The Chameleon Talent Agency represents Eastern European actors to British film producers. The head of the agency, Vlada Lemeshevska, talked to Kommersant UK about how to adapt to life in the world of British casting, how badly lines in foreign languages are really pronounced in British films and how to become one of the agency’s actors.
Let’s start with the basics. What does a talent agency do? In films, we’ve seen actors saying ‘Call my Agent!’. How does this work in practice?
Talent agencies represent the interests of actors. When a producer asks a casting director to start selecting actors for a new project, they either announce a ‘casting call’ or contact agencies directly, which then provide their actors for consideration. Later at the confirmation stage, the agent reads the contract, holds talks and negotiates the best possible conditions and remuneration for the actor, and so on.
Do you work more for film or the theatre?
We work in all areas; podcasts, cinema, the theatre, TV series and adverts. Most often we receive requests from film studios. It’s a little harder to get into the world of English theatre. Still, recently, one of our actors had an audition for a project with one of the major British theatre companies. They like to work with Europeans, so they often hire bilingual actors.
Your agency is very narrowly specialised; it only represents actors from Eastern Europe and post-Soviet countries. How did this come about, was it in response to demand, or was the idea to offer something unique?
The agency appeared in response to demand. In 2016, I founded the Russian-language Xameleon Theatre in London. We have already put on 12 productions, both for adults and children, and we’ve performed at festivals. This means I’ve met most of the professional actors from the former USSR who live in London. After a while, the casting directors of major TV and film projects started to contact me because it’s not always easy for them to find Eastern European actors; they’re not always visible to the industry. I got especially many inquiries during the pandemic when it was difficult for companies to bring people in from abroad, so they started to actively seek out foreign actors who were living in Britain, this led me to decide to open a talent agency.
Some professional actors from Eastern Europe have long been living in Britain, but they don’t always know how to get into the industry, so at the moment of selection, Initially, I had to do more than an ordinary agent; my wonderful actors had often had work in film but they didn’t have showreels, [a video portfolio of the actor’s best work- ed] or the necessary photos. You see, the artists often didn’t have an understanding of what the casting director required. It wasn’t hard to set this right, but during the early stages, I had to explain to the actors how things work here. These days, people know about the agency and we receive the portfolios of actors who are unknown to us. They already have good headshots [professional photo portraits -ed], showreels and CVs in the right format with a description of where they’ve studied and performed.
We currently mostly represent actors from Eastern Europe who speak English, Russian and some other language, such as Lithuanian, Belarussian or Ukrainian, although we already have plans to broaden our area of activity a little and become a truly international agency, without the focus solely on Eastern Europe.
What usually presents the greatest difficulties for foreign actors in Britain?
First of all, of course, it’s the accent. But that’s not a difficulty, that’s a fact. As well as running a theatre company and agency, I’m also in a group of volunteers who are currently developing a manual of guidelines for Equity, the UK trade union for casting directors and producers, and it was interesting for me to see that it’s not just actors from post-Soviet countries who encounter a certain set of stereotypes; if you’re French or German, then in British film, you’ll often play roles fitting stereotypes of these nationalities. Of course, like other foreigners, Eastern European actors suffer from their own specific negative stereotype; for men, it’s mafiosos or bandits of some kind, and for women, unfortunately, it’s either the wives or molls of these bandits or ladies of negotiable affection. Currently, stereotypes are the main difficulty that all foreigners have to deal with. Of course, it’s strange that stereotypes still exist at all, as, if you just go out onto the streets of London, you’ll see people from all over the world working in different spheres, from banking to medicine. It would be nice if actors were taken as multifaceted individuals rather than pigeonholed by national stereotypes.
