LOS ANGELES—“It’s cold,” she said, standing on the back deck of the compact Craftsman-style home in North Hollywood. A cat tiptoed delicately around the cover of the pool.
“OH MY GOD,” I chided, “what is it, like FIFTY degrees??”
“I’m cold,” she replied, pulling her jacket up around her neck. “I’m going inside.”
Minnesota. When you’re born there, you don’t leave. It’s a point of pride that you don’t abandon your friends, your family, your home state. Even if you’re gone five months out of the year, you’re not a part-time resident—you’re a “snowbird.” The winters are bitter and unforgiving and the summers are thick, humid affairs fraught with thunderstorms and tornadoes, but gol-dangit we are NOT going to let this weather BEAT US. It’s a challenge to our Teutonic sense of duty, and if you there’s one character attribute you don’t want to question the Germans on, it’s our duty.
I left. Six years ago.
“Ah jeez,” my dad said, frowning. “Why does it gotta be LAS ANJUHLIS?”
“Dad, if you wanna be a bean farmer, you gotta go someplace you can grow beans.”
It was an awkward metaphor. Looking back, I’m not entirely sure it was true.
LOOK: The best advice I can give you right here, right now is to stop reading this and GO MAKE SOMETHING. You do not have to be in Los Angeles, California, or have “legit” IMDb credits, or friends with lighting gear and a $3,000 camera. Waiting for someone else to break your career is a fundamental abdication of responsibility. It’s your career, you have to make people see why it’s interesting and engaging.
AND the Internet is a wonderfully democratizing force. It’s the world’s largest talent show. Twitter, YouTube, Kickstarter—there’s never been a more effective time to use your work to directly cultivate an audience.
You don’t need to be in LA for that. Yeah, the signal-to-noise ratio on YouTube is incredibly low. That’s the price you pay for a low barrier to entry. Work it. Attack with passion. Have patience.
“We need to have a meeting,” I said to my first agent in Minneapolis.
Agents don’t like it when their talent demands a meeting. Usually it means one of two conversations: the “why aren’t you getting me out more” kind, and the “I’m leaving you for a different agency” one. Both involve very predictable levels of disappointment and frustration on the part of one or both parties.
“What’s going on?”
“I’m looking for a job,” I said, “And I need you to be straight with me. I’ve been at this two years. And I haven’t booked anything. At all. Should I look for something full-time? Something less flexible? Just go ahead and tell me: Should I quit?”
“Tom,” she said flatly, “now would be the WORST time to quit. You’ve developed your audition skills, you’re known by all the casting directors, they know what to bring you in for. You’ve put all this work into it. No, now would be the worst time to quit.”
She was right. Two months later I booked my first commercial.
Patience. Practice your craft. Make things you like.
NOW: Despite the long arm of the Internet and how much we love a “hometown-boy-gets-discovered-overnight” type of story (c.f. Idol, American), the fact remains that television, big-budget film, and national union commercials continue to be geographically bound to Los Angeles (with the odd occasional exception).
IS THIS IMPORTANT TO YOU?
I have a lot of friends in Minnesota who, through lots of hard work and inventive thinking and applied talent, manage to make a living doing the thing they love. Yes, they sometimes also have to do some stuff they don’t love. Welcome to being an adult.
ALSO: It’s not any different in Los Angeles unless you are 1) preternaturally good-looking, 2) a trust-fund baby, or 3) what my friend Robert charitably refers to as “Hollywood veal” (c.f. Hanks, Colin). Additional hindrances to carving out your career in Los Angeles include dramatically lower odds of owning your own home, a market oversaturated with talent, and the inability to drop by your parents’ house for a casual afternoon of grilling on the deck for Father’s Day.
IS THIS IMPORTANT TO YOU?
Minnesota doesn’t look so bad sometimes.
On the other hand, I have appeared on national TV multiple times. I was flown to San Francisco, where they rented out Candlestick Park and had 50 extras cheer me on as I ran to the 50 yard line amid a shower of fireworks all night long. I worked with Sally Field. On Tuesday, I will audition to be the lead in a pilot for a basic cable comedy.
IS THIS IMPORTANT TO YOU?
I don’t know, it seems sort of name-droppery to me but on the other hand, these are opportunities I would not have had in Minnesota.
Plus, the name-dropping thing is something that just happens. You walk into a bar and Hugh Laurie is sitting there with James Denton. It’s an industry town, sometimes the machine takes a turn for the perpendicular and you get to see the gears. It’s like having an uncle who works at the Mayo Clinic. Big whoop.
“OKAY, LET’S RUN DOWN OUR BOOKINGS FROM FRIDAY…” the casting assistant yells from his cubicle.
Monday morning. 2007. I’m interning at a casting office. It’s the last gasp of the courier-bag era. Traditionally, casting directors put out a list of roles, agents would comb their client list and then stuff all the appropriate headshots into a manila envelope and courier them over. Now the tango of submission takes place on the Internet. Click, click, click. But back in 2007, my job is to sort headshots into the respective pile for each role.
Only there’s nothing to do. It’s Monday morning and the roles haven’t gone out. So, in the time-honored tradition of bored interns everywhere, I eavesdrop.
“OKAY, JAKE MEYER…DOCTOR. $1800.”
“JILL MUFTLEPLUNPH…WIFE. $1700.”
“ADRIAN BUMPTYSCRATCH…DETECTIVE. $1700.”
I suddenly realize these are the rates for the guest stars—the people with a page or more of lines who aren’t the series regulars. People who work a day or so. People who—by the time their agent and manager and friends at the IRS take a cut—will walk with about a thousand bucks. Or, as we call it here in LA: one month’s rent.
These three people are elated they booked. It’s a big-time network show. Great credit. I look over at the stacks of headshots from last week…Doctor, Wife, Detective. 150, 200 actors stare blankly into the ceiling.
They’re not making rent.
If you’re thinking about coming to L.A. and wanted just one piece of advice: Don’t come for the money. L.A. money is like a seedy massage parlor: it’s seductive, slippery, and it doesn’t keep regular hours.
“So, uh, how much do you think we’ll make off this?” she says.
My fake wife is blonde and, as is so often the case in the funhouse world of commercials, waaay better looking than a nebbish guy like me deserves. She’s from Iowa. We share a kinship.
“I don’t know. Depends a lot on how they run it. Network is good, but Fox is not technically a network. Cable is a flat buy. Internet is negotiable, but usually fixed for a year. It’s hard to tell.”
This is her first national spot. I know this because I asked the same questions when I booked my first national.
“This is a sign,” she says nervously. “I quit my serving job last week and then I booked this. After nine years, I just couldn’t do it anymore.”
I think back on the advice I got when I booked my first big job. “Try to keep your face to camera as much as possible,” I tell her. “If we don’t see your face, you could get downgraded and lose the residuals. But as long as we see an eye and a nose you’re considered recognizable and then you get paid.”
We spend a long day on set. Mostly she has her back to the camera—making tea, chopping vegetables. She has no lines, it’s not her spot, but I feel like I jinxed her. “Maybe they’ll use that close-up in the yard,” I say summoning a thin, fragile thread of hope. “You’ve gotta be in that shot.”
She nods, only half-convinced.
We sign our paperwork and say our goodbyes. I head to my car and pull my sweat jacket up around my neck. It’s gotta be 50, 55 degrees. It’s cold. I’m going inside.
Photo by Robert Garcia (Creative Commons)