Cultivating Your Creative Passion
Casting director and producer Esta Charkham talks to us about how her passion has driven her long and happy career
When you come into this business, you have to come in because you love it, not because you want to be rich and famous.
In this episode of The Spotlight podcast, we talk to the inimitable Esta Charkham. Esta has been an agent, a casting director, an actress, a TV producer and teacher for many years. Her work with young people is exceptional.
In this episode of the podcast, we talk through all the different hats Esta has worn in her career, how you can use your skills across industry disciplines, the best skills to cultivate, how to give yourself the best shot at representation and in the industry more broadly, as well as the importance of passion to fuel you.
44 minute listen.
Christina Carè: Hello and welcome to The Spotlight Podcast. I'm Christina Carè, the content manager at Spotlight. And today, we have a very special episode talking to the inimitable, Esta Charkham. Esta has done so many things in this industry, it's tough to introduce her. But as a taste, she started out as an actress before becoming a casting director. She casts TV series such as The Professionals, and the Oscar-winning, Chariots of Fire. She then produced TV, she formed her own production company and has worked with several leading drama training institutions, including Guildhall, Central, and the National Youth Theatre.
She has her own agency, Esta Charkham Associates, as well as her own theatre school. She's been awarded an honorary degree by Guildhall for her work with students. And in her bio, she says the key to her success has been “getting up early, answering the phone after two rings, and wands of mascara.”
Today, we talk with Esta about all of these different things that she's done, and about all the facets of industry that you could get involved in as well. All in all, it's a great discussion about how you can have a long and happy career in what is a really tough business. Take a listen.
Esta, thank you so much for joining us on The Spotlight Podcast.
Esta Charkham: You're very welcome.
Christina Carè: I want to start by asking you, you've obviously done a lot in this industry, you've held many different titles over the years.
Esta Charkham: I have.
Christina Carè: I want to start with where it all began, and why you were even excited by this industry in the first place.
Esta Charkham: It actually started at the Golders Green Hippodrome in about 1951, when my mother took me to see a pantomime with Arthur Askey, and it was the red velvet curtain, and the gold all around it, and I became entranced with what the family then called red and gold fever. I was stage-struck from that age onwards. I used to do garage recitals, play the lead in school plays, get all the local children together to be in one of my shows.
I used to cast library books and got into trouble for defacing library books because I would write the names of actors and actresses that I'd cut out of the Radio Times into the library books by the name of their character. And so I was obsessed from the minute I could walk and talk really. So that's why I've done everything, and that's why still, at this very old age, I'm still entranced by it, and I still love it, and it still excites me, and it still gives me goosebumps, and wonderful gut instinct.
Christina Carè: Absolutely. It's clearly a lifelong passion.
Esta Charkham: It is.
Christina Carè: I want to ask you then, you started by training ... well, sorry, not training. But you started as an actress.
Esta Charkham: I did.
Christina Carè: Can you tell me a bit more about why you chose that as the way in.
Esta Charkham: Well, I didn't choose it, it's what I wanted to do, and thought I wanted to do. And I joined the National Youth Theatre, and I was in a very successful play called Zigger Zagger, in 1967, which was a huge success. In spite of the fact that I was 16 or 17, I played a 40-year-old tart with a wig and mini skirt. And it was a huge success. And I was still at school. But a West End producer said he liked it very much, and he wanted to take it to the West End. And he took two of the boys and me.
And so I left school and went into the West End. And it lasted two weeks, and suddenly, I had no education and no job. But I didn't let it deter me and I soldiered on. And I found an agent and began to get work as an actress. Although, most of it was fat Jewish girls or tarts with hearts.
And then I fell into a job accidentally, by answering an ad in The Stage, for a fantastically scary woman called Muriel Cole, who was the head of casting at the newly formed Yorkshire Television. She had been at Rediffusion. And before that, she'd been the casting director at Ealing Studios. And she really was formidable. Actually, her archive is at the V&A.
Christina Carè: Ah, okay.
Esta Charkham: And she took me on, God knows why, as her secretary. And she taught me a huge amount. And I stayed there for a bit. And then somebody told me that they were doing a new play at The Mermaid, and they needed a fat Jewish girl to play the lead. So I forced my way into the director's office, and they offered me the job. So I left Yorkshire Television.
I then used to go back as a temp as well, which was great. And then I went to ... It's a mishmash now, it's all so many years ago. But I worked for an American film producer, I worked for the William Morris office, very early days. The esteemed agent, Duncan Heath and I used to sort mail. We'd get in very early in the morning, 8:30 in the morning, so that we could open the mail, because, in those days, you had mail. All the agents had their own pigeon boxes, and we would open the mail, and we would read it so that Duncan and I knew everything that was going on.
