Interview: Bonnie Gillespie

Bonnie Gillespie

Bonnie Gillespie is living her dream by helping others figure out how to live theirs. She casts SAG-AFTRA indie feature films and series such as the Machinima zombie smash hit Bite Me which made the leap from web to TV with Lionsgate. Her weekly column, The Actors Voice, runs at Actors Access and her podcast “The Work” is available on iTunes.

Her books include Casting Qs: A Collection of Casting Director InterviewsActing Qs: Conversations with Working ActorsSMFA: The Ninja Within, and Self-Management for Actors: Getting Down to (Show) Business, which has been named one of The Top Ten Best Books on Acting Ever Written, and landed on the Tom Cruise actor resource blog.

TCJWW: I really enjoy how your book emphasizes on staying positive and true to yourself. Is there anyone who helped influence your mindset? Or is there a life event that helped shape it?

Gillespie: I feel as though I am the sum total of all my life’s experiences, so I think it’s probably a little bit of everything that’s led me to my worldview. Certainly, I’ve had people in my life whose influence is unquestionable.

My mother always looked for the lesson in everything, good or bad. One of my gradeschool teachers taught me how to be of service when facing extreme stress and peer taunting. My favorite aunt explained—when my life’s “Plan A” didn’t work out—that we’re all working our way through the entire alphabet over the course of our lives and to enjoy every letter. One of my graduate school professors encouraged me to make my own road rather than following a script. My husband lives by the philosophy that there are no such things as “good things” or “bad things” that happen to us—only “things,” and the grace with which we handle them.

I think all of that—and so much more—helped influence that I live my life in a state of positivity and self-empowerment. In the end, everything is a choice (and if there’s ever one particular thing now and then that’s NOT a choice, there’s still the choice of how we choose to react to the circumstances). I choose to be happy. So, I write from that mindspace.

TCJWW: When reading your book, your positivity and encouragement shined through, especially when writing about Hollywood—a business that tends to get a bad rep. How did you cultivate your voice within your writing?

Gillespie: Let’s start with how Hollywood can be brutal. That’s just a fact. Actors (and other creatives) feel as if they face a ton of rejection in the pursuit of a creative career, and they probably have family members who constantly encourage them to choose ANY other occupation, because ours is so dang unpredictable! Why add to that noise? Actors already feel powerless and as if they’re begging for work, always struggling, never sure whether there even IS a big break for them out there. My life’s work includes helping actors control those things they absolutely CAN control.

As for my voice as a writer, I have always written. Always. Journals filled with poetry, prose, short stories, songs, unfinished fiction novels, microfiction, creative nonfiction, and more observational journal entries than anything else line my bookshelves. When I was first paid to write (in the 1990s), I tried to be a little more formal and “normal” with my style. It didn’t work for me. Heck, it didn’t work for my readers or editors, either!

I began adding my personal flavor into my work and that’s when I started building a fanbase. That’s when people began emailing in to ask me questions about my columns. That’s when I began getting wonderful thank-you notes for the work I was putting out into the world. I soon realized that hiding from my style (a style that includes swearing, the use of the word y’all, colloquialisms, and more analogies than anyone else out there seems to use) was inauthentic and certainly not as much fun to write.

When readers meet me in person for the first time, they often mention that they can “hear” my voice when they read my words, and now that they’ve heard me speak, they’re excited that they’re exactly right in HOW I sounded in their heads. This happens so often that I know my voice is not just clear, but authentic to exactly who I am and what I’d like to put out in the world. What’s better than that?!?

TCJWW: What inspired you to write the book itself?

Gillespie: My then-fiancé and the hundreds of readers whose emails I answered over the years most inspired Self-Management for Actors, the book I’m best known for. My first book, Casting Qs: A Collection of Casting Director Interviews, is the first 100 (of a few hundred) interviews I did with casting directors, in writing for Backstage from 1999 to 2003. There was little creative inspiration in putting that book out, as an anthology was the logical destination for any collection of popular columns.

