‘What's in a name?’ as my teacher, Mrs Kywzpocycziecwsky-Smith, always used to say. How important is your name in your professional career? Will the name by which you are known make any difference to your success? Assuming you aren't going to use the name you were born with, what name should you choose?
As to whether using your birth name, or changing it will increase your chances of success, the simple answer is who knows?! Would Anthony Macmillan have been any less successful had he not changed his name to Robbie Coltrane? Or indeed Norma Jean Baker if she’d not become Marilyn Monroe? We'll never know – though in Monroe's case, the name she chose is somewhat more memorable as it is an alliterative, with both names beginning with the letter M.
Why might you change your name? It may be that you feel your birth name doesn’t sound particularly good, although there are some actors with very unusual names, which are not easily forgettable. It may also be that an existing member of Equity already has your name, and under their ruling no two members must share the same name. That said, as it is no longer compulsory to be a member of Equity to work in the Industry, anybody who is not in the union can now use anyone else's name. Take one of my favourite actors, Colin Farrell… he had to change his name when a good-looking young Irishman came along and landed leading roles in a few movies, using the same name (being Irish, he’s not a member of British Equity). Despite a prestigious career over many decades on television and with leading theatre companies, including the RSC, the Colin Farrell was forced to change his name to Col in order to avoid confusion. I received a phone call a while ago, from an actor whose name I knew well, inviting me to see him in a play on the London Fringe. I was somewhat surprised, as the actor whom I knew was playing a leading role in a hit West End musical at the time. ‘Have the producers given you time off to do the play?’, I asked. ‘Oh no’, he replied, ‘I’m not that Stephen, I’m Steven with a v’. Silly me for not realising! The duplication of names is hugely confusing for those responsible for casting too, sometimes resulting in the wrong performer being brought in to read for a part for which they are not remotely right – a waste of time and embarrassing for all concerned – and therefore should be avoided.
Your name is by far the most important thing about you and will (hopefully) be remembered for years to come, so ensure you’re 100% happy with your choice before launching it into the minds of potential employers. The first thing to do before your final shows – when you’ll doubtless be writing to agents and casting personnel – is to contact the membership department at Equity to find out if your name is available, or if someone has already staked their claim to it. This may be done for you by your college or discussed when a representative from Equity comes to talk to your year, but if this isn’t the case, do your own research, as, while membership isn’t obligatory, it’s well worth being a member, especially in the early years of your career.
So if you have to change your name, how do you go about deciding on the right one? Firstly ask your family and friends what they think suits you and if there are any family names that you could possibly use. You might choose a name that people may recognise from another context, such as Poppy Seed or Bill Durr; one that’s a soundalike of one that’s already famous, James Pond or Judy Bench, for example; one that’s doubled, like Norman Norman or Kelly Kelly or even a single name, like Lemarr or Madonna. While these may sound a good idea and be memorable in principle, choosing a name like this may affect your chances of being taken seriously in the Industry, so be sensible in your choices, making sure the name suits you, your look, ethnicity and personality.
Remember also that it’s far easier to change your last name and keep your first, as it the one thing to which you will always respond, having been programmed into your brain since you were born. On many occasions at castings, I’ve called out someone’s name several times… which, because it hasn’t been the name they were born with, they haven’t recognised as being their own! Choosing a last name that begins with a letter earlier in the alphabet will also ensure you’re billed nearer the top when actors’ names are listed alphabetically.
One thing to avoid is changing your name during your career, or indeed regularly, as this can be really confusing to those who know you professionally. Once we are told something that we believe to be plausible, our brain recognises this as fact. If, for instance, we met at a party and I said ‘Hello, my name is Anthony Dunn’, unless you knew that I was Richard Evans, your brain would accept this as true and whenever you saw me, you would immediately think ‘Oh, there’s Anthony Dunn’. If, some years later, I told you that my name is actually Richard Evans and not Anthony Dunn, you would accept this, but your brain would continue to think of me as the name it was originally given, as that is what it has always associated with me. It may be, as in Colin Farrell’s case, you’ll have little option but to change your name during your career, but it is usually an option taken by those who have bad reputations in the hope that people won’t remember them and they can start afresh (it rarely works!)
Whatever name you end up choosing, it’s vital to ensure that it is memorable. ‘Remember my name – Fame!’ may be cheesy, but it is actually very true. If you can’t get your name to stick inside the heads of those who can give you work, and indeed the theatregoing or TV watching public, then you might as well give up. My book, Auditions: A Practical Guide, contains some simple and effective techniques that will help you to make it unforgettable. I look forward to hearing, and remembering your name in the future!
This article was originally published in The Drama Student Magazine in May 2010.
© Richard Evans CDG 2010