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.