An Intro to the Scene - Insight into the Struggling Actor in Los Angeles
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a famous actor? Or maybe just a working actor? Well, you and me both. For most it's just a ridiculous fantasy, not even worth a second thought, but for others, like the ones I'm about to describe, it's a tightly cherished dream worth every ounce of effort and hardship. A sacred victory worth suffering for, but probably most paramount of all, the only 'career path' worth living for.
When you meet someone in the epicenter of their fame seeking frenzy, they've most likely passed the point of rookie, have been out here a few years and are still in an acting class. The cult-like acting class serves as a support group where they receive weekly doses of positive reinforcement assuring them their talent is worth nurturing and that persistence and ongoing classes are the keys. The acting coach is their guru, one who requires just as much attention and fawning, which naturally eats into class time, and the students the guru's eager disciples in search of Valhalla and enlightenment in the forms of praise, adoration and fortune. These positive and negative charges fuel the ecosystem of bottom feeders as the cycle continues.
For those navigating this level of the tank, the dream is alive. It's heart beats with vigor. They can taste it. The prospect of success is just a few steps away, lurking around every corner. These folk have seen some action. They've been cast in a few projects - some theater, a student film or two, short films, budget indies, maybe even a few commercials - most likely all non-union. The hope is alive, the struggle is real, but so is the likelihood of tangible success.
Others get lucky and start booking union projects right off the bat. This is typically through some form of nepotism, but still these victories can be short lived. The most likely to book early and enjoy some level of actual action are unfortunately limited to the extraordinarily good looking. Character actors definitely reign supreme, work a lot and experience more diversity in roles to a degree, but the beautiful people have a distinct leg up - everybody knows that. Life certainly isn't fair, but in Hollywood it's perfectly acceptable to engage in certain discriminatory practices in order to serve what's required of the role.
First and foremost, your race is your type and from there it's all about the kind of person people would perceive you as. If you've got major tattoo coverage, like a sleeve or one on your face or neck - you are the thug, criminal, convict type no matter how great or conservative your haircut is. You could pass for hipster, but that's all you get. Okay yes, there are definitely exceptions for the Greek God and Goddess types, but for the regular Tom, Dick and Jane looking for a taste, at some point you will be made fully aware of what you look and come across like to other people. A clear picture in all its tainted glory.
Hollywood, Here I Come...Aaaand Action
So, I've offered up some generalizations describing the enthusiastic many in the thick of their LA experience seeking fame and fortune, but I would like to dive in more to what it's like for people just arriving so you can really get a sense of the LA actor wannabe process, which I have to say is pretty universal. Maybe you've read or seen some riveting tales on TV featuring your favorite stars discussing their journeys from rags to riches. How Harrison Ford, a carpenter on set, was asked to act in a scene in a magical twist of fate. Or how Michael Keaton parked cars as a valet until he finally got his big break. Or how Heath Ledger arrived in LA and just started booking like crazy because he just had the stuff. Needless to say, these stories aren't universal.
The prototypical rookie, newbie is in their early to late-ish 20s. A smaller majority of this demographic have chosen to postpone college, and based on support from their families, reinforcement from their high schools and hometown communities, they believe they truly have talent and potential and are willing to give it a real shot. The rest in this age group that have attended college are split into two groups. Those with drama/theater degrees (the majority) and those with degrees in some other useless, liberal arts field of study (the minority). What they all have in common though is that they are not financially independent and are relying on parental support to survive. There are a few exceptions, mainly those with unique abilities to generate income, but these people tend to come from less therefore they learned early in life how to independently generate more. I have to say I have a great respect for these folk. That's not to say they'll have anymore luck out here as an actor, but to be respected nonetheless.
Now obviously the first thing that happens is that newcomers need to find a place. Some stay with friends as they search Craigslist, some have relatives out here, but first and foremost their prime focus is to find a room for rent in an affordable area and then a job. Those who come from wealthier backgrounds can bypass this step by having their folks cosign on a lease, and can skip to the next step since an actual paying job isn't a priority.
Once the place and job have been secured, it's time to find a class. A community to join. A cult to temporarily release your soul to and a guru you'll adore and heed as long as your ego is being properly stroked and the flames of your dream adequately fanned. If those two requirements are not being met, that guru and all your fellow cult followers can go f-themselves because you're not paying $250 a month for that bullsh$t. Now that you're in a class, you're doing the work and things are moving forward. Acting teachers sell you the idea that to truly be a 'good' actor, you need to work your acting 'muscles' regularly or you lose it, like any sport or whatever. This makes sense to a degree, but the fact of the matter is that famous actors can go for months or years without any substantial work and if you think they're paying $250 or $2500 a month to listen to some wannabe, who has never seen the inside of a professional sound stage, tell them how to act better well that's because you're a Jonesy and your drinking the koolaid. To each their own, no one's judging.
