Monday, May 5, 2008

Commercial Auditions & Working On Star Trek

I worked as a character actor / musician in Hollywood for 14 years. A few times, I got to combine the two. Most of my income was from commercials. It was just the area I excelled at. I was seen as a commercial character "type" by most of the casting directors. The SAG average for booking a commercial is like 1 in 83 auditions. That's a little tough on you over time, and it really frustrated a lot of my actor friends. Many of them hated commercial auditions, because most of the time, you have no idea what they want from you. (sometimes neither did they) And you have a 60 second audition after a 2 hour drive, to show them, and convince them you are the "one" out of like 200 other character guys. Improvisation skills were very important with this kind of work. I think that helped me the most. Doing open "mic's" at comedy clubs helped a lot with my comic timing. It was free training.

Then 2 or 3 guys would get a callback out of this mob. That's always interesting in the casting waiting room sitting there looking at each other, thinking one of us is getting this job. The other one isn't. Then you are in an audition room with like 20 people looking at you standing on the mark. You've got the Ad agency people, a few from the production company, the director, casting director, etc. It's hard to be relaxed in this audition situation, building up self confidence was key. They are spending millions on their baby, and they want to be sure you are experienced, and good. On the other hand, sometimes it's just a look they want.

Being able to not play it safe, and take risks seemed to be the way to go. They either love you, or hate you that way. When you can help them bring their concept to life, or suggesting things they may not have thought of - that got me hired a few times. I would always ask for a second chance audition, by saying I'd like to show you another take on this, or do it a different way. It almost always works. If you ask can I do it again? They just say no. I would always suggest that I had a second character for the audition. (But it had to be completely different.)

If you get cast as a principal player in a commercial, and you appear in it, regardless of if you have a speaking part or not, (unlike in films or TV) you still get the big residuals, and can literally live off one spot for years, if it is Class A national, and runs for a few cycles of use. (13 weeks is a cycle) That pays very well. If they really like the spot, the maximum period of use is 18 months, and after that your agent usually renegotiates with them for a higher rate. Yum. For cable TV they just give you a buy out.

Of course on the other hand, a spot can run 2 weeks and that's it, or not at all. I had a few that ran 4 years, and a few that ran a week, or never aired at all. So I never got excited until I actually saw it on TV for a period of time. Once in a while on the set if the director was friendly, I would ask what influenced him to hire me? And I would get the strangest answers...we liked your neck. LoL What?

The real acting in that industry was is in just getting hired. The actual job was like a reward. That part I found challenging and fun. But there is major ups and downs working professionally as an actor. The feeling of euphoria when you get a big job is hard to describe. There is nothing like the rush of walking out on live TV in front of a studio audience, (and 20 million people watching) There is like this wall of energy that hits you. Whoosh! On the other hand, being up for a big role that's just between you and someone else and they choose him, after like 2 callbacks was equally devastating. You just had to get back up off your butt and go after the next one. Sometimes it wasn't easy. But you will get your share if you can hang in there.

That long 11 month commercial strike they had back in 1999, was pretty devastating for some of us. And the heck of it is, we didn't really even gain much of anything from it. Except wiping out our savings we had saved up for slow, or hard times. Rather than elect a SAG president as was always done in the past, the membership elected a group of actors calling themselves, "The Performers Alliance" as the president. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but when the commercials contract came up for renegotiation, it slogged on for almost a year and that prolonged strike hurt a lot of us who were just trying to earn a living doing what we loved to do. Thankfully they elected an individual as the SAG president after that. Unfortunately it was to little to late for a lot of us, many of us left LA as a result.

I never really made it big as an actor, but I was very blessed to be able to work a lot, and managed to make a living doing what I really loved to do. Just to get work in this industry is a miracle in itself. I was very fortunate to be able to earn a living for as long as I did. If you've got this dream, I say go for it. It could be possible if you are willing work hard at it. You can't just sit there, and wait for your agent to call you. You have to check the trade papers, market and promote yourself like any other product is advertised.

It was time consuming and expensive, but I did mail outs to all the casting directors about four times a year. There was like 150 commercial casting directors alone, and about 250 film and TV casting directors. So I would pick 100 of them for a mail out every four months, and work down the list. Did it produce a lot of jobs over the years? No. Did it produce a few really good jobs? Yes. So in my humble opinion, it's worth the expense. Then you have the production companies, TV shows, films in preproduction, Ad agencies, game shows, and on and on. (Those reality shows came later, but I probably would have auditioned for those.) It's not a bad idea to get a postcard headshot done, and do a follow up mail out a month later. Or just use those for mail outs. I found that sending a full size headshot, resume, and 2 paragraph cover letter worked the best. One casting director told me postcards make great coasters.

