For about ten years, I worked in Canadian theatre. From time to time I would meet people who would earnestly assure me that I would need to get my teeth fixed, or do some upper body work, or something along those lines if I ever wanted to be really serious about my career. I remember being offended and annoyed. How can my appearance affect my talent?
I would do sporadic film work, and occasionally audition for commercials, and all around me were people wanting and struggling to fit into some sort of definition of what they saw as a star. They had formed an opinion of what “look” was important and they would morph themselves into that no matter what it took.
The world is littered with people who never took an acting class in their lives thinking that all they needed was a look to get through the door and make it big. At four in the morning on a film shoot no body cares how you look, they want to know if you can act and get the scene done as quickly as possible.
My one credited appearance in a film was in exactly that situation. I sat around a set for 14 hours to be finally called out. The director came over and asked if I had done any acting. Surprised I just nodded and said yes. He smiled in relief and said good, here’s what I want you to do. As I waited for cue to go I looked around and saw Kiefer Sutherland with his head on a bar, barely awake, and thought about getting it right so he could go home to sleep.
He saw me searching prop packs of smokes for a cigarette. (Two packs had not been anywhere near enough for the endless hours of sitting) He opened his prop pack, chucked a couple over, and waved off thanks with a tired hand and a smile. After a couple of rehearsals with his double, we were ready to roll.
I staggered out the door three times as a drunk, not too drunk patron, and each time I saw the same young actress trying desperately to look like a hooker standing on the corner giving it her all. I guess she hoped someone would notice her. I had no such illusions. The first two takes I was too slow, and so for the third take a kindly assistant director came over and walked me through, saying get to this point by then. Done!
When I saw the scene in the completed movie, there I was staggering out of the bar, and the young woman who had been so carefully coiffed and made up never got on screen. I wonder if she was horribly disappointed…I wonder what ever happened to her.
Periodically my agency would ask me do some extra work. It was usually if they were in a bind and needed somebody at the last minute who could be counted on. Since they always repaid favours in kind I more often than not said yes. I would bring a big book and plenty of cigarettes, although sometimes not enough, and prepare for hours of stupefying boredom.
You didn’t do extra work for the chance of becoming a star or being discovered, that is if you had type of experience. Nevertheless, on every shoot you’d still see the forlorn types who had gotten themselves all primped and primed for their close up. They didn’t seem to realize they were on the lowest rungs of the ladder.
If you’ve ever watched a movie with a street scene, all those people walking, all that traffic moving, as the main characters walk along the sidewalk, are extras. That’s about all you do. When you’re an extra, you’re like a painter’s background wash on a canvass.
I’m sure you all know the famous words, lights, camera, action. Well in somewhere between camera and action they call out background and that’s the cue for the cattle to be herded across and through the camera.
It wouldn’t matter if your nose stuck out of your ear or if you had three eyes for the amount of time the camera spends on you in those situations. Yet, there are always those who go to the extent of doing makeup and bringing changes of wardrobe.
I’d hear them talking about how they were saving their money so they could get their teeth capped. Talking about how they almost got a line on this shoot or that. There was always a hint of desperation in their voices as they talked about various upcoming productions and whether or not their agency could get them something or not.
Toronto in the late eighties was just beginning to be the Mecca for Hollywood producers looking to save money on production costs through our cheap dollar (increase their share of the take in other words) and one of the larger growth industries was talent agencies. For a small fee, anywhere form $45.00 to $100.00 they would agree to represent you.
On top of that was the up to $200.00 they expected you to spend on getting your photo’s done. Oh and you don’t know a photographer, here’s the guy we use. I would be willing to bet that part of that $200.00 ended up back in the agencies hands. No matter how much experience you had, they would always recommended that you take their course that would teach you all you needed to know about making it in the world of film.
At $7.00 per hour, minus the 15% agent’s commission, that you were paid for non union, non speaking extra work it could take up to 80 hours of work just to pay for starting up with an agency. With the likelihood of ever landing anything more substantial than extra work equivalent to the odds of winning a lottery, the number of people who were blinded by dreams of fame and riches still managed to fill the coffers of quite a few of these agencies.
The business of exploiting people’s false hopes and dreams is one of the oldest confidence games in the book. When people have stars in their eyes, it’s even an easier game to play. I dread to think how many people wasted hundreds of dollars only to see these confidence artists disappear without getting them any work what so ever.
This scam only lasted so long. Than both the stage and screen actor’s unions began a publicity and pressure campaign to put the fakes out of business. They managed to get the government to regulate the industry so that it became illegal to demand money up front from clients without any guarantees of work.
Some agencies circumvent this by charging a refundable audition fee. If they don’t feel you have what it takes and turn you down, they will refund your money. I have yet to hear of anybody being rejected.
The fame game is insidious in the ways in which it causes people to corrupt themselves for what they think of as some wonderful pot of gold. Images of themselves parading down a red carpet surrounded by photographers and adoring public induce behaviour that they wouldn’t dream of under any other circumstances.
I loved my time in theatre and acting. I even enjoyed the occasional extra work that I did if for nothing else then the opportunity to learn a few things. Like: even in heels Cheryl Ladd is so small that she barely comes up to my shoulder, and is a genuinely nice person, or the sound that Kris Kristofferson makes clearing his throat is something that lives forever in your worst nightmares.
As is the case with 90% of the people who attempt an acting career I was able to eke out an existence, sometimes even a living. I suffered from no illusion about where it would take me or how I would end up. I have some regrets for things that I never got to experience, but they have nothing to do with fame or fortune.
Film and TV are not nice careers for those on the fringes. False hopes and fake glamour, no real rewards except chance meetings with people who are just as tired as you are. To this day, I never regret that I ignored all the advice of cosmetic makeovers or what ever it supposedly would have taken to get me over the hump and through the door. It was a nasty game not worth playing.