were done with Tia’s showcase, we were both excited, like “Yeah, we’re gonna go for this!” I was excited to see her switch on. That is actually the most exciting about this whole thing. When my kids go on set, their lights come on. As a parent, there’s a big difference between seeing your child be good at something and seeing your child do something that they love. My kids were good dancers but when they went to a set they became a whole other person. It was like they were glowing from the inside. And I loved learned about this whole new industry. Anyway, after the awards banquet at one of the showcases, I heard a dad saying to his little girl “Well, you didn’t get callbacks, you didn’t get any awards. So obviously you’re not good enough and this isn’t for you.” She was so sad and so crushed. The expression on the girl’s face is still in my mind. I understood the dad’s point of view because he had put a lot of money and time into the showcase but it was terrible.” As parents, you think this is your one shot at being in the business and then if you don’t get something, that’s it. And that’s not true at all. It’s a process, not a one-time all-or-nothing kind of thing. What I realized was that nobody knows what to do after a showcase. I mean, when I went the first time with Tia, my mind was completely blown. We had no idea how the industry worked. I’d never, ever given a thought to “How did that kid get into that movie?” And of course once you’re doing it, you forget that people don’t know how. That’s how I ended up writing a book called Baby Steps to Hollywood.
H: That is so great! What is the book about?
K: It isn’t even about how to get into Hollywood — it’s all the information I needed to understand the industry and how to make the decision to come out to Hollywood. I really did not come out here with a dream. I came out here for an adventure and some sightseeing. I didn’t get my sightseeing in at all because the kids were crazy busy. Every weekend, somebody was working and we had auditions like crazy. The kids did really well, which was completely unexpected. And I learned a ton. This business isn’t necessarily about how talented you are. It’s about whether there’s a role that’s right for you. And it’s all such a learning experience. Every time I step on set, or go to an audition, I ask, “What did we learn today?” because the opportunities either turn into a booking or a lesson.
H: That’s a great way to think about it.
K: I didn’t really keep a diary or anything like that but I was always thinking, “What are we learning? How did we get here? What do I need?” I basically put everything I was learning together so that a parent who’s never done this before can read the book, understand how the industry works, what you’re facing if you wanna try LA, how to get an agent, why you didn’t get that callback, what do you do next, what you need when you’re going on set — everything I wanted to know before I made the decision to come out. After writing the book, I sent it to the showcase director and she said, “This is really good. Can you come and speak?” So I basically speak to the parents and then I also speak to the Australians and the New Zealanders who come out for the showcase because they have a different set of challenges: there’s the immigration thing, the working thing, the cultural differences — there’s a bunch of different things.
H: So when we last spoke, you said the book was only available as a PDF.
K: Now I have it as a physical book and as a PDF.
H: And how do people get their hands on this?
K: For now, they can message me through my Facebook page (‘Baby Steps to Hollywood’). I also sell the book at showcases.
H: And how has the response been?
K: I constantly have coffee with people who read the book and come to LA. There are four families who did the showcase in December 2015, read the book, and come out to LA last January. It’s actually a little bit scary. I feel responsible, you know? I have to remind myself, “They were probably gonna do it anyway.”
H: Would you feel better with a disclaimer?
K: Yes. “Do not move on the strength of this book!”
I do have to tell people upfront, our experience is really atypical. But I kind of feel like, the fact that we moved here so quickly allowed me to put this book together. Because if we hadn’t had all those experiences then there’s no way I could’ve been teaching this stuff. So I don’t know if I’m an expert per se but I know more than people who don’t know anything!
H: Well, you’ve been in the trenches, and you are in the trenches.
H: And how does your husband factor into this wild ride?
K: He is an active supporter. I mean, the fact that he can work from anywhere because he either works from home or travels means that, when he’s here, he’ll drive to auditions and occasionally go on set. We’ve just been really, really fortunate. Tia’s also available so she drives the others around. He also comes to all the screenings.
H: Going back to you, what are your next steps? Baby or otherwise?
K: Well, I want to launch my Baby Steps website with videos of the discussions I’ve been having with various people in the industry: actors, makeup artists, grips, AVs, a behind-the-scenes videographer. You know, just interesting people. I think the whole business is interesting and we’ve met some really great people. So that’s on the list.
H: So exciting! And as your kids get older and move into full adulthood, will you continue to be involved in the industry?
K: I like what I’m doing, I do. The thing that I find most fun is that I feel like I have a personal mission, in a way. If you talk to any of my kids, the thing that they’ll say about me, the thing that they constantly make fun of, is that whenever we have Thanksgiving or Easter or Christmas or anything like that, there is always at least a couple people at the table that nobody knows, not even me. And somehow these people find their way to our house. I like being the cheerleader. I like encouraging people, helping them find their way.
It’s a tough business and it’s a competitive business but it’s not exactly competitive between you and the next person. I really firmly believe that you either fit the role or you don’t. Also, casting directors and directors and producers are people too so you might fit the role but they might not like you for a reason that has nothing to do with the part. It might be because you look like their ex-wife, you know, and they won’t cast you because of it. But I have a “if it’s meant to be it’s meant to be” kind of mentality and I also believe that you will win the game eventually. You just gotta stay in the game. If you drop out you can’t win. If you stay in it, the right role will come up eventually. I know one kid who came out here, had no success, and then returned home, believing that she can’t do this. It makes me so sad. The thing I don’t like is when people come out, try it, don’t book anything because they don’t have the right knowledge. Because it’s just knowledge — knowing and being smart and learning as you go. I want to help people figure things out and find their way and not flounder.
H: I have one final question, and it’s really to ask you to reiterate something you’ve already said so eloquently. Say you meet a parent who’s new to the industry, who doesn’t know anything — basically someone who should be reading Baby Steps to Hollywood. What is the one thing that you would say to them?
K: One thing I would say to them is to take advantage of every opportunity. The other thing is to not lose yourself. If you go into this industry not knowing who you are and where you stand, I think you will lose yourself and you will burn out. The most important thing is that as fun and as great as this industry is, your most important story is your own story. And if you hold on to your own story, all the stories that can be told through this industry are gonna be great.
H: That’s beautiful, and a perfect place to end. Thank you!
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Follow Karen on Facebook and order Baby Steps to Hollywood.
Visit Tia Workman’s Actors Compass website.
Visit Amy L Workman’s Actors Compass website.
Visit Applause Rising Talent Showcase (ARTS) online.