A man of many talents… a talk with ARA’s Rusty Wiggs.

| July 13, 2013 | 4 Comments

I arrived in Wilmington in the late 90′s from Los Angeles. I now lament that at that time, I did not meet Rusty Wiggs of Artist Resource Agency. As fate would have it, I would not meet him for many years. More twists of fate would follow.  As it turned out, at that moment in time when my wife and I chose North Carolina as our home, (in large part because of a thriving film industry) the film industry in the state seemed to evaporate form here and float north, only to precipitate again once past the Canadian border. I secured representation and then after a few years of slow to no progress, sadly my agent passed away at  too young an age. I was busy raising my kids and just decided that my window of opportunity, as far as becoming a young leading man had passed and simply gave the acting thing a rest. After nearly a decade of auditioning only a few times a year and only working once in a while as an actor in locally made TV shows or movies, I thought of just ending that chapter of my life. At any rate, I had already stopped pursuing it and it was only because of the good graces of the Fincannons calling on me to audition, that I was able to work on occasion.

Something, nagged at me each time I began to throw in the towel. For starters, I never allowed myself to be a quitter, sometimes to my detriment. Then something else started to make sense to me and that was that I had grown up and could now be an actor for entirely different reasons. I could do it for fun and be more relaxed about the process. I was also physically older and able to go for more interesting and varied roles.

I finally talked myself into giving the acting thing another go and so when I had occasion to see Craig Fincannon at his office,  I asked  who he thought I should look to for representation. Without hesitation, he said “Rusty Wiggs at ARA”.  I dragged my feet for a while and then I called Rusty. We hit it off and agreed that I would sign with him but then for some reason, I dropped the ball. Yep, I guess I was just not absolutely convinced that I wanted to put myself through more of what I thought to be torment. Another year passed and I called Rusty again, only this time, he was not interested in bringing more talent to his roster. He said something to the effect of  ”Check back with me next year.”  ’How about that’ I thought, seems I have slowly, finally quit the business by default, by just not caring enough anymore.

Well after a some months, I called Rusty back and he took me in. Since then I have had some great opportunities, one of which would be to finally meet him and interview him three years later.

After wrangling with our schedules for a couple of days, we worked out a time and place. I met Rusty at the Causeway Cafe in Wrightsville Beach for breakfast. While we waited for a table at the outdoor bar, Rusty quickly set up his makeshift office. A note littered, dog eared steno pad sat atop a clipboard. He politely begged my pardon while he took a few calls and began discussions with a couple of actresses who were being considered for an industrial in Raleigh he was working on. I watched him ready a small wi-fi  device that insured his connectivity here or anywhere. He used his laptop briefly while I spoke with the hostess. This was a man who was not going to let things get ahead of him. Hey, while some are still perfecting the art of riding a bike while simultaneously chewing gum, this guy’s decided to throw in juggling and an interview. He would later tell me, ”The first thing in my job description is being accessible to my clients… being there for you all is my only real part in this process.”

rusty2Agents come in all shapes and sizes, this one looks like the kind of guy you might suspect had spent some time in front of the camera. In speaking with him I have come to understand this and more about his journey from being the subject in the scope of the lense, to becoming more a man who is not obsessed with himself, but rather a believer, believing in his career, in his faith and in the abilities of those he represents. He is an enthusiast and a catalyst for the industry. Having grown up in seat of Wilson County in North Carolina, Rusty is now a tall, thin attractive man at middle age, he looks you in the eye when he speaks. His eyes are bright and blue and his words ring with a kind of familiar North Carolina cadence and with honesty and sincerity.

We were called to be seated and took a booth inside. Rusty fielded more calls from talent wanting details of projects he had left them voicemails about. I even saw a familiar face or two of actors who I have come to know in the region appear on his smartphone screen. Then the phone was silent for a bit and I began peppering him with my questions.

Q: What did you do before you became a Talent Agent?

