Sunday, January 26, 2014

Intimidating Actors in Hollywood and Show Business

Hollywood seems to like you if you have a dysfunctional body part. It’s true, I’ve been hired quite a few times because of my hook nose with a huge bump on it. It was a nice nose once, but a bully broke it for me in high school. Things were a little different back in the 60’s. It healed up, bit the end result was it looked like a long hook nose. That became my new nickname which added years of insults to injury. Fortunately most people that are bullies end up never amounting to much. That particular one never even left home, never went out to see what’s out there in the world, explore new careers, and so forth. He never left home and still lives in the basement with mommy. Pretty sure that’s a win.

Bullying has become such a buzz word, that people ten to throw it around too much and the real meaning of it, and worse, the serious cases have become watered down. “The cashier wouldn’t take my coupon – I was bullied.” Really? I think people are getting a little tired of hearing, “I was bullied here or there” in way too many situations where it really doesn’t apply. With the term bullying being so commonly used these days, I think I’ve actually bullied myself a few times.

For me, I kind of figured that bullying was a thing that happened in school, and it ended there. The majority of it was verbal, that’s not to say it doesn’t hurt – because it does and usually for a long time. I figured when you graduated out into the adult world, verbal bullying stopped and it became things like intimidation, manipulating, pushing and shoving, abuse, or worse. However hurtful and painful it was, I think it helped me to have more courage and backbone throughout the rest of my life and career. Being bullied a lot helped me to recognize when to just stand there and take it, to stand up to it, or to just walk away. Physical abuse, or actual violence it a completely different matter, but if you’ve experienced enough bulling you learn how to handle and deal with each individual situation. Granted, I’m speaking in general terms here. I got to the point where I said to myself, when I get out in the real world, I’m not going to just stand there and take it, or be intimidated. So it actually strengthened me, and made me a tougher person. Which I needed.

It’s true that too much bulling can really damage a kid in their formative years. Believe me, I had my share of it being a rather frail and dorky looking kid. I was an easy target, and I just took it. I wasn’t big enough to battle with 200 pound jocks. Many of the kids did it just to impress their friends, or they just got off doing it to the weaker kids. I imagine a lot of that still goes on today.

One of the messages here, is to embrace the things that the kids made fun of you for. Because in the world of casting in Hollywood, something different, odd, or quirky about you, actually gives you an edge amongst the beautiful people. The thing the kids made fun of me about, became an asset to my career. Granted, I’m a character type but I think this applies in general. Something unique or different looking about you, can get you in the door. Obviously, you still have to deliver once you get in there, but it does the hardest part, getting you in the door for that casting opportunity.

I’m not suggesting that you need to get socked in the eye socket to make you more marketable and/or castable. Or, that being bullied is a good thing to go through to make it easier to live in a business environment, but it did help me to have the backbone, inner strength, and courage to stand up to it when it did happen. It’s not a peaches and cream world in most career fields, and many employers, supervisors, managers, or competing businesses will try it on you. When I was starting out as an actor, I let it go for a few years because I had that fear that they would just hire another actor. And trust me, they are lined up behind you, with many of them willing to work for free thanks to the reality show mentality. But each time I let that overtime pay or something like that get past me, it took away a little piece of my self confidence, pride, and my self esteem.

The majority of intimidation happened to me at the non union level. With talent agents, casting directors, production companies, studios, and even actors at callbacks I was auditioning with. At the professional level, there are serious contracts, and a lot more laws to deal with so there’s a lot less of it. But it does still happen. True, the agent negotiates the pay rate, but things can change when you show up to the set. During the 80’s and 90’s you couldn’t just call your agent or the union because things would usually go down either before or after business hours. My agent expected me to handle things. It was my job to know the contract rules, and conduct myself as a professional, which I did. In the back of my mind, I wanted my agent to be thinking of me as their “go to guy” in my type when a casting came along. So being low maintenance was one of the ways I earned my agent’s respect.

