When Leigh Brillstein got her start in the industry working for Creative Artists Agency in 1980 one of her primary duties was covering feature scripts for her boss Jack Rapke, a literary agent in CAA’s film department. The task of coverage-which requires readers to boil down the plot points and overall theme of a script into one or two succinct pages-is a specific skill, she said.
“I’m a very verbal person,” Ms. Brillstein said, noting that Mr. Rapke ultimately told her she didn’t have a feel for story. What Mr. Rapke did notice in Ms. Brillstein was her natural talent for coming up with names of actors who would be good choices to play the roles in the scripts she was covering. Ms. Brillstein made a switch by going to work for Mr. Rapke’s then wife, talent agent Laurie Perlman, who at the time also worked for CAA and repped Michael Keaton and Madonna. Ms. Brillstein said Mr. Rapke’s suggestion that she move to another department in the agency was a defining moment for her.
“I fell in love with talent,” she said. “I’ve been doing it ever since.”
After eight years with CAA Ms. Brillstein moved to International Creative Management, where she worked in ICM’s TV talent department, running the division from 1995 to 2000. After a rotation out of the top spot in TV talent, she was renamed head of the department in 2002 and has been serving in the post since.
Ms. Brillstein’s clients include “ER’s” Noah Wyle, “Law & Order’s” Sam Waterston, “The West Wing’s” Stockard Channing, “Arrested Development’s” Portia de Rossi, “Desperate Housewives'” Felicity Huffman, veteran TV actor Henry Winkler and former “Cosby Show” series regular and budding Disney talent Raven-Symoné. She also reps Thomas Haden Church, who was best known for his role on the early 1990s sitcom “Wings” until his Oscar-nominated performance in the 2004 film “Sideways.”
The business of representing TV talent has changed dramatically during the past few years, Ms. Brillstein said, because the network and studio strategy of making multiple talent hold deals, which kept actors in exclusive deals for development for an extended period of time, has fallen out of favor. In many cases, networks and studios ended up shelling out significant amounts of cash for actors who ended up doing little or nothing that ended up on the air.
“There used to be a time when you could call [CBS Chairman and CEO] Les Moonves about a star, and you could get a boatload of money,” she said. “The excessive talent deals are done.”
The divide between film and television continues to blur as well, with actors more willing than ever to both spend time in the feature film world and explore opportunities to work on a series. In the past, Ms. Brillstein said, she would have to explain to actors who worked primarily in film why being available for pilot season made good long-term sense for their careers. The benefits of a good TV role to an actor who spent most of his or her career in film are now much better understood.
“I’m doing less educating because they understand everything is shifting,” she said, “and they have to shift with it.”
By the same token, Ms. Brillstein said she has to remind television actors who have a three-month hiatus that feature filmmakers aren’t necessarily waiting for them to be available, and that film actors who have a break between projects can’t just swoop down into a series and expect an Emmy-worthy role to be theirs for the taking.
“In this business you have to maximize the television career or service your feature career,” she said. “It’s impossible to do both at the same time.”
In the current marketplace, Ms. Brillstein said, the pressure is on for actors working their way up the television ladder, particularly this pilot season, when name actors have taken roles that in the past would have gone to solid performers who weren’t necessarily known to a large number of viewers.
For Ms. Brillstein, shows with new faces are still dominating the airwaves, but in a form that does little to help actors. “They are not over,” she said of ensemble shows cast with unknowns, “but there are fewer slots because of reality programming.”
Title: Head of TV talent department, ICM
Date of birth: Sept. 12, 1958
Place of birth: New York
Who knew? After attending a game as a child with her father, veteran manager Bernie Brillstein, Ms. Brillstein became an avid hockey fan. She has two signed jerseys hanging in her office.