The geography is ridiculously spread out. You will spend a record number of hours in your car. But until you've actually experienced the teeth-grinding tedium of a true Southland "rush hour," until you've attempted to get from Santa Monica to the Valley in less than an hour, until you've racked up a few thousand miles on your odometer—well, you probably have no idea just how true those statements are.
"You won't realize until you've been here for a while that you literally will live out of your car," says actor Carrie Wiita. "I'm from Oregon, and it takes 10 minutes to get anywhere. Between rush hour and having to drive all over the city, L.A.'s a totally different culture." That's why many actors find it necessary to create a car survival kit: a set of essential tools that aids them in navigating this crazy, sprawling landscape with aplomb. From office supplies to a simple pair of flip-flops, you might be surprised at what can come in handy.
But don't let the idea of assembling these items intimidate you; it can be done fairly simply and cheaply, especially if you band together with your fellow actors. Seth Caskey, who has lived in L.A. for four years, teamed up with a couple of friends to create a car survival kit and filmed the experience for a video piece on the website Reality of Doing (realityofdoing.com). "Actors are always asked to spend money," he says. "And it's like, 'Okay, now this is just one more thing I have to do; how do I know if it's good advice?' Go in with some people to do it. Pool your resources and support each other."
Before you start ticking off what items you might require, however, internalize one simple truth: You will generally need to plan out your entire day before you leave the house in the morning. If you live in Silver Lake and have auditions in Hollywood, Burbank, and Santa Monica, you aren't going to be able to go home in between.
For the most part, you will probably know what auditions you have—and what clothing you need for each—before you set out for the day. But sometimes you will get that emergency call: a last-minute pre-read or producers' session that could mean a career-making opportunity.
"I was living in Burbank when I first got here and was spending a lot of time in Hollywood," recalls Caskey. "I would get a call for an audition, and I'd be in Hollywood, and I wouldn't have everything that I needed with me, so I'd have to try and get back to the Valley, get it together, and then get back to Santa Monica, all in an hour and a half. And then I'd arrive at my audition, and I'd be so frantic and late that I wouldn't be in the right space to walk into an audition and do anything that was worthwhile."
Though most actors don't keep a full array of costumes in their cars, many like to have a few basic items on hand. Caskey, for instance, has an extra pair of shoes, an extra pair of socks, a black T-shirt, and a pair of jeans. "I know that that is going to be something that I can default to in the audition situation," he says. "Like, 'Oh, crap, my agents called, and I've got to be in Santa Monica in 45 minutes. I'm in a suit; I need to be a guy at a fast-food restaurant.' "
Eric Kan, meanwhile, also has a dressy outfit stowed in his trunk: slacks, dress shoes, blazer, tie, dress shirt. "It's important to be ready for anything," he says. "I could be out in West L.A. and suddenly have a last-minute commercial audition or job in the same area and need to be there in 30 minutes. If all my clothes are in the Valley at home, I'm going to miss that opportunity."
And sometimes you want to tote clothes that will help your state of mind as well as your appearance. Blake Robbins, who relocated from New York to L.A. five years ago, stashes a pair of sneakers or flip-flops near his front seat so he can drive in maximum comfort. "Then I only have to wear the dress shoes for the audition," he explains. "I can drive in my sneakers or flip-flops, and the New Yorker in me likes to walk, so I'll have shoes for that."
In addition to clothing basics, you'll also want to have whatever accoutrements you need to keep your overall appearance fresh and polished. Wiita has an arsenal of beauty products: multifunctional comb, mirror, makeup, and makeup brushes. "I bought all my brushes in travel size, because they are usually the same price and the same quality as regular brushes," she says. "Anything you can get in a smaller size, do it, 'cause you'll have to take it with you."
Other possible essentials: deodorant, Febreze, bandages, Wrinkle-Free (a spray that de-wrinkles clothes), Shout wipes, a sewing kit, sunscreen, dental floss, lip balm, toothpaste and toothbrush, and an umbrella. "Believe it or not, it actually does rain in L.A. from time to time," says Janet Varney, "sometimes when you're not expecting it."
What if you don't have a certain item at your fingertips but find you suddenly need it? Wiita recommends memorizing the locations of all the Targets in the greater Los Angeles area. (Or you could mark them on a map.) A quick pit stop will likely yield what you're looking for. "There was one audition where I needed a specific color shirt—like for Arby's or one of those fast-food restaurants," she recalls. "I got a red polo shirt at Target."
Though you probably don't have room for a full-on desk in your back seat, it's good to have a few key office supplies at hand. "If you have two or three auditions in a day, you need to plan out, 'I need my commercial headshot for my audition in the morning; I need a theatrical headshot in the afternoon,' " says Caskey. "Have those with you. Have scissors, to be able to trim your headshot. A glue stick—I prefer to glue-stick my résumé to the back of my headshot, as opposed to stapling it. But if you want to staple it, then have a little stapler. Sharpies, to be able to write on the back of your headshot, to take notes, to cross out lines on sides that are confusing. Whatever your process is as an actor, having those tools you would normally use at your office available to you is important."
