Is anyone in L.A. from L.A.? You meet natives—even third- and fourth-generation locals—now and then. But if Los Angeles is the capital of anything, it is the Capital of the Newcomer. The popular image of the starry-eyed newbie stepping into the dazzling Southern California sun off a plane, train, truck, or bus from a small town somewhere else on the globe to make his fortune in the movies is a myth based on reality. It's not just farm kids off the turnip truck from Idaho anymore, though. There's also a daily influx of first-class talent from cities all over the world, not just in the U.S., making this the most competitive actors market around. In other words, if you're here to make a career in film and/or TV, this is the only place to be—and the toughest.
On the other hand it's a great place to live. You've heard the saying, "Nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live there"? The opposite applies to L.A., which for its combination of temperate year-round weather, cultural vibrancy, and access to leisure activities from the beach to the mountains simply can't be beat. It's so nice here, in fact, that it's all too easy to settle into a comfortable suburban lifestyle, lose focus on your driving creative ambitions, and wake up years later wondering what happened to your Hollywood dreams.
That won't be your story, though. With the help of our semi-annual Welcome to L.A. guide, now in its fifth edition, you will be equipped to navigate a city that is by turns intimidating, exciting, competitive, and laid-back—and, we hope, you'll be primed to realize the dreams that bring you here in the first place.
What Should I Already Have?
The two essential tools that any performer must have are a picture and a resumé. Before you set foot in Hollywood, you'd better have both. Of course, when you get here, there will be lots of pressure—from friends, new agents, managers, etc.—to get new photos taken. It's debatable what makes a great photo—the golden rule, of course, is that it must look like you—and trends change often. But you can't show up to an audition or a meeting empty-handed, so make sure you have something.
To have a good resumé, it's inarguable that you must have the credits to fill it. Logically, then, an actor who arrives in L.A. with few or no professional credits can't expect people to be too impressed by his resumé. And remember: A great-looking resumé and a great resumé are two different things.
As Tombudsman advises actors week in and week out, building credits on the stage, in commercials, in local television, wherever, before coming to Hollywood, is a wise idea. It might seem that starting out in a town where the most work is available would make the most sense. But this is not necessarily so. A big fish from a small pond has a better chance of getting things going when he first arrives in that ocean that is the L.A. entertainment industry. Get the credits before you get here.
As important as credits—or more so, depending on whom you talk to—is education. While Back Stage West would encourage all actors to continue their training in some way once they get to L.A. (see "Where Should I Study?"), a newly arrived actor, we hope, won't show up here to begin his training. More than any other town except perhaps NYC, L.A. is a city with high expectations for auditioning actors. You'd better have the training under your belt.
In addition to pictures and resumés, actors who want to work on the screen, big or small—and if you don't, why would you be coming here in the first place?—may fare better if they have some sort of reel. Now, if you're coming from Wichita, of course agents and managers won't expect a reel with clips exclusively from feature films and primetime television. But throwing together a reel of community theatre productions is generally a bad idea. Your reel should be short, professional, and catchy.
Less important perhaps than experience, education, pictures, resumés, and reels, is the other—often annoying but essential—actor's tool: the pager/cellphone. Before you get here, or at the very least the minute you arrive, set up voicemail, a pager number, or at least a cellphone number. After all, you have to have some way for all those managers and agents and producers to get hold of you once they see that fantastic picture and resumé. (For more about which pagers/ cellphones are the most actor-friendly, consult our recent Spotlight on Telecommunications [BSW, 7/4/02].)
Also keep in mind that wherever you may end up living in Los Angeles or the surrounding areas (see "Where Do I Live?"), you must have a voicemail or cellphone number with a (310), (323), (818) or (213) area code. CDs, agents, and producers are less likely to call you in if they know you live outside the immediate area. So even if you live in San Diego, make sure you've got a local number.
Besides all of these things, an actor new to this city must have one thing above all: a clear goal. Los Angeles may seem like it has everything for every actor, but that is not the case. If you want to make your living on the stage, for example, Hollywood may not be the place for you. There is great theatre to be found here, no doubt, but it's rarely of the paying kind.
Now, if you've got the tools and the experience to compete in this town, the next question is…
Where Do I Live?
L.A. is such a vast territory it helps to narrow your search to a few areas you feel are the most attractive, convenient, and/or affordable (see "Neighborhood Guide," with complete map on page 6). For specific statistics on crime, median income, etc., refer to losangelesalmanac .com. This site breaks down most of L.A., neighborhood by neighborhood, and contains lots of useful information.
The Los Angeles Times (www.latimes .com/classified/rentals/) and The Recycler can be good places to start looking for rental listings—though because the papers are widely distributed, apartments listed in them go quickly. If you see something that interests you in the paper, call immediately and set up an appointment to look at the place at your earliest opportunity. Chances are, the apartment will be rented by the end of the week, if not within a few days.
Another popular option is to register with a rental listing service such as Renttimes (www.renttimes.com, $49) or Westside Rental Connection (www.westsiderentals.com, $60), which provide you with a wealth of decent listings for a fee (see listing on page 6). If you don't find a rental from the list you bought, or if you rent from another source, the service is required by law to return all but $25 of the fee you paid, as long as you request the refund via registered mail within 10 days of the end of the contract. Lastly, driving around an area you like may be time consuming, but it is another great way to seek out apartments that may not yet be flocked with potential tenants.