But the book that built my brand and that has spawned courses, retreats, and a collective of ninja actors all over the world, empowered by its four pillars is Self-Management for Actors. Its 4th edition was published in early 2014. The inspiration for this book included two major factors. The first, was that every single email I received while writing the “Casting Qs” column for Backstage, I would answer. Every question an actor had about the business side of a creative career, I would answer, based on my decades in the industry and the interviews I had been conducting. I was tracking patterns, the more people I interviewed, so I was able to speak to trends and overarching themes in a way that no one in our industry was doing at that time.

When I would provide a particularly brilliant or eloquent answer to a reader’s email, I would keep a copy of that email. I’d print it, actually, and place it into a three-ring binder, sectioned off based on the major themes of the first edition of SMFA. I didn’t know what was to come of these printouts, but I suspected another book was on its way.

The second—and probably more absolute—source of inspiration for SMFA was my then-fiancé, Keith Johnson. He had picked up and moved to Los Angeles to be with me at the age of 35, which is perceived by most as “late” for starting up an acting career. He had no experience and no training, but he had a great attitude for STARTING. He was open. He was willing to listen, when I suggested tactics—many of them ones that are still in this newest edition of the book, because they hold up so well, no matter how many actors try them out, all over the world—and seeing HIS success as he used each of the tactics I outlined solidified that this could in fact be of use to other actors. Basically, he was the guinea pig for Self-Management for Actors. Because he lived it, I knew I could help other actors who were similarly OPEN for trying something other than the standard stuff.

TCJWW: With your extensive knowledge and experience in writing, did writing for “Backstage,” a magazine geared towards actors, help shape your writing style for your book?

Gillespie: I really think my style evolved out of my journaling, blogging, replying at actor message boards, and emailing all those actors who had all those questions for years. The writing I was doing for Backstage was almost all interview style. I sat down with casting directors, transcribed our conversations, cleaned up the text for print, and really, that was it. Over time, I was hired to also write articles in my OWN voice for Backstage, but by and large, my work there was not similar to what would become my style in my books. Content? Yes. Style, not so much.

TCJWW: For our readers, can you explain what “booking the room” is? What is some advice you can offer to readers, writers, and possibly actors, in terms of “booking the room” in writing?

Gillespie: The “book the room” concept is one I developed for actors because actors tend to focus on booking jobs. They go in for auditions, they really want the gig, they hang a lot of hope on the whole experience, and they play small. Booking a gig is SMALL. That’s ONE role. It’s nothing.

Booking the room means you’ve created fans. You’ve built a fanbase. You’ve ensured that the buyers know exactly what it is that you do best, and then when THAT is what they need, they know to come to you for that. Talk about creating your voice, right?

If you’re constantly weaving and bobbing and trying to psychically figure out what it is that the buyers want so that you can BECOME that, you’re never going to become known for what it is that you do best.

That’s exactly the same for writers (and any creatives, really). It’s not about creating diverse writing samples so that you can have the broadest possible range that MAY appeal to a literary agent, it’s not about writing for EVERY publication that accepts submissions, and it’s certainly not about creating scripts that tell stories in every genre possible. It’s about doing what you do best (and better than anyone else, hopefully) and being so freakin’ consistent with your output (whether for pay or showcased freely at your own blog) that there’s no question what it is that YOUR VOICE is about.

Then, when the buyers need THAT, you’re their go-to. That’s booking the room.

TCJWW: Now that you have released a fourth edition of your book, how do you go about editing it? Are there passages you wish you had kept or deleted?

Gillespie: The good news about having first published a book in 2002 is that I’ve seen the evolution of publishing at a crucial time in the shift from major publishing houses being the ONLY way to be seen as a “real” author to not just the acceptance of self-publishing, but the overwhelming shift to self-publishing as THE smart way to get your niche book out into the world and make the most money from doing so. I’m thrilled to have entered publishing when I did, and even more excited that I turned down a deal from a major New York publisher in favor of the DIY approach, way back before it was popular to do so.

