I’ve received tons of letters from people asking advice about the entertainment industry and, in particular, pursing a life as an actor. People have also asked how I got to be on The Office. This blog, I hope, will address some of those questions.
I grew up in St. Louis Missouri. I always wanted to be an actor but when you grow up in a place like St. Louis that is sort of like saying, “I want to be a superhero when I grow up”. It hardly seems real. The world of Hollywood is mysterious. You hear stories of girls being discovered at ball games. Success is about having “it” or being pretty or some other intangible magic. You have no model for how to succeed. Everyone’s story is different. One person does stand-up for 15 years and then gets a TV show, someone else finances their own movie and it takes off at a festival and suddenly they are the hottest thing. But for each of those people there are thousands of stand-up comics and filmmakers who never got their break. How do you know what to do?
I thought being an actor meant being famous. But, most actors aren’t recognizable. It’s funny. I watch TV in a whole new way now. Like, I watch a show and I see the person who has 3 lines on Law and Order and I think, “Their family is gathered around the TV flipping out right now. I bet that was a huge deal for that person!” There are so many actors that make a living by doing support work on shows. I was that person for many years. For me to stay in this business, it had to be okay if I was never recognized. I learned that I loved the craft of acting more than the idea of being famous.
My first piece of advice to someone who is serious about being a professional television or film actor is: move to Los Angeles. Moving to Los Angeles can be difficult but it is the only city that doesn’t put a ceiling on where you can go with your career. New York is the place to go if you want to do theater. But if you want to be in film and television, move to LA.
I had a teacher once who said, “If you can think of anything else you are passionate about besides acting, do that. Your life will be better for it.” I actually think that might be good advice. I couldn’t come up with anything so I moved to LA.
I fully expected to be working in movies within a year of moving to LA. That was not my reality and it is not the reality of most people who move to LA to pursue acting. It can take a very, very, very long time to succeed in this business and my best piece of advice is to not give up. You have to motivate yourself and just keep going. Create projects for yourself. Don’t whine. The first year is the hardest followed by every anniversary up to about year 5 when you’re so beaten down you don’t notice the years passing anymore. I have a friend who is so incredibly talented it is a crime that after 10 years in LA he still has to wait tables to make a living. He gets acting work here and there but he can’t hold down an agent. This business is not fair. It is not like other businesses where if you show up, and work above and beyond everyones expectations, you are pretty much guaranteed to move up the ladder. I don’t know why it works out for some and not for others. And when you move here you have no idea which camp you are going to fall into.
It isn’t who you know. It just doesn’t work that way. I didn’t know anyone when I moved to LA. Most people don’t. I shared an apartment with an old college buddy. He had a commercial agent and I was sure that by knowing him, this agent would take me on. She didn’t.
Here is how I got “discovered”. I had been living in LA for about 2 years. A friend wrote a TV script and wanted to do a live stage version as a way of attracting TV producers. He asked me to play a small role. It meant lots of rehearsal for very little stage time and no pay. Along the way I questioned why I had agreed to do it. But, it was very funny and he was a friend, so I agreed. After our 3rd performance, his manager approached me and asked if I had representation. I said, no. She offered to represent me saying she thought I had a real future in television comedy. Naomi is still my manager today.
A month later, I was doing a very strange play - a musical adaptation of the movie Nosferatu – at a small theater in Los Angeles. I was doing it because I loved the Commedia dell’arte style of the show and the people involved. I worked all day as a temp doing mind-numbing data entry for a medical company and then went to rehearsals for 5 hours a night, often getting home past midnight. One night an agent came to see the play and left his card at the box office asking to meet me. He became my first agent.
Now, that sounds easy right? Well, that was all after 2 years of working as a temp, doing every acting gig I could find – usually for no pay, borrowing money to buy a new engine for my car and wearing a pair of shoes with a hole in them because I couldn’t afford anything else. Did I mention my living room curtain was made from a torn bed sheet? It was another 3 years before I got my first speaking part on a TV show. That show was Spin City. (I played a waitress in a scene where the girl playing Charlie Sheens crazy date threw bread at me.)
