It's a dream shared by thousands upon thousands of actors in Los Angeles, as well as thousands more who descend upon the city during pilot season: to get a pilot. Land a role on a pilot, and everything's smooth sailing from there. On the outside looking in, it seems so easy, so effortless. Every year a new crop of shows appear on the network schedules, filled with fresh actors who appear to have landed the opportunity of a lifetime: steady work, recognition, and fairly enviable pay.
Reality, of course, is a little different. For every new show that makes it onto network television at all, let alone survives, there are dozens of pilots that don't reach the airwaves, and each one represents legions of actors who made it oh-so-close only to find themselves back at square one, ready to get on the rollercoaster ride all over again. Back Stage West spoke with four actors who recently booked and filmed pilots, asking them how got their gigs and how they survived so far. We plan to revisit them later in the year, when the fate of their pilots has been determined.
The Waiting Game
For actors who book and shoot a pilot, perhaps the most agonizing part of the process comes after the fact, waiting to hear the show's fate. "You think of it every day," says Jonathan Bennett, who is waiting to hear if the ABC drama pilot he stars in, 1/4 Life, will get picked up. "You get to the point where you don't care if it gets picked up or not; you just want to know." Bennett's credits include the films Mean Girls and the upcoming Vegas Baby and Lovewrecked, opposite Amanda Bynes, as well as a short stint on All My Children and appearances on numerous prime-time shows, including Law & Order: SVU, Boston Public, Smallville, and Veronica Mars. He's also no stranger to the pilot experience: In 2002 he appeared with Marcia Cross and Lori Loughlin in Eastwick, a pilot based on the hit film The Witches of Eastwick.
The Eastwick pilot wasn't picked up, and each experience since has helped him to further define what he wants out of his career. Originally he had been leaning toward films. "I like making movies: It takes three months, and then you're done," Bennett explains. "I wasn't really planning on doing TV. My passion was to make movies. I literally didn't have any intentions of being on a show."
1/4 Life writers-directors-producers Marshall Herscovitz and Ed Zwick convinced him otherwise. Their résumés boast numerous acclaimed series, including My So-Called Life, thirtysomething, Relativity, and Once and Again. "They became my personal heroes in this," says Bennett. "They are the most amazing guys to work for. They are so dedicated." 1/4 Life follows a group of Chicago friends and roommates in their 20s and co-stars Rachel Blanchard (7th Heaven) and Shiri Appleby (Roswell).
Bennett had two days to study the full script before going in for his first audition with a casting director, at which he read for the role of Shane. Bennett was told, "Come back for Marshall, and look at [the role of] Charlie, as well." Although many actors would simply move their focus onto the new role, something about Shane resonated with Bennett. "I looked at both parts, and Shane was a lot funnier, and his sense of humor was a lot like mine. I called in and said, 'I don't want to read Charlie. Can I read Shane?'" When he then went in to read Charlie for Herscovitz, Bennett stood his ground. "I said, 'I don't really want this role,'" recalls Bennett. "So I left and nothing really came of it."
Two and a half weeks went by, and after testing many other actors for Shane, no one could find either a Shane or a Charlie. "So I went back in," says Bennett. "I read for Shane again, and it was much more relaxed. He asked me to read Charlie. Second time. When Marshall Herscovitz asks you to read for the lead in the show twice, something's up; you've got to do it." He read for the part, but told Herscovitz he felt the part of Shane was funnier and he would be better at that role.
Bennett left and got the phone call two days later. He knew the news was good when he answered the phone and it was his agent's assistant, telling him that it was a conference call with his agent and his manager. "A conference call is usually good news," he says.
He learned he got the job and that the director would be calling him within an hour. It had been a unanimous decision from ABC that he would be playing Shane, the role he had wanted and pushed for.
The following week he had appointments for wardrobe, a physical for insurance, hair and makeup tests, and then, once all of the principal actors had been cast, a field trip for everyone to Malibu. "Marshall took us all out to his house in Malibu, just eating and listening to him and Ed talk about the show, and how they work and what their style is," remembers Bennett. "We spent a whole day talking, interviewing us as characters, not only to get us thinking about our characters but to help them." Much of this process found its way onto the set. For example, Bennett had mentioned that his character might have an interest in photography; on the first day of shooting, he was given a camera and told it was part of the show. He says, "The great thing about Marshall: He takes what you say seriously. Everything the actors do has to come from them; it has be organic."
The pilot was shot. Now everyone is waiting to hear the show's fate. Bennett meanwhile continues to pursue work, although conditionally. "I've been working on Veronica Mars, and a small film, but you can't go out for other series regulars, or films that will be shooting in September," he says.
'Life' Goes On
The next step, getting past the network, is no guarantee a show will be a long-term job. Sean Faris, who recently completed the pilot Reunion for Fox, knows this all too well. He had been a member of the cast of the critically acclaimed ABC series Life As We Know It, which, despite making it to the airwaves and featuring familiar names D.B. Sweeney and Kelly Osbourne, failed to get renewed. He learned firsthand about how doing a show can close some doors and open others. "I was up for some movies during Life," he says. "Then it gets cancelled, and the phone stops ringing. But you persevere."
His schedule for Life As We Know It may have kept him from certain roles, but it led to his current role in the Reunion pilot. "Because I was in Life, I got to go in straight to meet directors and producers," says Faris. But, he adds, "When the script arrived on my plate, I wasn't really gung ho jumping into a pilot. But when I read the script, it's something I wanted to be a part of. I wanted my face on that film, telling that story. It's unlike anything that's ever been done on television."
The show follows a group of six friends over 20 years, from their graduation in 1986 through 2006, each episode representing a year gone by in the characters' lives. "This is more like doing a film, because your character doesn't stay the same," notes Faris. "Every episode, you have something to create, something to bring to it."
