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Feature - Lights, camera, Action Talent Inc.

A town full of action sports heroes needed an action talent agency

By Kara-Leah Grant

There is nothing more attractive to watch than a talented athlete at the top of their game, and if that athlete is into the so-called "extreme sports" there is an added edge of allure. Think Tony Hawk landing a 900 at the Summer X-Games two years ago. Or Seth Enslow attempting the world’s longest motorcycle jump in Apple Valley, California. Even with the resulting Frankenstein-like ear-to-ear scar, the man has sex appeal. And of course, there is nothing sexier than a woman like Sarah Burke spinning a 1080 – the first female skier to do so. The advertising world, always looking for a new way to grab the attention of the prized Generation X demographic, is in love with action sports heroes and Whistler is a town full of action sports heroes.

It is a trend that Sherry Newstead anticipated two years ago when she started Action Casting. A pro snowboarder who’d appeared in a couple of films and commercials, Newstead was working in the film industry at the time, mainly on the production side.

"Any time there was any type of sport involved they would send me out to find my friends who were really good at mountain biking or really good at snowboarding," explains Newstead from her home in Nordic. "I started thinking there is obviously a shortage of people who are qualified to do this or there is no one who really knows the sport side of thing. So I started Action Casting as a casting service to augment what was already happening down in the city."

When casting directors call an audition, a hundred or so eager participants show up with their portfolio and perform for the director. But, if you’re casting for a commercial that requires a snowboarder to hit a huge table top, or do a 40-foot rail slide, a couple of photographs and a studio visit are not going to tell you anything.

"If you are casting specifically for skiers or boarders or skaters or any of the alternate sports, I can go out and find them and put them on tape," says Newstead. "I’ll do a casting session just like a casting director in the city would except I do it on site, at the mountain bike park, or in the terrain park. Most casting directors won’t go on to the ski hill and film skiers, so that makes it a bit of a different service."

Audrey Scalbania is the casting director for MVP 3, which is currently in production in the Vancouver area. Three young snowboarders, Tamo Campos, Jamie MacFarlane and Dan Barker, were hired through Newstead’s Action Talent Inc. to perform as special ability extras on the movie.

"Sherry’s kids are very talented. She is very competent prepping them for film work," says Scalbania. "The other option (to find talented young snowboarders) is to run onto the slopes and look for someone who looks good. And then start from there – but all that has been done, she’s done the searching."

While the film industry maintains an aura of glamour, Scalbania says one of the difficulties in working with athletes inexperienced in the film industry is they don’t expect the workload.

"For us to look for beginners, people who are just good athletes but don’t know the business, it’s very hard – it’s a 12-hour day," says Scalbania. "So, people will say, if you need a big jumper, why don’t you call Sherry Newstead."

Newstead quickly discovered that while the service she was offering was great for production crews and casting directors, she felt she could do more for the athletes.

"As a casting director I had no say in the athletes’ rates and having worked in the industry, I knew what they should be," says Newstead. "I felt a certain obligation to the athletes to give them the same opportunity to make fair money for the skills that they had."

So in August 2000, Newstead licensed her company, Action Casting, and become an agency, Action Talent Inc., representing talent with special skills. "It was a big step for me to license an agency," says Newstead. "I was hoping we would turn into a big company and I felt that there may be more benefits in the long run as an incorporated company and licensed agency. It means you mean business."

It was a step that has not just benefited Newstead and her company, but also the athletes she represents.

"I think it is great because in the past people would come up and do commercials and they would get the performers fairly cheaply," says Dave Alexander, stunt co-ordinator and Whistler local. "It may seem easy for the athletes to do big air but it is a skill that has been acquired over a long period of time and Sherry is representing those skills well. Those people are now getting paid for their skills."

Alexander says he thinks Action Talent Inc. has provided Whistler athletes with the opportunity to expand their earning ability. "The most important thing with Sherry’s company is it is giving representation to athletes that have taken a long time to perfect their skills. They are looking to make money in the film industry and in commercials," says Alexander. "Brian Savard is doing it. Eric Pehota is doing it. Matt Domanski is doing it, and they are all with Sherry. She’s got a lot of big name athletes that are ready to perform for the camera and do a great job."

Alexander was the stunt co-ordinator for a recent Kokanee commercial filmed in Manning Park. The commercial featured five snowboarders from Action Talent Inc. dressed up as sasquatches.

"I am happy to work with them because it makes me feel at ease if it is Sherry’s people on a shoot. They are professionals, which is calming when you are dealing with stunts on set," says Alexander.

Scalbania attributes Action Talent Inc.’s good reputation to Newstead’s hard work. "Sherry gives 100 per cent, she’s eager and keen and whatever has to be done, she does, and she goes beyond that," says Scalbania. "She’s a talented athlete herself, which definitely helps her understand the jobs – she’s not sending her athletes into a void, she’s been there and understands the industry."

