Nicki van Gelder, director of leading London actors agency Conway van Gelder Grant, counts among her clients stars including Brian Cox, David Harewood and Jaime Winstone. With over 25 years’ experience in the business, she’s ideally place to offer some advice to those starting out in film, whether actors, directors or young people hoping to follow in her footsteps.
When it comes to taking on new clients, what are you looking for?
You have to think they’re good. Really it’s very simple. And I’m not always going to go for someone who’s absolutely beautiful or handsome. It could be someone tiny and characterful and who’s just really interesting.
And what should actors look for in an agent?
They should look for an agent they can trust. I would say a lot of actors will go by the reputation of the [agent's] company, but in the end what I would say and what my colleagues would say is that if they’re in the room with people, they’ve just got to think, ‘who do I feel at ease with? Who do I think I can phone up and talk to about anything?’
Presumably you receive a lot of requests from actors looking for representation…
We get a huge amount of emails now and I say no to 90%. Usually for me it’s going to be a recommendation, or if it’s someone quite established either they might phone or someone they know very well might phone to say, ‘so and so is looking for a new agent, would you be interested?’
So what’s the best way to get your attention?
We’re not really looking for that many more clients. That’s the difficulty. I don’t know that many agents that are. Interestingly about two years ago someone wrote to me and I read his email because he’d had the most incredible reviews for a play I’d ever seen at the Southwark Playhouse. They were so good that I said to Kat [Oliver, a fellow agent at Convey van Gelder Grant], ‘I can’t go, but you should go and see him because clearly what they’re saying is great’. And she did and we took him on.
What happens when you and a client disagree on the best course for her or his career?Mostly we don’t disagree because, again, they trust what I think. It happened with a client – I don’t think he was wrong but he got offered the lead in a television series and he didn’t want to do it because it was ITV and he thought that even though it would make him a huge name it wasn’t the kind of thing he necessarily wanted to be associated with. And I saw his point. I was in two minds as to whether he was right or not, but he was very clear that he didn’t want to do it so…I would never say, ‘well that’s it then’ because I respect him hugely as an actor and a little bit of me understood why. It doesn’t happen very often.
How do you deal with clients’ crises of confidence?
A lot of what we do – certainly what I do – is like being a councillor. I try to be incredibly positive. If someone has a crisis of confidence because they’re not working, which is most likely, you just try to make them feel that it will change. And hopefully it will.
What’s the ideal way for an agent and a client to ‘break up’?
A client would probably leave you if they’re not working, most likely. I have asked a couple of them to go. I would always make sure I phrase it – on the phone usually or sometimes in a letter – that it’s absolutely to their advantage that they leave, not their fault at all but I’m just not feeling that the relationship is working. And that’s quite genuine. I’ve a couple of people actually who work a lot who I just didn’t have the right relationship with. It’s not anyone’s fault, it just didn’t work. And I can’t work with people unless I have a really, just a good relationship, like a friendship. It comes down to personality.
What tips do you have for young people interested in following in your footsteps?
Write to all the good agencies, because most take interns now for two or three months. We definitely take interns now. One of the interns we had here is now working at an agency.
What advice do you have for emerging filmmakers hoping to cast your clients in short films or low budget features?
I think we’re quite good at that in our office. We will take it seriously. [An approach has] got to be pretty well presented. I won’t have 99% of my actors meeting for a short film, just because they’ve done too much; maybe one of the young ones. They’ve absolutely got to have a script and I would expect everyone to be paid something. I won’t have them doing it for nothing. I think if you can get a casting director or maybe a young producer who happens to have made some contacts. A lot of agents are going to just ignore it because they want to know about money. We really don’t. We make sure in the office that if there’s a short film, if it’s for a client in particular, we absolutely just send it to them and say, ‘this is really low budget, but if you like the script, do it, if you don’t, don’t’. In the end it’s up to the client.
© Jo Caird