If you have this dream, don't regret that you didn't try to be an actor. Even if they all say you can't make it. And a lot of them did. It made me all the more determined. If I could offer any advice it would be to go for it if you can, and then you won't always have to wonder...What If I didn't go for it?

So the short story is, off I went to Hollywood with a suitcase full of junk and $2000. Yeah, to be honest, I was a little scared. I had done some regional work, but this was the Big leagues. You compete with the best in the world for roles in anything on TV, Films, even Commercials. They say that Hollywood has an actor on every street corner. They were right. It took about a year, before I landed a big job. I thought I might never get one. I had like 30 call backs for roles, but just couldn't land the big one...and I was starting to doubt myself. "Man, am I ever going to get a job in this town?" I thought.

Most actors who go out to Hollywood to be an actor, last a year or so, and go back to Paduka. "Is that going to happen to me?" But finally it happened, and I then went on to make a pretty decent living doing really stupid stuff and making people laugh. I don't mind looking stupid if it brings a little joy into someone's life. I was surprised how many actors had a real problem with looking dumb, or doing some job that might be bad for their "image", or hurt their ego.

I realized right away I could make a living if I didn't have any hang ups about people laughing at me. Once the casting directors found out that I had no problem looking silly, I started to get a lot of work. That's probably my best piece of advice for someone heading out to chase their dream. One thing that was odd, even though I played lots of different characters, people start to recognize you on the street when you have 3 or 4 commercials running like 20 times a day. I do miss that a little now and then. I think I've seen that guy...somewhere...

90% of the work I did was comedy, but I did get to do a little bit of drama. For me it was rare, Hollywood saw me as a character comedy guy, and that was pretty much it. This town pretty much chooses who you are, you just have to recognize it right away, be able to accept it, and go with it. Many actors would fight that, and as a result they would struggle work wise. Some would only want to do drama in features, etc. Me, I didn't want me to be slimed? No problem. $600 to dump a 55 gal. barrel of green (food color) oatmeal & corn syrup on my head? I'm okay with that.

Working On Star Trek

I did get to play a Romulan officer 3 times on Star Trek The Next Generation. "The Mind's Eye", "The Chase"and "Timescape". I had the character names: Tarus, Tharket, and Realm. I later ended up seeing my characters on 3 sets of playing cards, in games, publicity photos, and a bunch of other stuff. That was cool. I didn't get paid for That!...But it was cool.

Its kind of funny, I get more credit for working on the show some 15 years later that I did at the time. Publicity photos of me are on a bunch of Trekie websites, and I get a kick out of that. If you search on Star Trek and my name you can check it out.

Working on that show was like a childhood dream come true. I grew up reading Science Fiction, and watched all the original Star Trek episodes as a kid, and I used to pretend I was on The Enterprise. I never imagined I would actually be on the bridge someday, beaming in and out, and blasting the good guys with phasers. I couldn't help but think to myself now and then on the set..."and I'm getting paid for this?" (Dude, I think I might have paid them. I think most people would. Especially those guys at those conventions.) Even though I was only a special ability player on the episodes I worked on (no lines, no residuals, or screen credits) It basically means you have scenes where you interact with the stars of the show. It's the area between an extra and a principal player. The pay rate with overtime, & meal penalties would average $600 for the day, and usually it was 3 days of the week for an episode. So it was pretty good pay for back in the day. (Heck, it's decent even now!)

There's a picture of me to the right from Star Trek in my Romulan get-up. The typical job was like this...A 4 am call time on the set, then 3 hour make up session in a chair, air brushed, Gluing rubber face "appliances" on you, wigs, etc. then zip you off to wardrobe. Then something the PA's called a non descript meal. We got no actual time to eat it, because by then it was off to the set. So we joked about it and a "ND meal" actually ment no dang meal! The costume was one piece, which was a little bit of a problem. It had to be removed from the back by someone else. How embarrassing was that trying to take a leak? That uniform was like a straight jacket. I had to have someone help unzip it from behind. Now I know how the ladies must feel in a nightgown.

So the work day was like 14 hours sometimes. (lots of golden OT time) The actual acting work time starts 8am - 10pm. Then after the fun part of playing a Romulan, At like 10pm it was 2 more hours of getting all that make up and medical glue off of you. Man, after 10 hours of wearing that stuff on your entire face, you want it off...badly. For days after, I was always picking pieces of it out of my hair. I didn't care. I felt kind of bad for the basic extras. They had to go through all the same make up process, and long work day for under $100. Some of them would refer to the studio as Planet Hell. LoL That still cracks me up.