When you inspect the apartment, check for the following: cracks in the floor, walls, and ceilings; signs of leaking water or water damage; signs of insects; lack of hot water; signs of rust in the tap water; defects in electrical wiring and fixtures, and insufficient electrical outlets. In older buildings check for signs of asbestos-containing materials, such as flaking ceiling tiles, crumbling pipe wrap, and insulation. If there are repairs to be made, find out when the landlord intends to make them and get these promises in writing with a date. You will be required to give a security deposit, so if there are already areas of damage, you might want to document and photograph them to avoid later disagreement over your responsibility for them.
Ask who will be responsible for paying for utilities—gas, electric, water—and keep in mind that you may have to provide your own refrigerator. Take a tour of the area in the day and at night, and if possible talk to other tenants or neighbors about how they like living in the area, whether the area is safe, and whether they get along with the landlord and other tenants.
You will probably be required to fill out a rental application with your personal information, current and past employers and landlords, Social Security number, bank account numbers (place a password on your bank account if you don't want the landlord snooping), and credit account numbers for credit reference. You also may be required to provide your monthly income or other information that shows your ability to pay rent. The landlord may charge an application screening fee of up to $30 to cover the cost of checking your information. If the landlord obtains your credit report, he must give you a copy if you request it.
You will then enter into either a periodic rental agreement (month-to-month, for example) or a lease (for six or 12 months, for example). In the case of a lease, you are legally required to make rent payments until your lease expires. The benefit of a lease is that the landlord cannot raise your rent while the lease is in effect, and you cannot be asked to leave except for reasons such as damaging the property or failing to pay rent.
It is also important to find out whether the city in which you wish to rent has a rent control ordinance (Los Angeles does) and what the specifics of that ordinance are. Some cities, for example, allow the landlord to increase the rent by only a certain percent each year and limit the landlord's ability to evict tenants. A great resource for more information on renting apartments is The California Tenants Handbook, published by the state's Department of Consumer Affairs. Call (800) 952-5210, or view the text online at www.dca.ca.gov/legal/landlordbook.
Because average rent for a one-bedroom in L.A. starts at around $750, opting for a roommate may be the best way to find an apartment in a great area at the most affordable price, and chances are it will already be semi-furnished. If you know from the get-go that this is the path for you, and you aren't arriving in L.A. with a living companion in tow, you might want to start by looking for someone who already has a place he or she wants to share.
If you are arriving here as a complete stranger in a strange land, there are a number of good resources to help match you up with a sane and considerate human being within a few weeks. Services like Roommate Matchers (www.roommatematchers.com) will charge you $49 and can provide you with profiles and sometimes photos of people with rooms to rent or people looking for apartments.
You can also check newspapers, such as BSW, and bulletin boards, such as the one at Actor's Equity Association (5757 Wilshire Blvd., Ste.1, L.A.), or place your own attractive flier in a well-trafficked coffeehouse.
It's also important to remember that, like many big cities in the United States, Los Angeles unfortunately has its share of crime. When choosing a place to live, it's a good idea to take a good look at the neighborhood, especially at night. Police helicopters circling the area are usually a sign that there are problems, such as gang activity. Also observe whether most of the houses/apartment buildings have bars over the windows. Chances are that burglaries and intrusions have been a problem in this area in the past or present. No matter where you live, you might also consider paying for renter's insurance to protect yourself from loss or damage from theft, fire, or natural disaster.
If you are very concerned about safety, you might consider living in the second story or higher of a building. You might also look for a building that has security doors at the entrance and underground parking or assigned parking. Parking can be a real problem in some areas of Los Angeles, especially in Venice, West Hollywood, and the Fairfax District, where many structures do not have off-street parking. If you are concerned about walking a long distance from your car to your apartment at night, you might look elsewhere to live or make sure you get an apartment that has an assigned parking space.
It's hard to judge a book by its cover, though. Perhaps most surprising about crime is that in some of the nicest areas of Los Angeles, certain crimes are just as likely, if not more likely, to occur than in the poorest neighborhoods in the city.
Car theft and vandalism are also rampant crimes in this city and can happen just about anywhere. The least expensive and easiest way to prevent someone from stealing your automobile is to get the Club, a locked metal device that fits over your steering wheel when you are parked. These are available in most automotive stores for around $50. Likewise if you have a bicycle or motorcycle, always lock it up and use an excellent lock—not a chain metal one, which thieves can easily break.
All of these tips are not meant to scare you off, but if you're going to call L.A. your home, you need to be aware of the forms that criminal activity can take in our fair city—and of the commonsense precautions you can take to lessen your chances of becoming a statistic.
A Few Basic Resources
Remember, you can access the Internet for free at most public libraries.
Roommate Matchers, www.roommatematchers.com, (323) 653-7666, online and in-person service, $49.95.
www.roommateclick.com, free online service.
Easy Roommate, www.easyroommate.com, online service, $49.99.
Yahoo Classifieds, www.yahoo.com, free online service.
Rental Times, www.renttimes.com or (323) 653-7666, online and in-person listing service.
Apartment Source, www.la.apartmentsource.com, (800) 313-9738, online listing service, $25.
