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Career Dispatches

A Reflective August

A Reflective August
Judy Chen, New York City

My very first acting role was playing Martha Washington, as in wife to George, at age 6. As a color-blind first grader attending elementary school in the deep South in the '80s, I certainly did not realize the extent of my teacher's progressiveness in the casting of not only an interracial couple but a non-Caucasian first lady to boot.

The casting landscape has changed drastically for minorities even just in the past few years, as compared with the mid-2000s. It is so refreshing to play female characters in their 20s as opposed to stereotypes. For that, I am thankful for these opportunities.

The dragon lady or the submissive geisha girl I am not, but I understand the existence of these stereotypes. I, of all people, can laugh at myself, and I don't have a problem portraying a character reflective of my culture. However, I believe there is a stark contrast between poking fun at oneself and being insulting to a collective whole. Hollywood is about exaggeration. I get it. No one would spend to watch the mundane. And like every other industry, it is all about where the money is. However, I do not know how I would react if I was only ever getting cast for roles such as the masseuse/acupuncturist/manicurist in the long run.

I was speaking with a filmmaker who had to rewrite the Asian male figure in her movie because the movie was on the topic of homosexuality. It was difficult enough to find a nonunion Asian male actor in his 60s in New York City, let alone one who would kiss another man. Recently I was one of the final two women for a major beer company commercial. The gist was that the woman's boyfriend and father did not get along but ultimately bonded over their love for the same beverage. They cast the other actor, whose father was much easier to find. However, I was still flattered to be considered for the girlfriend role, which I always envisioned as reserved for the blond-haired, blue-eyed bombshell.

The biggest irony has been that my father loves performing, as well, and was in numerous plays in college. He recently told me he had applied for his MFA when he was in his 20s but was not accepted due to limited experience on his acting résumé. Pursuing a field outside of law or medicine was viewed as bold and rebellious within most Asian cultures during that time. We now at least know that the apple didn't fall far from the tree.

The mentality of the consumer who is now spending money on entertainment is just as diverse and unique as the people performing. I am grateful to be pursuing this path at a time when it is second nature for us to accept everyone for exactly who they are.

Deborah Strang, Los Angeles

I recently was asked to audition for a feature film that called for a fearless actor to play a naked old woman in the woods eating babies. They wanted to put me on tape, and I was to wear a bathing suit. I spent the first few minutes laughing at my ridiculous life that offers me my first nude scene at age 60, then started imagining me in my bathing suit floating around the Internet, then pondered the awkwardness of auditioning in my bathing suit in some strange windowless room in front of a blue screen.

I like to think I am fearless. So I went through the process of trying to determine if I was going to turn down this audition because I was afraid or because the timing was too inconvenient or because I was embarrassed about being put on tape in my bathing suit—or because the material just wasn't worth it or the money not enough. My dear wonderful agent, Brian McCabe, whom I have been with forever and who has remained loyal to me no matter how often I have turned down a job because I was doing a play, refused to counsel me and said the decision was entirely mine. I told Brian I would be happy to "act" nude for the audition and wear a bathing suit if I got called back. That didn't fly. I turned it down.

This week I have an audition for an indie film that will shoot in Denver in November. It's right in my wheelhouse: a warm-hearted distressed mother who is trying to protect her dying daughter or ax-murdering husband or abused son. Fill in the blank. I have so many of these scenes on my reel, I can't bear to look at it anymore. I will spend a few hours between now and Wednesday trying to find a way to make this mother different from all the other mothers.

One time I was cast as a murderer with multiple personalities, one of whom was a man. It was a great part, and something different and with a physical battle of wills opposite Morgan Freeman. When the script arrived, the role had been turned into a distressed wife who had killed her husband and had a gun in her mouth. Don't get me wrong—I was very, very grateful to still have the part and ecstatic about working with Mr. Freeman. I liked playing the distressed mother who kicked through a door firing a shotgun. And there was the distressed mother who thought her son was guilty and hoped he got caught. And the distressed mother who was drunk. I feel like I could have a new column on my résumé: Deborah Strang, distressed mother, woman who screams, woman who is insane, woman who throws a hissy fit. No wonder I get called in for a nude witch who eats babies. It's my kind of part.

Ed Stelz, New York City

Aug. 8, 2011, marks the booking of my first speaking role in an AFTRA TV show. What show? It doesn't matter; it's not the point of this story. What matters is how I got that opportunity and how I capitalized on it.

For the last two years, my manager and my agent have submitted me for hundreds of commercial auditions. Some I booked; others I got callbacks for. The rest, well it's pretty obvious. All those auditions, all that wasted time? Not at all. Those screwed-up auditions and nonbookings can be seen as experience auditioning and knowledge of what works, what doesn't, and what pleases during auditions.

I was given the opportunity to play in a less critical medium: commercials. Being bad in front of a commercial casting director is much different from being bad in front of a legit casting director. In the commercial world, there are so many projects getting cast that a CD usually doesn't have time for personal connections, whereas in the legit world, that community is much tighter, and if you blow your opportunity, you will most likely be remembered for it, and you will most likely not get called back into that office again for quite some time.

