Kristen Shaw is an actor and teacher in Atlanta. She has appeared in over – dozen Film and Television projects, including 2 Series Regular roles, multiple pilots, as well as over 25 National Commercials. She is represented by People Store in Atlanta. More info at: http://kristenshawactingstudio.com/kristen-shaw
Where are you from and when did you know you wanted to be an actor?
I always knew that for some reason. I was a very shy kid and I didn’t talk much, I was not very bold. But I just felt very compelled to do acting and my parents didn’t understand it. I don’t know where it came from and I started taking class in 3rd grade at the community theater up in North Carolina. I did that up until high school. Then in high school I started with high school acting classes and then I did get a degree. I ended up graduating from Wake Forest University, also in North Carolina. I went out to LA about 6 months after I got my degree – after I had earned some money waiting tables. All the jobs we all do to be able to make it to Los Angeles. And I had researched the market and I had a couple of other friends. I moved to LA when I was 23 and I stayed out there for 15 years. I had a lot of bad actor habits, I had not much of a real look or I didn’t have a very obvious fit in the business. So once I was out there, Ireally soaked up all I could…I took a lot of classes about a lot of different aspects of the business. My philosophy was, and I encourage other actors to do so as well, just to find a really sound expert in each area and I soaked up what I could get from them.
Once I found somebody who I believed in and who I understood, who I felt had been in a place I wanted to go and had a perspective, I stayed in that class and absorbed what they were teaching. I ended up working with my acting coach for 13 years for Strasberg Method Acting. That’s the core of what I have as an actor. You never stop having that next level of training. Once I got to the place where I was on a TV show and I started working with a stylist, I started working with a publicist and a publicity coach that would help coach me through interviews. How to talk about your character, how it began, answer questions for people in a way that still promotes you as an actor. I went from really working just to be a decent actor, to a place where I had a stylist, a makeup artist and publicity help. I had someone to teach me how to do it, every step of the way. There are experts in everything.
Was this something you did because you felt that it would help you create a certain brand and a type? At what level should actors consider doing this?
There are aspects of it at all levels. The first piece of it for me was really trying to understand: Who am I? What do I have to offer? Where is the category for me as an actor and how do I get really good? I figured out very quickly I’m not really a particular look or a type. I better be the best actor because I can stay more in control of that. First, I really wanted to get good as an actor, and then I also started to notice there were some parts where I felt that I have something to offer naturally. A lot of times, as actors, we want to play what I would call ‘the better sides of ourselves’. I realized very early on that I have more to offer playing the parts of myself that I had a harder time accepting or putting out there authentically. I played a lot of women who other people consider very bitchy or harsh. I got comfortable doing that and was able to bring something authentic, that a lot of people don’t want other people to see in them.
At some point, did you decide that you wanted to move to Atlanta? Did you decide to become a coach here?
Like acting decided to pick me, Atlanta seemed to pick me as well. I got to a place in my career where I was working as an actress for many years and that’s all I did. That was my main means of making income. I also had a lot of time, but not a lot of money usually. My actor friends and I supported and coached each other. We helped each other with projects and auditions. I found along the way that I was really good at coaching people for their auditions. I did a little bit of teaching. In Los Angeles, you either teach or you’re an actor. There’s not a whole lot of working actors who also teach, so I was doing some of that, but I did not have an identity out there as a coach. I just coached the actors I knew and they coached me. My agent would send a lot of people to me to give them tips.
It was that “destiny” thing. I loved being in Los Angeles for about 13 years. In the 14th year, I was out there, I was feeling the pull, I don’t know if I want to continue with this. And then the last year, I felt very compelled to live in Atlanta. It wasn’t like I decided to move and then I picked Atlanta. When you’re an actor, you develop instincts, you develop a toolset of knowing and trusting sort of an external process or force out there. I felt a very strong pull to move here. I didn’t know why or how I was going to do that. I packed up and moved myself here, decided I’d figure it out when I got here. I started coaching and haven’t looked back. It has worked easily and naturally, and I’ve jgone full force. I find in my business coaching actors, I’m using all those aspects of me that I honed as an actor. Coaching uses so much more of my skills and my natural abilities.
Had you visited Atlanta in the past?
No. My sister lives here with her husband and three kids. I knew of Atlanta. I grew up in North Carolina and I always had relatives here. I’ve been to Atlanta a couple of times.
The fact that Atlanta was beginning to see so much work was not really a factor when you moved here?
I had no idea. But it ties to the power of trusting and knowing that instinct. I thought there was some business here. But I figured if it doesn’t work out, I’ll do something else. I tell my students all the time, I don’t have a fear of failing. If you fail, it’s fine, just get up. My only fear would be standing still or getting stuck. I remember hustling and getting out there in LA, and seeing all levels of the game. I’m happy that I was trained in LA.
