Do You Need a Stage Name? | Changing your Name for an Acting Career

Do You Need a Stage Name?

Written by on | Acting Industry

So many people in Hollywood have stage names that as soon as the credits start to roll, I get trust issues. How can I be sure that you are who you say you are, “Emma” Stone (actually “Emily” from birth)? And what about you Natalie “Portman” (who grew up as Natalie Herschlag)? It’s very common for actors and artists alike to change their names. But why? Do you need a stage name if you’re embarking on the actor’s path? The answer: maybe. After hours of digging, I’m pretty sure I’ve figured out this one for you. Or at least I’ve figured out how to figure it out for yourself.

A stage name is a name assumed by professional actors and other performing artists, for a number of reasons. Stage names can distinguish one actor from another of the same name, simplify an actor’s real name, or build on an actor’s archetype. Whether or not you should use a stage name will come down to these same factors. What you should change it to is a whole other question. But don’t worry, we’ll get to that.

As always, remember that this article offers up information and advice, but never an ultimatum when it comes to your acting career. Please keep that in mind before you dig up your birth certificate and potentially break your parents’ hearts by telling them the name they gave you just ain’t gonna cut it for Hollywood.

When to Change your Name

First of all, changing your name only really becomes a necessity once you reach a certain level of recognition. If you’re still on that very important independent theatre grind and you’re wondering about whether you’re due for a name change, you’re not. Of course, if you really want to, go for it! But you certainly don’t need to.

The most common reason that actors change their names is to distinguish themselves from other performers with the same name. David Bowie, for instance, was born David Jones and took the surname Bowie from a 1960s film called The Alamo. He did this to make sure no one mistook him for another English singer by the name of Davy Jones (of Monkees fame.)

The only caveat we’ll throw in here is that actors’ unions sometimes specify that you can’t have the same name as another performer in the same union. This rule varies, but is worth some research in your country/city/area.

Why You Might Use a Stage Name

Okay: let’s imagine you’ve hit it big and you’re on the route to worldwide fame. You’re landing some good roles, your agent is very excited and you’re being groomed for stardom. What’s your name in this scenario? Schnitzel Von Crummington III. As far as notable actors with the same name go, you’re pretty safe, but, wow… I mean, what were your parents thinking? 

While I do exaggerate with this example, if you have a complicated name—too long or too difficult to pronounce, or an unfortunate sounding name—it’s time for a change. You also may want to consider whether your name has the potential to pigeonhole you. If you heard the name Schnitzel Von Crummington III, what kind of person would you imagine? Some affluent, pretentious manor lord? 

Our brains are association machines and we can’t help but make connections and assumptions based on what we hear. A lot of big companies use this to their advantage to build an effective brand for themselves using things called “brand archetypes”. Actors can also take advantage of brand archetypes, and this strategy usually begins with their name.

Building a Brand

As an actor, your brand is you, so it follows that your name is also the name of your brand. We’re getting into my least favourite part of being an actor: marketing. As much as I complain about it to my friends on weekends over a glass of red, marketing yourself well as an actor is crucial.

Let’s talk specifically about archetypes. Archetypes are associated with psychology and also literary analysis, and speak to the common examples of character or behaviour that we might use to classify figures in a narrative. 

The examples listed below have their roots in Greek Mythology. I’ve provided a quotation to give you an idea of what each of them represent.

  • The Outlaw – “Rules are made to be broken.”
  • The Magician – “It can happen.”
  • The Hero – “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”
  • The Lover – “I only have eyes for you.”
  • The Jester – “If I can’t dance, I’m not a part of it.”
  • The Everyman – “You’re just like me and I’m just like you.”
  • The Caregiver – “Love your neighbour as yourself.”
  • The Ruler – “Power isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.”
  • The Creator – “If it can be imagined, it can be created.”
  • The Innocent – “Life is simple and simplicity is elegant.”
  • The Sage – “The truth will set you free.”
  • The Explorer – “Don’t fence me in.”

I’ve got some homework for you that you can do right now: Open Instagram and scroll to the next ad that pops up, paying attention to the company it belongs to. Then, try to fit that company into one of the archetypes.

Weird, right? Just about any company you can think of makes use of one or maybe a combination of these twelve archetypes. We can apply it to actors as well. Jennifer Lawrence fits nicely into “The Everyman” archetype—she’s relatable, humble, and down to earth. James Dean was textbook “Outlaw”—rugged, alluring and rebellious. 

The reason these archetypes work so well for brands is because people connect best with personalities, not features or benefits. When you get the chance, take time to figure out which archetype best suits you. It’s useful information for an actor.

Let’s return to our up-and-comer friend Schnitzel.

How to Choose a Stage Name

So, Schnitzel Von Crummington III has been working hard and recently landed a role in a major television series. It’s only a few seconds to midnight for Schnitzel but they’ve realised a few things about their name:

  1. It is too long and complicated.
  2. They will probably be made fun of for it.
  3. Everyone they meet seems to think they’re a wealthy English lord when in reality they worked in construction before their Big Break.

Schnitzel does some research on the twelve archetypes and thinks that they align best with “The Outlaw”—they’re a bit rugged from working outdoors all day and they have a gorgeous charlatan grin. Based on that, they decide to drop “Crummington III” and use the surname “Von”. Von makes a great surname: it’s punchy and it’s got a rough edge to it that fits with “Outlaw”.

As for their first name? Some actors use nicknames as a part of their stage name. (For example, Whoopie Goldberg was nicknamed “Whoopie” when she worked in theatre, because she was constantly breaking wind) Back to our friend Schnitzel, when working construction, their friends called them “Schnit”. It’s short and catchy, but it does sound a bit like a cuss. Something else actors do when changing their name is think about someone they’d like to pay homage to. Olivia Wilde took the surname “Wilde” to honour the great writer Oscar Wilde. Schnitzel is a big fan of Nicholas Cage. “Schnit” and “Nick” sound kind of similar, too, which is a bonus.

Schnitzel Von Crummington III is an eccentric aristocrat drunk on power and swan’s blood. However … Nick Von is an actor to keep your eye on. They’re known for playing the villainous characters you love to hate, and for capturing the hearts of everyone with their rugged charm and knowing smile.  

Sounds good to me.

Conclusion

The marketing side of acting can feel like a bit uncanny valley, as you’re effectively marketing yourself. Your name is the thing that people will remember, so it’s important to have a good one when you start to make waves. Even if you don’t need to change your name right away, coming up with a stage name for yourself is always a bit of fun. See if you can create one for a few different archetypes that best suit you. The names should evoke a certain personality or image, and they should be simple and memorable. When the time comes to make the change, you’ll be prepared with a few options in your back pocket. 

Hope this helps. I’ll see you, and your fabulous name (either stage or birth), on the credit roll!

About the Author

Frazer Shepherdson

Frazer (he/him) is a writer, actor and director. He has worked professionally in film, television and theatre since 2016 and graduated from the Victorian College of the Arts with a Bachelor in Acting in 2021.

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