THR's Women in Entertainment 2011: Power 100
9Lorrie bartlett has a confession to make.
"I'm so obsessed with KDAY right now, you know, the old-school hip-hop station?" says the ICM agent in a tone way too bubbly for this early hour on a Monday morning. "On the way to work today I heard 'Sorry Miss Jackson,' and I was doing my dance in the car. By the time I got to the morning meeting, I felt like, 'Wow, there's nothing I can't do today!' "
Sitting with Bartlett in a conference room overlooking Century City, one learns quickly that her eerie peppiness is just one quality that sets the 48-year-old apart from her peers. The first black agent -- male or female -- to lead a talent department at a major agency, Bartlett speaks about her work with passionate but frank warmth. It's a no-nonsense vibe that has allowed her to keep, woo, sign and cultivate such valuable talent as Zoe Saldana (Avatar), Eric Stonestreet (Modern Family), Emmy Rossum (Shameless) and Kelly Macdonald (Boardwalk Empire) while also expanding the resumes of established movie stars including Josh Duhamel, Mira Sorvino and Michael Keaton.
Whether it's for a summer tentpole, indie film, miniseries or network comedy, Bartlett says she applies the same sensibility when counseling clients. "We are here to elevate people's careers, not sell in volume," she says. "With every decision, there has to be serious, careful consideration of why or why not to proceed with a certain project. Everything should add value. As a talent, you never want your agent feeling like a used car salesman."
Bartlett's instincts for quality control were first sparked when she was a kid, one of two, growing up in the small town of Monrovia, Calif., just east of Pasadena. As "the kid with her nose in a book on family road trips," she was especially impressionable when it came to her father, Robert, who spent time away from his job at a trucking company to act as city mayor to the tune of $100 per month.
She recalls a colorful story that had Robert flying to Detroit to procure an unscheduled meeting with Lee Iacocca, then president and CEO of Chrysler, to request that the executive not pull his company's dealerships out of economically depressed Monrovia. "He told him, 'Our city will be a disaster,' so Iacocca decided to keep them there a few more years," recalls Bartlett. "I loved the drive he had, the idea that you can't take no for an answer. My dad was definitely my role model."
Bartlett also showed early leanings toward entertainment in the form of movie-soaked summers spent with her maternal grandparents. "I loved to be entertained," she says. "I think I had an early, very serious admiration for people who could create, who could act. I could never do that! When you see people who are such good actors or you read an amazing script … to this day, I'm constantly amazed. It makes me very happy that I actually still feel this way."
Perhaps sensing she couldn't actually make a living based on how "enamored with Hollywood" she felt, Bartlett opted to study diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College. She landed her first job at 20, while still in school, answering hotline calls for the Rape Prevention Education Program at UCLA. Despite loving the mission of her work there, Bartlett still had an itch for Hollywood, and after graduation, she decided to revisit her early admiration for artists -- "Working at an agency seemed the world's biggest playing field," she says -- and won a coveted position at William Morris on the desk of literary agent Bobbi Thompson and, two months later, under talent agent Joan Hyler. Although she enjoyed watching her mentors cultivate talent such as Tim Burton and Gus Van Sant, Bartlett felt lost among the masses of would-be superagents. "Those two women were great, but there were a lot of politics -- I just didn't feel comfortable in my skin there," says Bartlett. "It was like a lot of mini-agencies under one umbrella. There wasn't much solidarity."
It was around that time that Bob Gersh was looking to infuse new energy into his agency and in 1992 hired Bartlett, making her a full-fledged agent less than a year later. One of Bartlett's first clients at Gersh offered her the opportunity to test-drive her creative instincts: In the mid-1990s, Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz was seeking to branch out into movies and turned to Bartlett for counsel. After some film parts came and went (Paul Rudd's breakout role in the 1995 comedy Clueless was initially offered to Horovitz), Bartlett sensed her client wasn't fully invested emotionally. The two decided they would put movie work on hold. "What surprised me about that first experience was how much he relied on me to discern the situation on his behalf," says Bartlett. "You really do need a working knowledge of who they are, and what they want, as people. 'This will add value to your career because …' -- you should always have an answer to that."