And it's that kind of knowledge and attention to detail that gets you on in this business, without being too pushy. Although, apparently, I was pushy, because I was known as Eve Harrington, who is of course, the character in All About Eve, who was apparently pushy.
Christina Carè: Assertive. Very assertive.
Esta Charkham: Yeah, assertive. Yes, exactly. And then I went to what then was CMA, but became ICM. And then from there, I went to work for a Broadway producer called Alexander H. Cohen, who had an office at the Shubert Theatre, and an office at the Queen's Theatre in London. And he was like a second father to me. And he and his wife, Hildy Parks, taught me so much about the business, about how not to behave, how to behave, how to be gracious, the courtesy of it all, which I'd never really learnt before.
And after about three or four years there, he decided to close the London office. But he gave it to me rent-free for a year, and said, "Do what you do best. Cast." So I set up as a freelance casting director. And it was a bit scary because you had to be a member of a union then. And I wasn't a member. But I did eventually get to be a member of it and ended up being the chairperson of that section of the union.
And then worked for some years. Very lucky, in the late '70s, I cast things like Scum, Quadrophenia, Chariots of Fire. So my reputation was gained on finding young people, people who had never really done very much before. And so that's always remained my interest, is young people, or new talent. And I did Chariots of Fire, which of course, won the Oscar. And I remember a lovely agent called James Sharkey, who left us only last year, called me the morning after it won the Oscar, and said, "You can double your price now." So I did. He was right.
Christina Carè: That's a good call.
Esta Charkham: Absolutely. And I worked ... Oh, I did lots and lots of stuff. I did telly series. I used to do The Professionals. And then I was doing something called Robin of Sherwood. And the producer, Paul Knight, said to me after the first series, "I'm not going to do this anymore, you can do it." And I said, "No, I can't." And he said, "Yes, you can." I said, "I can't be a producer." And he said, "Yes, of course, you can be a producer, you interfere in everything. So you might as well-"
Christina Carè: It's natural.
Esta Charkham: Yeah. Exactly. You might as well take over here. So I did. And that was very successful. And I then went to Central Television, and took Boon, with Michael Elphick, Neil Morrissey, Amanda Burton, David Daker. And I ran with that for a bit. And then Marks and Gran, who were two writers who I'd known when we were growing up, formed a production company, and they asked me to go and run it. And from there, we did Birds of a Feather, Nightingales, Love Hurts, a whole load of other stuff.
And then when I left there, I formed my own company, and I made all kinds of programmes. I made documentaries, I made daytime, I made lifestyle programmes. And then I just almost had enough. I did go back and do a One Foot in the Grave Christmas special, which we won a comedy award for. And then I did the very first pop music show, long before S Club, which was called No Sweat, with a band called Man Not A Boy. No, that was the song. Oh, I can't remember what they were called.
Anyway, that was very successful. And then in about early 2000s, I just lost my oomph. Didn't quite know what to do. Didn't want to keep going away from home either. So I decided to start a theatre school. In between all of this, in all of my downtime, I had always gone into drama schools, and lectured, and talked, and directed shows, and all of that. Again, working with new talent, and with new writing talent as well. I should say that I mean, I gave Anthony Horowitz his very first television commission.
Christina Carè: Wow, that's incredible.
Esta Charkham: I know, which is lovely. And he still tweets me. And he actually tweeted me, because his son is 30, and he Tweeted me last week and said, "Can you believe this? That's the age I was when I met you first." Which is lovely.
Christina Carè: It just seems like you've always had a knack for knowing the right sorts of people and being involved in all these different types of aspects of the industry, and different skills required.
Esta Charkham: It's my passion.
Christina Carè: Absolutely. And that comes across.
Esta Charkham: Yeah. Yeah.
Christina Carè: I just wonder, backtracking for a second, you moved into casting. But what was it about casting that you thought would be a better way to use some of your skills, as opposed to acting?
Esta Charkham: I had a fantastic memory. There weren't a lot of jobs for fat Jewish girls. Although, interestingly, there are much more now. Because it was the late '60s, early '70s, either you looked like Jane Asher or Patti Boyd, or you didn't. And I had ... Because I could always remember the names of the actors, it was ... And every time I read a book, I would write the name of the character in a book, and write the name of an actor alongside it, which is the defacing library book thing.
Christina Carè: Right.
Esta Charkham: It seemed, to me, the word is organic really.
Christina Carè: Yeah.
Esta Charkham: But Muriel Cole had such specific methods that were her attention to detail and order. She kept - I mean, people would laugh at it now - she had long, long, long filing boxes with those little filing cards. And every time she saw an actor, I would type on it, his name, I'd have to roll it into the typewriter, his surname in caps, then his first name, and then underneath, what the play was, what the theatre was, what the role was, and what the year was, so that actors that she'd seen lots of times had these ... The card was full, and you'd have to turn it over.
