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Tracey Jacobs remembers being at home, channel-surfing one Sunday night, when she happened upon “21 Jump Street,” the Fox series about a bunch of undercover cops who infiltrated what was then known as the youth culture. She was struck by the presence of a young actor named Johnny Depp.
“My Lord, I’d never seen a guy like this before,” says Jacobs, now a partner at UTA. “He was making fun of everything. It was so subtle what he was doing, on a show that could have been so mundane.” She vowed, “I have to represent this guy.”
Only problem: Jacobs didn’t know anyone who knew him. When she did find one person who was friendly with Depp’s mother, Betty Sue, she placed a cold call. Somehow, instead of a hang-up, the two women developed a rapport and Depp’s mom asked her son to take a meeting.
Depp stood Jacobs up three or four times before they finally got together, but when they did, they bonded immediately. Jacobs soon landed Depp his first major starring role in John Waters’ “Cry-Baby,” then pleaded with Tim Burton, who originally wasn’t interested, to consider Depp for “Edward Scissorhands.” That was the beginning of one of the great actor-director collaborations and a monument to Jacobs’ work.
“It gave me real happiness and joy that I could bring those two people together,” she says. As for her own nearly 25-year association with Depp, she adds, “I think we have the perfect partnership. It’s not always easy, but I knew what the goals and agenda were, and he had all the gifts and the talent.”
Jacobs’ pursuit of Depp illustrates the combination of qualities — shrewd intuition, innate confidence, a certain fearlessness and unrelenting persistence — that combine to create a good agent. And other women who have risen to the top of the agenting world recount similar eureka moments.
It was in Toronto, for example, that CAA agent Hylda Queally first spotted a then-teenage Kate Winslet in Peter Jackson’s 1994 film “Heavenly Creatures.” She immediately hopped a plane to London, set up a lunch and has been working with Winslet ever since.
Toni Howard, who heads motion picture talent for ICM, remembers being summoned to the set of “The Addams Family” by Anjelica Huston back in 1991 to meet Christina Ricci, then just 10. “She’s the real thing,” Huston attested.
One of WME partner Michelle Bohan’s first clients was Ashley Judd, who was still overshadowed by musical mother Naomi and half-sister Wynonna when Bohan began laying the groundwork for a film career. “As I made the transition from assistant to agent, I helped develop her, and that gave me a reputation for nurturing talent,” Bohan says.
Nurturing talent, taking a true mentor role with their clients, is something all these women point to proudly. Many of them were influenced by mentors of their own.
Howard watched Sue Mengers, the dominant woman agent during the ’70s, go toe-to-toe with all the men around her. Jacobs looked to producer-executives Paula Weinstein and Sherry Lansing.
“Sherry was also from my home town of Glencoe, Ill., so she always went out of her way to help me,” Jacobs says.
But it was the late Sam Cohn, who hired Jacobs when she moved from Triad to ICM, whom she considers her real mentor. “I met Sam at the Beverly Hills Hotel,” she recalls. “I literally got out three sentences, and he said, ‘You’re hired.’ His belief in his clients always impressed me. He really strategized some of the most brilliant deals and he was so involved in movies that would never get made today.”
Although nurturing might be viewed as a woman’s role, the top women agents universally reject the notion that they approach their jobs differently from their male colleagues.
“I’d like to think any and all of us have an equal amount of power to the most powerful men. We’re certainly just as competitive with Bryan (Lourd) and Kevin (Huvane) and Patrick (Whitesell) and the rest of them as anyone else,” says Jacobs, citing rivals at CAA and WME.
Howard seconds that notion, but acknowledges, “I do think the best talent agents are women or gay men. When they’re talking to actors, they have a little more empathy. I’ve been an agent for over 25 years and have only found it an advantage to be a woman.”
Neither she nor any of these reps grew up dreaming of becoming an agent.