Things have changed a lot with contracts, and contract rules since then. We have cable residuals, new media, internet use, and etc. There are a lot more sneaky places on contracts now, so it’s not as easy as it once was to interpret the contract rules, but that’s part of our job – to know them. A good agent catches most of it, but things can change when you get to the set. Before I would attempt to resolve a pay dispute I had to make sure I was absolutely in the right about it. I carried the contracts booklet in my car, and knew them like a script. I could make sure, as well as show the production person the actual rule in writing. Most of the time if I presented the facts calmly and professionally we could settle the issue, and move on to the job at hand.

But there were a number of times when intimidation on a pay issue couldn’t be resolved. Standing up for yourself in that situation is scary, especially if it’s a big name director who towers a foot over your head, or if it involves a name casting director, or even with a major studio. Once they realize that you have a backbone and won’t just roll over, chances are things can be worked out. There were a few times they just wouldn’t back down even when presented with clear facts in writing. My last resort was contacting my agent, and, if necessary, the union to resolve it.

At the professional level being an actor is difficult, especially on the business side. I know a lot of actors who gave in on something really significant because of the fear of being replaced, or what might happen later.

Many production companies don’t realize what the life of an actor is, and we just trying to earn a living is like. For us, the average of booking a national commercial is 1 in 83 auditions. That’s a lot of time, fuel, emotional stress and running around all over town - for free. That one commercial we do book helps to cover some of that. Or, try the 4 callbacks for a guest star role on a TV series, only to have it go to another actor and you ending up number 2 on the role. Sure, I can feel proud I made it that far, I made it that close, and maybe even impressed the casting director to boot, but at the end of that two week roller-coaster, I have bupkiss to show for it.

As bad as this sounds, I think being bullied actually helped to prepare me for the adult world, and especially the acting and music fields. We have agents, but we are pretty much alone out there. We are a brand like in any other business. The only difference is that we are independent contractors and have to handle most of the business part ourselves. And often, it happens right at wrap time when everyone is rushed and busy running around so they can get home, and don’t have time for it.

There is a lot of attempted manipulation, and even intimidation (usually involving pay) in acting and show business. I’ve been at it over 30 years and I’ve seen it a lot. It happened with me, and also with other actors. I learned very quickly that the first place a production company tries to cut costs is on the actors. Our own country’s production costs, and shooting permits is a big part of it. That’s why you see “Filmed in Canada” and the ACTRA union logo at the end credits on a lot of popular shows. Runaway production has been a problem for decades. Unfortunately, many production companies have to go where it costs them less. I’m hoping more of the states get this figured out, lower costs, and offer more incentives to film companies so they will shoot in the USA. I’m still waiting.

I had a variety of careers before pursuing show business full time. Over the years lots of employers, employees and even customers would try to intimidate me. I was able to know when to stand up for myself, choose when it was necessary, and do it.

Had I not been bullied or intimidated so much, I don’t think I would have stood up, or knew when to confront these people. I learned to develop higher self confidence, self esteem, and wasn’t afraid to stand up for myself. Like a lot of you out there, I was bullied in various forms starting back in grade school. Everything from simple insults, to intimidation to being beat up for no particular reason, other than being a little different. I was one of those kids that really didn’t fit in anywhere – with the cool kids, with the in crowd, even the outcasts, and so on. And yes, at the time it hurt – a lot. I was probably bullied at least a couple dozen times in school.

The only place I seemed to fit in was the drama class, and the school band. I was pretty good at both, but now there were more reasons to pound on me. “Hey, it’s the band geek, get him!” You get the idea. Looking back, music was one of the things that saved me, gave me an outlet for frustration, rejection, and kept me sane.

I had this one school class where they would bus us out to a machine shop, and every time I entered or left the bus, each person on it would get in a shot or a punch. I felt like Clint Eastwood in The Gauntlet, but I just took it. Naturally, my seat was in the back. I got pounded on a lot. The teacher would yell at them but it didn’t help.