A: I was a musician most of my life. Since I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show… said I wanted to be a drummer. Drums seemed to come natural… pots and pans and wooden spoons were accessible around the house and that’s the way it started.  I made a living at it for a while, and then someone pulled me aside and said, “you ought to be a model.” Then I worked at that and that took off.  I worked all around the world in print and runway. It was while I was doing that, that every now and then, I got sent on an audition by my agent.

Q:  Oh, so you were and actor?

A: No, not really but I would get sent on auditions. I had no training as an actor but my agent would say, “…yeah, go do that, do this audition.”   I would sit in these rooms where I would hear these people practicing or auditioning and sometimes I would say, “Now that was good.” It made me realize that… wow, I am NOT an actor. These people who were doing it were trained, professional actors. Not just somebody who goes, “yeah, I want to be an actor” and just start doing it. The best actors I have run into have some degree of  training and background then you have a small percentage of isolated incidences where people are just natural at it with no training. So, I lived  up in New York and I said, you know, if  I’m gonna do this, I’ve got to stay up here for ten years and I do NOT want to do that.  I amassed everything I could, that had any value, sold it, bought me a sail boat and moved into the marina down at Southport.

I had realized at that point that God is a lot better pilot than I am. I was in the process of giving up that in my life and becoming more thankful. That time alone helped me solidify that.

Q: How did you end up in the film industry?

A: I proposed to an agency in Greensboro, this was in the late 80′s… there was really only one agency in the state at the time, JTA, that was specifically representing actors… really good actors. I was really in admiration of the way they did it. I proposed to another agency and said, “let me start a a division for you that’s just for actors, lets stop sending models for these jobs, lets concentrate on getting trained actors… getting them out there and getting the work.” He let me do that and it became very successful, the concept worked… we had a disagreement of ideologies plus I do believe this was Gods way of moving me from what I was doing to this… telling me, this is what you’re gonna do next.  I was let go and I was on my way home and I said, “Well, what have you got me doing now?” and Craig Fincannon called later that day and he said, “You got any clients yet?” and I said, “Man, I don’t know if  I’m gonna do this”, and he said, “Of course your gonna do this… this is what you’re gonna do!”  It was around 1996… It was Mark and Craig and Lisa Fincannon who propped me up and said, this is what you gotta do. It was a great bit of encouragement.

I had old clients who I had handled at the previous agency that started calling me up and I said “well, ok… we’ll try this.”  I started out with two clients, then three and five and six. I feel very fortunate to be able to do this and that this is what I’m supposed to be doing.

Q: What are the types of relationships you have as an agent  in the industry and how is each important?

A: Well, the only assets that I have are the clients that I represent. This is the greatest asset, it is tantamount to anything else. In my agency it’s just me. I don’t have any assistants or anything so I have to keep my roster small, so I have to look for the best people I can find. People that can get the work and thusly produce revenue and that I can feel good about representing.

The good thing about the southeast is that it’s not like LA or New York were there’s 150 casting directors, you know we’ve only got five major casting directors in the Southeast and that makes the relationships very intimate. The casting directors have good relationships with most of the agents here because it’s not like we have to get to know 150 of them who change regularly.

Q: What is the geographic range of your agency?

A: The Southeast. I’d say the five right-to-work states… North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Louisiana

Q: What are some of the highlights so far?

A: You know the great joy I get is seeing any actor get their first job, being cast the first time… to see that excitement… for something they’ve wanted to do, to see this come to fruition. It happened last night. I’ve been representing a girl for a couple of years now, she’s been auditioning… gotten a couple of industrials… she got cast in Banshee. She was just so excited. I tell you I got a lump in my throat and I about to again just talking about it. You see, an artist is a special kind of person. That’s really all I’ve been around all my life. I’ve seen the good kind and the bad kind… it’s a very special gift these people have been given. That’s a highlight, to see these people get work, especially their first job and to see my more experienced clients who work and who still get excited about each job.