And so she would always go to it. And then she had every play that she saw, she kept the programme, and she wrote a theatre review. And she made all of us write theatre reviews of each actor, of what we thought of them. And these would be filed year, by year, by year. And so she'd say, "Oh, have I ever seen him? Oh, go and look in the record cards." You'd look in the record card, and you'd say, I don't know, Ian McKellen, Edward the Second, 1972.
And so you would then go to the 1972 year, and you'd get out Edward the Second, and you'd look up Ian McKellen, and she’d say, "Oh, yes, he was very good. He's ..." And so you knew all of those things. And I mean, now of course, you can do all of that online. But it was a very-
Christina Carè: Of course. It's meticulous record-keeping there.
Esta Charkham: Absolutely meticulous record keeping. And that's what the V&A have.
Christina Carè: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Esta Charkham: Actually, I was talking to some people on Sunday, we thought we might see if we can get it out and ask them if we can do a lecture on how casting used to be done.
Christina Carè: Well, that would be really fascinating.
Esta Charkham: It would, wouldn't it? Yeah. Because there's three or four of us who worked for her, who were around still and laugh about it a lot because she was scary. But anyway, so that's that part of the story.
Christina Carè: And then, does all of that, all those skills, the meticulous quality of how she taught you to be as a casting director, does that then influence how you are as a TV producer?
Esta Charkham: Absolutely. Absolutely. The attention to detail there ... And I'm thrilled to say that I taught a lot of people how to do that as well. Yeah. Attention to detail. We never missed the detail. The toilets were always there, the lunch was always there, the timings were always there, the editors were always there, the films always went to rushes. I get excited by attention to detail.
Christina Carè: Absolutely. I can see that.
Esta Charkham: Yeah, I really do. Yeah.
Christina Carè: But I think that's a really interesting and important thing to mention because what I'm hoping we can get out today on our podcast is as much as possible that it is up to the actor not just to be an actor, but also to think about the industry, and their place in it.
Esta Charkham: Absolutely.
Christina Carè: And all these skills that you're touching on, the meticulous quality, or the passion, or any of these things can apply to anyone. They don't have to be a TV producer tomorrow.
Esta Charkham: No.
Christina Carè: They could still use all of those qualities.
Esta Charkham: I nag my clients because I can go online, onto Spotlight, and I can update their profile, and I can update their showreel, and I can edit their showreel. But all of the time that me and the other agents in the office are doing that means we're not out there looking for work for them.
Christina Carè: Right, of course.
Esta Charkham: And sometimes you take on a new client, and they say, "Yes, I've got a showreel." And they put it up on Spotlight, and you look at it, and they've got the old agent's name on it. Come on.
Christina Carè: Yes, it has to be up to date. Come on.
Esta Charkham: Everything has to be up to date. And actor friend came to me last week, no names, saying, "Will you look at my CV on Spotlight?" And I did. And it was pages, and pages long with no dates on it, no updating, his headshots were out of date. And I said, "Yes, this is down to you, but it's down to your agent as well. And you need to get together and sort this out because people are just going to skim it because there's no detail there."
Christina Carè: Yeah, for sure. Mm-hmm (affirmative). Well, that might be a good place for us to dig in for a second.
Esta Charkham: Okay.
Christina Carè: In terms of what that relationship should really be like between an actor and their agent, we obviously ... I mean, it's our number one question that we get from our members, and non-members alike, "How do I get an agent?" And I think that question becomes so overwhelming, that once someone actually does get representation, they're not really sure what comes next.
Esta Charkham: I know.
Christina Carè: What do you think about that?
Esta Charkham: Well, it's down to the agent really, in the first discussion that they ever have with the potential client, about what they do, and how they do it. We are quite specific. We give them, God bless them, a set of rules of what we do, how we do it. We have a fabulous system called Tagmin, which I'm sure you know about, which links to Spotlight.
And the number of times they don't tell us when they have a dentist's appointment or a doctor's appointment, or it's a wedding, or they're going to be a bridesmaid. And we check it, and we put them up for a job, and then they're not free, because they haven't put it on. Or they just put it on, and they don't tell us. So you have to do it from both ends.
You have to have access to your Tagmin, or whatever other systems you use, put on the dates you're not available, and then just send a little email, or a phone call saying, "By the way, I'm going to Portugal on Friday, and I won't be back until Tuesday." Lovely, we know that then. The other thing is keeping those profiles up to date. They must keep their profiles up to date. We can do it, but it takes us away from-
Christina Carè: From the other work.
Esta Charkham: From the other stuff. Yeah. We expect them to return calls within a day. We expect them to have ... You'd be amazed how many youngsters don't have answering machines on voicemails, on their mobile phones. Takes my breath away. I want to say, "Darling, can you call me now, please. Not have to keep phoning it to have it ring out." And they say, "Oh, I had a missed call. Was it from you?"
