Sunday, August 13, 2006

Workin' Hard

I know I'm not the most compulsive blogger in the world, but my laptop's OS went AWOL this week, and I'm waiting for the disks to come in so I can be fully connected again. I'm borrowing a sibling's Mac for this post, which makes me feel like driving on the other side off the road.

The other reason for the delay in posting is, well, work, and lots of it. I'm starting a couple shows as a regular and recently completed standing in for a couple week for an A-lister. The turnarounds have been tight - last week I had one gig wrap at 2:30 AM only to be booked at another studio at 7:30 AM. Ouch is the operative word.

Working full-time like this is what background performers wish and hope for, and ironically is one of of the arguments against going union (i.e., joining SAG): With fewer union slots, albeit for higher pay and benefits, union roles are harder to get.

And this is what a friend of mine ran into several weeks ago. He earned his fourth SAG voucher and is therefore a "must join" background performer, if he wants to continue to receive SAG vouchers. Since he's been working for that moment for well over half a year, it was a happy day. That is, until one of the malcontents in holding cried out, "Don't join - you'll never work again!"

Upon hearing that, several of us wheeled around and announced that we had our busiest hiatus in years, much to this fellow's surprise. It's a common complaint heard on sets. I worked with one woman last week who hasn't worked since May.

Now, that is a surprise. But, when you pry deeper, you begin to pick out a few facts.

First and foremost: Acting is a business. You must sell yourself. You must get a good reputation among the casting directors and - most importantly - they have to know you are! A lot, probably most of the "complainers" I meet have never met the casting directors that book them, nor written them letters, thank you notes, or updates from the set. They don't make an effort to know the production team on set. And even with excellent training and looks, it takes a bit more to get steady work.

Think about it. If this were any other business, say sales, you wouldn't get much of an income by waiting for the phone to ring.

Just my two pennies off a borrowed iBook and the neighbor's WiFi.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Going, Going, Gone Hollywood

So much for the field of education and research – all that grad school, dead-end teaching and part-time managerial stuff. Some of those close to this site know by now that the former Happy Valley College elected to go with another Director of Assessment Services with no previous ties to the college while I was toiling away in the office, leaving me to do…what?

Well, for some time now I’ve had another part-time job which is now a full-time gig with income, pension contributions, and health benefits. Friends of TAA, such as Todd, have already “outed” me.

But not that type of “outed” you’re thinking of.

See, my part-time work was working as a background actor in television and film.

A lot of aspiring actors eschew the background route – they consider it demeaning, not worthy of their talents and training, nothing more than an amorphous face in the crowd.

And a lot of these same people aren’t members of the Screen Actors Guild, and won’t be for a while with that attitude.

On the other hand, if you are serious, and responsible, strange things can happen. Almost every day player and freelancer I’ve spoken with has said, “Oh yeah, I started out doing background, it got me into the union and helped me get my first few breaks.”

And that’s what happened with me, not just the SAG card, but more than a few featured roles. And after a while I started getting the phone calls, “Stephen, you’ve been photo selected by the director,” and offers of print jobs, and the voicemail numbers of casting directors who said, “If you want to work tomorrow, just drop me a line.”

Sometime you do just do crosses in front of the camera, and then, sometimes, you get the hero shot – like wrestling Eva Longoria on Desperate Housewives last season (I was the cop who took away Gabby’s adopted baby and drove off with the birth parents). And, if you’re union, the offers start rolling in: such as working as a stand-in, or a getting a stint as a regular on a returning series (guaranteed three to four days of work per episode).

So, what’s up for the future of this site?

As a professionally trained anthropologist, I approach most social settings with an eye to social organization and cultural frames that people use to categorize and negotiate their social universe.

That’s precisely what I did when I first landed on set – to me, it’s one big research project that never ends being interesting. Most people envision “Hollywood” as the product they see on a screen or DVD, or an abstract entity pushed by PR types on the nightly celebrity news shows. To me, the minutiae of daily life on the set is what’s interesting. Take a peek at Peggy Archer's blog on being a crew member in this town for one such view.

For me, however, it’s about being that face in the crowd, and sometimes that face you see clearly on the tube.

So, from time to time I’ll provide you all with some good stories from the set, personal notions (or rants) about what makes a good/bad background actor, and decorum in general, in a classic ethnographic sense, or at least a good story.

Stay tuned….