Westside Rental Connection, www.westsiderentals.com, (877) 872-6998, online and in-person service.
LA Homefinders.com, www.lahomefinders.com, online listing service, $49.95.
www.apartments.com, free online search service.
Yahoo Classifieds, www.yahoo.com, free online service.
Pets and People Homefinders, www.pets-people.com, (310) 398-1413, online and in-person service for pet-friendly rentals, $69.
Pets R Welcome, www.petsrwelcome.com, online service for pet-friendly rentals, $50.
How Do I Get Around?
Los Angeles isn't really a city but a string of interconnected city centers and suburbs, so there's no practical way to negotiate its terrain without a set of wheels. We've known a few resourceful actors, usually in a temporary jam, who've managed to piece together their very own transportation system that included buses, bicycles, or bummed rides. But this town is crazy-making enough with a car, let alone without one. Bottom line: You won't get far here without a car.
Yes, L.A. has a functioning bus system that's relatively safe, clean, affordable, and more or less reliable, and it's good for work commutes if you've got regular hours and a lot of reading to do. Single fare is $1.35, plus 25 cents per transfer; a typical route will require at least one transfer, so carrying around exact change for $1.60 is advisable; there's a special night fare of 75 cents, 9 p.m.-5 a.m. Certain freeway express bus zones charge an extra fare, so be prepared with extra cash and change. If you're taking the bus regularly, a pass is a good money-saving option; weekly, semi-monthly, and monthly passes are available. For information, check out www.mta.net; call (213) 626-4455 for route information.
And while you may have heard about L.A.'s new subway "system," don't count on Metro Rail's anemic routes to meet any practical transportation needs. With just 60 stops—in places like North Hollywood, Universal City, Hollywood, Downtown L.A., East L.A., South L.A., and Long Beach—the subway makes a nice outing for a leisurely urban day trip, but that's it. Rates are the same as for busses.
If you're coming to L.A. from out of state, it's best to come here with a reliable car, as it's typically going to be cheaper to buy in most other states, not least because of the lower sales tax. And don't hesitate to get a California driver's license and register the vehicle here; the law gives you 10 days to do the former, 20 days to do the latter. We've heard too many stories of folks keeping their out-of-state plates for months, even years, often under a parent's name, and then getting hit with a pricey ticket when the ruse is discovered in a routine traffic stop or fender-bender—a fine that is then added to your overdue state registration fee.
The license will cost you $12; registration will vary, based on the age and value of the car, anywhere from $30 to $300. A smog check will be required, which can run as much as $90—though if you have an older car, you may be in for some repairs to get up to California emissions standards. One helpful money-saving trick is to have the title of the car made out as a "gift"—typically your parents can help you with this—worth a mere few thousand dollars. This can lower the car's valuation in the eyes of the state, and hence make the registration fee a fraction of what it might be otherwise. Registration and license are available through the Department of Motor Vehicles; for locations and information, call (800) 777-0133 or visit www.dmv.ca.gov.
California law also requires that you have a certain minimum level of car insurance coverage, and depending on where you live, not to mention your age and driving record, your insurance payments can add up to a big chunk of change—some people pay more for insurance than they do in car payments.
If you're looking for a car in Los Angeles, a good place to start is with websites such as lacarguy.com, carsdirect.com, etc. and in the Recycler, a cheap weekly with copious classified listings available at most local convenience stores. But there's no getting around the legwork; you'll need to give yourself a few weeks to shop and/or check out cars from private owners. If you're a member of AAA, you can take advantage of a car-buying program in which good deals are recommended at AAA-approved used-car dealerships (call (800) 709-7222 for info). If you go for a used car to save money, fine, but remember Dad's advice about buying used cars: Go with reliable brands and models. For your best reference on which makes and years of cars are most reliable, nothing beats the Consumer Reports car guides, at most bookstores.
Once you're behind the wheel, the adventure begins. The first thing you must do is drive to a local bookstore and buy a Thomas Bros. Guide. This indispensable, almost sacred text will run you $20 for L.A. County, closer to $30 to add a county (L.A. plus Orange, or L.A. plus Ventura). Trust us on this one: Yes, Internet maps and directions are a great innovation, but we still swear by the Thomas Guide for the most thorough, reliable information.
Know that L.A. drivers are aggressive and often self-centered, and that when it rains they freak out and drive even more poorly. It behooves new arrivals to remember their high school courses in defensive driving and to avoid distractions at the wheel—pull over if you need to use that cellphone, please!
How Do I Support Myself?
Signing up with a temp agency (see accompanying list on page 9) is always a good way to get placed in entertainment offices, from the studios to agents, managers, or publicists. It's an opportunity to observe the business firsthand. Another benefit to temp work is the flexible schedule: You can work around classes and auditions. Many temp agencies in this town are actor friendly. Some require an initial registration fee, which you usually make back with your first job, which is most often guaranteed. It's a good idea to register with multiple companies, as many temp jobs last only a few days.
Other entry-level industry jobs include being a reader in a casting office, where you read the lines opposite the actor auditioning. You'll probably need to know someone in the casting office to get a plum job like this. But if you're lucky you'll get to witness the competition and see what makes casting directors tick.