Bartlett spent 16 years at Gersh before landing at ICM in 2008. One of her star clients, Saldana, with whom Bartlett has worked for a decade, followed her to ICM (as did Megan Fox and Duhamel, among others). Saldana recalls her first meeting with Bartlett when she came to L.A. for the 2002 premiere of the Britney Spears movie Crossroads. "I was with my mom and we met the entire Gersh team," says the actress, then 24. "After, my mom said: 'I liked that lady with the glasses. She is very nice. You would be in good hands with her.' And I have been ever since." Saldana remembers one moment when Bartlett had to get tough with her. While promoting the 2004 film Haven at the Toronto International Film Festival, Saldana answered a news conference question, in her own words, "quite rudely," and had to face an incensed Bartlett in the green room. "She said, 'We do not do that. We're trying to sell a movie and you essentially told these people to f-- off? No way,' " remembers Saldana. "I respect her so much for never biting her tongue and always having my best interests at heart. We are definitely kindred spirits."
Bartlett says her long partnership with Saldana has taught her a lot about the business, including some of the inherent challenges of steering the career of a non-white actor, even one as bankable and beautiful as Saldana. "You definitely hear 'no' a lot more," she says, laughing. "I remember we were at the premiere of Avatar, and it was as if it were Zoe's first movie. I joked with her, 'How it does it feel to be a 10-year overnight sensation?' By then she'd already worked with Ashton Kutcher in Guess Who? She was directed by J.J. Abrams in Star Trek and starred with Tom Hanks in The Terminal. The business has such a short memory, but we look at it as a challenge."
This year, Bartlett was promoted by ICM agency head Chris Silbermann to her current post as co-head of the talent department alongside Dar Rollins and Adam Schweitzer. (She declines to comment on the recent report of possible shake-ups at the agency.) Her new post made more headlines than most corporate shuffles do as she became the first person of color to assume such a position in the business. It's a distinction that Bartlett approaches with a lighthearted reverence.
"It's funny … it never occurred to me that I couldn't do something because I'm black," says Bartlett. "Though, that's not to say I'm not always reminded when I go out into the world, especially in Hollywood, that I'm not Caucasian. I do want some girl who's going to Crenshaw High School to think, 'She did it; why not me?' That's what most resonates. I've sacrificed a lot to be better at my job. But I did it because I love it. And I just happen to be African-American."
To Bartlett's marquee talent, she is simply a great agent. Before she was an Emmy nominee for Boardwalk Empire, Scottish film actress Macdonald was at a professional crossroads and calls signing with Bartlett in 2004 "the best move" she ever made. "She really kick-started my career in the U.S.," says Macdonald. "She got me in front of the Coen brothers' casting director before they'd even started casting No Country for Old Men. She is more proactive than anyone I've ever worked with before. It seems an obvious way to operate, but you'd be surprised."
Emmy winner Stonestreet, whom Bartlett signed with a team of agents in 2009, says the agent "knows who she is" and never panders to the status quo. "I respect her calm, confident demeanor," he says. "And I love her out-of-the-box thinking and approach to my career and to show business in general. She has exquisite taste, in actors and otherwise."
Bartlett's tastes do every so often extend outside the realm of entertainment; luckily for her partner of more than eight years, Mike Clayborn, who works for the Los Angeles-based nonprofit food program PACE, they include football. "I tell him every Sunday, 'You are so lucky,' " says Bartlett of her weekend ritual at home in Laurel Canyon with Clayborn, with whom she has helped raise his 22-year-old daughter-and-son twins.
The couple also likes to escape to their family home in Orange County's Dana Point ("I drive over the hill and just … exhale. It's such a cool, laid-back spot," she says) and to indulge in Bartlett's many music obsessions -- most of the time together.
"We saw Mary J. Blige and Jay-Z together," she says, adding with a laugh, "but I had to go see Dolly Parton alone. He wasn't into that."
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