So that is a really important thing. We expect them to always be on time. And many youngsters aren't. And when they say, "Oh, the traffic was bad." Or, "The trains were full." You knew it's 10 o'clock in the morning that you're supposed to be there, you know it's rush hour, you need to go half an hour earlier. I don't care if you're waiting out in the street for 20 minutes, you can get a cup of coffee, and wait. But as long as you're on time. So it's actually old fashioned courtesy, really.
Christina Carè: Absolutely. Lots of common etiquette points.
Esta Charkham: Which is about being professional. Yeah.
Christina Carè: Totally.
Esta Charkham: All those kinds of things. And we try and guide, and advise. And our agency always says, "Are you interested in this?"
Christina Carè: Right.
Esta Charkham: And if they say "No." We say, "Fine." Because whatever decision they make, we support that decision. Now, there are some agents, I know because I've heard it, who say, "You are going for this, you are going for that. You will do this, you will do that." I don't believe in that. I think that it has to be a free choice, and you have to work together to decide what direction you're going in as a client and agent.
Christina Carè: Yeah, there's a reciprocal arrangement there.
Esta Charkham: Absolutely. I do tell them off. I gave somebody, an 18-year-old, a really strict telling off yesterday. And said, "You're just not behaving professionally. I know you've got exams. You need to tell us when the exams are, then we can work around it." So it's that kind of thing, really.
Christina Carè: Yeah, a lot of basic things that you would know doing any professional job really.
Esta Charkham: Exactly. Exactly. It's not rocket science. It's work.
Christina Carè: Can you tell us a bit more about the ethos of your agency, and how you tend to work?
Esta Charkham: Well, it's interesting, because I always say, or I used to say, "Oh, darling, it's not about the money, it's about the work." But the other agents, young agents who work with me say, "No, it should be about the money as well. We can't let people work for nothing." And of course, of course, we can't let people work for nothing. And we are very strict about it being minimums, or profit share, or that kind of stuff.
But because I've been around so long, my instinct tells me what the quality of the project is, what the quality of the people concerned with it are. And if they send us misspelt, and bad grammar emails ... God, that sounds terrible, doesn't it? We kind of know that we don't want to deal with them. We guide, we nurture. Sometimes we lead. Sometimes we don't.
I had a client recently, who had never done panto and had been offered a big panto in a prestigious theatre out of town, a long run, terribly good money. Not one of these starry ones, but a proper old fashioned one. And he'd never done it. And he didn't want to do it. And I said, "I think at this stage in your career, it's something you should do. It will take you out of London for four months. It will pay you very well. It will be very hard work, the kind of work that you have never done before. You will meet other people. You will work with a really up and coming, creative, artistic director, in a very classy theatre. And I think you should do it. And if you don't like it after that, then I swear I will never make you do it again."
And he did it. And he had trouble with it. And he said, "I'm really not enjoying it." And I said, "Well, it finishes on January the 13th, or whatever it is, you can get there. And you can just look at the dollar signs in your eyes when your payslip comes every Friday, and you know that you've been there, you've done it, and you don't have to do it again, and I promise I won't ever make you do it again." But you need that experience, and that stretching to know that you don't want to do it again.
Christina Carè: Right. Of course.
Esta Charkham: So, and it was an interesting experience for both of us because I thought he was going to love it.
Christina Carè: Right. Right.
Esta Charkham: And he didn't really.
Christina Carè: But you both take something away from that.
Esta Charkham: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Christina Carè: And you know for next time.
Esta Charkham: Yeah, well, he's a grownup.
Christina Carè: Exactly.
Esta Charkham: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Christina Carè: Sometimes you need to be pushed to take a risk, and sometimes you need to know when to pull back.
Esta Charkham: Exactly. Exactly. And we work ... I have to say, we work with our gut, we work on instinct.
Christina Carè: Totally.
Esta Charkham: And-
Christina Carè: It's a creative industry at the end of the day.
Esta Charkham: It is. it is. it has to be organic, and with your gut, otherwise, you can't do it. And I would hope that everybody else in the business does, but I don't know.
Christina Carè: I guess it varies.
Esta Charkham: Yeah, it does.
Christina Carè: I want to go back to something you were saying before about finding new talent, and about that, in particular, being so key to what you do. How do you like to find new talent? Are you happy when people invite you to things? Do you watch a lot?
Esta Charkham: I'm very happy when people invite me to things. I hate this time of year because it's every single solitary showcase from every drama school. And I think there are too many drama schools. I think there are too many drama schools who are all accredited, who take too much money from too many youngsters, who maybe do not have quite as much talent as they should have, and are going to end up with a degree, which qualifies them to do very little, other than maybe go into marketing, or go and teach, which there's nothing wrong with that. But they have such ideas and such passion.