However, having an affinity for the script and going directly to the directors and producers wasn't enough to win a role. Faris still had to audition. "I think auditions are ridiculous," he says, noting the difference between auditions and the work the actor is auditioning for. "You don't have your setting; you don't have any of the production stuff going on around you. You're in an office, but you could be doing a scene in the jungle. As long as you go in and you're committed, it might not be right, but a good director will see that and give you adjustments. I always go in prepped as if I'm ready to go on-set. I don't want anyone saying I wasn't prepared. If I'm going in, I'm going in 100 percent."
Once Faris had made it past the auditions, callbacks, and various screen tests, and into the cast of Reunion, he was able to focus on the work. He spent two weeks rehearsing, and then the pilot was shot over about 13 days, which the actor calls "pretty much average for a pilot."
With the fate of Reunion in the hands of the network, Faris is playing the waiting game again, but this time with added wisdom. "We won't find out until mid-May," he says. "You just try not to think about it. It's funny, last year we shot Life, and we knew we had this great thing, it was very exciting, but we knew it was a major risk as well. I was just on pins and needles to find out. This time around, I know what's going on. I understand why it would get picked up and why it might not be."
Penn Badgley starred in the WB series Do Over. Although Do Over is, well, over, the WB is still working with him on the drama series The Mountain and also with his latest pilot, another drama, titled The Bedford Diaries. Employed by the WB for several years, he is now in a position to be pitched by the network. One of the projects pitched was The Bedford Diaries, created by writers-producers Julie Martin (The Jury, The Beat, Homicide: Life on the Street, and L.A. Law) and Tom Fontana (Homicide: Life on the Street, Oz), and executive produced by Academy Award–winning director Barry Levinson. "I went in [to read for the part] twice," he remembers. "I met Tom, then read for the network. The second time I was the only one there; they told me I had the job. It was sort of a joke, they were all familiar faces; they all liked me." Badgley has by this time conquered most audition jitters. But, he notes, the women he was reading with were shaking.
Despite auditioning for a room full of friendly and familiar faces, Badgley didn't allow his energy to drop, especially for The Bedford Diaries, which he responded to. "If the material is something I like, it's something I feel I can do any time anywhere," he explains. "What's cool about this one is that this show has potential to be a critically acclaimed show, and that's very exciting to think about."
Almost immediately he found himself in New York, shooting the pilot. Now that the pilot is finished and awaits word from the network, Badgley has found time to guest star in the CBS drama pilot 3 lbs, staying busy and not letting the fate of The Bedford Diaries absorb too much of his mental energy. "It's something I just leave on the backburner until it happens," he says. "Chance has nothing to do with it. It could go either way. You really never know. I've been through this before. I don't feel like it's necessary to hold my breath."
For the Children
For actors who spend years going from project to project, location to location, a pilot can represent a more stable, structured life. For film- and television veteran Cindy Ambuehl, the recent arrival of twin boys Anton and Davis gives her extra cause to keep her fingers crossed for her latest pilot. The Paramount TV sitcom project, The Untitled Keenan/Lloyd Project, would mean, if it's picked up, an opportunity for her to spend her sons' early years with a steady job and a schedule that would allow her more time to be a mother.
Ambuehl could probably use a breather, having been working steadily in recurring roles on JAG, Men Behaving Badly, Head Over Heels, and Action, as well as appearing in films such as Outlaw and Meet Wally Sparks, not to mention guest roles on many television shows. "After having kids, it changes what I will and won't do," she says. "I won't go on location for long periods, and that's one of the reasons I wanted to get back into a sitcom. It's one of the reasons I left JAG: I was working incredibly long hours."
Even though the pilot might not have a name yet, it's certainly got the pedigree and ingredients to give Ambuehl hope. Directed by Kelsey Grammer, the pilot stars Henry Winkler and Stockard Channing as divorced parents. Ambuehl plays Winkler's new girlfriend. Ambuehl didn't have the benefit of reading a full script before her first audition; she had only a few sides to look at ahead of time. "I really didn't know the whole storyline until the night before the table read," she says. "I got the script and couldn't believe how funny it was." When her manager called to tell her she had gotten the job, he teased her a bit before delivering the good news.
"In all sincerity," she says, "I don't think I've ever been so excited about any pilot as I am about this one. It's probably the best script I've ever read, and it's such an honor to be onstage with this cast. The energy on the set from Kelsey Grammer to all of these stars is so positive and so supportive and encouraging, which isn't always the case with pilots."
The pilot was shot on Paramount's Stage 25. "That's a famous stage," she notes. "Cheers and Frasier, and even Laverne and Shirley were all shot there, so we're hoping that brings us luck and longevity."
Now she must wait to see what will become of the pilot. "You get to a point where you learn you have no control," she says. "After doing this for so many years, you take it much more easily because you know you do the best job you can do. It's up to the powers that be, the network; it's not up to you."
While You Wait
These actors waiting to hear about their pilots say maintaining a healthy work ethic and prioritizing are important. Ambuehl considers her priorities. "In this business it seems like everything else comes first, but that's career- and emotional suicide. You have to keep things in perspective," she says. Bennett also works to maintain perspective, knowing that as great as a series would be if it were picked up, even doing the pilot alone has value. "If the pilot goes, it would be amazing," he says. "But if it doesn't, then the experience of making it is enough for me."
Faris keeps his own focus on the job at hand by working. Even if he's not on a specific job, he is constantly pursuing his craft and striving to be better. "Do the work. If you want to work, put in the work, whatever that is," he says. He's also very direct about the distractions of Los Angeles and recommends a headlong dive into work to stay on course. "Don't come out here to screw around and play," he says. "You're not here to party; you're here because you want to work. To be an actor." BSW