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The Working Actor

Playing Doctor, Preying Agent

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Playing Doctor, Preying Agent
Dear Michael:

Most of my acting credits are in Equity-waiver theater from about seven years ago, and I'm not a member of the Screen Actors Guild. I took time off to go to nursing school, finished school, and am currently working as a registered nurse, but I want to get back into acting. Specifically, I want to act on a medical show (similar to ER) as a nurse or doctor (whatever I can get—guest star, under-five, regular). Do I first get a commercial agent, do commercials to get my SAG card, and then target CDs who cast those shows?

R.N. Thespian
via the Internet

Dear RNT:

Believe it or not, your medical background, in and of itself, is of little value in booking roles on medical shows. And it's tough to book any speaking role on TV without a union card, unless a major coincidence occurs: If you were to somehow get the attention of a medical show's producers or casting people just when they happen to be having trouble casting a role that for some reason requires actual medical experience, they might consider casting you without your card. But I have to strongly discourage you from banking on that route, because the chances are so incredibly slim and it would require a truly unusual set of circumstances.

Now, getting your SAG card is hard too. But there are several ways to pursue it, getting a commercial agent being one of them. You can also do background work and earn vouchers. Information at www.sag.org will illuminate the various ways to get into the guild.

But here's the interesting idea I had for you—sort of a backdoor way of using your expertise to break in: Medical shows have on-set technical advisers who help the actors understand the various procedures, pronounce medical terms, and perform their actions realistically. Now, that's a job fewer people are suited for. And many medical professionals are too busy with their own careers to spend time helping people pretend to be doctors and nurses. My thinking is that being a medical adviser puts you on set, where you can learn more about on-camera acting and make contacts. And it might be easier to get the director to put you on camera, since he or she will know who you are.

I tracked down a couple of medical professionals who do this work. Dr. Carole Lieberman, who for 10 years was a consultant on the soaps The Bold and the Beautiful and The Young and the Restless, advises, "As an R.N., it is possible to try to get work as a medical consultant, but it's probably more likely to find work as an on-set medic type. I'm not sure of the credentials required...but I think an R.N. might suffice."

As a starting point, Lieberman suggests "volunteering to consult or be an on-set medic at any place that will welcome your free services, from local theater to independent films.... You can also send a résumé of nursing credentials and a cover letter out to TV or movies in development to let them know of your interest."

I also learned there are organizations—such as Technical & Medical Advisors (www.techmedadvisors.com) and Medical Advisors (www.techmedexperts.com)—that provide technical advisers to TV and film productions. You might try contacting them.

Not surprisingly, as with everything in this business, breaking in is not as easy as one might think. Dr. Cynthia Lea Clark, who has been a medical adviser on shows like Days of Our Lives, Stat, and Family Medical Center, says, "There are a ton of doctors, nurses, paramedics who want these jobs. The jobs are prestigious and pay well. Therefore, the key is to strike when a show is in pre-preproduction. That would be six months or so before the show goes into production or earlier. When you hear rumors or [read] a line in Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Back Stage, etc., that someone is doing a show on the E.R. or the ICU, find out who the show runner is and send a letter.... As the show draws closer, be more forceful and aggressive.... Sorry to say, it's easier now to get an acting job than a technical advising job."

Lieberman agrees: "It is just as tricky to get work as a consultant as an actor, in terms of paying your dues, landing the jobs, and supporting yourself in the interim. But it does add another angle to getting your foot in the door in Hollywood." However, she warns, "They want you to be professional at what you do, so it could well be a turnoff to then try to parlay this into an acting gig."

I got a second opinion from Clark, who concurs with my theory that this could be a good way in: "I would advise anyone who wants to get into the acting portion to join AFTRA, which is a walk-in union, and pound the pavement.... Read the trades. Get an agent. But even without one, see who is casting what, who is producing what." Then, adds Clark, who says she has booked many nurse roles and a doctor role this way, submit yourself to medical shows "as a twofer: an actor and a medical adviser all rolled into one.... I wish the R.N. who wrote you the best of luck. Maybe one day we'll cross paths in a medical show."

Dear Michael:

I recently booked a nonunion commercial, and the agent took an additional 20 percent fee out of my payment in addition to the 20 percent fee she got from the client. Is this ethical? How do we protect ourselves from greedy agents?

Heavy Heart Actor
via the Internet

Dear HH:

No, it is certainly not ethical for your agent to take 40 percent of your salary. SAG-franchised agents take 10 percent, and that's the widely held norm. What can you do? Man up, as the kids say. Instead of just accepting it, have a conversation. You and your agent are business partners, and you have every right to respectfully ask why your partner is taking four times the industry standard. So ask. And check your contract. If it allows your agent to take such an outrageous cut, it's time to renegotiate that contract.

Your situation offers yet another good example of why we have actors' unions, and why they deserve our support and appreciation. Until you're able to join, knowledge of union standards and collaborative conversation with your agent are probably your best defenses against abuse.

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