I taught contextual studies at a drama school for 10 years, every Wednesday, three hours, every Wednesday, contextual studies. And I used to say to each year when I went in, "I want you all to know that in 10 years’ time, only two of you will be working. Now, I know you're all looking around the room and thinking, 'I wonder who the other one will be?'" And I'm right. I mean, some have become writers, some have become directors, some have become cameramen, some have done all kinds of different things. But actually, as working actors, making a living, getting whatever that minimum Equity wage is, probably only two or three from every year I've ever taught.
And that goes back years, to years when I ... I started at Guildhall. I used to teach at Guildhall. And I still see some of my first intake at Guildhall. And one of them is head of voice at Central, one of them is a very successful novelist, and playwright, one of them is a voiceover agent, one of them is a very successful ... She founded this arts club thing. So they're all still within it. But actually, who's acting?
Christina Carè: Right. Exactly. I think that's one thing that we've tried to focus on a lot with a lot of our videos, and podcasts is the fact that it does pay to have multiple skills.
Esta Charkham: It does.
Christina Carè: And not only that, but also to hone your hobbies, and your interests outside of acting. What would you say to that? Do you think it's vital that actors don't just focus in?
Esta Charkham: I think it's absolutely vital. My parents used to say to me, "Oh, God, why can't you get a proper job?" Which I'm quite sure parents still do. But I say to every young person, well, every person that comes to me for representation, "What's your day job?"
Christina Carè: Right.
Esta Charkham: "What else do you do?" Because you cannot anymore, rely on a living as an actor, you just can't. We look after an actor who was very bright. And he went and did an MBA. And his MBA has turned him into an expert in charismatic leadership. He teaches all over the world, people how to behave in business. And this week, he's invented an immersive corporate game, which is exactly like an immersive theatre show.
Christina Carè: Oh, okay.
Esta Charkham: With different rooms, and actors working in it, and doing it. And of course, it's the first of its kind. And this week, he's doing it. And that's one incredibly clever man who was in the West End for three years but was doing this at the same time. So there are ... You can do all kinds of things. Lots of people have really good relationships with big businesses and are receptionists who come and go, which is great. And sometimes, people are very supportive. There's a lot of supply teachers. I know one person who started making candles. And so every Christmas, she's really busy selling candles.
Christina Carè: I think it's the nature of any kind of creative, and also freelance work. People increasingly say we live in a gig economy. That is the way of the world. Lots of people have lots of strings to their bow.
Esta Charkham: Yeah, they have to.
Christina Carè: Even all the way up to the top of the food chain, so to speak. Even while-
Esta Charkham: Portfolio careers, that's what we call it.
Christina Carè: Right, exactly.
Esta Charkham: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Christina Carè: Exactly. Exactly. I mean, even Mark Wahlberg has gone on interviews many times talking about property development, and owning restaurants, and doing all ... And it's not like he's out of work.
Esta Charkham: Exactly.
Christina Carè: So everybody does it.
Esta Charkham: Yeah, and I do believe ... I mean, it's trite to say everybody can. But I think everybody can.
Christina Carè: Yeah.
Esta Charkham: If you focus enough, and get around, and learn enough, read enough. I mean, knowledge is always power. And that's what I've always said to youngsters. The more you know, the more you will learn, and the more that will help you.
Christina Carè: And speaking of youngsters, we obviously don't just have young performers, but we deal a lot with their parents as well.
Esta Charkham: Yes.
Christina Carè: And the thing about parents is that they often ask us ... We don't know anything about the industry. They might not be performers or whatever, themselves. And I think they struggle often to prepare their children for what this industry will be like. Do you have any sort of advice that you would give parents specifically about that?
Esta Charkham: It depends of course, who represents the child? If the parent is representing the child, then the parent has to be very strict with the child. If the child is sent sides to learn for a self-tape, then the parent has to make sure that the child learns them. Also again, the parent has to actually read the instructions for the self-tape. So many times, we send instructions to parents that says, "Please shoot this in landscape, not portrait. Please do it against a plain background. Please do not read the stage directions. Just read the other lines. Please make sure the child is off the book. And please let us have it by 10 o'clock tomorrow morning via WeTransfer or on a downloadable Vimeo."
Christina Carè: Right.
Esta Charkham: You'd be amazed.
Christina Carè: It's something we've focused on a lot. We have a whole podcast about self-taping. We have a whole video about self-taping. But we still get very similar questions, as you say, particularly about the landscape thing, and sound issues, all sorts.
Esta Charkham: I know. It is extraordinary. I am not very technical at all. I know how to do it. So I'm sure that you can. It's the thing about because we live in such a fast society, they don't read properly. Again, back to the attention to detail.
Christina Carè: Of course.
Esta Charkham: If you absolutely read it properly ... It's like, you know men never read the instructions to put things together, and women always do.