If you're a fast reader (in the silent sense), you can consider doing coverage for a production company as a script reader. You would be assigned to read manuscripts and make critical comments for use by the company's development department. This is a great job with a flexible work-at-home schedule, ideal for aspiring screenwriters to get an idea of scripts that are circulating. The only catch is that it can be very hard to land a paid position starting out; you may have to do it for free for a while—it's a little like acting in that way. The best way to get into this field is to contact local film production companies—listed in such guides as LA 411 and Creative Directory—to see if they need intern or office help in their development departments. Verbally inclined interns will often find themselves taking some reading material home on weekends, and one thing leads to the next.
You could also get on a set by serving as a production assistant. The pay isn't great and the work can be strenuous and plebeian, but what better way to gain some on-set savvy? Production assistant positions vary from running for coffee to really assisting the production in a significant way. It depends on the production and the people in charge. However, it's rare that any production company won't be generous to an individual who has a calm, focused attitude and works hard. You can find job notices for PAs in the Casting section of BSW every week.
But if you need to make some serious money and the first-look deal with Paramount just hasn't come together like you thought, live the Hollywood cliché and wait tables. Just by going to a few nice restaurants in town, you'll see that the main criterion for getting a waitering job is much like that of snagging an acting gig: your look. You can more easily find work as a waiter if you're neat and attractive. While experience helps, it doesn't seem to be top priority in all cases. So if you can get the work, why not get it at a restaurant near a studio or industry hangout? Of course those spots, like a series regular on a sitcom, are highly sought after and competitive. You could also check hotels and caterers who hire waiters for industry banquets.
Likewise, tending bar, which can also be quite lucrative, is a tough nut to crack in L.A. First, there just aren't as many bars here, compared with New York, say, where there's a bar on every corner. Starbucks Coffee is the closest L.A. equivalent, however, and it's got lots of positions to fill.
Second, it seems that you have to know someone to recommend you to get a job behind the bar—in that sense it's like getting an agent or getting a read with a casting director. If you have no experience or contacts at bars already, you might consider taking a class. A list of local bartending schools is available at www.rwm.org/ rwm/cal_bat.html. Many of the schools will help you find work as a bartender in hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, and industry events, including awards banquets.
Another job that can mesh with an actor's often unpredictable schedule is substitute teaching, which offers flexibility and variety on a long- or short-term basis. A teaching credential is not necessary; however, the L.A. Unified School District requires prospective substitute teachers to enroll in the 40-hour Teacher Training Academy. Call (800) TEACH-LA or visit www.lausd.k12.ca.us/ for more information.
Finally, a segment of L.A.'s population works as full-time extras. You can make decent money regularly appearing as a background performer in films, television, and commercials. It's even a way to get into the Screen Actors Guild (see "How Do I Join the Unions?").
Because extras work necessitates its own community, there are some important things to remember. This is the only area of the industry in which an initial registration fee to be considered for parts is condoned. You register with extras casting companies, and they keep your picture on file and hire you whenever your look is appropriate for a project they are casting. There are also calling services, which act as agents in seeking extras work for you. These services generally require a monthly fee, and while they're by no means necessary for finding extras work, some extras casting directors do rely on them to book extras. Back Stage West also lists many calls for extras for major projects, as well as smaller productions, for which there is no fee to register or submit.
You don't need a headshot or an extensive resumé to get extras work. All you need are your measurements and a 3x5 color photo of yourself against a plain white background. It doesn't have to be professional, only a simple snapshot accurately representing how you look now—so don't fall for photographers telling you that you need expensive headshots to do extras work. Some extras companies will take a photo, usually digital or Polaroid, for a minor fee; it really shouldn't be more than $20/$25 for commercials.
The industry standard registration fee for legitimate extras casting companies is less than $25. This cost usually includes the photo fee because SAG extras cannot be charged any registration fees to get work, only a photo fee. There are numerous companies claiming to cast extras that charge exorbitant fees, list false credits, and rarely or never call you for work though they claim to guarantee work. These are generally the companies advertising in general newspapers with a wide readership or posting fliers on telephone polls with a phone number for you to tear off. These companies make a lot of promises and never deliver.
There are many things to know about being a background performer—or "atmosphere," as extras are sometimes called—and many things to avoid to keep from being scammed, such as knowing that anyone who will sell you SAG vouchers is not legitimate. The most comprehensive resource and guide to the extras community is the annual publication Extra Work for Brain Surgeons (Hollywood OS, $27.50). Another good resource guide is the book Survival Jobs: 154 Ways To Make Money While Pursuing Your Dreams, by Deborah Jacobson (Bantam Doubleday Dell Pub, $19).
If you're interested in doing extras work, you should know that it is not very glamorous. Background performers are often treated like cattle. The hours can be long. The pay is not very good, usually minimum wage for non-union extras. While an extra occasionally gets upgraded to a speaking role—which is rare but does happen—you are probably not going to get "discovered" by being an extra. It is also not recommended that you include your background performances on your resumé as you build your acting career. Theatrical and commercial agents and casting directors are not going to be impressed by such credits; training and speaking roles are what count as you progress. However, being an extra affords an aspiring actor the opportunity to observe how a film or television production is shot and what the proper set etiquette is.
How Do I Get an Agent?
