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...


Unknown said...

A most interesting insight into the life of a working actor. From the viewers perspective, one imagines it to be a more glamourous lifestyle than it actually is. Found this a fascinating read and I too would have paid to work under the latex prosthetics on Star Trek!

Mega said...

Very intersting read, thought acting would have been a lot more glamorous than it sounds. I will think a bit more about the underlings (if thats the right word) that make the film or show work. I find you very funny and we all need to laugh now and again so good for you doing the job you wanted and making people Laugh. Good luck to you in the future the world needs more people like you as much as the A listers as a film. As for working in Star Trek what a great experience it must have been