Christina Carè: Yes.
Esta Charkham: And I go, "I have to turn this screw here, and this. And then I will release the so and so, and my music will play." Whereas, men just get angry, and shove it about. Yeah. You have to read the instructions.
Christina Carè: Absolutely.
Esta Charkham: It's attention to detail. Yeah.
Christina Carè: I've put together too many Ikea beds not to know exactly what that feels like.
Esta Charkham: Exactly. Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. Definitely.
Christina Carè: What about in terms of rejection? I mean, that's obviously such a huge part of being an actor, is you will get rejected, you will face rejection, you won't always get feedback. What's your view on that?
Esta Charkham: We always ask for feedback. We always ask for it. And sometimes we get it, sometimes we don't. What people, especially with the casting of children is, it is a jigsaw puzzle. The child either has to look like whoever is playing the parents or bear a resemblance to them. It has to fit in with who might be playing the other children, in terms of height, and colouring. The child also maybe is playing somebody who is playing a child version of a grownup. In which case, they have to resemble them and have similar kind of mannerisms to them as well.
So it's a jigsaw puzzle. What we say to children is, "The fact that we suggested you, and that you were seen, means you are good. And that's not why you didn't get it. You didn't get it because you weren't good enough, and you didn't get it because you were not good, you were. You just didn't fit into their family, their look, their chemistry, or whatever. So don't beat yourself up, be really proud that you got this far." That's what we say to children and that seems to work.
Christina Carè: Yeah.
Esta Charkham: We had a little boy this week, who has been for so many things, has been recalled for them all, and yesterday, we got a wonderful call to say he and his mum are going to Morocco for a week in half term, to film a big American series. And he's so thrilled. And he sent me a text actually last night. He's only 11, and just made me sob, about thanking us for having faith in him, and that he will never let me down.
Christina Carè: Oh, that's so lovely.
Esta Charkham: And that's so lovely. And it's so lovely. And I used to say, "I'm so sorry you didn't get this, darling. It's no reason at all." He says, "That's all right. I'll keep going. I'll keep going." And I've had others, in one boy whose now 17, who we used to call him recall ... I'm not going to say his name, but recall uh-uh. And he actually told a casting director, "I'm always recalled, you know. I never get it." And she said to me, "I'm going to make sure this time he gets it." And he did. And from then, he's just gone on, and on, and on to great stuff.
Christina Carè: Oh, that's great.
Esta Charkham: Yeah.
Christina Carè: But it takes some time, and-
Esta Charkham: It takes time.
Christina Carè: A big part of an actor's life will be not getting that part, and potentially being in between jobs.
Esta Charkham: Although I have to say, we have a seven-year-old, he's now eight, who walked into us September a year ago, and I just looked at Sam, who runs the school with me, who's my partner in the school, and an agent, and we just went, "Ooh." Three days later, we were able to put him up for a big, big television series. He went in four days after that, and he got the job, and he's been working for a year in this big television series. He finished that, and his mother said, "I don't know what he's going to do. He's found his tribe, he's going to be bereft now that this is over. What's going to happen to him?" I said, "It'll be all right. It'll be fine." A week later, he got a part in another series.
Christina Carè: Oh, amazing.
Esta Charkham: So he's a very accomplished now, I think almost nine year old. And it's great. So and again, that was Sam and I both had exactly the same instinct, and we thought, "This child ..." We call it an invisible tattoo on their forehead that says, "I am an actor."
Christina Carè: Right. That's your star quality idea.
Esta Charkham: Yes. Yeah. Yeah.
Christina Carè: So you believe in that then.
Esta Charkham: I do.
Christina Carè: That that's just either something someone has or doesn't have.
Esta Charkham: There's an undefinable something. There's a line in the second Star is Born. The one with Judy Garland, and James Mason, when he says, "I don't know what it is, you have an indefinable something that I know is star quality." Or something like that. And it is. And I agree with him, or the character. And that line has always stayed with me. And I think it's true. I really do think it's true.
Christina Carè: And for those who maybe don't have the ‘it factor’, they can still have quite an amazing career.
Esta Charkham: Of course, they can. Of course, they can.
Christina Carè: Do you think it's quite important that they know their casting? Or that they take up other skills? Or what is it that's the key there?
Esta Charkham: Well, you never know your casting.
Christina Carè: You think?
Esta Charkham: Yeah, you can never know your casting. You never know how people are going to think of you or look at you. You can guess at what your casting is. But I've known actresses who have slogged away for years, selling things in markets, doing a season in rep, doing understudying a bigger name in the West End, all of that. And then suddenly, aged 45, 50, a television series comes along for which they are absolutely spot on. They get the gig, and for the next 25 years, they become a household name.