One of the questions most frequently asked by actors new to Los Angeles is: How do I get an agent? It's an especially pressing question in L.A., because this is the most agent-intensive industry town anywhere, more so than New York—meaning that without an agent here, you can't get very far. Not only is it next to impossible to submit yourself for projects or get a general meeting with a casting director on your own, you can't even find out most of the projects that are casting, because only agents and managers can get that information through Breakdown Services, Ltd.
Unfortunately, there is no magic recipe for how to procure representation from a talent agent. It's often a Catch-22 situation: You can't get an agent without having professional credits, and you can't get professional credits without an agent. While it can be a tough road, there are common-sense steps an actor can take to get closer to meeting agents.
First, know that it usually takes some time to land representation. Second, you are going to have a much better chance finding your first agent at a smaller agency or boutique agency than you are at a larger agency. In most cases, the bigger agencies, like William Morris, ICM, and CAA, are not looking for actors fresh off the bus.
Also keep in mind that there are two types of agents representing actors. One is the commercial agent; the other is the theatrical agent, who submits an actor for film and television work. It is usually easier to land a commercial agent than it is to find a theatrical agent to take you on.
While many actors continue to blindly send their headshots and resumés to every agent's office in town, most agents will tell you that this mass-mailing tactic is expensive and usually futile. Still, there are always exceptions to this rule, and it seems that actors have a better chance of getting a response from a blind submission when trying to get a commercial agent. This is probably because commercial casting is heavily based on look, which can be gleaned from a good headshot.
Most pros will tell you that the best way to get a meeting with an agent is to get a referral from a reputable casting director, manager, or another agent, such as a commercial agent, should you already have one.
The most annoying thing an actor can do is to call an agent without any pretext, referral, or previous meeting with the agent. The only time you should contact agents—via mailed postcards—is when you have something going on that they can see you in, such as a showcase, one-person show, play, or film. Even then, it's tough to get agents out to see you. (Check out "How Do I Get Seen?")
You also must decide whether you need a manager, an agent, or both. Many working actors have both; a few have only a manager or an agent. So what's the answer for you, pounding the pavement, trying to get a foot in the door?
Well, there is the old adage that you don't need a manager until you have a career to manage. Managers typically represent only a few clients on a private basis, and their relationships with their clients are usually closer and more hands-on than most agents can offer. They get paid more, too—typically 15 percent, though because they're not franchised by a union or licensed by the state, managers can charge whatever percentage they want.
Technically, because they're not licensed as agents, managers are not supposed to submit or solicit work for their clients, but they very often do. After all, they get the daily breakdowns of available parts, and even if they don't make a "double" submission—a submission for the same part an agent is submitting on—they are likely to pitch clients and try to get them seen, over and above the agents' efforts. This can lead to conflicts between actors' representatives and, ultimately, frustration on the part of the casting directors and producers, so it behooves actors with both managers and agents to make sure they're all part of a well-oiled team whose job is to work for the actor, not against each other.
When looking for representation, it's important for performers to spot red flags, most notably agents who advertise for clients. Any legitimate acting agent must be licensed by the state.
Until this year, agents were also regulated by an agreement they had with the Screen Actors Guild, and it was possible to get a list of legitimate "franchised" agents from SAG. But earlier this year, SAG members voted down the newest version of that actor/agent agreement between SAG and the Association of Talent Agents, which would have allowed agents to own interests in production companies and vice versa. The Guild membership, feeling that this was a conflict of interest, voted no, leaving no rules in place to govern agents, aside from state law.
Though state law allows for up to a 25 percent commission, most agents have yet to begin charging more than 10 percent. With no franchise agreement in place, however, anything could happen. Agents have already begun signing actors to their own "General Service Agreements" (or GSAs), which have far fewer protections that the old SAG-endorsed contracts. SAG has advised its members not to sign these agreements. As of now, however, neither SAG nor the ATA has plans to return to the bargaining table to forge a new agreement that would be acceptable to members.
For a thorough list of L.A.-based agencies, check out the Hollywood edition of The Agencies: What the Actor Needs to Know, available at Samuel French Bookstores. There is also a new book from the same publisher called Personal Managers Directory—a valuable addition to the market, as until it came along there was no reliable guide to legitimate talent managers. But as managers aren't franchised or licensed, it's hard to track them down, so you will likely have to do your own research on managers, as well.
You should never pay to be represented. Agents currently receive 10 percent of money you make on the job; they are not to be paid before you work. The same is true of managers, though, as noted, they're not regulated; but they typically charge 15 percent on the back end. So if any agent or manager requires upfront fees before signing you, or requires that you get new headshots from a certain photographer, you should turn around and use the door, no matter what they promise or threaten. No legit rep asks for money upfront. Period.
How Do I Join the Unions?
There are three main performers unions: the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists (AFTRA), and Actors' Equity Association (AEA). These three unions, along with the American Guild of Variety Artists, fall under the collective umbrella known as "The Four As" and are also known as "sister unions." These unions guarantee members minimum wages and safe facilities, impose penalties, offer seminars, and provide health insurance, career counseling, showcases, retirement planning, credit unions, and decent dressing rooms.
The biggest performers union is the Screen Actors Guild, which was established in 1933 and now boasts about 98,000 members. SAG represents actors working in film—including television, industrials, educational, experimental, and music videos. SAG charges new members an initiation fee of $1,310 plus the first semi-annual dues of $50, or $100 annually, for a total joining fee of $1,360. Members who earn more than $5,000 per year under SAG contracts pay 1.85 percent of their gross income over $5,000, to a maximum of $200,000. Members who pay full dues to another performers union and earn less than $25,000 per year under SAG contracts will receive a reduction of $10 per year.
