Words by Frank Connelly.
Images courtesy of Hutson Talent Agency.
It is not everyday that I have the pleasure to speak with a funny, vivacious Irish lass. But I was able to do just that, as I sat down over Zoom with Sylvia Hutson. Hutson is the owner and talent agent for Hutson Talent Agency located in Portsmouth VA. The Hutson Talent Agency represents hundreds of local and national talent for film and television opportunities.
Hutson has been involved in the Entertainment Industry for over 50 years. Her experience includes acting, teaching, and wardrobe for television and film- “when you are doing wardrobe for crew, you are there before anyone gets there and you are the last to leave.” She admitted to herself that she was not getting any younger (editor’s note: crew work is rough) after several of her director and casting friends recommended that she open an agency. There were several local agents who would call her and ask her who she would recommend because she was teaching acting classes. It was remarked by several of her contemporaries that she was practically a talent agent already without being one, so she gave it some thought, and decided to give it a try, especially since a TV studio she was working for was going on hiatus. She didn’t want to go on the road again, and would like to stay closer to home. She opened her agency, and told casting and director friends that she was now in the business. Hunter Thomas was her first client, who had worked with her previously on films in 2005/06. Over sixteen years later, the Hutson Talent Agency is still going strong.
The skills to be a talent agent are primarily based on the ability to network. Her experience acting, teaching, and working wardrobe allowed her to meet many in the industry. “The hardest thing to learn was whether an actor was being paid the right money,” she noted. She had to learn what the SAG standards are for an actor’s pay. Agent friends from other states also offered advice. The relationships before becoming a talent agent aided her success. Hutson believes that all her clients are more like family and is therefore more concerned about the personal side than the business side. She has gathered quite a following with actor friends who have worked with her previously on other projects.
The film industry within the local area, prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, was primarily based in the Richmond VA area. Several TV shows that included Good Lord Bird with Ethan Hawke, Walking Dead III (spinoff), and Swaggart. Swaggart was still shooting when COVID hit.
The last big film that was in the area was 2 or 3 years ago with Brian Cox and Udo Kier in Last Moment of Clarity. A big highlight for Hutson was meeting Brian Cox. She thought she was going to die and go to heaven. She went to the executive producer and told him that he had to let her meet him. Brian Cox was originally from Scotland. They both got to sit and talk for what seemed like forever. She said that now, “I can die a happy woman.” He responded that he has “killed many a woman.” She was so starstruck after seeing him in many movies over the years. She wanted to meet other top stars, however Last Moment of Clarity was a medium budget film, and could only have their top stars in locale for a few days.
When COVID hit everything was shut down. SAG-AFTRA and IATSE developed strict guidelines for the film industry. They are not going to use background anymore until the pandemic ends. (Editor’s note: this is another huge loss of jobs for our area) Swaggart is supposed to start back up again in September or October. Hopefully, Virginia and other states will get it together so that the film industry can be restored to any sense of normal. In the meantime, there have been requests for one or two actors at a time, such as a boyfriend and girlfriend, husband and wife, or people that have been in the same home together. Hutson just did a Sling TV Union spot in Richmond about a month ago. “Everybody wore PPE masks except when you were shooting. The set was wiped down. You wore your PPE, stripped off into your costume, shot your scene and then back into your PPE. It will be interesting to see where it goes.”
One of her actors, Gail, who is in her 70’s, got cast in a feature film when COVID started. The producers flew her to the Dominican Republic. Gail remarked to Hutson that she felt that she was in heaven. “She arrived on a Friday, had her costume fitting on a Saturday, Sunday was her down day, and she was supposed to start filming on the following Monday.” Sunday night Hutson got a call from the producers that they were going to have to send Gail back to the USA. The Dominican Republic was closing their borders, and everyone was being evacuated because of COVID. They flew Gail home, but Hutson was more worried about the flight because of the crowded airports and the possibility for transmission of the virus. Hutson implored the director to procure for her masks or other protective clothing. “They were brilliant and were able to get what she needed for her flight and travel home.”
Currently, Hutson still gets her breakdown express (requests for actors to play specific characters) through Actors Access (a website for agents) but all the dates listed are TBA or 2021. Current opportunities for actors seem to be mostly commercial spots in the local area where there is only one person. There was a PSA about COVID shot in Richmond, but with actors from the Hampton Roads area. “They had different scenarios such as ‘loving your Grandma’ while wearing a mask.”
It is understood that now is a very difficult time for actors while waiting for the film industry to resurface. Hutson advises that it is important for actors to enhance their skills and to enhance their tools. She recommends that YouTube is a great resource, as it has many workshops for actors. Actors should improve their video clips and ensure that their headshots and resume are up-to-date. “The industry is constantly changing,” she explained. When Hutson started in the business there were very few video auditions. Talent agents would have to drive to the auditions, and hand deliver to the casting agents a book with headshots. But now, especially with COVID, ninety percent of auditions are on video. Both auditions and filming are going to be done using Zoom. “Learning how to play with your camera and your phone, practicing scenes, practicing monologues- All of this can be done on your own.” Actors can also read, and watch videos. “If you have a favorite actor, watch every movie they were in, and try to determine what you like about their acting style, then try to emulate it. As an actor, you are constantly learning in this industry, otherwise you are doing yourself a disservice. Become a people-watcher- how they react when they get news, angry.” Hutson used to tell her students that our brains are like having several rooms and doors, “when you like what you saw, you would take it to that little room.” Hutson’s motto is that you should be like “sponges with your craft”.
One prominent request that Hutson gets is for an actor to be “real and grounded. You don’t even know they are acting but they can pull you into their world. Actors back in the 1940s would over act and be over dramatic. Directors want a more natural style, and rounded, in requests for TV shows and films.” Hutson’s definition of a good actor is “they can pull you into their world so much that you want to hate them, cry, laugh because you believe in the character and you do not see the actor.” The acting world is so competitive that you do not have the luxury to sit back and rest. You need to take the time to work on your skills.
Hutson also recommends that actors should also try to keep their names and availability active by responding to any submissions from casting directors or agents. Networking can happen through Zoom classes or grouping with fellow actors. Unfortunately, during this COVID period keeping your name prominent is difficult.
Sylvia Hutson is optimistic about the future of the film industry. She concluded our interview with her Irish lilt by saying “that there is a rainbow.” I must write that I believe her.
Interested in the Hutson Talent Agency? Check out their website.