Notes From the Field: Turning TV Guest Star Roles into a Career

Photo Source: Courtesy of Olli Haaskivi

Ever since I found out you could make a living as a television guest star, it was what I wanted to do. A show I starred in? A series that was all about me week after week? That has never been the dream.

Getting to play great roles—plural—in great projects—plural—with great people? That’s what I’m after. Full stop.

I’ve played big parts and small parts, good guys and bad guys, and approximately ninety thousand harried assistants. Through a strange scheduling fluke, many shows I’ve shot (“Get Shorty”, “Elementary,” and “The Sinner”) will all be airing later this summer. Based on these experiences and others—and so this doesn’t just feel like some rambling anecdotal bragging festival—I’ve tried to extract a few lessons for you, dear reader, from my experience on these projects.

The first television job I ever got was one line on the CBS series “Unforgettable.” Before my audition started, I remember the casting director (Suzanne Ryan) looking at the scene and saying, “This could go a bunch of different ways, huh?” I explained that I’d come up with a few scenarios that could potentially work and she said, “Cool. Do you just want to tape them all?”

I was told I got the job because I reminded the producers of a young James Urbaniak. (What a compliment! He’s so cool.) In actuality, I’m pretty sure I got the job because I formulated and executed a clear battle plan. The lesson? They don’t always know what they want; it’s our job to show them.

READ: How to Become a TV Actor

Sometimes, though, we show them the wrong thing.

I didn’t audition for my role on “Get Shorty”; one of the writers knew my work and finagled an offer. This flattering compliment made me feel glamorous but as soon as the cameras started rolling, I had the chilling realization that nobody on set knew what I was about to do. There was no audition tape; they just watched my reel and hoped for the best. It should come as no surprise, then, that my ideas for the role were a little different than the director’s and it took a few extra takes before the performance finally gelled.

To be very clear: my ideas were weird and the director’s were correct and I’m lucky he was able to direct me in a smart, sensitive way. The lesson here is that you have to be nimble and adjust quickly; you can’t be married to one approach. Plus, your job is to give the director and editor options. It’s not useful for them to have six takes that look exactly the same.

The final lesson is one I’ll call “Playing the Long Game.”

I auditioned for multiple parts on “The Sinner” before I got my recurring role this season. Mark Saks, who casts “Elementary,” has been auditioning me regularly since 2011 but it wasn’t until 2018 that I finally got a job. Show biz can be a long, lonely slog but if you stay focused and give consistently great auditions, the right roles eventually show up. Even better: sometimes they’re worth the wait.

My experiences on “The Sinner” and “Elementary” were among the best I’ve ever had. The roles were juicy, the respective directors treated me like a true collaborator, and my scene partners were not only extraordinary actors but inclusive, hilarious people. Ultimately, I’m thankful none of those other roles worked out because the ones I ended up with were so deeply fulfilling.

Almost exactly ten years ago, I moved to New York planning to focus on theater. I thought that maybe if I was lucky, one day I could frame someone for a grisly murder on “Law and Order.” So spending so much time shooting television has been an enormous surprise, one that makes me feel incredibly fortunate. Having to craft a performance quickly has made me sharper and braver, and getting to work with inspiring talents on all sides of the camera has been a priceless education. I love it so much and I hope it’s only the beginning.

(And I am still available and interested re: “Law and Order.”)

Olli Haaskivi is an actor and coach based in New York City. In addition to his aforementioned television work, his recent credits include “Bella: An American Tall Tale” (Playwrights Horizons), The Rafa Play (Flea Theatre), as well as the films Nancy (Sundance 2018, dir. Christina Choe) and Motherless Brooklyn (dir. Edward Norton). He can be found @olliahaaskivi and ollihaaskivi.com.

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