Generally, new members can gain entrance into SAG by meeting one of the following eligibility requirements: (1) They are cast and hired to work in a principal or speaking role for a SAG-signatory producer; (2) they complete a minimum of one year's membership and principal work in an affiliated performers union, or (3) they are cast and hired to work as an extra for a SAG-signatory producer at full SAG rates and conditions for a minimum of three work days.
To join SAG as an extra, you must be hired under a SAG contract three times. This is where those SAG vouchers you may have heard about come into play. A film operating under a SAG contract must hire 40 SAG extras before it can hire any non-union extras; in television, the minimum is 15. If the extras caster can't find a SAG extra to fulfill the requirements of the job, then a non-union extra who fills the bill is hired as a SAG extra and receives a SAG voucher for that job. Another way to get a voucher as an extra is if you are recalled to do more filming the next day and, say, only 30 people are recalled; all 30 people receive a voucher because the minimum number of SAG extras were not hired. Typically you'll receive these vouchers from the film's assistant director, or AD—a good person to get to know, whose good favor will obviously get you far.
The American Federation of Television & Radio Artists represents broadcasters, singers, actors, and dancers for live and taped television, radio transcriptions, phonograph recording, and non-broadcast recorded material. Founded in 1937, AFTRA has roughly 80,000 members. The initiation dues are $1,210, plus new members' annual dues of $58. As with most unions, if an organization other than AFTRA is the performer's parent union, there will be a discount on the dues.
You can join AFTRA voluntarily even before you have a job. However, keep in mind that most people who join do not do so frivolously, as the initiation fee is expensive. Members can also join AFTRA through the Taft-Hartley Act, by which a non-union actor is hired for a union job. The actor then has 30 consecutive days to work within a union's jurisdiction before the actor is compelled to join. If the period ends, performers will usually join before they secure other jobs.
There are more than 40,000 nationwide members of Actors' Equity Association, which was founded in 1913. Equity has union jurisdiction over Broadway, Off-Broadway, touring companies, stock, café theatre, and theatre for young audiences. As of last year, Equity's dues were $800 for initiation and $78 annually. Members paid $300 upfront and had two years to pay the balance. For working dues, actors and stage managers contributed 2 percent of their weekly earnings. Payments were generally withheld from your paycheck and remitted to Equity by employers, accompanied by payroll reports. The maximum Equity earnings subject to the 2 percent working dues was $150,000 a year.
However, Equity's policy on membership and its dues structure has changed this year and is now so complex that AEA reps suggest performers interested in joining contact the membership office.
As you will find in Los Angeles, the majority of L.A. stage productions fall under the "Equity 99-Seat Plan," which allows union and non-union performers to work under this agreement (not a contract) for smaller theatres (see "How Do I Get Seen?")
All three of the actors unions are headquartered in the Museum Square tower at 5757 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90036. SAG's contacts are (323) 954-1600, www.sag.org; AFTRA's, (323) 634-8100, www.aftra.com., Equity's, (323) 634-1750, www.actorsequity.org.
How Do I Get Seen?
The answer to this question is perhaps the most debatable in this primer. Getting seen in L.A. is not the hard thing; the question is how you want to be seen. If anything, there is too much going on in Los Angeles, between workshops, student films, theatre, comedy clubs, open mics, and the multiplicity of websites and directories. Focusing on what best showcases your talent and gets you introduced to the right people is not an easy thing.
First of all, as in any major city, there is theatre here. More than ever, Los Angeles is a theatre town—but in its own way. Everyone knows that L.A. will always be a one-industry town, and film/TV is that industry. Theatre makers in L.A. don't expect that there will one day be a Broadway on the West Coast—indeed, many would shudder at the thought. However, theatre in every form abounds, from the newest and most original works to the strictly traditional. Some powerhouse theatres have made the difficult transition from small to mid-sized houses—more than 99 but fewer than 500 seats. But the majority of theatres in L.A. still work under the Equity 99-Seat Plan. Should you choose to do theatre in Hollywood, it's most likely that this is the plan under which you will be working.
The 99-Seat Plan is essentially a Waiver setup. Union actors—actors who are members of "The Four As," which translates to SAG, AFTRA, Equity, or AGVA—receive for their work $7 a performance or 15 percent of the box office divided among the union actors, whichever is larger. If that sounds like the kind of showcase plan they have in other actor-intensive towns, it is—except that here in L.A. you can do this low-paying work for a total of 80 performances before producers have to negotiate with Equity. There are also lots of rules about available parking, comp tickets, breaks, rehearsal hours, etc. (BSW publishes the plan every year in our end-of-the-year Theatre Guide, the last of which appeared 12/15/01.)