Back to pay rate disputes in Hollywood. My basic threshold for bringing up a pay rate dispute was $30 or more. Choosing your battles is important. For example, if you have to wait an hour past your audition call time, at the time, the contract said we should get paid around $25. I felt it just wasn’t worth it, and casting directors know it. We want them to call us for more auditions, so I always gave that one a pass. More often than not it’s because the director or client is late, or they just didn’t schedule auditions all that well. It happens. Getting upset just takes you out of your audition game.

When I moved to LA I interned with a casting director for a few months. I got to see how hectic their life, and trying to schedule everything was, so I never made a stink about it. It’s part of our job as frustrating as it can be some times.

The best thing to do is be polite and professional to everyone you meet. That receptionist in the waiting room probably will be a casting director one day. That PA on the set doesn’t always want to be a PA. The scruffy looking guy in a t-shirt could be the client. A make up person can put in a word for you on a job if you were polite to them, and easy to work with. You get the idea. The disputes usually happen with the bean counters, and their underlings.

After you get established, and build a decent reputation, sometimes casting directors or production companies who liked working with you will just call you direct, and ask if you can work on an upcoming role. Sometimes you get calls on jobs, or from casting directors you submit headshots and resumes to yourself. With me, most of it was theatrical and AFTRA (before they merged with SAG). My first year in LA I was with a larger commercial agency that just kind of shotgunned me all over town for everything. I just kind of knew I wasn't right for some of this stuff I was being sent on. They ran me ragged - like 10 auditions or more a week! I got some callbacks, but didn't book a single commercial with them, so I made a move to another mid-sized agency. It was a good move, I ended up with a solid booking ratio, and was very happy. I was fortunate enough to be with a great team of 3 commercial agents, and I stayed with them 14 years. They knew my strengths and targeted me for roles I was really right for. We created about 5 different brands for me, and they all worked. I was auditioning a lot less - maybe 4 times a week. But in 6 months I was hitting 1 out of 25. Pretty darned good booking ratio.

But for theatrical, it was a different story. If I got a single film or TV audition in a week, it was a good week. When I did get a offer for a direct booking from a production or a casting director it was usually an AFTRA under 5. (5 lines of dialog or less.) It was still a principal speaking role, you got screen credit, and the pay was about $350 for the day. At first I would turn the calls over to my agent. Big mistake. After having a few of them out-negotiated for me, I chose to not bring the agent in on them anymore. After all, I did get the job on my own. I was trying to move up on their client list. I ended up doing quite a few of them, but usually when we did contracts at wrap, I would see the other actors were getting full scale doing basically the same role I was. They auditioned through an agent, and were not hired direct, so I didn't bitch about it. Kind of pissed me off, but I rolled with it. Many of them hired me repeatedly with no agent involved. I'm doing the same job for half the pay, but it wasn't a battle I felt was worth fighting. That was one of my smarter moves.

I worked for a few of those production companies for years, because they knew I was reliable, would show up on time, and get the job done. The phone would just ring...can you work tomorrow? Umm let me think...yes. One of them that called me direct wanted to dump barrels of green slime on a bunch of us. At wrap, I hear all the other actors complaining about it. When they got to me, I sad, "Hey no problem, anytime at all. If it makes people laugh, I'm good with whatever you got." And we both laughed. As it turned out, I was the only one that didn't complain about it. It make an impression with the talent co-coordinator, and they hired me dozens of times after that. Sometimes it's okay to be paid less than everyone else, and not try to negotiate. It takes time to learn the tides.

One thing I never did was work for free. Early on I did community theater, and a few student films. Some of the directors do go on to have film careers and will remember you. Others go on to deliver pizzas. I needed some experience and film credits until I could replace them with better ones. Lots of productions will try to hire you to work for free. Again, is the director, camera person, sound person, or even the caterer working for free? No, probably not. I'm not either. I'll audition, but then I'm going to negotiate. If they want to hire you bad enough, they will pay you - even if they try to hire you for free first. You're in a good position to negotiate. They want to hire you. No deferred pay either, none of that. The reality show mentality has made it even worse.

