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TOMBUDSMAN: Back to Reality

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OK, summer is practically over and the annual work drought is thankfully waning. To the calendar, it is still summer, but to us actors, it's already the fall. Your agents are finally getting their money's worth on the Breakdowns, so wake up, get back in class, print some new headshots, stop bitching, re-edit the demo, and book something, for crying out loud.

I'm not only telling this to you, I'm reminding myself it's again time to work it. Time to break out the postcards, purchase plenty of those 20-cent self-adhesive stamps, and rip through yet another mystery mailing. Time to remind those people who liked me last year that they might like me even better this year-maybe enough to hire me this time. Time to forget the ones who didn't. Time to rearrange the order of my television credits on my resum because a certain director who last year wasn't known is now very well known. Does it really matter? Hey, it's something to do.

Time to take "poker enthusiast" off the special skills section of my resum and in its place add "proficient with European dialects." Much more mature. Time to change my weight listing from 195 to 186-hey, that'll make a big difference: "Yeah, we'd like to hire Tom, but he's 195. If only he were 186." Time to audit a few acting teachers, shave my head even shorter to compete with the growing legion of buzz cutters, and dust off my cop uniform for the hope of a commercial call where I'll need it. These are the things I do when the fall season arrives. I'm sure you have your own plan, too, and a plan isn't a half-bad place to start. Good luck this season.

Great Group Gripe

So I'm at my first new fall season audition a couple of weeks back and I find myself surrounded by six or eight character actors, most of whom I've seen for years on the tube. These guys are real working actors and have more credits than most, and I'm getting that rush I do whenever I'm reading for a role with thespians whose work I've admired for years. It's a makes-me-feel-good-to-be-an-actor kinda day.

Nice group of guys. It's a fun pre-audition, not one of those chill-in-the-air affairs where strangers stare each other down or grip their sides so tightly that hand cramps are inevitable. This group is loose, and I mean that in a good way. This is the way it should be-a lot of "good lucks," "break a legs," and war stories aplenty being shared. Yes, everyone in the room wants the same part, but if they don't get it they'd be content knowing it went to one of the others in this respectful gathering. At least that's the way I see it; maybe I'm deluded. Either way, the vibe is nice, and that beats the other audition room scenario we've all seen a few times in our careers.

Yep, this is a bunch of real people and not a single one blabbing on a cell phone. There is hope for the world. One fella turns the conversation in the direction it usually heads when there is more than one actor in the room.

"So did you guys have a lousy year or what?"

A collective laugh and nods all around. I'm joining in, but at the same time thinking, Hey, these actors all have major-league resum s, and they're having a tough go of it? Of course, a lot of this is just normal actor talk. We do like to share the common experiences of our profession, if you will-it's empowering. (I hate that word, but it does apply.) All too often these chats involve a fair amount of bitching and moaning about the business side of show business, and with a healthy group of people, it can be quite redemptive. If you have miserable people bitching and moaning, it can be quite something else. Luckily this group is of the former lot.

"Remember when your quote meant something?" sighs another.

More nods, and I think about the full page ad I just saw in The Hollywood Reporter from some commercial producers' group demanding that we all have to do our part to keep work coming-especially the actors, who are making too much money and scaring away all of the work to nasty Canada. Yeah, which actors would that be? I don't see Jim Carrey or Tom Cruise anywhere in my salary radar. These talented veteran performers all around me are simply pining for the days when their agents could actually negotiate a decent contract. Nope, everybody is growing increasingly aware that the pay rate is now the pay, and that's going to be scale, my friend.

Sure, there are exceptions-very rare ones. Meanwhile the commercial producers who rake in more money than some small countries are suggesting actors take even deeper cuts. Bull. Perhaps the commercial producers should use some of that full-page-ad money to speak to their own brethren, or maybe, here's a novel idea: Give some of it back to the actors. But that's commercials, where at least some potential for a decent backend payday exists (not that a national spot means anything like it used to). Today I'm at a television show audition where the initial session pay rate is of even more concern for the actor lucky enough to book the part. As working actors know, residuals are hard to come by, so you'd better hope your agent can crack through the increasing pressure to accept scale plus 10.

OK, snap out of it. This negative thinking won't help any audition, or maybe it will, since I'm reading for the role of a quasi-jerk. I'll just keep thinking this way and bring it to the role.

Parts for Sale

Soon after, I think about another real-life jerk I just read about in Variety. This one actually got press because he was smart and/or obnoxious enough to offer roles for sale in his film at an auction on ebay.com. Fighting off the urge to lose lunch when I read the article, I made it my pledge to mock this affair: I'd go online and bid $1.46 for a starring role. I'd even go up to a buck fifty if I had to. Mercifully the film role auction seemed to have fallen off of the Internet by the time I logged on. Sounds like that guy should be selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door instead of trying to finance a movie. I have to shake loose this creeping feeling of anger and re-focus on the positives, so I allow the sounds of my fellow actors to again penetrate my airspace.

"Why do they read so many of us?" asks a guy who has probably heard the same question posed once or 50 times through the years. "I mean, it's not like this is Shakespeare or anything."

A few knowing laughs, and he's right. It's a nice guest star role, but the character is basically just a schnook who has a bunch of scattered one liners. More than likely everyone in this room could nail the role sleeping, and that's fine, but fails to explain why the sign-in sheet shows there were 20 others in ahead of us and the casting assistant is still on the phone down the hall calling in more actors for the same role.

"I think they get paid by the head," offers one thespian.

No one is quite sure if he's joking, so there are semi-smiles and uncertain nods as everyone takes this thoughtful moment to turn back to his sides. Another actor soon departs the casting director's office, and the niceties continue-"so longs" are offered and given, a "nice to meet you" and "I hope things turn out well with your house" send this fella on his way.

For the next 10 or 15 minutes we discuss the exciting areas of unemployment checks and health benefits. I wish all producers could listen in to this part of our conversation. Maybe they'd get it then. I'm sure every actor in the room knows how fortunate he is to be able to even be eligible for benefits, because that means you had to have at least some work in the first place. How many other actors are out on the street right now without the opportunity to get even a single audition or sit in a room and share a few war stories? Why are so many of equal talent given such disparate opportunities? I'm glad I'm lucky enough to be inside today. I've been there, on the outside; it's not a fun place. Almost in sync, the sides drop from the faces.

"Pilot season sucked wind."

"El Ni"o winds."

"Worse one I've seen in a decade."

"Longer."

"Yeah."

"Had to be 20 to get a job."

"What, as a studio head?"

"Isn't showbiz great?"

"Isn't it, though?"

Laughs. Yes, it is, I'm thinking, and by the looks I see around me, so are they. Yes, it is. Wouldn't change it for anything.

__________________

Thomas Mills' Working Actor column appears the first week of every month. In remaining weeks, his Tombudsman column appears.

Inquiries should be sent to:

TOMBUDSMAN

c/o Back Stage West,

5055 Wilshire Boulevard

Los Angeles, CA 90036

When possible FAX to (323) 525-2354

Name and phone number must be included. Phone number will not be published.

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