Every year I did a little more than the year before. My first 5 years I probably earned between $100 – $2,000 a year from acting. Year 6 brought me some of my biggest success and I only made $8,000 from acting. But, I put a lot more money into my career than that. Headshots are expensive. The photo session and getting prints can run anywhere from $500-$800. Classes range from $150-500 a month. It costs $1,200 to join SAG once you are eligible. And apartments are crazy expensive. $700 – $1,000 for a crappy apartment that you share with at least one roommate. Its no wonder my living room curtain was a bed sheet.
So, how did I get The Office? Spin City was cast by Allison Jones. She also casts The Office. She became a fan of mine through a series of auditions. I kept going into her office year after year auditioning for different things. I got some and not others but she kept bringing me back. I developed a relationship with her – not because I met her at a party and we schmoozed – but because I had proven to her over the course of many years that I was a reliable and serious actor capable of providing a consistent body of work. That is what this business is all about – from a real working actors perspective. Allison remembered me when it was time to cast The Office. She called me to audition and I finally got the part.
Most actors think their first priority after moving to LA is to get an agent. I disagree. I think the first priority should be to build a body of work. Become a pro so that you are valuable to an agent. No agent wants to sign a non-union newbie. It’s not their job to get you ready. Join NowCasting.com or LACasting.com and submit yourself for non-union work. Get experience. These websites require you to pay a monthly fee for their service. I would normally warn you about places that charge you a fee, but NowCasting and LACasting are legit businesses. You post your photo and resume. They post casting notices for student films, short films, non-union work and some commercials. You are able to submit yourself for work and hope you get a request to audition. I have friends who work all the time doing this. It is a great way to get commercial work. I think the website LACasting.com submits their non-union members to commercial agents as part of their service. (You need to live in LA to participate.)
Work as an extra. If you are new in town this is a very good way to learn how a movie or television set operates. I did this my first year and I’m glad I did. No one gets treated worse than an extra (or as they are called now, background artists) but since I went through it myself I know how to be gracious now that I’m more successful. It’s a great boot camp. You learn the set terminology and etiquette from a safe distance. That way, when you book your first acting gig you will know what it means to “hit your mark” or how to “clear for second team”. The top extras casting agency is Central Casting. If you work enough you can earn your SAG card. That’s how I did it.
You need your SAG card to be taken seriously by an agent. You cannot work on a TV show or a studio movie without belonging to the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Union. You can do some extra work if you are not in the union but you cannot have a speaking role in a major production. There are non-union productions that hire non-union actors (like student films and low-budget features) and that is a great way to get practice in front of a camera.
When you are ready to get an agent you should know a few things. Legitimate agents only take 10 percent and they should NEVER charge you a monthly fee or startup fee. They should not force you to use a certain photographer to take your headshots. If they do, they are probably just signing you up so that you’ll hire the photographer and they’ll get a kick-back. Agents should only make money if you make money. An agent may ask you to sign a contract – this is normal. A standard contract is for 1-2 years. I would not sign a contract for more than 3 years. And, READ THE CONTRACT. A friend of mine met with an agent who tried to write a clause into the contract that made it so that, at the agent’s discretion, the contract never ended. If you are unsure, contact SAG and ask them for a standard Agent/Client agreement. Ask if the agent you are thinking of going with is SAG certified.
If you are good at comedy, take classes from the Groundlings or I.O. (formerly known as Improv Olympic). Second City in Chicago is also great. These are the most recognized improv comedy places. They look good on a resume. It’s a great place to meet people when you are new to town. Classes are expensive so that can be hard when you are just starting out. I didn’t do this but I wish I had. Almost every actor on The Office has studied with one of these 3 places.
There is a book you can get at the LA bookstore Samuel French called “The Actor’s Guide to LA”. It is a spiral bound book that is updated every year. It lists all the extras casting agencies, casting directors, agents, photographers…etc. This is a great resource for the new actor. I also suggest reading Backstage West. It has casting notices and articles for actors.
Finally, there is an amazing book you can do called The Artists Way by Julia Cameron. I highly recommend it. It is a 12-week self-lead creativity seminar in the form of a book. It’s brilliant. You don’t have to move to LA to do it. In fact, it would be a good thing to do if you are thinking of moving to LA. It might give you the answers you need. It was through doing The Artists Way that I was inspired to make my movie LolliLove. I completely credit this book with giving me the tools and courage I needed to complete that project (a project that took over 4 years to finish.) And I credit LolliLove with giving me the confidence and practice with the mockumentary style that lead me to landing my job on The Office.