What this timing has taught me is that a book is outdated the second it’s published. Its contents are in need of constant refreshing, which is where eBooks and audiobooks and complementary content (downloadable PDFs and MP3s, live group phone calls, message boards and other online communities) round out the publishing experience. This means I never regret having left out something or having included something, because I know a book is NOW a living work, unlike a decade ago.

For the fourth edition of Self-Management for Actors, I actually cut a LOT of content that was in the third edition, in favor of dropping in statements like, “For the latest updates on this topic, visit for your SMFA Hot List.” With the creation of supplementary content available for download, and our free quarterly phone calls, we’re able to keep the book fresh!

Editing the manuscript itself is a labor of love. I have a team of 10 super-proofers who all lay eyes on my work and provide feedback. Still, errors make their way through. They always do. I remember being a student and getting pissed when encountering a typo in a textbook. Welp, here I am the author of what is now a textbook in colleges all over the world and it’s got typos. It ALWAYS has typos.

TCJWW: How did you transition from being an actor to a casting director? What do you enjoy about both roles?

Gillespie: I actually went from acting to writing to (briefly) managing to casting and producing (and I’ve always taught). My acting career started in 1977 and ended in 2000. I actually took a break to care for my mother who, at the time was ending her battle with pancreatic cancer. But the timing for that was really great, because within six months of writing weekly columns for Backstage (which I started doing in 1999), it was clear to me that acting was the BAIT that got me to my writing career. Writing for Backstage had been a survival job for my acting career, at first. Very quickly, it emerged as the path to my life’s work.

Because I had interviewed a few hundred casting directors, something that happened organically was that I was invited to sit in on auditions and to stay for producer discussions after sessions in which the actors’ auditions were discussed in great detail. This was amazing, in terms of participatory journalism (a field that has always intrigued me), but also incredibly illuminating for the content of my columns (and those emails I would answer, of course). When one of those casting directors who let me sit in later contacted me about a job on her team, casting a new show for FOX, I was totally not interested. Not at all! I knew how hard those casting directors I had interviewed worked, and I was feeling pretty good about the freelance writing career I was building up.

She was persistent. I went in for an interview. I didn’t WANT to go into casting, so I made the decision based entirely on money (which is something I never do). I was sure the first edition of Self-Management for Actors was almost ready to be written. I knew—from publishing Casting Qs—what it was going to cost to print. I decided, if this five-week job as casting coordinator for this FOX TV show would pay enough to print the book, it was a job I’d take. Period.

Sure enough, it paid EXACTLY what it would cost to print the book. (The universe is so cool, isn’t it?) So, I took the job, then left to write the book, during which time the office missed the heck out of me and created an even better position (and better pay) for the next show so that I’d come back to cast again, which I did. After that show, I left so that I could cast an indie feature film, because I was pretty sure my heart was in low-budget indies, not network television. One of my many actor survival jobs was at the Sundance Institute, so I knew these indie folks were “my people.” I knew I wanted to have my hands in the clay, not to do the more corporate casting that network television tends to be.

So, after one last show at FOX and another for the E! network, I shifted entirely into low-budget indies, pilots, and webseries. As with everything in my life, this all happened very organically and beautifully.

What I enjoyed about acting was the business of it all. I know. Weird. Most actors love the craft. They love inhabiting other people and bringing characters to life from words on a page. Me? I loved networking, calculating residuals, and, yes, getting the laughs and the applause and all that fun stuff too. But it makes sense that I would shift from acting to something much more in line with my desire to give back at the highest level possible. I help others reach successes far beyond the level I could ever reach as an actor and I get to empower people to live their dreams, whether that’s by casting them in something, by teaching them how to jump to the next tier, or by just reminding them that they have more control over their mindset in this crazy business of ours than everyone else might like them to believe.

That circles back around to the positivity and self-empowerment, doesn’t it? Hooray!

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