This leads us to several weeks ago when a set of sliding elevator doors parted before me, revealing a casting department for an untold television series. My manager had taken a chance on me, given me an opportunity to prove myself—considering my past commercial bookings—in a realm in which he was uncertain I could succeed. It was my first audition for a legit television series. But it was not my first audition ever; I had a useful two years of good and bad experiences. Well, you know how this story ended.

Acting-related or not, every choice you make is an opportunity to better yourself or your career. Mid-August, I flew down to Atlanta to pack my sister's house into a truck and drive it back to Pennsylvania. The opportunity, other than the obvious? A chance to see a part of the country I'd never seen before, to soak in that culture that I'd otherwise not have immediate exposure to. And during that trip, I received a phone call from a producer whom I worked with before. He pitched a pilot idea and asked if I'd be interesting in taking one of the lead roles. Now, as it turns out, my new production company will be co-producing; we will be using our new, top-rated, indie film–making Sony PMWF3 camera; and my good buddy Arjun Gupta—whom you "Nurse Jackie" watchers may know as Sam—and I will be acting side by side.

I may not be the best-looking, most talented actor out there in the industry. But I may be one of the most passionate, hardest-working ones who haven't let any opportunities slip away. And that seems to have worked for me thus far.

Jenna Lamia, Los Angeles

This month I've spent the majority of my time on a set. The hours are long and the tempers short. While snacking on too much craft service and joking with some crew members, we came up with a term to describe one's general comportment while on set: setiquette. Some people have it; some don't.

I'd like to think being kind and courteous to others while at work is a crucial element of a long-term career. However, these virtues are too often lost in the pressure cooker of the on-set environment. Everyone is pressed for time, and the money clock ticks loudly all day long. The director is trying to make the day, to get the shot, and to get the performances desired.

The actors are under a different kind of scrutiny. At the end of the day, it's their faces onscreen. Some actors feel they are the ones shouldering the majority of the burden and act entitled to special treatment because of that. But everyone there has a critical job to do. Most productions I know of are not in the business of paying for superfluous crew. Quite the opposite. It seems to me that the worst kind of behavior results when people don't realize how demanding everyone else's job is. It has been my experience that respect for how hard everyone on set is working goes a long way.

In my college theater department at Amherst, we all did every job. We acted, wrote, did lighting and tech, stage managed, and directed. It gave me a lasting appreciation for the demands of each of those positions. I felt with every production that we were all in this together, and the goal was a great finished product. We shared that responsibility equally. The relationships were, for the most part, symbiotic, collaborative, and complementary, not combative.

I hope to always bring a bit of this feeling to any set I work on. The smallest things can go a long way, like learning the names of the crew on the first day and making sure you're familiar with the different departments. Not only hair and makeup, whose contribution to your looks onscreen is obvious, but also the DP, the gaffer, the grips—all of whom contribute essential elements of the finished product, of which you are the face. I know the real world will never be like my safe little liberal arts school theater department, and some people in Hollywood will always see themselves as deserving special treatment, but I for one will at least try to work on sets where that kind of attitude is not condoned.

KC Wright, Los Angeles

On paper, nothing has changed; I'm still searching for a new agent and striving for credits, riding a roller coaster of rejection, and scratching the surface of the business. Because nothing major has happened, I'm left wondering what made this month so different from the months before it: Why do I feel so good?

One reason to feel good: I'm writing from castle-like quarters in the heart of southern Spain. My bare feet are resting on a cold stone floor, and the foundations beneath me predate our entire country. My belly is full of red wine and tapas, and my whole family is sleeping nearby. It's a true European holiday, and it has been as life-changing as you would expect.

My family of six traveled here with old friends from overseas, and I had almost nothing to do with planning the trip. I am literally along for the ride. To be honest, I was anxious about taking a vacation at all; two weeks in a foreign country is a daunting thought, and I didn't want to miss anything in L.A. I was afraid to get off track and worried that if I left town, I'd never want to go back. It seems silly now, as the trip has of course had the opposite effect. This is what people write plays about. It is life itself: the people, the history, the beauty, the food. This afternoon I took a candlelight tour of a cave that predates humanity. I saw cave drawings that are tens of thousands of years old. I shared a kerosene lamp with my parents and siblings. I saw my life for the incredible and minuscule thing that it is. It was beyond breathtaking.

Of course vacation doesn't last forever, and honestly I would not want it to. I'm so enthralled with this moment, but I can't wait to get back to L.A. reinvigorated and ready to work. I spent the majority of August in class and preparing for episodic season, and I feel like this is my time. I'm in a great place with my work, and I'm confident and excited to share it.

At my lowest, I've thought of the pursuit of acting as a disintegrating relationship; I started so full of hope and then realized that the romance novel was a sham. The struggle of the working actor seemed so alluring before I was living it. But like any true love, there's something keeping me in the game. I remember what I fell in love with.

This month is different because I know why I'm doing this. No one made me start acting. No one made me move to L.A. No one made me major in drama instead of engineering. I chose it because I love it. And if my career is broken in some way, I will be the one to fix it. I know what I want, so now I just need to take action. To networking, workshops, mailings, and all of those dirty business things that I'm constantly putting off: Life is too short. I'm done waiting.

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