The head make up artist/designer once told me the make up job on me was over $5000 worth, and that numerous celebrities would come in on Halloween to have him specially do it for them. Little did they know, it was a 3 hour mudpack in a chair. Ha! Mike would always joke with me about my nose. It needs no appliance (foam rubber crap they glue on you), or add ons, It's perfect looking just as it is. He always had a new "big nose" joke for me every episode I worked on. Hey, whatever helps you get hired! One time I was on the set while they were setting up the lighting for a shot, and Riker says to me: "Hey they did a really great job on your nose!" I was like, dude...they didn't do anything to's mine. We both had a good laugh.

I really appreciated the make up crew getting me out of there as quickly as they possibly could. They were like tattoo artists. Really skilled at what they did, air brushing layer after layer of make up on you. But getting all that crap off you, was a bitch!

Anyway...Welcome to My "Space" - Live Long...and Prosper...
Don't make me use the cloaking device...

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Starving Actor Funny Audition & Casting Stories

I guess I'm a little superstitious. I'll do something before a call back, and then if I get the job, I tend to make that a habit. Usually it's something to do with clothes, or the route driven. But on the way to this audition, I stopped by my favorite java joint, The Coffee Bean. I liked it better than Starbucks. I was just running over my lines for a callback on a big feature film. I was right outside Culver Studios leaning up against a telephone pole enjoying my pricey gourmet coffee. Perhaps I should have been more aware of my surroundings and the costume I was wearing.

Sometimes I like to leave from home in costume, as it helps me to feel more like the character I am playing for some reason. So here I was dressed as a homeless guy with all the trimmings, leaning up there all dirty and scraggly looking. Some big wig executive walked by, and I guess I was so convincing looking in my bum get up, that he dropped a handful of change into my near full coffee bean coffee cup! And just strolled on by. Hey!!! Needless to say I was a little stunned. What could I say? I had to laugh. Then I realized a $5 cup of coffee was just sacrificed for 65 cents. But later on, I managed to get the job. So now when I audition for a bum I get the coffee and try to panhandle a little bit beforehand. I figure it's good practice for my retirement.

I got to a callback on a commercial for a major brand of tennis shoes. And to my delight the director said, "You have the job, but you must be able to fit into this size eight pair of shoes. They are specially made by the ad agency." Well, I wear a size eleven shoe so naturally I said, "I can do it no problem." I crammed those things onto my over sized feet. Man I've got to tell you, it hurt like the dickens. But that's how badly some of us want this. It can be very hard to get work sometimes, it's not like a regular job. So they have me going for hours doing sit-ups and calisthenics as they photographed the bottom of my stupid feet while looking up at me. Ironically this worked real well because it was so painful it looked like I really was a workout pro. For me just going to 7-11 is a workout. To truly add insult to injury they called me at home that night. They had lost the shoes and wanted to know if I had taken them. What? Believe me I never wanted to see those stupid sneakers ever again.

My first year out in Hollywood my agent calls and asks if I could drive a semi tractor trailer. I shouldn't have done this, but I was so anxious for work back then that I said, "Yes!" I hung up the phone and dashed out to the nearest truck stop and bribed this truck driver to give me a crash course. (hopefully not literally) He showed me the trucker technique and terminology. I managed to bluff my way through the auditions, callbacks, and got the job. You asked for it bub. I was pretty nervous the day of the shoot, since I really had no clue how to drive the darn thing. Fortunately for me, the real acting came when they explained that this was a brand new truck and the dealership would prefer it if their own man could do the moving shots. "Aw gee, that's too bad. I was looking forward to destroying it. You only want me for the close ups?" Nuts.

After a few reasonably productive years in Los Angeles, I'd had lots of commercial auditions, but only a few readings for features. Then one day there it was in the trade paper. "MALE PRINCIPAL ROLE, MUST PLAY A TV." Well, now I'm from a very small town in the Midwest and only recently learned that TV means transvestite, not television! So, I looked in the mirror and asked, "So Dude, are you willing to do anything for Union scale?" Pause..."YES!"..."Do you want it THIS bad? "Yeah I think so"

Well, I bit off more than I could chew. I approached my girlfriend, curious about her reaction to the idea. Her enthusiasm for dressing and making me up was a bit of a surprise (after she stopped laughing her ass off). Then all of a sudden, I'm in her black, sheer evening gown, black pumps, socks in a bra, and all the trimmings. After a long drive to the audition trying not to be seen in heavy traffic on the 101, I got there but I needed to use the bathroom. But, wait a minute, which one? I didn't want any guys to see me like that, but I didn't have the nerve to use the ladies room. So I decided to wait it out! Smart move Sherlock.