Now that you're in a class, it's time to start looking for gigs which means you need headshots, a reel ideally and a couple of online subscriptions to two of the most relevant casting sites out there - LA Casting and Actors Access. There are others like TPN and Casting Frontier, but comparatively they are pretty inconsequential, at least at this point for the low level, green, rookie actor looking for some action. Your guru will connect you to their headshot guy or gal, that's a given. You'll even get a 'discount'. But unless you work with a friend or you already know someone that does decent headshots for cheap, you're looking at $200+ minimum if you go through any of the reputable photographers you find online or through your guru. I had one guy quite me $1100. The thing is actors and amateur photographers have wised up, so what you're looking at now is everybody and their mother with a DSLR now doing headshots, seriously undercutting everyone else. This involves a meet and greet at the park or some other outdoor locale and a couple hours of run and gun shooting. If you get lucky or you're extremely photogenic, this could work and set you back as little as $50, but most of the time this will turn out to be a total loss.
You Have Arrived
After the place, the job, the class, the headshots, the casting subscriptions, now you're ready to rock. You are now an official struggling actor. Whoo hooo! You're going after your dream, man. "Most people don't have the balls." But you do and you're doing it. So what does this picture look like? Well, when you first get up and running, you're pumped. The energy is there, the naivety is there, the open road is there and it's all an unraveling mystery. You're running on nitro, which means you will go out for everything. Shitty plays, student films, budget indies, non-union commercial cattle calls, whatever will get you on camera (or not even) for no money ---> you are there. Not only are you there, you're excited to be there!
After a whole lot of driving, a whole lot of birds chirping...you book...and it's time for everyone on Facebook to know you landed that student film - that you'll never actually see or receive footage from! Or that play - that you'll rehearse for two months for and not get paid! Or that extra gig on that dumb reenactment show where everyone in the crew thinks they're so cool and then stiff you! Or that non-union commercial that'll pay you $200, totally cut every semblance of you from the final cut so you're literally featured for less than a millisecond and then run it for months nationwide!
The whole time you're telling yourself, you're building your reel. Because once you have enough footage for a decent reel, you'll be able to get that agent, get better auditions and get yourself famous yo. You just need that reel! But what happens next? How does this story play out? Where does this all lead???
The True Story Behind the Story
Struggling actors in LA are all cognizant of one major fact. One cardinal rule to live by. One simple lifestyle choice that will fully ensure the dream stays alive. And that rule is ----> NO DAY JOBS! A day job? Are you freakin' kidding me? You're a freakin' actor dude. You can't work during the day. You need to work at night! Or like part time at the least! Or like not at all dude. And how does that all play out? Shitty restaurant jobs, that's how. Or Uber/Lyft these days...Or teaching yoga. A lot of yoga teachers. Don't get me wrong, some of these restaurant jobs pay bank. Like hundreds of dollars in tips per shift, but the competition is just as stiff as it is in the audition room, because you're all competing for the exact same things. But as the years tick by and your peers all surpass you in terms of careers, lives and families, there's is only so much serving and ass kissing you can muster, if any at all.
But the worst part of all of this, the absolute worst aspect of this hopeless grind, is that as you're chipping away at your dream with your acting class and guru in one hand and your shitty job in the other, you've got absolutely no hands to put to work on building any viable workplace skills, networks or experience. How the hell are you gonna golden parachute yourself out of a whole lot of serving, bartending and auditioning? There is conceivably the restaurant management route. You could run bar, or a nightclub if you have the look and desire for that type of schedule. But you sure as hell won't be able to wake up one morning and say to yourself, "You know, my life would be so much better if I had a career, a marriage and some kids. I'm gonna snap my fingers and make my life better."
My point is the day to day existence of the wannabe actor is pretty bleak. These people aren't living above average standards of living. They aren't out there partying it up, hooking up with all of the other beautiful people, they aren't even really associating with many people on a day to day basis. These things might happen occasionally on a good day or night, but it's usually pretty quiet and solemn as the days totally whiz by. They are just sort of going through the motions, scraping by, diligently submitting to audition after audition. At some point the money starts to wear thin and the $250 a month class becomes a luxury you can't afford. So it's just you. No partner, no support group, no nothing really. It's just you and your "dream."
How Does the Story End?
People eventually give up. They go back to school. They become therapists... wounded healers. If they're lucky they find partners and still manage to save enough time to start a family. Basically, at a certain point the dream has to be let go. Whether or not you have an overwhelming passion for the craft or some genuine talent or just the inclination to be rich and famous, for almost everyone that enters this ecosystem of predators, prey and bottom feeders the end of the line will come. Personally, I think it comes way sooner than most people think, but I could be wrong. My thought is that people give up within 3-5 years. Ultimately, if you're not destined to be a famous, working actor, the sooner this comes the better. Obviously.
But this isn't everyone's story. Once you start booking and momentum starts to roll, there are very real and inspiring gains to be made. It really is true to a large degree, once the door opens - it's open and it snowballs. After you've booked a couple of decent union gigs, you are now seen as a working actor, one that can be trusted not to "f-- it all up at game time." So you just need to get there. But then again, I really wouldn't know because I've never gotten there, nor have I any indication that getting there will ever come.
Some people get lucky and they make it. Most will never make it a step passed everything I've just described. That said, the world needs actors and there is no other town in the world with the potential that LA has, so in the end, whatever you decide...at least now you know what's up.