Marilyn Monroe. Jamie Foxx. Natalie Portman. Kirk Douglas.
Hollywood has a long history of actors changing their names from the ones on their birth certificates. The reasons to change them vary depending on the actors, but one common theme is a movement away from something perhaps more common — to less. A transformation away from anything ordinary — to something more marketable, ownable, and/or memorable to the masses.
Sure, there were practical reasons to do so during the post-WWII Hollywood Blacklist era, at a time when antisemitism was more prominent. But now there are other considerations as well, as some of Hollywood’s biggest stars simply go by one name à la Zendaya or two, à la Lady Gaga.
If you’re born blessed with a great natural ability to act — but a long unwieldy tough-to-pronounce name (like mine), you might be tempted to make a change at some point. After all, Kirk Douglas’ desire to ditch Issur Danielovitch sounds like the kind of decision you can see yourself making if you’re gifted enough to play Spartacus. But even still, the late actor said late in life that he wished he’d kept his birth name, according to People. If he had, one only wonders if — and how — it might’ve affected the career of his son Michael. Or if he would’ve changed it himself.
In the spirit of debate, I asked seven Hollywood insiders in key areas of the industry today to tell us what they think about the importance of a name when it comes to actors. Also, under what circumstances, if any, do they recommend that people consider changing them.
Here’s what they had to say and please note, a few people quoted have asked to keep their names anonymous in the spirit of giving the most honest take possible.
“People ask me this question a lot. Here’s what I say: Make them learn your name. If we know how to pronounce Arnold Schwarzenegger and Saoirse Ronan, anything is possible. People used to change it to sound less ethnic, but now there’s a real appreciation for international talent. You don’t have to change it anymore to sound more American. But here’s the thing: Once you change it, it’s hard to go back. So, you better be sure.”
– Marni Rosenzweig, The Talent Manager
“It used to be that changing an overly ethnic or difficult-to-pronounce name was virtually essential for Hollywood success. Now, in a way, the reverse is true. Networks and platforms are looking for authenticity, as well as for the opportunity to tell stories from voices and perspectives not often heard from. A name that suggests cultural specificity can actually be helpful, given the scrutiny regarding parts being played by actors of appropriate ethnicity. Be who you are!”
– A Well-Known President of a TV Production Company
“I’m SO old school and I think there is a lot of meaning in a name and what it represents. So, I’m not sure I’d change mine or advise others to do the same. I have actors whose names are incredibly hard to remember, but then once I reach them — or hire them — I never forget.”
– Beth Lipari, Casting Director
“I once hired a guy whose name I not only couldn’t remember — but couldn’t pronounce. I avoided him at all costs and vowed never to hire him again.”
– The Reality Show Producer
“I have never asked a client to create a ‘brand new’ name. I have, however, suggested some folks reconsider their given names, as whatever they were currently using sounded generic, or even had a certain falsity to it. Clearly Cary Grant, Marilyn Monroe, and Lady Gaga have done all right, but my feeling is if people are comfortable with what their parents named them, then so am I. Having said that, we recently had a client get an offer that was intended for someone with the same fairly common name, with the exception of his middle initial. That was a tough one, but also the first time in 30 years we have had that experience.”
– The Veteran Talent Agent
“I love the fact that we live in a day and age where an actor does NOT have to change his/her/their name, because that’s what the industry mandates. I think it’s important for actors to be true to themselves and authentic with who they are. That being said, I have many clients who do have ‘stage names’ and I love that too. And there can be many reasons for that — privacy, for one. My only suggestion is that if you are going to change your name, you do a thorough Google search on that new name BEFORE you change it. I can’t tell you how many times I have had an actor change his/her/their name and it just caused more confusion than it was worth.”
– Liza Anderson, Owner Anderson Group Public Relations
“I fully support changing the name if it suits and supports the creative process. Being an actor is a creative endeavor. Performance, delivery, and marketing are all part of the artistic process. If you have a challenging name and you have something you want to use that is easy to remember or visually appealing, then there’s nothing wrong with creating something new. When marketing a film, all components matter. Creating an impactful visual campaign or piece of key art is about capturing an audience with one image, and a name can make a difference. If it’s catchy, simple, and unique, it will stay within the viewer’s mind consciously or subconsciously. The name is part of the visual, and the visual is part of the name… one big canvas.”
– Jen Ditchik, Vice President, Strategy & Innovation at WC+A
Gregg Rosenzweig has been a writer, creative director and managing editor for various entertainment clients, ad agencies and digital media companies over the past 20 years. He is also a partner in the talent management/production company, The Rosenzweig Group.