During the audition I died like the straight dog that I am. I just couldn't relax and get into it in that get-up. My reading sucked, and when I was asked, I didn't know the difference between transsexual and transvestite. (I guess I don't get out much!) So I slinked out of there, and slumped out the door feeling pretty defeated. To make things even worse, my smart-alec girlfriend had the camera at the car door, and snapped a few photos of me. Aw come on man! And to this day she uses them (very effectively) to get her own way. I ended up marrying her. What choice did I have. And no, I'm not posting that picture here. Ever. Anywhere. Forget it!

This story is one of hers. And it gives you an idea why I married her. I've played a variety of homeless guys over the years. I get all the glamour roles. But in this one particular feature film the make up gang really did a fine number on me. They greased up my hair with hot oil, made up my teeth to look as if I hadn't brushed them in years, then put a nice thick layer of dirt and grime on my skin and the tattered clothes I was wearing. I got them to snap a photo of me to show my new persona to her when I got home.

It happened that she was going back to her home town for the 20th high school reunion. Now, the school she went to was quite a bit on the snobbish side. She was the poor kid in class. And, she pretty much knew in advance how the conversations would go. Starting with "Oh, you're married. What does YOUR husband do?" She was quite correct and when she responded that I was an actor, they wanted to know what I looked like. So, then she pulls out that picture of me as a bum. The silence was intense as her socially correct former classmates racked their brains for an appropriate response. Most gratifying of all was the fact that those few she had made friends with in high school caught on to the joke.

On a typical day of concocting hair-brained schemes to try and get work, I heard on my favorite FM radio morning show they were having a Valentines Day mass wedding ceremony for 45 couples. They explained they needed a wedding day band for the event. In school I played percussion in the school marching band, orchestra, and later worked with the Philharmonic Symphony for a few years. (Then I went to Florida for a vacation and stubbed my toe on "Miami Vice") (But that's another story) Anyway, I felt uniquely qualified for the job.

But at that time I had no musical equipment, heck, I sold it all to get out to LA. But when I heard the musicians to be used would be paid $300 each to play at this mass wedding, I started scrambling around the house looking for some kind of instrument that I could audition with. People were auditioning over the phone with the strangest instruments and being hired! Some guy with a bunch of power drills, another with arm farts, and other oddities that didn't belong in a band. So, I thought about it a little and lined up a row of 12 water glasses to the diatonic scale, each corresponding to musical notes. Then I called into the show and auditioned by playing "Here Comes the Bride" on my glass xylophone. That was easy enough, having played timpani and the chimes in the past. Then the DJ says, "Come on man, Impress us" Somehow I managed to clang out "Stairway To Heaven" on my water glasses. It was really funny, and hey hired me on the spot. Cool. I knew all those music lessons would pay off some day.

I'm pretty proud of my track record of having never missed, or been late for an audition. You have to, or you're toast. Last year I came pretty close. I was driving on the 101 freeway from the valley to Westside Casting. All of a sudden Blam! A blow out in 4 lanes with everybody hauling 70 mph in the fast lane in heavy traffic. Probably the only time it wasn't a stop and go 20 mile an hour experience. Good 'ol LA traffic. I gripped the wheel and held it steady, but nobody would let me pull in front of them to get over to the shoulder! This was pretty freaky, semi's blowing by me, the car lumbering like a boat. Finally, a kind motorist saw my predicament and slowed so I could get over. (In LA? Oh come now!).

After my heart stopped pounding, I regained my composure and sized up the situation. Okay, a flat I can handle that and still make the audition. (I always leave an hour early, just in case.) I had recently gotten a new used car, and to my amazement there was locking hub caps. Whoever heard of such a thing! And of course no key in the glove compartment. I had no choice but to try and pry that thing off there with the tire iron, but it was just hanging there not letting me get to the rim. So I just drove on the shoulder to the next exit, with that stupid thing flopping around smacking the ground as I hobbled along. I got to a ramp finally, and started limping down the road looking for a gas station or anything I thought could help out. There was none in sight. It seemed like I was driving forever, and here's this hub cap smacking against the pavement with each revolution of the tire. Finally it just gave out and went wildly spinning out ahead of me. Looked like a dumb episode of Cops. Thank you.