And I can think of three people immediately that that's happened to. So you're never too old to act. That's the wonderful thing. I've got a client who's 90, and he still works. We have a letter from the doctor saying that he's fit to work. Yeah. But he still works. That's the wonderful thing about this business, is you don't have to retire either.
Christina Carè: Absolutely. I think that is a concern that we also get sometimes, which is the returning performer. Someone whose taken a break.
Esta Charkham: Yeah, that's difficult.
Christina Carè: Yeah. Well, they're often ... The question is, "How do I reintroduce myself to the industry?"
Esta Charkham: The way they should reintroduce themselves is by all means by trying to do student films. Those that have a proper Equity contract, because there is a proper Equity student film rate. And the better student ... even Norwich University I noticed recently are doing it, the NFTS obviously. What's the one in London? In Ealing? What's it called? Metropolitan I think. The Northern Film School. They all do them. They all go out on Spotlight. And you can apply for them. And that will help you get scenes to put together into a showreel. And again, a showreel does not have to be five minutes or 10 minutes. A showreel is a 1 minute 30, two minutes, enough for a casting director to get a look at you, see what you can do, see what you look like, see what you sound like. Because they don't have the time to wade through 10 minutes of showreels.
Christina Carè: Absolutely.
Esta Charkham: So I think that's really good. Am I allowed to say I would hesitate to look at Mandy? I really disapprove of Mandy as it's now called?
Christina Carè: You can say that.
Esta Charkham: Yeah. Because the jobs they're trying to get people on the cheap without paying the right money. And you don't know that they're covered properly, you don't know what their insurance is, you don't know that they're proper companies. And it's dangerous, I always feel, to do those kinds of things.
Christina Carè: Yeah, I understand. You have to look for work that's sensible, that will actually help you in some way, and will be worthwhile.
Esta Charkham: We had a client who phoned and said, "Oh, I got this great gig on Mandy." And it was for ... What was it for? It was for a soft drink. And our heart sank, and said, "Do you realise that puts you out for Coca-Cola, for just anything else? And you've got £1,000. And they can use this in perpetuity. How stupid are you? Why did you not run it past us?"
Christina Carè: Right.
Esta Charkham: It makes no sense.
Christina Carè: It comes back to the communication thing with your agent. You really have to communicate what's going on.
Esta Charkham: We have to know everything. We really do. Yeah.
Christina Carè: Yes. I want to ask you a couple of quickfire questions that are, again, some of them are very common questions that we get. The first one is, what should your headshot look like?
Esta Charkham: Your headshot should engage. I personally hate actor headshots. I hate profiles, I hate cheeks sucked in, I hate seriousness. I want a grin, I want a secret in your eyes, and on your lips. That's what I want. I want engaging, straight down the lens, I want to see the kind of person that I would like to have a cup of tea with, a cup of coffee with, invite to my house, or into my rehearsal room.
Christina Carè: Very clear. Clear instructions. The next one is, is it okay for people to invite you, which you said you like to be invited, but how should they do that?
Esta Charkham: They should do it on an email, a very brief email. If they are going to do it on mail, then they have to make sure that they put the right postage on it. The number of times I've paid £1.50 to the Royal Mail to have something that's addressed to me, that's an invitation to see something, it really irritates me. Make sure that a large envelope is a large envelope, and you've stamped it right. Or send a very brief email. Or I like the old postcard thing. I think that this kind of communication is really good.
Sometimes we can come, sometimes we can't come. Sometimes it's a play I would rather stick pins in my eyes than see. And sometimes it's miles away from my office, so that's difficult as well. So we will look at everything. And also, for us, it depends on what we are missing in our client list as well, what we're going to see.
Christina Carè: Yeah. That's another big consideration.
Esta Charkham: Yeah. Yeah.
Christina Carè: Should people train? Is that necessary?
Esta Charkham: It used to be really necessary that people should train. But in the old days, there were five great drama schools. Some training is always good. It's funny, I was talking to some casting directors of about my age at the weekend, or ex-casting directors. And they were saying, "Oh, nobody needs to train anymore, it's ridiculous. Oh, nobody goes to drama school. They've got to start as children. If they start as children, then they can go on and do all that stuff." And they named half a dozen actors who did start as children and who are doing very well.
Training is always good. Learning is always good. It's the knowledge is power thing. I don't think that you necessarily have to do three years at drama school, especially if you've done a BTEC in performing arts, or you've done three years at university. I think the MA one-year graduate courses are very good.
But I also think that we have enough classes and workshops that are around us, in order to be able to train as you're going along. I also think that training on the job. If you could get into a wonderful soap, you will learn. I mean, sometimes we've seen youngsters start in something like Eastenders, and they could barely put one foot in front of the other. But actually, eight years later, they're the most sublime actor or actress. So I think-
Christina Carè: There are lots of ways to do it.
Esta Charkham: There are lots of ways to do it. Yes.