As a young woman, Howard scored a summer job at the Mirish Co., where she rubbed shoulders with legends like Billy Wilder. “I was looking for a husband and, for a while, no one married me,” she says. So she bided her time, first working as an assistant to Freddie Fields, who presided over the hot CMA (a forerunner to ICM), before establishing herself as a casting agent, working on such films as “Tootsie” and “The Right Stuff.” “Working as a casting agent, I honestly thought that all agents ever did was give you incorrect availabilities,” she recalls.
In Chicago, Jacobs was writing commercials for Leo Burnett when she decided to drive to L.A. and crash on a friend’s couch. Spotting a wanted ad for a children’s agent, she talked her way into the job — pay: $12,000 a year — even though she had no experience. Suddenly, at age 24, she was representing Justine and Jason Bateman; putting Justine on “Family Ties” was one of her first coups. But it wasn’t until Nicole David and Arnold Rifkin invited her to join Triad that she felt she’d landed her first real job.
For Queally, who was raised on a farm in Ireland, a job as David’s assistant also provided entry into Hollywood, though she had worked as an agent in Dublin, where she originally operated from a pay phone and hung out at the Shelbourne Hotel, keeping an ear out for a foreign accent, which could mean a producer was in town to shoot a film.
“I was a regular Broadway Danny Rosie,” she quips. At one point, she had clients in a French production in Westport, County Mayo and a German production in Galway, so she would take the train to County Mayo to collect French francs and then hitchhike to pick up the German marks. Irish films were a rarity; her business boomed while Jim Sheridan’s “My Left Foot” was shooting, but then when the prospects for local production dimmed, she decided to try her luck in Hollywood.
Paradigm’s Debbee Klein, unlike many of these agents, had an early fascination with TV. Growing up in a family of lawyers, she remembers waiting every September for the fall preview edition of TV Guide.
While at UCLA, she lucked into a summer job at Norman Lear’s Tandem Prods., where she was invited to sit in on the entire production process. By 20, she’d become a full-fledged agent at the small Irv Schechter Agency, where, over time, she built a TV list, which she brought with her when Sam Gores invited her to join Paradigm in 1997.
One strategy that enabled a number of these agents to stake out their own turf was developing distinct specialties.
ICM’s Nicole Clemens, who knocked around as a development and production exec before joining that agency, carved out a niche of her own by starting a life-rights division, jumping on names in the news that projects could be built around and snapping up magazine articles like Ken Li’s “Racer X” that ignited “The Fast and the Furious.”
Former music journalist Erin Culley, now at CAA, was about to take over editing the Random Notes section of Rolling Stone magazine when she got an unexpected call from CAA’s Brian Loucks, asking, “Have you ever thought of becoming an agent?” She hadn’t, but they hit it off over lunch, and today she works with the agency’s music clientele, grooming them to make the transition to TV and film. “Now it’s not as much of an out-of-the-box idea” as it was in the mid-’90s when she started, says Culley, who has helped Alanis Morissette land an acting gig on Showtime’s “Weeds” and “American Idol’s” Fantasia make her Broadway debut in “The Color Purple.”
All these women face jobs that can easily claim their every waking hour. Striking a balance between work and home isn’t easy, and that may be more difficult for women expected to do double duty as mothers. Their mania for BlackBerrys makes things worse.
Culley got in a rare fight with her boyfriend during a vacation in Hawaii, when he threatened to throw her BlackBerry out the window. Last Christmas, at a family meeting, Queally’s clan, which includes three children, threatened not to go on a trip to Hawaii unless she surrendered her BlackBerry. “We struck a compromise,” she says. “When we’re on vacation, I get it for one hour a day, just so I can know what’s going on as opposed to wondering about what’s going on.”
When Klein joined Paradigm, she warned Gores that she needed family time in the evening, but promised, “I will sign more people in carpool lines than most people will in a year.” Even though she’s home in the evenings, she says she’s often e-mailing clients like producers Marc Cherry or Shane Brennan.
“You have to really try to separate you social life from your professional life,” says Jacobs, who tries to carve out some time for herself on Saturdays and is happy if she can steal away with her pit bull Sugar. “It’s important to have them both.”
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