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Hollywood Sign
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Hollywood Sign

My column last week “An Actor’s Diary: A Week in the Life of a Working Actor” generated a comment from Jane: “Do you think most working actors are looking for that ‘big break’ that will launch them into the A-List category, or are they more concerned with just making sure the rent gets paid and the kids get fed?”

Great question, Jane! I don’t think there’s an easy answer to this: actors are so varied in their dreams and needs; at such different places in their careers and family lives; and have such different talents and marketability.  So, I decided to do a survey of my actor friends and present to my readers a sample spectrum of what the day-to-day actor is dreaming and planning.  I have changed people’s names, but all the other details are true.

Dan

After getting an MFA in directing, Dan started in theater in New York but soon moved to L.A.  He has worked in more than 70 projects, mostly television but a dozen or so movies and countless commercials.  He has the kind of everyman face that puts him in competition with many “60 year old male with white hair” actors, including my other friend Ned.

You have seen Dan recurring in some of your favorite TV series (really, really favorite), and you’ve seen him as a guest star in many of your favorite series. Dan has worked steadily with a great work ethic — he prepares for an audition for the dumbest commercial with the same intensity that he applies to his recurring roles — and he has managed to raise two kids in L.A. and send them to college. That is an enormous accomplishment for a guy without a movie-star face.

Dan never wanted to be a star or a celebrity. He simply loved the craft of acting and wanted to make a living. Of course, there are a bunch of everyman faces who did become stars, if not A-list stars; but in Dan’s mind, it was not a goal he could or should set for himself. He went where his career took him.

Dan has officially retired from acting and is now a professor of theater arts, offered the position due to the excellence and longevity of his career, though I see he just wrapped a film last year and is now overseas doing a long-run contract in live theater. So much for retirement, ha!  Dan’s kids have both ventured into the murky waters of the entertainment business.

Ned

Ned also has an everyman face. Even though I know him personally and have taken an acting course with him, I periodically confuse him with several other everyman actors. Last year I emailed him to say congratulations; that I had seen him on a national commercial for cleaning products and he wrote back to say, “If only.”

Ned says that typecasting works for him. I asked him if he didn’t get sick of playing the overworked desk cop, playing 5th violin in so many films to so many leads. Ned thought I was nuts to even ask. “If they are shooting a film in my town (San Francisco at the time) and they need a local actor to play the overworked desk cop, I want to be the only one they think of. It’s work. It’s in my chosen field.”

Ned supplemented the desk cop gigs with meatier roles in low-paying, non-distributed independent films and many big commercials (sometimes the checks keep rolling in for these commercials for a dozen years). Of course, he was willing to audition for other characters in studio (read: Hollywood) films, but his agent wouldn’t send him out for any of those.

Ned was a good teacher and over the years put together a series of week-long workshops for beginning actors. In a market like San Francisco, there’s always up and coming talent with enough money to take classes. He mostly taught auditioning technique. Yes, you’d be surprised at the variety of niche acting classes you should take:

  • film acting
  • commercial acting
  • theater acting
  • character study
  • auditioning for commercials
  • auditioning for film
  • auditioning etiquette
  • rehearsal techniques
  • vocal training
  • voiceover classes
  • accents
  • improvisation
  • clown, mime or physical theater
  • theater history & criticism
  • dramaturgy
  • classical dance
  • jazz dance
  • singing—of all varieties
  • Alexander technique
  • Meisner technique
  • Shakespearean acting
  • Teleprompter and Earprompter
  • makeup
  • resume & headshot tips
  • branding and finding your stereotype

I have taken all of these and continue to do so.

Whew, got off the track there. So, Ned taught his specially crafted workshops.

Later in his career, Ned got interested in the study of human physicality. He developed a specialty in advising animators on the subtleties of human motions throughout a range of emotional states. Ned picked up a big client and moved to Chicago (where the theater opportunities are huge in comparison to San Francisco) to be near this client. The animation work eventually took him around the world as a consultant — travel paid.

At home in Chicago he auditions for theater and flies to LA if his agent happens to get him a film audition. He stopped teaching, but continues to publish a newsletter, which has evolved from audition tips to a philosophical musing on art and life. Hugs to you, Ned.

Tom

Tom has an undergrad degree in theater and a graduate degree in marketing. Heavens!

He spent a dozen years in LA trying to make a living as an actor, using marketing as his day gig. He never really made enough money to jump out of his day job. Eventually, for family reasons, he moved to the backwaters, the swampy marshland of Appalachia. There he founded a theater company which performed daring new works instead of the old, tired Neil Simon or Old White Man Will Shakes. He also became an adjunct professor at the local community college, teaching directing and set design.

Later when Granny finally croaked, leaving him nothing after all, Tom sold the shack and moved back to LA, now in his late 60s. He is getting tons of work as an old man character. He does student films (paid, albeit minimally); he does music videos; he does commercials. He does web series, U5s on TV shows, featured extra or tiny roles in big films. He won’t work on anything for free, but he will work for cheap (like student films) because he needs/loves to work.

Tom keeps a graphic design business going on the side which services many small clients, so he has to hustle constantly, not only to audition but to get new design clients.

Tom lives out in the Antelope Valley in a rented apartment. This is all he can afford. He has no health insurance and no car insurance. Tom is stressed a lot, but he is overall happy.

Next week I want to write the stories of some of my women actor friends. Is this type of storytelling interesting and useful to you, readers?

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