Growing up in Atlanta, Shannon Purser showed a passion for acting from an early age, appearing in plays in elementary and middle school, as well as at church. A decade earlier, it might’ve put her on a path to become a theater major in college and maybe one day pursue a professional career in Los Angeles or New York.
But in 2009, Georgia enacted a 30% film and TV tax credit, transforming the state from a show business also-ran, best known as the home of Tyler Perry and CNN, into one of the busiest production hubs in the world.
So when Purser appeared in a showcase with the Atlanta Workshop Players at the age of 16, she was able to attract the interest of Rick Estimond, VP of the local talent agency People Store, which sent her out on auditions, where she landed the role of Barb in Netflix’s “Stranger Things” before graduating from high school and, ultimately, snagging an Emmy nomination. And she did it all without leaving her home state.
“It used to be everybody wanted to go to L.A., and we were always trying to get our clients representation there,” says People Store CEO and president Rebecca Shrager. “But now all those people want to come here.”
It’s not hard to see why. During fiscal year 2017, which ended June 30, 320 productions shot in the Peach state, including the hits “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” “Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2,” “The Fate of the Furious” and “Baby Driver,” plus series such as AMC’s “The Walking Dead,” FX’s “Atlanta,” CBS’ “MacGyver” and IFC’s “Brockmire.” Direct spending by film and TV projects in Georgia has risen from $67.7 million in 2007 to $2.7 billion in 2017.
“In general, productions are more open to the undiscovered kid talent here that doesn’t have the credits,” says Rita Harrell of Big Picture Casting in Decatur, Ga. “The first choice is to get kids locally, almost always.”
The reason is largely economic. Casting locally is cheaper for producers because it saves on travel, lodging and per diem costs. Those savings are effectively doubled when the actor in question is underage, because the law requires they be accompanied by a parent or guardian.
For the 2016 drama “Selma,” set in Alabama in 1965 and shot in mostly Georgia, director Ava DuVernay wanted kids who were not only local, but also had a small-town quality, so casting agent Cynthia Stillwell scouted church choirs and after-school drama classes.
“There was a certain patois that Ava was interested in hearing and a physicality that hasn’t changed a lot,” says Stillwell. “We didn’t want someone who was a Nickelodeon kid.”
As a general rule, Georgia kids tend to be less over-the-top and precocious than their L.A. counterparts, according to Harrell.
“The kids here are not pushed as heavily to that Disney Channel tone because there is so much drama TV work,” says Harrell. “I think the acting schools push them to a more natural feel.”
As the demand for young actors in Georgia has increased, so has the local infrastructure serving them, from agents and managers to acting schools.
“Georgia has always had small commercial market, so we did have kids agencies, but not to the scale we have today,” says Kimberly Wistedt of casting agency Fincannon & Assoc. A few years ago, “we probably worked with five or six go-to offices, and now within Atlanta alone there are at least 30.”
Most Georgia-shot projects are not set in the state or anywhere else in the South; for instance, “Stranger Things” takes place in Indiana, so casting directors are usually looking young actors with neutral American accents, but that’s rarely a problem for Georgia kids, according to says casting agent Shay Bentley-Griffin of Chez Studios in Atlanta.
“You’d probably be surprised how many of the young actors have no accent,” says Bentley-Griffin. “But if you’re going to need one, they’re going to be the best experts at how to create one and make it real.”
Often, Atlanta-based shows source their young talent not just from Georgia, but the entire Southeastern U.S.
“We can’t find every role in Atlanta proper, because it hasn’t grown to be Hollywood or New York yet,” says Wistedt. “So we look with a 500-mile radius: Texas, the Carolinas, Florida, Louisiana and Tennessee.”
For instance, for the role of teenage Haley Clark in season four of the Atlanta-shot AMC series “Halt and Catch Fire,” Wistedt found Susanna Skaggs, a 15-year-old North Carolina resident whose only previous acting experience had been in school plays and community theater.
Now that self-taping auditions have become an accepted practice with casting directors, there’s even less motivation to abandon the comforts of home for L.A.
Atlanta-based child actor Will Buie Jr.’s taped audition landed him a role in a Marc Cherry pilot starring Reba McEntire that was cast out of L.A. and shot just two blocks from his house. The pilot wasn’t picked up as a series, but he’s since landed a regular role on the Disney Channel series “Bunk’d,” shot in L.A.
To help him get these gigs, Buie enlisted Mitchell Gossett, an L.A.-based agent with CESD Talent Agency, to complement his Atlanta-based agents at People Store. Fellow People Store client Purser also has L.A. representation via manager Matthew Shelton at Link Entertainment and talent agency UTA.
Gossett says that once young actors reach a certain level of success, it’s almost inevitable that they spend at least part of the year in L.A., but Georgia is a good place for them jumpstart their careers no matter where they come from.
“There are now people from drama programs across the country who are moving to Atlanta after graduation to try to buff up their resume for a year or so, almost like an industry gap year,” says Gossett. “And based on a consistent regimen of auditioning, they’re able to hone their skills.”