Robbins keeps a stack of headshots in his car, even if the auditions he's off to don't call for it—because you never know when a casting director might ask you for one anyway. "Not having it is only going to look bad; nothing's more aggravating to a casting director than asking, 'Can we have a headshot?' and you don't have one at all," he says.
Kan also recommends a phone headset or Bluetooth "so you don't get pulled over," as well as any items that relate to your various acting specialties. "I keep my Chinese-language tracks on my iPod handy because, as an Asian actor, I never know when they might ask me to be able to speak in Mandarin," he says.
In addition to stocking all the tools of an acting pro, you'll also want to keep incidental items that help you maintain a mental and emotional balance. After all, trying to keep a cool head after being stuck in slow-moving traffic for three hours is no mean feat. "Always have some bottled water and some kind of snack of choice," says Caskey. "You're going into what can be a nerve-racking situation. Sometimes we forget to eat, or we're rushing around and we don't have time to stop. If you want to keep candy bars, you can, to have that last-minute sugar rush; but you should also have some sort of protein or some sort of sustainable snack that you can eat. You don't want to walk into an audition and be lethargic. Have some nuts or a protein bar or some fruit, something that's going to give you more sustainable energy when you need it."
Also, remember that you'll occasionally have long breaks between auditions, or meetings with unexpected delays. Keep yourself from going stir-crazy by toting a book, journal, or some other type of portable entertainment. "If there's an hour between auditions, it's not enough time to see a movie," notes Robbins. "I always want to either have something to write in or it's always good to have reading material. It's lovely weather out here: If you want to hang out at the Grove and you have two hours between appointments, not only can you people-watch but you can read your book."
All Over the Map
So you've packed all your essentials: You're ready to go, healthy snack in hand, sneaker-shod foot poised over the gas pedal. But your survival kit isn't going to save you from frustration if you don't also master a few quick tips on navigating your newly adopted hometown.
First off, the Thomas Guide—that handy, spiral-bound compendium of maps—is quite possibly your new best friend. "There's been a proliferation of MapQuest and GPSes and those types of things," says Robbins. "I got my Thomas Guide five years ago when I moved here. And the thing I love about it is, five years later, I feel like I know the city. With the GPS or MapQuest, you really only know your route. I know where I am at any given time in any given situation—I like that. I like to know what my options are. I like knowing where I am on the map as a whole."
No matter where you are on the map, Wiita recommends allowing at least an hour of driving time, regardless of destination. "Even if you're going from one end of Hollywood to the other, plan an hour," she says. "Traffic, construction, accidents, not being able to find a parking spot—something will happen. But there's just something magic about an hour that always gets me there. Unless you're going to the South Bay or north of Encino—then plan an hour and a half."
Caskey recommends staying off the freeway if you can; find alternative surface-street routes whenever possible. "If you're new to town, the freeway is the most obvious way to get to a place, but it's often the most congested," he says. "Talk to people who've lived here for a while. When I first moved here, I took the 101 to the 134 to get from Hollywood to the Valley. Well, I can just take the [Cahuenga pass] and it saves me 20 minutes."
And if you can avoid driving in rush hour, do so. There's usually a better, more productive way to spend your time until traffic clears. "If you're done with your audition and it's rush hour and you know you have a two-hour drive in traffic, Google the nearest bookstore, coffeehouse, or movie theater and kick back," suggests Kan. "Or visit a friend in the area."
In the midst of becoming a savvy navigator of the L.A. streets, there's at least one other skill you'll have to pick up: changing in the car. Whether you're switching up your look for auditions or just going from work clothes to acting clothes, be prepared to make your vehicle into your own professional dressing room. "I waved goodbye to modesty," admits Varney. "Parking garages are very handy—cover of darkness and all that. I have this weird thing where if I close my eyes, I feel like no one can see me. And the old 'put a skirt on over your jeans and then try to pull the jeans down while you're still in the driver's seat and not lay on the horn with your knee' is a classic."
Wiita offers this simple piece of advice: "If you're going to buy a car to come out to L.A. or if you're in the market for a new car, get one with tinted back windows," she says with a laugh. "In L.A., there are so many people on the street, it's hard to change in your car—but you will have to at some point."
Additionally, if you're not ready to fully display your inner exhibitionist, why not ask your agent or manager if you can use the bathroom at their office? "If you are friendly enough with your agents, you can do that," notes Wiita. "And then you can plug in your curling irons and stuff—I use my manager's office all the time."
In the end, just remember: No matter what you decide to put in your car kit, no matter what methods of traffic avoidance or in-car clothes-changing you choose to master, it's all about making sure you're as prepared as you can be when it comes time to show a casting director or prospective rep what you can do. With a little planning and practice, you'll be able to set the stresses of L.A. driving on the back burner and focus on your craft.
"Pretty much everything I carry with me I learned I needed the hard way," says Varney. "I sweated, dry-lipped, dry-mouthed, soaked-to-the-skinned my way through all of these lessons. Just keep the idea in the back of your head: 'I can't control L.A. traffic. I'll leave earlier than I think I need to, and I'll get there when I get there.' "