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The Working Actor

Change for a Dollar, This Week Only

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Change for a Dollar, This Week Only
Dear Michael:

Here's the situation. I'm on tour with a major show, and the tour looks like it'll run for a long time to come. My agents, who I was with when I booked it, are just kind of so-so. I feel like they don't do a lot (like looking for auditions for me), and I hardly ever hear from them. Even when I call them, they don't return my calls. And what makes it worse is, a couple of months ago, my agent there moved on to another company, so I feel even less loyal now. So, obviously, I'm thinking about looking for new reps.

Right now I still have to pay commission on the show I'm doing, but that will end at a certain point. I'm not sure how to go about this. I want to start looking now, but I'm not ready to leave this job. And do I offer the new agent a commission on the show I'm currently in? Do I just fire my agent and go without one? Or do I keep things the way they are and wait before I even do anything at all?

—Lost in America, New York City

Dear Lost:

I've known several actors who offered potential new agents commissions on existing jobs, sort of as an incentive, to get the agents excited about working with them as a new client. Many of these actors found that while the new reps were happy to collect commissions they hadn't earned, the relationship fizzled after that. It seems that once it's established that you'll be bringing in money from work you book without them, agents can sometimes take a back seat and expect you to do all the driving. I don't mean this as a slight to agents in general. I'm just saying that I've known several actors in your position who've found that to be the case. Coming in with a commission is one of those things that sounds good but doesn't always create the excitement you thought it would.

Instead, let the new agent's incentive be this: Your current employment in a hit show can be used as a selling point when they pitch you. They can parlay that prestige into your next job, which will, ideally, be more prestigious and more lucrative. And that's when their commissions will kick in, so everyone wins.

However, no agency wants to sign an unavailable actor. So until you're at a point where if the right opportunity presented itself, you'd be ready to leave your tour, I suggest sitting tight. Meanwhile, once you're no longer obligated, stop commissions to your current agents. But stay with them until you're ready to be available for new projects. That's the time to go shopping.

Dear Michael:

I'm a working TV actor and I do mostly hourlong dramas. My problem is that whenever I'm on a show as a guest star or as a co-star, it seems like it's hard to get on board with the dynamics of the cast and crew. They have already been working together for a while and already have their relationships established. I don't know whether to go around saying hello and introducing myself, or just hang back and do my work, or what.

I was recently on a long-running TV show as a guest, and it felt sort of like a factory. Not that it was a bad vibe or anything. Just that they seemed to want to get my stuff "in the can" and move on. I know you know what I mean. I hope you have some ideas on this.

—Guest Guy, North Hollywood, Calif.

Dear G.G.:

Yes, indeed, I know exactly what you mean. Those of us who work mostly at the guest-star level rarely get a chance to get completely comfortable, unless we're lucky enough to be on a set where they seem dedicated to making their guests feel welcome and honored (I've been on several like this). The extent to which you blend or don't blend with an established cast and crew is mostly a matter of personal style, but here are some things to think about.

While shyness is understandable, sometimes the regulars (the weekly cast, crew, and production team) are shy too. It's hard to imagine, particularly on a hit show, but not everyone is comfortable making conversation with strangers. You might need to be the one to break the ice. Remember, you're the actor who was selected, not some unwelcome infiltrator of the inner sanctum. So unless they're real jerks (I've been on these sets too), they're probably going to be receptive to a warm, professional introduction. Years ago, as a guest star on "NewsRadio," I was introduced to the whole cast as a group. "Hi," I said sheepishly. "It's nice to be on your show." And Joe Rogan, without missing a beat, responded, "This week, it's your show too."

Being a bit shy in these circumstances myself, I've learned that a good place to test the waters is in the makeup and hair trailer. Those folks tend to be the friendlier, more nurturing members of the crew, and you can often get a sense of the show's atmosphere from chatting with them. Or talk with the caterers, the production assistants, the background actors. They're sometimes taken for granted and may appreciate your interest. Then you walk on the set having already made some friendly acquaintances.

Now, alternatively, you could just tuck yourself into your trailer and wait until they're ready to rehearse your scenes. There's no law that says you have to be the life of the party, entertaining the crew with jokes and impressions while you wait. It's okay to lay back and be the mysterious guest star, as long as you can come to the set with confidence and dignity.

Ultimately, fitting in isn't really all that important. What you describe as a factory atmosphere is just people busy doing their usual gig, a bit less excited than you might be. And sometimes the cast and crew have their inside jokes and established rituals. You don't need to pretend you're a part of all that. While it's much classier when people extend themselves, you don't want to impose your need for acceptance. Instead, focus on making their jobs easier with your comfortable professionalism. Whether you bond or not, your temporary family will appreciate that more than anything.

One more thing. If, down the road, you find yourself on a series as a regular, remember what it was like to be the guest actor, and always go out of your way to make yours feel welcome.

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