I broke into acting back in the early 1980’s. Unless you are fortunate enough to be born into the business, most of us have to start at the bottom, doing non union extra work. I think the most verbal abuse and bullying I ever experienced came during that period. We didn’t have access to all the information about how to start an acting career, other than a few outdated books at the library. I read them of course, and did all the research I could, but like in most fields you start at the bottom, and have to learn how things work. What the various on set terms mean, how things function, who does what, how professional actors conduct themselves, and so on. Now you can just Google things, helpful articles from experienced industry people on social media, ask other actors questions, and so forth. I would have given anything for that kind of information when I was starting out.

Not all the extra wranglers treated us badly, but a lot of them did. And they knew they could get away with it. They essentially knew we needed the job, and any sort of backtalk or questioning them meant getting fired and/or the word getting back to our agent. So being treated somewhat less that a human prop is how it was. Being yelled at constantly by a pimple faced 20 year old PA on a power trip is pretty humiliating. But I had to learn the business and how it worked, so I realized right away that I had to just take it and learn all I could, until I could work my way up to principal work. It was like being paid 50 bucks to get bullied for a day. It was a pretty rough year of on set learning, but it’s part of what we have to do. Things have changed a lot since then, and with union extra work they do treat you a lot better. The point is, I had to just take it, and I knew it, because I needed to learn, and not piss people off in order to work my way up.

After a few years I had a few principal film credits, and a number of commercials under my belt, and a reasonably passable demo reel. I risked it all, and moved to LA to work at the professional level. Commercials were my bread and butter, and I got pretty good at auditioning and booking them after figuring how things worked out there.

Not to be overly cynical here, because I would say that 75% of the time producers and actor SAG contracts are on the up and up. It’s just that there were numerous times a production would try and slide one by me, (or us). The terms are usually set once you are confirmed – booked by your agent. Sometimes we even know beforehand the pay rate. I mean, most of the time, it’s scale or better so I don’t make much note of it until a callback.

With foreign buy outs, things can get a little more blurry. I had a lot of those in Florida, where all of a sudden you show up at a fitting, or on the set, and it’s a different pay rate than was agreed to, or some other whack thing. It’s up to us, or call the agent to get it sorted.

My first year in LA I was booked after a series of additions for this foreign film industrial. It was one of those “road trips” to Oregon. A two week shoot. It was a buy out of $5000 plus travel, accommodations, and per diem for living expenses. It was one heck of a nice gig.

So two months go by, and a week before we are scheduled to leave, the call goes out for the actors to come in for a fitting and to sign contracts. There were just two of us actors there. So we go through the size and fitting motions, then one of the producers brings over the contracts. He hands them to us with a pen and doesn’t say anything. I wasn’t the most savvy actor at that point, but I did see the part where the pay rate had changed from $5000 to $1200 and now we would only be on location for 2 days instead of 2 weeks. I whispered to the other actor, whoa, hold up a minute there. Look at that pay rate change.

The other actor and I compared notes, I asked if he was booked for 2 weeks at $5000 by his agent, and it was the same as me. This was a SAG industrial. So was got together when the producer came back and explained that when we were booked for this, the pay rate agreed upon was $5000. He said, “Well the script was changed, and they only need you for 2 days now.” We both explained again that even if that I the case, this is the rate we were hired for at booking time and we need to call our agents before we can sign them. The guy kind of freaked out, and ran back to one of the higher ups. We were kind of freaking out as well. That was a huge drop in pay. So he comes back and says, “Sorry that’s what it is now, they only need you guys for 2 days.” So we both had to call our agents, we weren’t making any progress, and nobody else would speak with us.

We called them, and our instincts were right, if you are booked at that rate, you should be paid that rate even if the role was reduced, it happened after booking terms were agreed upon. This thing was a SAG job so it was a bit surprising they would try to pull that. We relayed what our agents said, and the producer went back to some other producer and explained what was going on. Still there was no agreement. We both said we are not signing that contract until you speak to our agents about this. Finally our agents got on the phone with them, and miraculously new contracts for the full $5000 appeared about 10 minutes later. That was a big one. Other than a few angry glares from a few producers, the shoot went beautifully. That company never hired me again though.