It’s good to see that people like yourself having such exposure and skills offering that level of coaching here now.
It’s invaluable. As an actor, you need a home, a safe place, to make mistakes. The creative process is not always pretty and there’s a reason we do multiple takes. This business is completely illogical in many ways. It’s not a linear process. You can’t just be a good actor and keep working in bigger and bigger roles. Why are we in it? And what do we need out of it? When I’m in class, when I was an actor in class, even when my career was going nowhere I knew I was an actor and at the very least, I could work on my craft today. I was so lucky to be doing it. I always tell people the cure for your career stalling or not going anywhere, is that you always just do your work as an artist. Do your work to the point that you know that you have something to offer — always.
They understand that in Los Angeles because they’re so big and there are so many casting directors. Their West coast mentality is a little different from here in the South. Here the mentality is, you’re never going make it if everyone doesn’t like you. But there, all of them liking you, that’s never gonna happen. Too many people. So the mentality in a big city like LA is there’s no hard right and wrong way of doing things, people are not too worried about breaking the rules, or pissing someone off. They are more concerned that you don’t know them. They’re willing to do it – what does it take for me to get you to notice me, to know me, or see my work? Not: how/what are the rules and how do I make sure I don’t break them? That’s a very different mentality for us in the South.
How did you go about setting up your acting studio in Atlanta and getting students?
It was a gamble. Success is always when opportunity comes to those who are prepared, right? I was talking about moving here. I had a friend, one of the actors that I also coached, he’s a big star in Ireland now. He introduced me to an actress from Atlanta. We talked on the phone. This ties into marketing for actors too – one of the things I teach in my marketing class and I believe in is you always offer what you have to offer. You don’t ask for things, because people don’t like when you start to take from them.
I offered her classes once I got set up. She offered to share my information with her agency. She was with People Store and they called me when I first moved here. I had one meeting and they signed me.
What do you see for the future of acting in Atlanta?
The fact that they are building all these permanent stages that are just here for movies and TV is tremendous. This is the best place for an actor starting out. On average, once a month, I have an actor show up in a class that just moved here from L.A. The bar is going up in terms of what we need to be able to do to provide and our skill level, and though that seems threatening to some actors, it’s absolutely a benefit for all of us. If casting directors only have five actors they know that are skilled, maybe one of the five will get it. But if we have 10, then the business gets more and more comfortable with us, as a location that consistently offers people who are capable of providing, at the level they need to provide.
Why do you say that this is the best place for a starting actor?
People will probably not like hearing this and I know it does not feel like this, but it’s so easy here, right now, to get started. The competition is less, it’s smaller, there’s a window of opportunity happening here. I have coached 8-10 actors who moved here from Los Angeles for the last 3-4 years. They signed with top-notch agents and get auditions. Back in LA, they had no agent. They say, “I am getting better coaching here, I am getting better auditions and I am getting a whole lot more since I moved here.” I’ve never had an L.A. actor say it’s not working for me in Atlanta. I’m not saying it has not happened, I’m sure it has. But I’ve not heard of it.
What should actors in Atlanta do to step up their game?
Start with a head game or mindset. You have a very important choice to make early on in their career. That is going to define the path you’re on. Many of us don’t think about it or don’t do it thoroughly enough. The question you ask yourself is: Am I in this for a job or am I in this for a career? Because I will sacrifice the job to help my career.
What I mean by that is if I get called in on something that’s not right for me, because my casting directors don’t know me yet, the mind-set in the south is very much play-it-safe, make sure you don’t upset them, make sure you follow the rules and don’t take any risks. Because they might not like you. Well, that doesn’t work. You can’t play it safe. You have to be willing to say: I’m not getting this job, because this is not my job, this is not right for me. But I’m gonna go in there and then show who I am and they’re gonna get a good sense of me and they’re gonna realize how I can be cast.
When I first moved here I got, through my agent, called in for a lot of housewife roles. And there are far better actresses here for housewives. I don’t have a whole lot to offer in that department that’s interesting or unique. So I brought myself to those roles, I still did a good job. But you know, I made sure my personality was in there. I was probably not the best choice for a lot of those jobs. And they figured that out. By the time I’d been here a year, I had fewer auditions, but they were better suited for me. Quirky, bossy, complicated women with an acerbic sense of humor. More ‘bitchy’, less ‘wife-y’.
We really need to decide early on: I am in this for a career and this is about me helping. I have something to offer the business and also allow the business to understand how to best utilize me. All casting directors will say the number one thing they want in actors is confidence. And you can’t fake it. What gives you confidence? Be damn good. So good you know it. I’m good at what I do, I’m highly skilled and I’m willing to go in there and show you what I’ve got.
