An Actor’s Diary: Sci-Fi Dragon Films, Fantasy Lives & Casting Agents

An Actor’s Diary: Sci-Fi Dragon Films, Fantasy Lives & Casting Agents

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Michelle Shyman

Michelle ShymanToday was a day to shake my sweaty grip on the conviction that my chosen path is my right path.

I have known forever and long ago that I am an artist, yet it has not been my fortune to be in that small percentage of actors who work solely in their craft. I need to juggle my creative work with day jobs. A film shoot, an accounting job, a music video gig, a customer service job, an audition, an audition, an audition.

I count myself insanely lucky that I can, for a few hours every week, work in film journalism, a job that helps me sharpen my writing skills, as well as indulges me in the gossip, news and glamour of the movie world.

I am convinced — from time to time — that this juggling path is the right one for me.

However — from time to time — I despair. Today was one of those days.

Incident the First

Last night in my film editing class, my lab partner Elle was yakking about her sci-fi space gladiator film. Elle is a do-it-yourself maven. She writes extremely low budget sci-fi nerd films, handles the camera, directs, adds FX and edits. She’s working on her 12th film, none of which have cost more than the price of the gear (camera & lights, computer and software.)  Her films go up on YouTube and have a very loyal, though very small, following.

Elle told me I’d be perfect for the Dragon of Ulliador (that’s the character, not the title) and asked me to come tomorrow (a.k.a today) to audition.

I live an hour west of the city and Elle lives an hour east. This morning at 6 a.m., I put on my audition makeup and drove almost three hours to her community television station to audition. My appointment was for 10 a.m. At 9 a.m., I arrived to an empty television station. No, wait, not empty: the station’s accounting manager was just leaving.

“Do you know anything about auditions being held here today?”

“No.”

I called Elle’s mobile. “I am here; where are you guys?”

“Oh, Michelle, I decided to cast my friend Lou in as the Dragon of Ulliador, so I didn’t need auditions.”

What?!? You … [badWord], [worseWord] … thoughtless, rude, amateur, inconsiderate piece of [badWord].

My day was already threatening to stink, and it wasn’t even 10 a.m.

Incident the Second

My next appointment wasn’t till after lunch, so I dropped by Louise’s house for tea.  Louise is a painter. (Thank goodness: I couldn’t stand seeing another film person right away.) Louise wasn’t in, but a grasshopper-skinny tall woman in overalls opened the door. Velvet, Louise’s sister from out of town, whom I had never met.

Let’s have some tea and a chat. Velvet, a former high-end model and now an art dealer, asked me about my acting work.

“And what,” she asked, “would you really rather be doing than auditioning for no-pay sci-fi dragon films?”

“I’d really rather be in LA auditioning for union scale roles.”

“You, my dear, should meet my friend Sven, the film director. He has worked with everyone — absolutely everyone.”

At this juncture, enter Louise with two dogs and the groceries. Oh, and her Mom.

“What has Velvet been telling you? She has the greatest fantasy life. Mom is taking her back to the institution in a minute; she needs to check in with the nursing staff before dinner.”

Another disappointment for me. And, damn, I really liked Velvet. Her stories of modeling in Milan were thrilling.

Incident the Third

I fight through traffic to get to Nancy Hayes’ casting office. I will be meeting my friend and fellow actor Susan there.

We have worked hard to get a meeting with Nancy, using all our connections, because Nancy casts all the biggie films that shoot in San Francisco. Susan and I have been courting Jessie-Lee, a small-fry casting director, for positively months to get an introduction to Nancy. We’ve been taking her classes, inviting her to our theater productions (and to the parties,) and comping her when our indie films screen. Jessie-Lee agreed to call Nancy and ask her to see us.

Why did we need Jessie-Lee’s introduction? A casting director like Nancy doesn’t take walk-ins. She calls agents to send over their clients who fit the types she wants to see.  If you aren’t with an agent, you won’t be seen by Nancy for any of the decent roles that are cast here in San Francisco.

Neither Susan nor I has an agent. In San Francisco — and we are in the same boat with most actors in town — we work and we make money, but we don’t have an agent. We get commercials; we get indie films; we get walk-ons in studio films; we do theater; we do corporate videos; we eke out bits. And we work day jobs in between. But, we don’t have representation by an agent, so we don’t get to audition for, say, recurring roles on TV series or for “Math Teacher” in Hollywood films.

Thus, it was a coup for us to have an appointment to see Nancy. We came with high recommendations from Jessie-Lee. Nancy hugged us and invited us into her private office.

“What can I do for you girls?”

“Jessie-Lee thought you might help us get onto your radar — or the data bank in your brain.”

“Jessie-Lee knows damn well the only way you can get seen by me is to have your agent send you over. It was lovely to meet you.”

An hour drive for me; three hours for Susan; 93 seconds with Nancy; out the door.

Tomorrow will be better.

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Michelle Shyman is an actor, comic, screenwriter, filmmaker, corporate video producer and film journalist. She's appeared in 35 films and stage plays and has won regional acting awards. One of her screenplays placed in American Gem Screenplay Competition and Script Nurse Screenplay Competition, and she's produced or assistant-produced a number of independent films, three of which won festival awards. Michelle executive-directed the Lake2Sound Youth Film Festival and serves as a judge for several student film festivals nationwide. She coaches actors, teaches directors how to work with actors, and presents seminars on directing actors. She’s a former Board member of Women in Film Seattle chapter. Michelle also consults on product strategy for entertainment startups. In addition to her Reel Life With Jane column, Michelle writes “Balancing Act,” a weekly column for Reel Grok, named one of MovieMaker Magazine’s top sites for working filmmakers. Follow her on Twitter @michelleshy.

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