Yes, you will meet some scumbags if you move to LA. People that prey on newcomers. I can tell you with absolute certainty that those people have NO POWER in the grand scheme of things.
For example, it was my first year in town and I was part of a theater group. At a party for a new play opening the playwright came up to me and asked me if I was an actress. I said yes. He asked if I was interested in doing a part in his new movie. I was kind of floored. How did he know I was any good? I said, “What is it about?” And he said, “Well, you’d have to do a raunchy sex scene with nudity. Would that bother you?” I laughed and said, “I wouldn’t do anything I wouldn’t be proud to show my parents.” He then said, “That was a test. You aren’t a real actress. A real actress would never say that. A real actress would piss herself onstage if the part called for it. You aren’t going to make it in this town. You should just go home.” And then he walked away. I went back to my apartment and cried. Why was Shem Bitterman (that is his real name) such a d**k? I have no idea. Stuff like that will happen to you if you decide to become an actor. People will roll their eyes when you tell them what you do. You have to develop a thick skin – without becoming jaded, guarded or cynical. That’s a tall order. I’ll say now what I wish I had said then, “Shem, sir, with all due respect, you are a f**kface and you can kiss my a**.”
I have a great acting coach who says that success in Hollywood is based on one thing: Opportunity meets Readiness. You cannot always control the opportunities, but you can control the readiness. So, study your craft, take it seriously. Do every play, every showcase, every short film, every student film you can get. Swallow your pride. Be willing to work for nothing in things you think are stupid. Make work for yourself. Make your own luck. Don’t complain. Hopefully, the work will find you if you are ready.
I know how hard it can be when you first get out here. Go out and meet as many people as you can. Create a family for yourself of creative, supportive people. AND, don’t stop your personal life for your career. I know a lot of people that wait to do things – visit family, friends, have relationships, get married – because they are waiting until they “make it”. Or, they don’t go to a friend’s wedding because they might “miss something”. Life is too short and it’s not worth it in the end. I always took off and did that stuff and it turned out fine. I was often anxious and worried in the process but I did it. I believe that in order for my professional life to move forward, I have to keep my personal life moving forward as well.
I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for my ex-husband James. He is the one who convinced me to quit my job as a secretary (ironically) and focus full time on acting. I didn’t totally believe I could make it but he did. He supported us financially and supported me emotionally. He ran lines with me and coached me before countless auditions. He put up with my highs and lows. He was, and still is, my biggest cheerleader. And, you need that out here.
It will be hard to explain your first milestones to friends and family back home. They are waiting to see you on TV or on the big screen. It is hard to explain how a 2nd callback for a job you didn’t land was the highlight of your month and a very valid reason to celebrate. I remember one year my proudest moment was at an audition for a really slutty bar maid on a new TV show. It was written for a Pam Anderson type. I thought, “I can never pull this off. I just don’t have the sex appeal. I feel stupid. No one is going to take me seriously.” But, I committed to the role and gave the best audition I could. I didn’t get the job. I didn’t get a callback. But I conquered my rambling, fear-driven brain and went balls out on the audition anyway. That was a huge milestone for me – but hard to explain at Christmas. A year later I booked the role of a trashy prostitute in a little indie movie called Employee of the Month. In the past I would have turned down the audition thinking that I would embarrass myself. But after that earlier breakthrough I felt confident. The success is not always in getting the part but in the seed that is planted.
If you live in LA and are serious about acting, I know a great acting coach. He teaches a class on How to Audition. Being a great actor isn’t enough. You have to master the art of the audition – showing people you are a great actor. His class is both inexpensive and amazing. I completely credit him with changing me from a good actor to a working actor. His name is Robert D’Avanzo 818-508-0723. Ask about his 6-Week On Camera Audition Class. He’s the best kept secret in town. And he’s AFORDABLE!
This Spring marked my 12 year anniversary in Los Angeles. I didn’t land the part of Pam on The Office until year 8. I’m hardly an overnight success. Likewise, Rainn Wilson toured the country doing theater and was one of those working but unrecognized actors for over 10 years. Steve Carell had been kicking around for close to 20 years. Most of us on The Office have a story like that. I think that is one of the reasons why we are all so very, very grateful to have landed such a wonderful job. Slow and steady wins the race.
I hope that answered your questions about the biz. Good luck!