There are over 200 people on Newstead’s books, everybody from big name skiers and snowboarders, to local skaters and mountain bikers. Her clientele have worked on a myriad of television commercials and films including Coors Lite, Salem Cigarettes, Sprite, Telus Internet, Bell Mobility,, a Blink 182 music video, Skyy Vodka, MVP 2 & 3, Air Bud 4 and Disney’s Magicians House. This is not just because using athletes in commercials is hot right now but also because Newstead has a wealth of contacts built up from her early work in the film industry.

"I knew all sorts of production people and when they heard about what I was doing they entered it into their data bases. Then if a commercial requiring an athlete came up they’d say, ‘give Sherry a call, she’s got all those athletes.’ That’s the way I wanted it to happen," explains Newstead.

Scalbania concurs. "Word of mouth is very important, especially in our business. When Sherry is on set performing a stunt, there would be 120 people watching her and then those 120 people would go to another set and say, ‘oh you should have been on that last show, this woman came off and did a 40-foot cliff into powder snow,’ so it spread very, very quickly."

But while Action Talent Inc. may have a good reputation in the film industry, Newstead was looking for more aggressive ways to chase down work. She found her opportunity in the Casting Workbook, an online service with offices in Vancouver, Sydney and L.A. It carries thousands of portfolios of talent seeking work, and hundreds of postings for casting directors seeking talent.

"Before I found out about the Casting Workbook I would just wait for the phone to ring. It would ring because people needed talent, and it does still ring, but now I can pursue other opportunities," explains Newstead. "I’ll read through the postings and maybe see a beer commercial. It doesn’t need any real sport athletes, but they need real Canadian guys who drink beer, well we’ve got those!" says Newstead with a chuckle.

At that time, the Casting Workbook had no section for talent to list any special skills they may have – and it is precisely those special skills that makes Newstead’s agency stand out from other agencies.

"One of the things that I requested from the Casting Workbook, was ‘hey, I can bring you all this extra clientele but you have to open up a special section for special skills so that our athletes stand out from the actors’."

Newstead says the biggest challenge facing her agency and the people she represents is, ironically, also their biggest advantage. Her talent is hired because they are the real deal; they are extreme mountain bikers, extreme skiers and extreme snowboarders. But that also means some of them don’t have the actor’s card, the portfolio of shots, the resume.

"It’s kind of tough because for most of my talent, it’s not like being an actor where your whole life is going to auditions," says Newstead. "Most people think, ‘well give me a call if something comes up’. But if something comes up and you don’t have a head shot, a portfolio and a resume then it’s hard to be competitive against an actor with a portfolio who says he can mountain bike. That’s the difference."

And that is why; as her agency expands and her clientele gets more work, Newstead is now insisting her talent have the head shot, the action shots, the demo reel, the resume and the annual membership to the Casting Workbook. Newstead wants her people to be able to compete with the thousands of professionals in Vancouver making a living through film and commercial work.

"As a performer you pay a nominal fee per year to put a resume, photos and a video clip on Casting Workbook and it is on line all the time. If it says Sherry Newstead, snowboarder and they do a search for a snowboarder I’ll come up, along with other people who are snowboarders."

It also means that Newstead is searching the postings and submitting her talent for hundreds of auditions they don’t even know about. "We might only get called for one out of 50 but at least you put your face in the running. From the Web site I can click on to my private workbook with all my talent’s profiles and send that straight to the casting director. I don’t have to put together a package, I don’t have to fax or e-mail or send anything by FedEx, it’s all clean and right there and instant."

At a yearly fee of $42, Newstead says the cost is well worth it. "If you really think you are that good and you are confident in your skills and who you are, then why not take that gamble? If you work a few days on set you’ll make a big pay cheque and maybe get some residuals..." says Newstead before adding: "For the cost of being on the Casting Workbook, you’d spend that in a night at Sushi Village."

As Vancouver’s film industry expands, there is more demand for fresh faces and directors want talent that can perform extreme action on demand. Newstead’s agency has leapt into that role. She’s taken the essence of what makes Whistler and Whistler locals different and is marketing it on Whistler’s terms.

"I’m really surprised because I didn’t have any expectations," says Newstead with a self-depreciating shrug. "I just thought it was cool if I could make a meagre living by doing what I love to do – staying active and finding a way to combine my years in snowboarding and athletics with my experience in the film industry. Everybody moves here not because it is a great place to make money but because it’s a great place to immerse yourself in whatever extreme sport you want to do."

And with a little help from Newstead and Action Talent Inc. it may now be possible to do both.