As anyone who sees theatre regularly in Los Angeles can attest, the quality of the spaces, the companies, and the productions varies widely. Certain shows every year are as good as or better than anything on any stage in America. At the same time, certain shows are undeniably vanity showcases and are typically frowned on by critics and audiences alike. But isn't the whole point of getting seen to showcase yourself? Be warned: The bar for theatre productions of all sizes and styles has been raised extremely high in Los Angeles—which means you'll find your best exposure in a kick-ass show that critics and audiences love for its own merits. It also doesn't hurt if you're lucky enough to get into a play at one of the region's established LORT theatres, such as South Coast Repertory, the Geffen Playhouse, the Pasadena Playhouse, La Jolla Playhouse and the Globes in San Diego, and the Mark Taper Forum.
In other words, if your goal is to do theatre because that's the world you come from, it's where you get your best workout, and it's where you meet the kinds of people you hope to work with in the future, by all means, L.A. theatre is a great place to be. If you're just looking to make it in TV or film as quickly as possible—and hey, not that there's anything wrong with that—then the theatre scene in Los Angeles may not be the best place for you to start. Be honest with yourself: If you can admit now that you're strictly using the stage as a means to an end, in the long run you won't be as frustrated when your theatre piece isn't picked up for production by Warner Bros. (For a complete listing of Southern California theatre companies and venues, consult the aforementioned yearly BSW Theatre Guide, 12/15/01. And every week of course turn to Back Stage West for all the theatre casting notices fit to print.)
Student films are another area in which actors can find a certain degree of exposure in the Southland. Playing a role in a USC film grad's thesis is probably not going to lead immediately to your big break, but we've found that student films can serve newly arrived L.A. actors in a number of ways. First, it's a good way to build a reel of filmed material for those who need the clips. Second, it's an opportunity to learn how things work on a set, without having to suffer the sometimes humiliating experiences of being a P.A. Granted it's not the same as starring in a studio feature. You won't have your own trailer, makeup artist, and personal trainer; but if you are smart, you can pick up a lot of information that will help you in the future: how to find your mark, what coverage is, etc.
Student films can also lead to the kind of networking that could pay off for you in the future. Many of the students in L.A. today are the studio filmmakers of the future. If you develop a relationship with someone today, who's to say she won't remember you when she gets her big break?
The best way to get into student films is to subscribe to Back Stage West. We run casting notices for the majority of student films being produced in the Southland. Also, by contacting the film departments at some of the major universities nearby, actors can get their headshots placed in books that student filmmakers consult when casting.
Another way actors in L.A. try to get seen is of course through mass mailings (often through services) and directories—many of which are now on the Internet. The relative efficiency of these efforts is a subject for discussion. Some actors swear by mailings, others consider them a waste of time and money. As for the Internet services, Back Stage West believes that caution is the best policy. Some CDs seem to be switching over to the Internet to do their casting, but most are not wired yet, and until all of them are, no service will emerge as the standard.
Finally, another way to get seen by industry professionals is to get into a good acting class or workshop. Many acting schools culminate their courses of study with a theatrical production or showcase, to which industry guests are invited. And many acting schools and workshop companies have regular industry guest speakers.
Here's where we get into a controversial area: There are several companies in Los Angeles whose sole or central business is to invite casting directors or their assistants out to view students' work, with the stated purpose of "demystifying" the casting process and giving tips on auditioning technique. Of course, the main attraction for actors is that such workshop settings give them a chance to meet and perform for people who may hire them in the future. The California state labor division has ruled in recent months that these workshops, in which most industry guests are paid for their time, violate state law, as they seem designed more to offer access to casting directors than to give instruction.
Actors, casting directors, and workshop owners have fought the ruling vociferously (BSW, 7/25/02). It's true that many actors find such workshops useful, even crucial to their careers, and it's easy to see why: Some receive auditions and jobs directly from their workshop experiences. And there is always some intrinsic informational, educational, and networking value for actors in meeting, reading for, and hearing from casting professionals. Whether that's enough to call these workshops purely educational, though, is a matter workshop owners and the state will have to hammer out.
Our opinion? CD workshops like this have obvious, demonstrable value for actors and shouldn't be outlawed—but the practice of casting directors taking money just to show up for an evening to watch actors read and give a little feedback should be outlawed. CDs who really teach, with weeks-long courses, lesson plans, etc., do deserve to be paid.
Our advice? How you spend your money is your business, so treat it like a business: Use common sense, follow your gut, shop for deals, and don't believe the hype. We've found that actors who get the most value out of workshops are actors who know exactly what they want out of them and use them with the same savvy they do in targeting mailings to casting directors or choosing the best headshot.
And don't get confused: Whatever educational value they have for you, CD workshops are a poor substitute for real acting training. Indeed, you shouldn't consider enrolling in them until you've had some real acting training or experience and feel ready to show your work. Most workshops will be happy to take your money regardless of your preparedness. As this is the first impression a CD may get of you, make sure it's your best.
Where Should I Study?
Choosing the right acting class can sometimes feel like looking for a needle in a stack of needles. First of all, there is the sheer quantity of classes available on the West Coast to grapple with—more than 300 in our twice-yearly Southern California listings alone (look for our upcoming Sept. 19 Acting Schools and Coaches spotlight). The proliferation of acting coaches in L.A. is indicative of the general overabundance of choices in our supermarket culture. But 50 brands of chocolate-chip cookies can't all be the same, right?
The more immediate question is: How do you tell one "brand" from another? As past Back Stage West interviewees from Sydney Pollack to William H. Macy have pointed out, anybody can set himself up as an acting coach. After all, what are the qualifications?
