What's the difference between commercial and theatrical headshots?
In the acting industry there are two primary divisions. The commercial and the theatrical. Often an actor will have both a commercial agent and an acting agent. And an actor will have two different types of headshots printed at all times. The commercial and the theatrical.
Under the commercial side of this business you have an agent that focuses only on getting you in the door for commercials. The goal is a national commercial because that has a big pay check, but it can be a local spot sometimes as well. Some commercial agents will also rep you for commercial print work and voice over talent. In this side of the industry they need a certain sales ability on your appearance. Warm, friendly, trusting and vanilla is the primary image that is wanted for the commercial shot. Even though you see thugs, dramatic images of children and so forth in a lot of the commercials on the air today, the image that the commercial casting agent is expecting is smiley and light. Primarily that is what sells as far as getting yourself commercial work regardless of the character and concept of the commercial itself.
Because of this you will want bright or soft colors for your commercial shot. Blacks, grays and dark colors often do not work as well for your commercial headshot. I am not talking about the background. I am talking about your clothing and your make-up. Your photographer will help in regards to background choices in the studio or on location. When doing the actual shoot no matter what you are wearing or what your background looks like, you will want to aim a few in your head towards theatrical and a few in your head towards commercial.
Now, as a side note I should mention comedians here as well. Comedians have a little flexibility on their shots. But, mostly they take the concepts of commercial and exaggerate them. Meaning, the smiles are fuller, the eyes are wider and they are a bit more zany. Or, they have an act geared around a specific character or mood and get their shots based of that character. Emo Philips is more likely to have an odd possibly pouty look on his face with a bizarre outfit on. Janeane Garofalo on the other hand is likely to have a look that communicates a bit of annoyance or sinister look, especially towards the beginning of her career or after 'Reality Bites'. But Jeff Foxworthy would have had a somewhat normal really happy headshot, maybe with a beer in his hand, but you get the idea
Now let's talk about the theatrical headshot. A theatrical agent is submitting you for plays, TV and film work. There is a certain amount of professionalism that is looked for here because it's not just a shoot that will last a couple of days to sell a car or apple juice. These guys need someone who is smart, able and hopefully responsible! Trust me when I say that people are looking for responsible despite the dramas and recklessness of some talented actors and actresses in this business. Once you are known you can be as unprofessional as you want. But I might add you would be shooting yourself in the foot a bit. To hire Courtney Love for 'The People vs. Larry Flint,' the production company had to place a 10 million dollar insurance policy on her because of her known addiction to drugs. But, before you are well known, no one wants to hire a liability. That is why theatrical shots have stayed in that more serious tone. It actually comes from the glamour shots of Hollywood. But to be in an evening gown for a headshot will communicate that you do beauty pageants. To be in a tux you would be classified as a model, not an actor. So, you mellow down the clothing to fit for what you specifically need for your shots. You should read the section on Casting and Picking out your wardrobe to give you more info on this part.
So, in todays times you need a theatrical shots that really pops. It says I am here, I am damn good and I will nail this role with no drama and not be a liability. When you have that, you will get work in spades. That is a lot to say in a photograph. But, as a performer there is a certain amount of confidence and certainty that is expected. Showing that certainty in your headshots, without arrogance, will get you to the top.