This one didn't work out quite as well. On this one regional commercial it was 95 miles outside the LA area. They didn’t want to pay the mileage, and were adamant about it. At the end of the shoot, the 2nd AD said absolutely not, no pay for mileage. It amounted to $70 or so. I showed him the rule in the contract booklet and still it was an emphatic no. Actually he got madder, so it was clear I couldn’t work this one out on set. I had no choice but to call the union and ask them to try and resolve it. They called the AD and explained that I was in the right. So at wrap time, they lined all of us actors up by the production trailer and we all had our contracts adjusted. There was about 40 of us, so it was a significant amount of money. My actor peers were very pleased that I stood up for them alone, but production was pretty upset. It was just a call I made, because I knew I was in the right, and I would do it again if I had to. I wonder why I never got residuals on that one.

I have to say, the union does stand up for us with contract rules, safety on the set, and numerous other things, but they don’t actually help us get work like most other unions do. They protect us when we get work, pay rates, safety, etc. It’s a risky call when you have to make it because of the “what ifs” implications, but there’s more to it than just that $70 for mileage. It’s my pride, dignity, self esteem, self confidence, and running around auditioning we do for free. Are they short paying the caterer? Or sound person, or make-up? I don’t think so.

Another time, I get to this TV pilot shoot. At the callback they asked if I was okay having my arms bound. I said sure, no problem. Being personable, and easy to work with are a few of the keys to being a working actor who gets called again, so I hesitate to ever raise a dispute as much as anyone else. When I got there they explained that the script has changed and my scene will be shot with my arms bound and me hanging upside down from a building! I’ve done that before, and the blood rushes to your head very quickly. All the adrenaline, the copy, honestly, it’s not easy to do, especially if they want multiple takes. And you know the answer to that.

Granted, I was only hanging a couple yards from the cement by my feet, but this clearly was a hazard pay situation and clear place to negotiate, get it settled, and still get the scene shot on time. A 6AM call with shooting my scene at 7AM. So what to do? Stall? Walk away, call the agent, or try to negotiate? I wanted this job, and it paid scale. There was only a handful of copy, and the AD said if I didn’t do it they would just upgrade an extra to do it. So I was in that risky situation, and had to handle it delicately.

Anyway, at 6AM my agent was asleep and wouldn’t appreciate a call from one of his actor clients. The union was closed also, and I didn’t want to bring them in on this unless I absolutely needed to. It would probably cost me the job if I did it I figured.

So thankfully the production coordinator came over, wanted to know what was going on with the delay. I calmly explained that I was not informed about this hanging me upside down change, but I’d be happy to work out a compromise. After some wrangling around they agreed to double scale. The AD was a dick, but the coordinator was a reasonable man. Sometimes it’s up to us to handle business. One thing non actors don’t realize is that some of roles we do often come back to haunt us in our dreams. Things like being shot, or other dramatic scenes. Even though it’s pretend, part of it is still real, and it stays with you.

Sometimes I still have nightmares about that one. Hanging upside down from a building over a cement sidewalk is pretty freaky. After each take, the crew had to bring up a ladder and lift my body up (while still tied up) so the blood could come back to my head. I had to repeat this about 8 times, so I was happy I negotiated on this one. I’m not going to be taken advantage of. I let it go a few times during my first few years because I didn’t want to loose a role. I knew how hard it was once I found out what they wanted, but I wanted that job – but for a fair pay rate. They were trying to cut costs. I wasn’t really bullied on this job, but it’s part of the self-esteem confidence thing that gave me the courage to stand up for what was fair, and what was right.

I had a really traumatic one. It was a run in with one of the biggest directors in Hollywood, and it was with one of the major studios. At the end of the day, the AD tried to intimidate me on the pay rate. I calmly went through the usual motions – showed them the contract pay rate and so on. They just dug in their heels on me and got madder because they wanted to go home. How dare this punk actor actually object? The director came over, I explained the pay discrepancy, and he just laid into me. I explained that all I was asking for was what was written in the contract rules and that’s all. I didn’t want anything extra here. So he starts screaming at me so loud, the entire cast and crew freaked out just hearing it. My being calm seemed to anger him even more. I think he expected me to be in the fetal position, and not actually standing up to him. I imagine he did this kind of thing before, and later on I found out that’s what he did. He was even known for it. I took one last try to resolve it, but no go. I explained if we couldn’t resolve it, I would have to turn this over to the union.