Christina Carè: And should you list every single workshop you've ever attended on your profile?
Esta Charkham: No. Not every single workshop, no. The important ones. If you've done, for example, a Shakespeare course at the Actors Centre, and you had a wonderful director do it, you can put that on. Really, on your profile, you should have the jobs that you've done. If you've done any R&D, that's different from workshops. So if you've done a research and development job in a theatre, or a reading with a reputable director or company, then that should go on your Spotlight profile. But no, not necessarily, no. Just keep them going. Just keep them going so you know what you're doing. Keep those workshops going. That's what the Actors Centre is for, for God's sake.
Christina Carè: Keep honing your craft.
Esta Charkham: Absolutely. And you never ever stop learning.
Christina Carè: And is it okay for people to keep asking you for representation? If they've asked you once and you haven't responded, or if they've asked you to see a show, and you haven't been able to go, when does it become pestering?
Esta Charkham: It's just interestingly, today, a young man sent me ... In September, a young man sent me an email asking me ... Sending me his showreel, and his headshots, and asking me for advice. And I said, "I'm really sorry, I don't have room to represent you." So then he wrote again, and said, "Well, can you give me some advice?" And I said, "If I gave advice to every actor who wrote to me asking me for advice, I would not be able to look after the actors that I do look after. I'm really sorry, I really can't take on anybody else in your age group."
Blow me down, he wrote again today with five new headshots, all full clogging up the email and everything. I haven't responded yet, I've flagged it to respond to. But I think if somebody says, "No." You must say, "No." Unless you've got ... Unless you've been hired at the Finborough to do a fabulous new play, then great, ask everybody to come.
Christina Carè: Right, so if you've got something new to show or something new to invite someone to, that's a good opportunity to write again. But wait until then.
Esta Charkham: Not new headshots.
Christina Carè: No. Okay.
Esta Charkham: Yeah.
Christina Carè: I've only got a couple more questions for you, Esta.
Esta Charkham: Go on then.
Christina Carè: And more about you, and your thoughts about the industry.
Esta Charkham: Yeah.
Christina Carè: The first one I want to ask you is, what is the most satisfying part of your job?
Esta Charkham: What is the most satisfying part of my job? This is difficult to explain, but it doesn't matter if it's in a rehearsal session on a Saturday morning with the children, or if it is watching somebody in the theatre, or in a Fringe theatre, or seeing something on television. If it is one of my babies, and be that whether they are seven, or 45, I get a lump in my throat, and I want to cry. It's a gut pride. And for me, that is the most satisfying thing, knowing that I spotted it, nurtured it, and got it into the right place.
Christina Carè: That's a lovely answer. It's a very genuine place that that comes from I think.
Esta Charkham: And I do. I mean, I do. We have a 17-year-old boy who started with us when he was seven. I'm going to put this ... His mother phoned and said, "I met somebody at the cricket club who said you might be able to help. He's not very keen on cricket, and he runs around the house waving a ruler, and with a scarf around his neck. Can you help?" I said, "Yes, that's a sword and a cloak." She said, "Ah, yeah. Of course, it is."
So, he came at seven, he's worked consistently. He's now at college doing filmmaking and creative writing. And he's made a film on unconscious bias that he's made as a project for work. But we helped him make it. And he gave it to me yesterday to see. And it's a three-minute film. And I sobbed my way through all the three minutes of it because it was just wonderful. I was so proud of him.
Christina Carè: Yeah. So it's seeing that talent, whatever form it takes and putting it in the right place, as you said.
Esta Charkham: Absolutely. Yeah.
Christina Carè: My last question for you then. Everyone who enters this industry enters with a lot of hope, and with a desire to work in it a long time. What is, in your opinion, the secret to that long and happy career in this industry?
Esta Charkham: When you come into this business, you have to come in because you love it, not because you want to be rich and famous. Being rich and famous is really nice if it happens. But loving it, loving the storytelling ... And that's something that I haven't really touched on, that actually, every actor, producer, director, writer, should want to be a storyteller. And telling stories, and keeping on telling stories, passing them along, passing them down, passing them sideways is the most important thing. And that's what you need to remember. It's not about fame or fortune, it's about history, about stories, and about a passion for making an audience sit up and think, and enjoy I think. Does that make sense?
Christina Carè: It does.
Esta Charkham: Yeah, okay.
Christina Carè: That's a beautiful note to end on.
Esta Charkham: Oh, thank you.
Christina Carè: Thank you, Esta, so much for joining us.
Esta Charkham: You're very welcome. Very welcome.
Christina Carè: Thanks for listening to this episode of the Spotlight Podcast. If you like what we're doing, subscribe, and you'll always receive our new episodes as the pop up. If there's anyone you'd like us to talk to, or any questions we can answer for you on our podcast, just send us a message at [email protected], or on twitter @spotlightUK.