Q: How do you select actors?

A: What I realized back when I was a model going out on auditions was that what God had given me was not the ability to act but the ability to spot that honest intuition within a person when it comes to their relationship to the role. I’ve been blessed.  I am very fortunate to have a group of the very best actors in the Southeast.  People that I believe in, people who I enjoy working with. People that are extremely valuable to me.

Q: What kind of obstacles have you had to overcome?

A: Typically, I really don’t have bad experiences. Everything I’m doing in my job is a learning experience. Even something that would appear to be negative on the outside, you know, it’s a learning experience, I learn from it and I grow.

Q: There must be SOME moments of challenge or difficulty, right?

A: It’s the empathy I have with actors, when they’re doing a good job, auditioning well and they’re not getting cast… having to help them to understand that they are in a business of such great numbers and we have so little that we have control over. The only thing we have control over is that moment when your standing there and with that script in your hand and you’re auditioning and you’re trying to bring life to those words on paper and you’re doing a good job at it and you’re not getting cast. It’s not that they’re not doing a good job with it, it’s just an extreme numbers game. You know, it might be that the director ended up casting his sister or his sister’s girlfriend’s cousin’s brother-in-law, you know.

Q: So you do your best and forget about it, and that’s as much control as you have?

A: You know, I’ve always said that I feel it’s very important that all actors have something outside of their craft that they get excited about, whether it’s gardening or cars or fishing, something that you’re passionate about outside your craft. So that you can walk away, so that it’s not hanging around you, you can audition and forget about it, you know, we’re always learning as artists.

Q: New technologies are changing, so is the way so much of business is done. What changes are you seeing in this business?

A: Taped auditions… actors taping their own auditions. It’s changed things drastically. For the actors, I’m sure it takes some getting used to. They want to be in front of somebody, they want to be RustyJayworking with the director or the casting director, they want to read with somebody. They want to have that relationship so it took a bit of time for actors to get used to that. Some people just jumped right to it. I had a handful of actors and I’m still losing a few now and then who say, “I just can’t do all this technology… I’m done.”  For me, I’m not a tech guy, I love four barrel carburetors and fishing rods, no technology involved… I love working on old muscle cars, that’s my thing. It took some getting used to, all the technology, but what I love and what I haven’t experienced in my 26 years is… I get to see my clients audition now… it is SO GRATIFYING! I remember the first taped audition that was sent to me, I thought wow… I’ve never seen this before and look at that… that’s great work. I immediately got excited about this and maybe for a selfish reason… and for me… it helps me to get to know my clients better. It allows me to be able to say to somebody, “Great audition”, which I don’t do most of the time… or on the other hand I go, “Yeah, you know, I’m not buying this.

Q: Do you ever take on new, inexperienced talent?

A: No, not as a rule because I’m not a talent developer, I like people who have had some… you know, the younger kids are not gonna have that much experience, so with those, I look for a theatre and drama degree… I look for work experience in independent film or work that I can see. We’re especially fortunate that we have a lot of independent filmmakers in North Carolina. You know, I’m able to see through poorly written scripts, bad lighting, bad audio… if the work is honest, if it’s truthful and in the moment, you can tell that in any environment.

Q: You are held in high esteem, not just by your clients but in the industry in general, what do you attribute this success and great reputation to?

A: What did Paul say in second Corinthians?… “Lest I be perceived to be more than I am, let me not boast on my behalf, let me boast on behalf of my clients. I have to give any of that to my clients, I really do. My dad always told me, put your uniform on and show up at the park everyday. Cause you won’t get a hit unless you’re at the park. He was a baseball guy, baseball was life to him and he could make a baseball analogy about anything.

Q: Sounds like you don’t want to take credit, maybe it’s just that you’ve found your dharma as some would say. You do what you love and you never have to work a day in your life, right?