I knew I was in the right on this one and to me, it was a lot of money, not to mention my pride. Things really escalated then, so he says to me,“IF YOU DO THAT, I‘LL PERSONALLY SEE TO IT THAT YOU NEVER WORK IN FILM OR TV IN THIS TOWN EVER AGAIN! NO STUDIO WILL EVER HIRE YOU”. That director was seriously pissed off, and yes it shook me up. I was pretty intimidated, and even trembling inside, but I didn’t show it. This was a $1,800.00 dispute in pay, so this was a LOT of money for me. I stood my ground and calmly explained I would have to turn this over to the union and let them sort it out. After shooting, the footage was reviewed and the decision was that I was right, and I got my check. I wasn’t edited from the film, but got no screen credit.

Suffice it to say, it wasn’t exactly the best career move I ever made. I never did get many film or TV auditions after that one unfolded. Fortunately for me, the commercial casting world is a bit more forgiving. That’s how I managed to eek out a living doing what I love to do, acting, and being paid what the rules state I should be paid. I had to stand up for myself to this director, and the studio. I refused to let more Hollywood people chip away at my pride and dignity. Even though this incident hurt my career, if I had to do it over, I would do the same thing.

For the most part, most of the casting directors I’ve come in contact with are honest decent caring people who genuinely want to help and discover actors. It’s what they do, and they love doing it. Many of them were actors before they became casting directors so they have a pretty good idea what our life is like, how hard it is for us to earn a living, and what we go through. So many people in the acting field want a piece of our money. Headshot photographers, casting workshops and sites, managers, agents, all sorts of people. There’s a bit of bullying with some casting directors as well. But it’s a little more subtle. It’s almost an implied “Take my casting workshop or you will never audition for me kind of thing.” I fell for it a few times myself. As a general rule of thumb, I would only pay for these casting workshops if they were CSA members and also volunteered some of their time doing free ones at the conservatory, foundation, and etc. Charging an actor to get seen is just wrong, but a lot of them still find ways to skirt the new laws against it, and do it. It’s especially bad at the non union level.

Just as a side note, when you audition as a principal for a commercial, I suggest you never check that little “Are you willing to do extra work?” box at the bottom of a size sheet or info sheet. The directors know they can hire you for extra rate and not pay out the principal rate plus residuals if you fall for that. It’s hard to turn down a day’s pay that’s $300, but potentially $10,000 or more is a bit more attractive, and reason to stand your ground. There was a few occasions where the casting director would call me directly to do extra work on a principal role commercial I auditioned for – when I said no, I was later hired as a principal. This isn’t really bullying, it’s more like manipulation.

Lots of intimidation goes on with non union talent agents. To be union franchised they have to follow strict laws and conditions. In the non union world they can pretty much do whatever they want as long as they aren’t violating some labor laws. I’ve seen lots of intimidation to use their in-house headshot photographers, casting experts, career advisers, or get kickbacks from ones they have arrangements with.

During my first year in Florida, I was non union, and we could have multiple agency representation. Most of the actors had 4 or 5 agencies representing them. So did I. I had this one non union agent that was charging all their clients a 25% commission. The norm was 15% for film and TV, 20% for print, so this was pretty outrageous, and most of us knew it. All the clients, including myself were afraid to say anything for fear of not getting anymore auditions. After all, they were getting me lots of work. A local casting director finally got wind about them overcharging their clients, and apparently she went to town on them. I don't know what was said, but all of a sudden, about 20 of us were lined up outside the agency getting refund checks for the commission overcharging. The point is, a lot of casting directors know what we go through, don't like seeing actors they book getting ripped off, and sometimes they will step up for the actors on their own. It was a form of intimidation.