It’s not a make or break for each audition, right?
Right. It is for the ego. It is for our sense of we’re in this, because you need to get the job. Whether you get that role or not is not up to you and it’s not always about your work. If you’re waiting to book a job to know if you did a good audition or not, you’re never gonna get very far in this business. Because there are a hell of a lot people doing great auditions that don’t book it. Your job is to be on that short list. Your job is to be one of the few actors in town that the Casting Directors know – I can call this person and they come through for me every single part. That’s how you build a career. This is an art. We go and we paint our painting, because we’re painters. Not because we need permission. If they want to buy our paintings, that’s great. But if they don’t buy your painting, are you less of a painter?
What are your thoughts on how actors can do their networking and marketing in Atlanta?
I teach marketing from a way that I believe in it. Because I’m a natural introvert, which is not the case for all actors. I do not go to networking events, I don’t like to smile and shake hands and I feel uncomfortable and out of place. It’s torture for me. I don’t like to feel like I’m trying to push or be fancy. I teach a way of marketing that I have experienced and learned, done for myself, which is about thinking like what I call “the other of the table”, or thinking like the people who are hiring us.
Put yourself in their shoes, allow them to be real people, allowing us to make an offer. Actors would tell me all the time: I don’t want to be pushy and I don’t wanna just walk into people’s offices.’ Well, have you ever offered to be a reader for a casting director for free? Do you not think it would help? Why do you not offer to come in and help them file headshots? Who is going to say: “No! Take you and your free labor and your time and get out of here!” That’s just ridiculous. We get so lost in our head with what we want that we don’t get outside of it. So I believe in marketing from a place of authenticity. A place of genuine connection and a place of offering, not trying to take.
That’s how I see it and it’s always interesting to me because the way an actor markets himself to me is the way he markets himself to others. When actors are gracious and appreciative, I feel compelled to help them because I like them, believe in their talent and I want to do what’s right.
You have The Actors Way or some class related to acting career advice offered in your studio?
I do. I believe in what I’m gonna call the “Three-pronged Approach” and this is what I discovered for myself that works the best for me. On one side of the triangle is the acting. You have to get good as an actor, it’s a necessity. Another side of it is the marketing. You have to know who you are, understand your business. You have to be able to get out there in a way that feels good to you and to those who are on the receiving end of it. The third piece of this is what I call the personal. That is the part that we understand who we are and how we behave. Part of why I got good at marketing myself was that I knew I was too shy to do it the other way very well. So I had to work within my own personal parameters. I’m good in connecting one on one and I’m good at speaking at events, but I don’t like going out there and having to shake hands and talk to people. I had to adjust based on what I knew of myself. That is uncomfortable. We don’t like to change habits, we don’t like to do things differently, we don’t like to grow, it doesn’t feel good. But if you don’t do that part, you can’t succeed. If you’re not growing, you’re dying. In order to have more you have to be more. You don’t have to be better, you have to be more of you. You have to be more capable, you have to be more present, you have to be more willing. You gotta expand into a bigger version of you that’s capable of living a bigger life. And I don’t think it’s more difficult for anybody than it has been for me. Because none of what I do came naturally.
It seems so hard to believe because you do it so well. But that’s just an indication of how much you’ve practiced doing that. How much effort you put into it.
And how long I’ve been doing it. When I first started teaching, I liked people to be happy and liked them to feel good, liked to help them find what they’re looking for. I had a very hard time allowing people to be in a place where they were unhappy with me, or the work, or where they were. I was out there and I realized after a while, I’m draining myself trying to want it more for them than they want it for themselves and sometimes I have to trust the process for them, too.
That’s just an example of me, 40-years-old, having to grow into a bigger version of myself. I didn’t want to make a website. I don’t know how to do that. It overwhelmed me, it’s scary, I thought it was gonna be really hard and I just said to myself: No, I love this business and this studio and it’s my obligation to have a website that represents this studio in an authentic way. So I have to grow in to a person who can handle this. It’s a never-ending process. I always tell people we have to be willing to get comfortable being uncomfortable, if we’re going to be artists. Even to be decent people in our lives.
If you had to redo your acting career would you do anything differently?
The one thing I wish I could have done differently that I didn’t really get until really, really far into it is…I don’t know how possible it is, you have to put your whole heart into it but not your feelings. We gotta not take the business personally. Get your guard completely down when it comes to work. Beginners mind at all times. When it comes to the business, treat it as a business. It’s not personal. They’re not thinking about you, nobody is worried about your audition except you. Just get out there and be willing to learn and grow and know that you’re gonna make mistakes. It’s less about every little potential opportunity and more about the big picture. Make your career more about who you are and how you show up. Care more about your work, your art, your craft — and less about other people’s opinion of it. That’s the key to success, from my vantage point.