A: Or, I’d have to change that a bit and say… ‘You do what you love and you work every day of your life.’ God owns this business, god started this business for me. I spent several years trying to figure out how to make this business work on paper. My dad was a CPA and we never could get any black ink on the bottom line. We tried and we  never could make it work on paper.  I prayed one night and I said, “OK, I guess this is where you’ve got me, you want me here doing what I’m doing with that agency at that time, you don’t want me on my own. Ok, I’m ok with that Lord. Less than a month later I got fired. Within two weeks… with Craig & Lisa and Mark and their encouragement… with the wonderful encouragement from the clients I had at that time, I began doing what I’m doing now… but God wouldn’t let me do it on my own cause he knew that I’d be arrogant. He had to take me down to the least form, so that to this day my only testimony is, I’m here because God wants me here.

Q: For actors seeking representation. What is a good approach?

A: For younger actors, really they should be… 98 percent really should be properly trained. There’s some great schools…  you get schools like North Carolina School of the Arts.. Catawba College puts out some wonderful actors… UNCW. It’s always nice to get yourself out there and get yourself cast in some independent films, do some theatre if you’re so inclined… have a good headshot, you’d be surprised at some of the headshots I get that have been pulled out of the church directory or somebody’s pulled it off their smartphone cause they thought they looked good that day at the beach.

Q: Speaking of head shots is anyone using paper anymore or is it all electronic now?

A: I haven’t used a paper headshot in a couple of years now. That’s why it’s important for actors to keep up their Actors Access account, their 800-Casting account keep it fresh, updated, because when I’m making submissions I’m looking at those and you know… that’s what they see of you now. But remember that it’s even more important to get your boots on the ground… getting yourself to a point where you understand your craft, immersing yourself in it and that’s not that electronic part of it. Getting yourself in a situation where you have to be a character, where you have to learn lines, where you have to do all of the disciplinary things that go along with being an actor. The best compliment you can pay an actor is if somebody looks at the screen and goes, “Wow’ that looks easy, I can do that.” And they get into it and they realize, what you guys do is not that easy. This man sitting at this table right now who’s interviewing me is not that guy that had a knife to his throat on that episode of Revolution. Before that night, when I saw that guy on TV, that is not the guy I’ve been talking to here today… and I’m telling you man, that just… that makes me beam. This reminds me of a phrase I’d like to quote… “Esse quam videri” it’s the Latin phrase meaning “To be, rather than to seem… the state motto of North Carolina, it’s on our flag. To be not to seem… that night when you had that knife held to your throat, I believed you… I believed that you believed that you were about to die, that’s not ‘seeming’  you were that… in that moment.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: I tell ya’ I show up every day and see what excitement this day is going to bring, cause you never know. I look forward to my kids being successful and dying on the front porch on a rocking chair with my wife… you know, everything else is just a job. Like I tell my kids everyday before they leave the house, “Find a way to make somebody else’s day better. You’d be surprised what it’ll do for your life.


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About the Author ()

Jason Saucier was born in Burbank, California and raised in and around New Orleans which is his family's native home. He began working in the film industry in the mid 1980's and has been residing in North Carolina since the turn of the century.

Comments (4)

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  1. I am truly a thankful and blessed man to call Rusty my friend, brother and agent. Terrific read! Thanks, Jason!

  2. Lorri Lindberg says:

    I have been working with Rusty on and off for the past 20 years. I just got back into the business and am so grateful to the loving support that Rusty has given me. He is an authentically good man with a heart of gold and a very smart take on working as an agent and as an actor in this specially place called the south. I am proud to be a part of his agency. Congratulations, Rusty. You deserve all the success out there!!!!

  3. Rebecca Brassard says:

    Wow!! So good to hear the name “Rusty Wiggs” again. You made my job as a video producer sooooo much easier. Just, “call Rusty” and he’ll know who can handle the part!! Dead-on, every single time!

    God bless you, Rusty…
    Rebecca Brassard

  4. Thanks for your great post….nice sharing…

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