Lawyers and Leaders
A trailblazer in nurturing talent
Andrea Nelson Meigs ’94, a partner at United Talent Agency in L.A., discusses her path to becoming a leading motion picture talent agent
Over almost two decades as a talent agent, Andrea Nelson Meigs ’94 has represented such actors, writers, producers, and directors as Beyoncé, Idris Elba, Halle Berry, Jamie Foxx, Ellen Burstyn, and Christina Applegate. In addition to negotiating their deals in television, film, and theater, she also secures multimillion-dollar branding and book deals.
Meigs, a partner at United Talent Agency in Los Angeles, her hometown, worked briefly as a prosecutor after graduating from Duke Law, before joining another major agency as an entry-level trainee — in the mailroom — in service of her long-term career goals. In March, she was selected as one of Essence magazine’s 2021 Women in Film Pathmakers.
Dean Kerry Abrams spoke with Meigs in March as part of the Lawyers and Leaders series. Excerpts of their conversation follow.
Dean Abrams: You were a child actor. How did you get from there to Duke Law?
Andrea Nelson Meigs: As a child, I really got the bug for wanting to act and I would tell my parents that I wanted to be on television. But when I was about 10 years old I said, “I don’t want to be in front of the camera where I’m being judged.” I wasn’t sure exactly what I would do but I knew I wanted to be behind the camera where I could be more of a decision-maker.
I went to undergraduate at Tufts, then went to work at a local television station. It was wonderful. I was working on a current events show and a children’s educational program. Both were Emmy-nominated shows so I felt really excited. But I realized that everybody who was in a position of taking charge and making real decisions at the station had either gone to business school or law school. And because I see myself as a woman in charge and one who likes to make decisions, I knew I needed to go back to school. I also wanted to be the first in my family to become a lawyer. That was really important to me. And a woman I admire who was a sorority sister of mine, Tamara Woolfork ’91, had gone to Duke Law, so that was my top choice.
When I was at Duke it was really all about going into corporate law and going to the big law firms. I did think about entertainment law but in the back of my mind I knew that I wasn’t going to practice for a long period of time. It was really important for me to stay the course and to remember the long-term goal. So I applied for moot court. I loved oral advocacy and it was the best training for me because I graduated and went to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office to be a prosecutor. As a litigator you need to have your best oral advocacy skills, and what I do now is I speak to people all day long, pitching projects, so that skill set really was great for me.
Abrams: The DA’s office seems like a deviation from where you thought you were going. How did that happen and how did your transition to being an agent happen?
Meigs: After my first year I worked for Congresswoman Maxine Waters on Capitol Hill. I also was involved at Duke with the guardian ad litem program, so I found myself leaning towards the public sector. I interned after my second year at the DA’s office and was offered a position. I took it as an opportunity to get courtroom experience immediately — I was doing preliminary hearings before I even finished studying for the bar. I did love that aspect of it. But it was a lifestyle that was not suited to me, and so less than four months later I exited.
Before I left the DA’s office I reached out to a few people. Erika Johnson ’92, who is a Duke Law alum, was working for Michael Ovitz at Creative Artists Agency and said I might want to look at the agency business. It’s not the traditional practice of law, but you are dealing with contracts, you’re negotiating, you’re advocating for your clients, a lot of similar skill sets. She said she’d be happy to put my resume in with HR, so that’s exactly what happened. And after having gone to Tufts and graduated from Duke, I literally had to start as a trainee in the mailroom after going through a battery of probably seven different interviews.
My job was to push mail carts around the building and drop off mail in the different slots. I had to make coffee and fruit platters and get yelled at because the bananas were too ripe or the grapes were too mushy. Parts of me were like, “I cannot believe I have to do this. I’m more educated and have more work experience, I’m older than everybody in the mailroom.” But in entertainment you have to pay your dues, even with all those credentials.
My first client was from helping out a colleague. And that’s how I built my initial client list and then from there I was able to sign outside of the building and recruit people that I was particularly passionate about.
Abrams: What is the typical day of an agent like?
Meigs: My day will start around 6:30 or 7 when I make my London calls. About 9 or so, after I make breakfast for my kids, I’m in staff meetings. We’re talking about everything that’s going on around town, every project that’s happening at Warner Brothers, Fox, Sony, Disney, Netflix, which ones are looking for a director, which ones need a new writer, what are the roles that need to be filled, which ones are actually casting. There’s a lot of swapping of information.
I easily get 300 emails a day so I’m constantly on the phone and on emails in between meetings. There’s probably another meeting or two in the afternoon with a client or potential client, and then in the evening I’m usually going to a meeting with an executive at a studio or a client or a manager, or going to a screening because obviously after the culmination of negotiating these deals you want to be able to see the work and see how it will be able to best leverage the next job. That usually ends around 9 or 10 p.m., then I’m catching up on emails for another hour. It’s a long day.
Abrams: It sounds like the connection to your legal training isn’t just contracts. It’s client service, talking to your client about roles and opportunities and their long-term goals.
Meigs: It can range from the negotiation of how much money they’re making to what their perks are on a particular movie. It could be the actual script, because when we close a deal it’s usually contingent on the script that was submitted to them being preapproved. I just got an email from a client saying, ‘I’m on set and I’m not anywhere in the script.’ That’s a problem. We need to have a call with the producers. So you’re dealing with the actual creative material too.
Abrams: I have a sense that being an agent has been a very white and male career path. Did you feel like a trailblazer?
Meigs: I don’t feel like a trailblazer but I’ve been told that I am. When I started at CAA, I was the only African-American female trainee. And when I became an agent, I was the second [African-American female] motion picture talent agent in the history of the company. Today, almost 20 years later, I think they have had maybe five more. When you think about the people you turn on the tube to watch, or the movies that you go to see, pop culture artists represent a plethora of people of different backgrounds and cultures and races and genders, and our corporate entities should represent that as well, from the entry level all the way up.
Abrams: As an agent, are you in the position to be a change maker in the salary parity issue?
Meigs: Absolutely. Being in meetings where we’re talking about different deals that are being made, you certainly have a sense of what other actors and other writer-directors are making. One of my proudest moments as a young agent was when I was representing an actor and we were negotiating a sequel. The first movie had done really well. They made it for about $15 million and it went on to gross north of $80 million so it was very profitable for the studio, and in the sequel negotiation I was coached by my colleague and boss at the time that I should just close the deal at half a million. Looking at comps, I thought we should be getting $1 million. So I countered higher and ended up getting the $1 million for the client, who was an African-American male.
Maybe it’s me being aggressive, maybe it’s me having a much better understanding of how these deals get made that I decided to push forward, or maybe it’s me having a like-minded experience with this actor and saying, ‘Not only do I think that I should be getting more, but he should too,’ and making that my agenda. I was a little disappointed that my colleagues thought the lesser pay day was okay for that actor.