The second difficulty for foreign actors is a poor understanding of how the industry works here and how it is different from the industry back home. For example, I know that in the Russian film industry the practice of making ‘self-tapes’, or prerecorded video auditions, came quite late and there still hasn’t been recognition that even well-known, established actors record them and there is no shame in doing so. Russian-speaking actors often say ‘Why should I do that?’ Why don’t I just go over to their studio and charm them all?’. Unfortunately, casting directors don’t have the time to talk to each actor. First of all, they have to sort through the candidates to see who best fits the role. At this stage, the self-tape is the most effective tool.
Do casting directors sometimes specifically require Russian-speaking actors?
Unfortunately, I can’t say that there’s a stable demand for this. It comes in waves, whenever there’s a fashion for plots with that kind of character. In 2021 and 2022 there were a lot of casting calls and approvals. Now it’s gone quiet there has been very little casting specifying someone Eastern European, much less Russian speaking. Time will tell whether the demand of the previous two years will come back.
As a viewer, I’d like to ask; if there are so many Russian-speaking actors in Britain, why is there such bad Russian in films?
It’s painful, of course. Again, this depends on the casting director. At the moment there is a trend for authenticity, but in these situations, some casting directors say ‘No one will realise the actor pronouncing this is a Czech who speaks Russian badly, rather than a native speaker’. To get a part, some people brazenly lie that they know the language well and there’s no one to check. This is one of the things I’d like to change. In Britain and throughout Europe, there are actors who speak every imaginable language, so, if they are presented properly to the industry, I hope that, with time, the situation will improve, so that, when a specific language is needed, a native speaker will get the role.
You only work with professional actors. But how do you assess their professionalism?
Primarily, it’s a question of education and experience. Of course, there are a great many examples from Hollywood of people who, by talent or typecasting, came to cinema without a traditional education at drama school, but many people forget that after their initial success, many of these stars continued their studies so that they wouldn’t end up as one-hit wonders. It seems to me that the main quality necessary for a professional actor is to be constantly able to study, doing new courses from year to year, as well as coaching and going to instructors. It’s a very, very, very competitive area.
Let’s say a young actor, either a man or a woman, wants to work in film or theatre in Britain. Should they think about going to a British drama school? Or is it better to make a name for yourself in your homeland, and then move to Britain?
I think that both paths work well. Most often, if the industry in an actor’s home country is not large, they move to a country with a bigger market. But if the local industry is thriving, with a lot being filmed and there’s a busy theatre scene, you can try your luck first in your home country. I think that it all depends on your individual circumstances and personality; some people want to move to Britain straight away, whilst others want to pursue a career at home first. British acting schools have a very high standard. (This relates to the need to be constantly working on your skills which I mentioned earlier).
So does this mean that rather than discovering stars who have walked in off the street, as some modelling agencies do, you only work with people who have been to acting school?
Yes, most often that’s true. Although there are exceptions; we signed a contract with the young actor Nikita Zabolotny, and he was recruited onto a major project straight away. Channel 4’s TV series, The Undeclared War, was looking for a Russian-speaking actor and by the time a mutual acquaintance put them in touch with us, they were getting a bit desperate. I sent them Nikita’s profile, (at that point he still didn’t have any professional photographs), they recorded a self-tape, then he had the interview and he was approved very quickly. This was great because it was his first work in film and it was such a huge project. But that was a bit of an exception for our agency, as usually, I prefer to work with actors who have the training and experience.
We know that there’s big money in the film industry, but is acting a profitable profession? Is it worth hoping for prosperity in this line of work?
Actors’ incomes vary, depending on the project and the type of work. Films and advertising are the best paid. There are recommended minimum rates set by the trade unions, called the equity rates. They’re explained in detail on the Internet. For the theatre, for instance, this recommended minimum is £500 a week. It’s definitely not worth getting into this profession for the pay alone. Sometimes you can get into a project where you’re paid £5,000 for a couple of days of filming while, at other times, you won’t have any auditions for several months. To avoid having to depend on this fickle and constantly fluctuating industry, it’s better to have an extra source of steady income, such as another profession or business.