At last, I can change the tire and get on my way. But, in the process I ended up all covered with grime and grease. Of course I've got no rags or anything. I had planned it pretty well, allowing plenty of extra time for traffic. I had just enough time left to beat it to the audition. I got there looking pretty messed up, figuring I was toast. But to my amazement the part was for a janitor! I just looked a little heavy on the make up, right? What an adventure. I got a callback, and the job. It was for Big Red gum, and ran 4 years.

Sometimes you just never know when you will get a break. It never seems to happen the way I think it will. I've had directors literally scream at me at a callback, and figure there's no way I got this one. And then I get hired. Huh? Perhaps some of them just want to see how well I deal with pressure. The opposite is true as well. Sometimes I feel like man I nailed it, and then nothing. Go figure. Like I mentioned, I started doing stand up comedy mainly to sharpen my comic timing, and deal with the unexpected. I got to the point where I was pretty respectable. I liked to write a new routine each week. It's pretty risky, sometimes I'd tear it up. Other times I'd bomb. I just felt like doing the same routine over and over was boring.

So, this one night there was this big comedian contest with a big prize. A guest star role on a sit-com. Man that's a sweet prize. I did my best, but I just wasn't on that night. I was a little out gunned also. I knew I hadn't done well, and I was feeling pretty awful as I left the club. A popular TV show was auditioning comedians outside the club for something. Some guy who had seen me in the comedy club saw me, and followed me to my car and asked me to audition. I really didn't feel like it, I felt like $hit.. But I was flattered I was even asked to do so. So I shook it off and did my thing. The policy of this particular show was to tape you, and if the producers liked it and used it, you get scale. (If you were union) If not, you got to be on TV, get a salad shooter & some press on nails. Of course people will do just about anything to get on TV for free now! I'll be doggoned, because they had me on during three seasons of episodes. It was America's Funniest people.

I worked on the Gong Show a few times also. These kinds of shows were advertised in the trade papers like Dramalouge, and Backstage that you could audition for without an agent once a week. You just write up your own sketch, or routine, and audition. You could do 2 different bits. It was a great way to supplement our income. I would run into a lot of character actors over and over at these, and it was kind of funny. We would have these crazy normal conversations waiting to audition, "Wha'd you come up with this week Charlie?" "I'm Jaque Cou-strap this week." LoL He played the piano and sang a parody song with a jock strap over his face. The unknown comic was my favorite. He even sat in the audition room with that bag over his head.

Obviously, this was not your normal kind of job. When you were hired for the Gong Show, you would hang in this huge lunchroom size waiting room with all these bizarre people. They would shoot 5 episodes on a Friday, so the room was packed with 100's these crazy people! All rehearsing their routines, it was mass madness on a grand scale. Like on Idol or something. If you drew the last episode you sat there for hours. I felt bad for some of these people, because some of them really thought this was going to be their big break and that they would get "discovered" only to be Gonged big time. Some of them were really devastated when it happened. Most of us "regulars" just wanted to get on the show, do something funny, and get gonged. Then crack a funny joke with the host. My best line was when he said to me, "Well, the panel gonged you." (Weird AL got me that time) I quipped back, "That's okay, I've seen better panels on the interior of my Chevy van."

Again, we got scale if you were union. If not, another salad shooter. I loved working on that show. Weird AL hooked me up later with Jeff Foxworthy to be the redneck in his show. How cool was that?

You just never know whose life may intersect with yours on a given day in this business...
So there I was, a full body make up Grey Zombie. My entire body painted with make up, (except for the parts with the loin cloth over them) and then airbrushed with more make up over that. Complete with dark blue bruises, veins sticking out, a bloody arm, all my hair glued straight up in the air, colored grey white. And to top it off facial appliances that kept my face in practically one expression...Ha!

I was at the Hollywood Center Studios where I took a bathroom break after like 7 hours on the set of Exorcist 3. I'm standing there at the studio urinal, and who walks in but (the late great) George Burns. Apparently he had one of his offices there at the time, and was working late that night. So here I am taking a leak with George Burns...after the longest moment he sized me up and true to his straight man persona said to me in the straightest of voices, " come here often?" I had to have a snappy comeback! This is George Burns! I just instinctively said, "Yes...but you're not grey enough" and he busted up laughing. We had a good laugh together. That was a moment I'll always cherish. I really admired him, I practically grew up listening to him on Burns and Allen. I'm still a big fan of Old Time Radio shows like Jack Benny. A dream come do a standup joke with George Burns...I just never figured it would happen in the crapper. (and no, there was No toe tapping involved!)

Hey, have you got an Unusual or Funny Casting Story to tell? Please share you casting adventures with me (us) in the comments.