Many would point to education and experience as the obvious indicators of a legitimate coach. Indeed, if a "coach" has no apparent performance or production experience—or education, for that matter—you can consider that fair warning. Beyond that, it's a question of degrees—and we're not just talking about M.F.A. vs. Ph.D. How much experience should a coach have? And what kind of experience? Many actors would argue that they've learned more from a few months of working with their peers in certain class situations than from years with so-called experts.
What it all boils down to is that some people like Chips Ahoy and some like Toll House. Because selecting the best class is such a personal thing, the most important questions you need to ask before you go on your quest are those that only you can answer. Where you are in relation to your performance goals and dreams has everything to do with which class you should be in. What have you accomplished so far, and what do you wish to accomplish in the future? Have you been formally educated? If so, to what degree and in which techniques?
It helps to write down your past training in detail, just to have it in front of your eyes, but not in the shopping-list format at the bottom of your resumé. Instead, write down what training you specifically rely on as a performer, in order of relevance. For example: "As an actor, this is what I'm best at: Improv (from studying with Paul Sills), Improv performance (from two years with Second City), Movement (from three years of dance at university)," etc. Be as specific as possible. Sure, you got a degree in theatre from Carnegie-Mellon, but what did you learn? Maybe you got everything from that clown class but really didn't connect with the Method work. Figure out where you stand by including all your past training and performing experiences, good and bad.
Next, figure out where you are in terms of your career, with a specific goal in mind. At the bottom of this list, write down your overall goal, whether it's to be "Lead in a sitcom," "Action star in feature films," "Artistic director of my own theatre company," or "Member of the Royal Shakespeare Company."
Then, from your training list, select those experiences that have brought you closer to your goal and write them above your goal. For example, if your goal is to become a member of the RSC, your list may look something like this: "Classical Performance (two lead roles in regional productions); Classical Training (versework for one summer at BADA with Derek Jacobi); Text in performance (class with Andrei Serban, worked on Midsummer's), etc." This will probably be a much shorter list, but that's OK. It will make it immediately clear how much work you have done toward your goal, and how much is left to be done.
Now you know exactly where you're at and how you got there. You can also see how much of your training directly relates to your goal and how much does not. The next thing to ask yourself is: What am I missing? What are the steps needed to achieve my goal? And can a class help fill those gaps?
Once you've figured out your problem and the kind of class that might address it, the rest is much easier. Write down exactly what your ideal class would be, such as: "A three-times-a-week scene work class that will help me build confidence in dramatic character work, preparing me for the roles I will eventually play in new theatrical productions on Broadway." It might sound a little silly, but it will help.
Now you're ready for your plan of action. Let's call it the "Four A's." Easy to remember, right? First, ask around. Your best chance at landing in a satisfying class is always by referral. If your friend knows a coach he swears by who teaches a class similar to what you're looking for, you should check it out. Likewise if you hear of a class that seems to match your description, find out if anyone you know has worked with the teacher or school before. Ask them questions about what they got out of it and what they were hoping to get. Remember that their goals might be different from yours, so ask more specific questions than, Was it good?
Whether you come up with a great suggestion from a friend or whether you find the class on your own, the next step is to audit. Auditing a class, even if it's for a fee, is always worthwhile. It won't be the same as participating, but you'll get a fairly good idea of what you can expect. Not all schools allow auditing, but don't be afraid to ask. It can save you money and time in the long run.
Once you've settled on the right class for you, your next job is to act. In other words, finding the perfect class is only half the battle. Investing yourself in the work is the other half. Take your class seriously and really do the work. You're paying for it, after all, so get your money's worth. Otherwise you'll never know whether the class was lacking or whether your work in it was.
Finally, and perhaps most important, after about three sessions of class, assess. What have you learned? Is what you've learned so far what you took the class for in the first place? Is it worth it to continue? Again, it's your money. Don't be afraid to take a hard look at a class once you're in it. There are many other classes that could be right, so don't stick with a program that's not right for you.
And when all is said and done, of course, the final step is the step you take onto the stage or in front of the camera. It's then that the true test of your training will come. If you've gotten all you need from your classes, they'll be the last thing in your mind. You'll be "in the moment," secure in the knowledge that you have the skills to meet the challenge. Instead of learning, you'll be doing. And that's the goal of every actor.
So there you have it—make your lists, follow the Four A's, and good luck.
Enjoy the Ride
Ultimately, the best piece of advice we can leave you with is this: There is no formula for success in this town. If there were, it would be sold on the street corners where the guys sell "Star Maps." Much of your career as an actor will seem to come about—and not come about—entirely at the whim of fortune. But remember this timeworn adage: Luck comes to the prepared. So prepare yourself with information, with experience, with connections, with training. Trust us, you'll have lots of downtime to do all this preparation—and you won't regret putting in the time when opportunity knocks.
And if your true passion is acting, you won't regret putting in the time even if opportunity doesn't knock for a long, long time, or if what knocks are mostly the hard knocks. We've heard it time and again from veteran actors at all levels of outward success: Holding on to their love of the craft has seen them through their bleakest failures and their most corrupting successes. Bottom line: To get up and act in front of your peers—whether it's on a tiny storefront stage on Santa Monica Boulevard or in a TV soundstage in the Valley—is what you came for. Have fun doing it. BSW