Shannon is a co-founder and the “industry brain” at Actors Compass. With 20+ years of experience in the acting industry and 10+ years as a web developer, she has built, reviewed, and consulted on hundreds of actor sites. The idea for Actors Compass grew out of a business workshop Shannon teaches to graduating acting students at various schools and theaters. A few weeks ago, Helen, also a co-founder and the “all-up-in-your-business brain”, sat down with Shannon to discuss all things Actors Compass.
Helen continues her interview of Shannon below. Read part one of the interview here.
Helen: I’m curious to know a little more about your background as a performer. Can you describe the trajectory of your acting career?
Shannon: I was a professional actor for a little over 20 years, primarily in New York and Los Angeles. I started performing onstage when I was four years old. My older sister went to USC as a film student so it was my fate to become a USC child star.
H: So you became interested in acting because of your sister?
S: Partially. My sister went to acting school before she went to film school, so I remember watching her performing. Also, my parents are huge lovers of theater and live performance so I was seeing musicals and plays from an early age.
After performing in kids’ community theater programs and attending an afterschool arts program, I went to an arts high school and received a big scholarship in 2000 — the Emerging Young Artist in Theater for the state of California. That allowed me to get the theater degree that ultimately launched me into the world.
H: That’s amazing! You talked earlier about the importance of branding yourself as an actor. How did you brand yourself when you first started out?
S: I definitely didn’t know anything about branding when I graduated. I moved to New York wanting to be a working actor but I knew I was different than most of the female actors I knew. One time, I was called for a ‘RENT’ audition, and literally every other woman in the room was 5’6” with long, blonde hair, wearing leather and vinyl and character heels. There I was standing in the middle of the room, six feet tall with a short, dyke-y haircut, wearing big, camouflage cargo pants and a leather jacket. I was like, “What am I doing?” I was trying NOT to brand myself, trying to blend in, and it wasn’t working.
H: So how did you finally learn about branding yourself?
S: Branding wasn’t something I truly understood until I moved back to the West Coast in 2009. By then, I had done some films and plays and gotten into the Screen Actors Guild. Back in LA, I was getting called in for a lot of lesbian truck driver-type parts. Some acting-as-a-business-type classes I took at that time helped me to see the pattern and make the decision to use that truck-driver branding to my advantage because that IS what I look like. At least, more than a lot of other women in LA!
H: That’s really interesting. I guess a challenge this brings up for people is that their creative options would be limited if they’re branded as just one, or even a few, things. What would you say to that?
S: The word “brand” gets a bad stigma but it shouldn’t. I also used to think of having a brand as being typecast or being shoved into a box but I came to a point where I realized, “This box needs to be filled by someone. I fit into this box effortlessly, and I can earn a paycheck out of it. I’m getting called in for a lot of lesbian truck driver parts and I’m gonna take that all the way to the bank!” That was a really exciting moment for me.
H: Ok, fast forward to when you decided to get into web developing, which, by the way, you are excellent at, Shannon MacMillan. How did you get into that line of work as an actor?
S: When I was still in New York, in the midst of going to Broadway auditions and being this weird girl who wasn’t fitting into typical ingenue parts, I started taking coding classes. That led to my first web design clients who were actor friends. Sometimes I’d do a show or book a film gig or something and I’d get someone in the cast giving me their phone number saying, “I wanna talk about website stuff.” It kind of naturally segued into a web developing business from there. It provided a flexible work schedule and allowed for an income that let me live in a big city like New York. It worked out better for me than waiting tables or temping.
H: I bet you also learned a lot about branding from building all those actor websites.
S: Yeah, that really clarified branding for me. Friends would come to me and say, “I wanna build a website that shows EVERYTHING I can do,” and I was like, “Well, your website has to have a focused message but if you try to say you do everything, your site will say nothing. Plus, you may say you want to play the leading lady but your headshots look like you’re a nondescript teenager.”
They were giving me their materials — and these were mostly new actors just starting out, you know — and they had a really un-specific headshot and really un-specific credits and they weren’t playing to their natural strengths at all. Very frequently actors would show me those 200 pictures of themselves in the same t-shirt in a different color that I talked about earlier. I would say, “I can’t tell who you are from these and I don’t know what you’re selling here. What am I going to cast you as?” I also had experience directing shows so I was able to look at these actors materials with a casting brain. I’d see that someone had talent and a lot of craft, but there’s a point as an actor when you have to consider what you present to the world that makes people trust you, whether that’s as a character or in a commercial selling a product. You in all those different colored t-shirts isn’t going to garner anything other than maybe you’re a little bit good-looking or interesting-looking. So building websites for friends really solidified my ideas about how specific you need to be with your material.
H: I know you said that branding is the work that the actors themselves have to put in. For a young actor just starting out, can you give a few pointers for how to begin this process?
S I would definitely tell them to go take some classes in managing their acting career themselves. There are a number of them out there, both live and also online. I think the most well-known classes include Bonnie Gillespie’s Self-Management for Actors courses (and books) and anything from Dallas Travers, but there a lot of smart people teaching this stuff and you should do your homework to find someone who you can trust to tell you more about yourself. Sam Christensen’s entire studio is based on the concept of knowing yourself and how you present to audiences.
Beyond that, start to ask people to toss out a couple of words or phrases that they think describe you. It’s better if you ask people who don’t know you really well — I’ve even done exercises where you go out on the street and ask total strangers. And once you get a few words — maybe even people will say the same words over and over — you can use those to take a hard look at the parts you’ve been cast in and look for patterns. Then see if those patterns show up in your headshots or reel too. Once you see the patterns, you can gradually start shifting your focus towards parts that reflect what’s natural there and see what kind of feedback you get. I’d bet money you start booking more parts and getting more attention.
H: This was super informative, Shannon! Look how far you’ve come from being a child star in your sister’s student films!
S: Sitting here with you, I know I’ve truly arrived.