Why I Know

There’s an underbelly to show business that’s every bit as ugly as all those stories you might have thought were urban legends. Naïve, unprepared hopefuls show up in Los Angeles every day, wanting to be actors, assuming they will be “discovered”.  Within weeks some are homeless, hooked, prostituted or even dead by misadventure.  They are lied to, seduced, used and discarded like tissues after the nose blow.  The luckiest go back home to Kansas.  A few do make it to the top, a very few.  The top doesn’t last for most of those, and the road back down is hell.  There are even a few like me.  I watched it happen while working for some of the villains.  I was sort of an all-purpose villain’s office assistant.

Most would-be actors start out as extras.  Every live production needs non-speaking people to fill the backgrounds of scenes, making situations appear more real so viewers will accept the pretense of the story the speaking actors perform in the foreground.  Extras are called “atmosphere” within the industry.  There are union actors hired as extras for union productions like filmed, scripted TV shows and movies.  They make up a small percentage of the extras on these shows, and are paid a few hundred dollars a day.  Even on these shows, most extras are non-union.  They make minimum wage.  Many productions are entirely non-union.  On these shows and films people get paid sub-minimum, or they get a box lunch, or maybe nothing at all.

There are a bunch of parasitic companies that exist to suck money from new hopefuls in tinseltown.  Some pretend to be casting agencies.  They charge you a fee to be in their files, usually about $50.  They ask for your head shot.  If you don’t have one, they refer you to a photographer, who kicks back to the agency.  If you do have one, they tell you it’s no good and refer you to the photographer.  Same result.  I filed head shots and did bookkeeping.

They give you some lines to read.  No matter how well or poorly you read, they will say you need some training.  Then they recommend classes, which they either run themselves or get kickbacks from, like with the photographer.  The classes cost about $200 a month, and you never graduate.  The classes are taught by either confidence tricksters or actors who have been around awhile who no longer get work.  I ran the video camera in some of the classes.  The company charged exorbitantly for copies of the tapes from classes.

At some point the “actors” whose careers are going nowhere begin complaining, so the companies book them for jobs as extras.  Everyone calls it paying your dues or getting a foot in the door.  The fake casting agencies never have actual acting jobs, just jobs for extras.  They will however, offer to supply you with a talent manager, and then the manager gets 15% of what you get as an extra.  Guess who the talent manager works for?  Same fake casting agency.  I did office work for the talent managers.

Real casting directors who work on TV shows and cast for movies are also in on the racket.  They will charge $50 (or more) per person, show up at a 99-seat theater, pass out “sides” (a couple of pages from a script – what’s used for auditions) and then tell you what’s wrong with your performance.  Some actors perform brilliantly at these events, but the casting director will rarely acknowledge it.  They want the actors to return for next month’s “showcase” and try again.  I passed out sides and collected money.

After a couple of years at these various observation posts, I became an editorial assistant and moved into the cleaner world of post-production.  I haven’t forgotten how hard life is for those wishing to be actors who haven’t graduated from famous drama schools.  The faces of those I saw being lied to and misled haunt me.  I’m trying to forgive myself for participation in the deception.  I was just 30, and less brave than I am now.  I didn’t have the moral fiber I have earned since.

I didn’t start writing this to be depressing, but I guess it happened anyway.  Perhaps instead of going into detail I should have posted a simple warning to the hopefuls:

Dear Would-Be Actor,

There’s no safe place for you here.  Go back home, go back to college and practice.  Community Theater can be satisfying.  See all the movies you like, just don’t try to be in any.  Either leave it to the professionals, or do what it takes to become one.  It never happens overnight, and if it does happen it won’t last.  Life offers more unforgettable opportunities for memorable performance than will ever be available in front of a camera.

But if I had done that, you wouldn’t understand why I know it’s true.

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22 Comments

Filed under Acting, Cinema, Ethics and Morality, forgiveness

22 responses to “Why I Know

  1. we have a movie studio here in town. I doubt it’s that bad there, but bet so in Hollywood. You should write your memoirs.
    Forgive yourself. No need to be down on yourself. You paid your dues.

  2. Mike,

    Sometimes the truth is depressing. That’s just how it is. Thanks for telling us the truth. Yuck on Hollywood!

    • Agreed, Sandra. Honesty’s hard when it includes embarrassing admissions. But everybody does bad things they rationalize at the time and only later regret. I had been thinking about what Hemingway said:
      “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” It’s not how I usually write, but I thought I ought to try it to stretch.

  3. What an interesting insider’s view. With the onslaught of reality TV, your words reveal even more ugliness behind what is visibly ugly to anyone who ever paused briefly on any of these shows. Has beens and wannabees so desperate to be in front of the camera. Reminds me of the movie They Shoot Horses, Don’t They.

    My daughter was almost hooked by a local agency like the one you describe. She came home telling me about the person at the mall signing people up for screen tests or something like that. Naturally, the person told her she had the right “look.” She made an appointment to go talk to the agent who was “flying in from Hollywood.” I smelled something stinky and suggested she look them up online. Sure enough, a simple google search listed pages of information and warnings about the agency’s scam.

    Thanks for sharing this information. And congratulations on your stylish blogger award–well deserved.