The same goes with acting classes. If a teacher or coach won’t let me audit a class first, I would move on. There are lots of acting teachers out there who couldn’t make it as actors. And I want to learn from them? I don’t think so.

Many parents trying to get their kids discovered are especially vulnerable to this. Lots of times at auditions I would see children that really wanted to be there, and really wanted to do this. Then there were the other kids who would be screaming and crying about having to do this. Rejection is hard on adults, let alone on children. Honestly, it hurt me inside to see this same thing repeated over and over. What could I do? I’m there trying to focus on getting a job, and believe me the last thing you want to do is speak up to a Hollywood mom or dad. Sometimes I just wanted to say to them, “Do you really want your kid to end up looking like me?” I probably would have saved a few kids from rehab or therapy. Or maybe got punched again.

A few times when I was a principal on set, some of the actors with larger roles, (or smaller) would try to intimidate me. I have no idea why, we already went through everything, and have the job. Maybe just bitter actors, I don’t know their reasons, and didn’t ask. I just completely avoid actor on actor on set drama. I’m there to do a job, and that’s it. Occasionally it was with one in a scene. Just focus and let it go, it’s not worth getting upset over unless it gets way out of hand. A production can go on for months and we are guests among the crew - sometimes for a week or even just a day, so it's important to try and get along.

One thing that surprised me about working in show business was the actors I thought would be real jerks to work with, most of them ended up being some of the coolest and most supportive people I met. And, on the other hand, some of the ones I thought would be the greatest to work with ever - were kind of dicks to everybody. I never figured on that growing up watching many of them on TV. I guess I got used to an actor’s TV or film persona, and figured that was kind of how they were in real life. I was pretty wrong.

During my first year as an actor back in Florida, the only work I could get was non union. Back then, it was hard to become SAG eligible – let alone join. I’d done a number of local and foreign buy out commercials, but I did manage to work on a couple of films that came down there to shoot. One of them was union and did a Taft Hartley for me. It was a defining moment in my acting career. But on the next one I had to cough up the initiation fee. I wasn’t really ready to join, but it was a speaking role and I had to.

Prior to that, I booked this principal role for a day on a non union film with Ernest Borgnine and two other name actors. This particular one was such a low budget production, they didn’t even have a trailer for him. I was surprised he was even working on such a rinky dink low budget thing. The title was “The Opponent” it also had an alternate name – I think it was in Italian, "Qualcuno pagherà".

The set that day was at an old run down general store way out in the sticks in Homestead. There was this sun burnt picnic table out back, and that was for us. As many of you know, when working on a film, there’s lots of down time in-between set ups. The other two lead actors had kind of a “thing” going – so unless we were actually shooting, they were off in the brush most of the time. So it was just Ernest Borgnine and I waiting around sitting at this beat up picnic table most of the day. To tell you the truth, after a gesture hello, I just sat there and kept my mouth shut. I was a little scared and intimidated by him. Plus I figured it was the respectful thing to do. Who knows what’s in their head? Preparing, rehearsing, personal problems, or just don’t want to be bothered by a day player.

So I sat reading a book most of the time as he gazed off into the palm trees, and tropical foliage. About half way through the day, he just up and slams his palm down on the table, (about scared the crap out of me!) and bellows out to me, “I like you’re not always running your mouth!” When I recovered, I said, “Just respecting your privacy Mr. Borgnine.” After that, he just opened up, and started sharing stories and anecdotes with me. I felt so honored and humbled to be just sitting there shooting the shit with him.

About half way through the day, the AD sees us talking, runs over and starts screaming at me about speaking to him, I shouldn’t be sitting at the same table, how dare I be talking with Mr. Borgnine, on and on. It was pretty rude. As I was starting to get up to move away, he stared back at the guy with genuine anger in his eyes. I sat there and watched his face transform. It was fascinating. He glared at him for a moment, and in this deep tone, he spoke up for me and told the guy to leave us alone and go take a flying (you know). My best acting role of the day was keeping my composure, not hiding under the table, and/or not bursting into laughter. All I could think at that moment was, wow, nice seeing an AD on a power trip getting intimidated for a change.