    • Thank you so much, Galen. My glimpse of the Hollywood nightmare was almost 30 years ago, way before the nets. The scams must surely be slicker now. It’s also possible your daughter really did/does have the “look”, especially if she looks like a normal young person – a commodity useful in commercials. But, as you’ve implied, it’s more important to be a person than a look.

      They Shoot Horses is a perfect movie reference for the topic. I do watch a few reality shows like Top Chef, where there’s actual skill on display in competing, or ones about the process of recovery (Intervention, Hoarders), but you are right about both the desperation inherent in the genre and that the “realities” are heavily manipulated.

  4. This makes me sad. Glad you escaped the sleaze and appreciate your honesty. Props to you and Hemingway, for making bloodletting such good reading.

    • Another good quote relevant to the situation of looking back on it was from my old therapist. He used to say, “You can’t avoid the void – not forever.”
      I appreciate having you as a reader, momfog.

  5. Wayne Green

    Very interesting blog and it reinforces my belief that what you describe happens in every job I have every had. There is always some way to exploit your chosen market and some of the practices that are used made me question my position sometimes.

    • I agree with you completely, Wayne. There are bad guys in every industry. Perhaps because of the amount of regulation, I see fewer of them in my current health care profession. However, when I was interning in hospitals I used to run into doctors who were exploiting staff, usually nurses. It’s hard to leave a job where you know wrong is being done if you are in debt or have no prospects for other work. There’s incentive for the weak to participate in evil when money can be made cheating or cutting corners. It’s a test of character for sure. Thanks for dropping in. I enjoyed your blog too!

  6. Pie

    A powerful and depressing post, Mikey. There are many things I’ve wanted to do and become in this relatively short life. Fortunately, I haven’t had a burning desire to be a movie star.

    To be well known in this day and age is a poisoned chalice to be sure. If you want to know how bad things can get, look at Charlie Sheen right now. He is but one of a very long line of Hollywood casualties. I only hope he can get himself straight. In the meantime, I will celebrate my anonymity. I may not have an obviously exciting life, but at least it (mostly) holds my principles together and keeps me (relatively) sane.

  7. I hope he can too, Pie. My comparison would be the Carradines. John was honest. His sons have varied in their ability to handle fame. You, however, are entirely sane and focused by comparison.

  8. I did the local community theatre thing when I was a teenager – it was something to do in a small town. I have never had any desire to be famous (despite my current “putting myself out there” with our battle, but that is for a purpose). I couldn’t stand being in Who every week or the myriad of other gossip/fame mags.

    It is depressing – given what I’ve written about with the work visas in Qatar, then Lesley commenting about her contact that worked for a year on a farm and got paid with dud cheques, and the sex trade slaves in Australia as well – your blog just adds to the list of man’s cruelty to his fellow man. Really, we don’t need Gaddafi bombing his civilians – we have enough cruelty on our own backdoorsteps.

    What ever happened to integrity and ethics? As Sandra said the other day, unfortunately humans aren’t a species that does NICE very well. Sadly.

    • I’m with ya, Robyn. The odd thing is that in my experience people are just as prone to generosity as they are to exploiting each other. It’s a source of simultaneous sadness AND amusement. I guess that’s the point of learning ethics – so that your impulses will be more directed toward doing the RIGHT thing first.

      • You know research shows integrity is something we develop over time as we age? It is one of the things we learn in the first CPA segment (or it was in the first segment “way back when”). I actually found it very interesting. Some people never develop it at all (which may explain a lot!).

        • Ahh, I think I’m just a late bloomer, which is fine and certainly better than never. Cat Cameron (blogroll –>) has as much integrity as I do and she’s 17. I expect Tracy Todd’s had it all her adult life too. Sometimes you learn it from family. Sometimes you are born with it. It’s related to authenticity, and I didn’t really know who I was for a long time. I kept reinventing myself and trying out different paths. Sort of a spiritual wanderlust.

          It’s my whole family’s pattern to peak late in life. I’m writing about that next.

  9. Great post, Mikey. My friend went to film school hoping to break into the business. She started out wanting to be in front of the camera, but ended up behind the scenes. After three years spent being treated like crap (both as an extra and as a camera assistant), she folded in the towel and went to work as an administrative assistant.

    The funny thing is that while most people would think admin was the bottom of the barrel, she said that compared to the film industry it was like a dream job.

    • I spent 20 years in it. Saw a lot of guck. Got some on me from time to time. Did meet my wife, though, and eventually got to work on films and TV shows, of which 20% were high quality, 20% so awful they were an equal pleasure, and 60% “meh”. Actors have it the worst, hands down. I agree that production crews would be next. We luckier nerds hid out in nice, safe, dark edit bays and mixing stages. Even Cthulhu couldn’t navigate a foley stage on graveyard shift muAH-HA-Ha-haaaa…

  10. Great post Michael. None of it surprises me. Everything in our world today is about taking advantage of other innocent souls. And, even more so, it’s all about MONEY. Sad, but true.

    • I’m out to change that, at least in my own life, one interpersonal transaction at a time. The spiritual perils inherent in the unregulated pursuit of fiscal profit have been warned against before, I believe…

      (I was so impressed with your brother’s post. Your family’s incredible.)

  11. I enjoyed this, Mikey, reminds me to be kind to those tremulous souls of today who may have greater courage and integrity tomorrow. After all, moral fiber comes from moral roughage. More salad?

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