Most of the day I just listened, because he was in a talking mood. I barely even recall the shooting parts because all that was so much more powerful. Sharing personal things like what it was like on his first big film, “From Here to Eternity”. Working with Tim Conway on Mchale’s Navy, on westerns, war films, and lots more fascinating stories. Then he started sharing acting tips and tricks with me. Many of them remembered, and used over the years. Some of them helped me to audition better, and be a more convincing actor on the set. One of them was when you play the bad guy, convince yourself that you are the good guy. It will read as more believable on film. That got me hired a few times.

He obviously knew I was a beginning actor like he once was, and I guess he just took a liking to me. And apparently it was because I left him alone, tried to respect his privacy, and kept my mouth shut. He even said, “Everywhere I go, everywhere I work, people are always asking me things…yapping away…I just get tired of it.”

I never admitted that I was just pain scared of the guy at first. He was a pretty imposing figure, much more so in person. As it turned out, he was one of the coolest, most interesting, and helpful men I’ve ever met in my life. I was so lucky that day. To be able to hang out and talk, and learn from his experience. What a blessing that straight to VHS film was.

I was heartbroken when he passed away. It was like a little part of me was gone.

Sometimes actors at auditions play a few games as well. There were times when I had to audition with someone who was just so grouchy, bitter, or negative. That can actually work to your advantage in the casting room if you are the cool composed professional and prepared one, you stand out more. Lots of mind tripping, intimidation, and even bulling goes on between actors at callbacks. There’s a huge amount of money on the line, some of them even get off on trying to intimidate the competition. Trying to get in their heads, bragging about all their credits, all kinds of things. Some of them do it with just body posture or a look, not even uttering a word. I learned to just put on my headphones with some instrumental music (less distracting for me.) and completely tune them out. I don’t want any part of it.

I’m there to focus and deliver the absolute best audition I can. I’m prepared, ready, and most of all, listening for, actually hearing, and reacting to direction if it’s given to me. I was shocked when I sat in on a few casting sessions how many actors were given some direction, and for one reason or another didn’t take it. Nerves, stubborn, green, not listening, or whatever it is. That really surprised me. The best advice I can give is to know the material, be personable, and professional. But most of all, be able to hear and take direction. If there isn’t any, take a risk and make strong choices – not the obvious ones.

I’ve been screamed at for no real apparent reason by directors at callbacks. I later found out that some of them are just plain screamers, and others really want to see if you get rattled and can handle the pressure. We often forget how much there is on the line for everyone. The cast, crew, casting staff, client, ad agency, and the production company. I had a few of them just up and tell me on set, “We just wanted to see if you can handle the same pressure we are going to be under all day.” “Sorry I yelled at you at the callback.” It really surprised me when I first heard it.

These days, all too many people will cry wolf and complain about being bullied or sexually harassed over next to nothing. So, it is important not to do that unless it is really serious. Save it for major incidents, not trivial comments or actions. That is probably the hardest lesson I learned, and the most important.

I never really got that breakthrough role, but if I had a do over, would I change careers at age 26 and chase my acting dream? I absolutely would. I was able to earn a living as a working actor in a difficult field, and I’m proud of it.

If you enjoyed my article, please consider picking up my acting book on Kindle. It's 6 bucks, and it will help me afford a meal. "An Actor's Face" is the title. It's so popular, it doesn't even come up in the first page of search results.

I'm not one of these acting book machines. I've written one book, and that's it. I don't plan to write another one, so I put my heart and everything I have into it. If you do pick it up, thanks in advance for helping out, and I hope you enjoy the read.

Shannon Ratigan

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Twitter @Starving_Actor

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for writing this article! I loved the insight, tips, and tricks! I am currently a junior in college studying acting in Manhattan and preparing for the "real world", which has been a bit nerve wracking in itself, but this gives me a lot more confidence. I would love to read your book but don't own a kindle, is it possible to buy it anywhere else? Thanks again and best of luck!
Carmen Vienhage