Thursday, July 24, 2008

My SAGging Confidence

It's gonna happen again.

Like some sort of James Bond film gone horribly bad, the evil geniuses are going to win. Somewhere in their mountaintop lair, they watch monitors, rub their hands and actually use the "Muhahahah!" laughter to signify that they have triumphed over our hapless heroes.

Very soon, SAG will sign bad a contract with the Studios. Again.

The first one was 20 years ago.. Back when the initials "DVD" meant nothing to the common person. It was new, expensive technology that no one was sure would even work. The Studios asked pretty please, with sugar, if SAG could cut them some slack on this new medium. They wanted to see if it could grow and flourish, and placing the diabolical yoke of fair residual payments for actors - who worked long and hard to get a role in that film and then make the film successful - seemed punitive. They asked for a a favor, a break from the actors - just for now - and the actors, relented.

20 years later, that same agreement is still in place. All actors share 1.7% of the profits between themselves. The studios get the other 98.3%. Checks for $10 grace actors mailboxes while millions of copies are sold.

The studios claim that they won't negotiate on that subject now. DVD now accounts for the most profitable portion of their revenue stream and they won't kill the goose that laid that golden egg. They can neither confirm or deny that a dramatic shift occurred somewhere along the line from DVD's starting as "experimental" to becoming "crucial". Find something else, they told actors for years.

And then, the actors did.

Now, the internet is poised to be king. Online downloads of movies and TV threaten to tear asunder everything. It's virgin territory, a wild west where there simply are no rules. A new "experimental" medium.

Now and at last, the actors thought, we have them! SAG began arming themselves with facts and figures, stirring the pot of unrest among it's union and positioning itself for the driver's seat (at last) in negotiations. this time, it would be different.

Not so fast.

The Studios are full of smart, smart people. Evil, perhaps, but smart definitely. They had time to prepare also (3 years between each contract). They mapped out their strategy and then began to execute it, thusly:

Phase one: Don't negotiate with the Writer's Guild of America (WGA). A small guild, letting them strike served the dual purpose of getting rid of production deals that no longer suited the studios (via a force majure clause) while showing the rest of the town how debilitating a strike can be. WGA and SAG members braved picket lines inbetween Starbucks runs.

Phase two: Undercut the Writer's Guild by offering the Directors Guild of America (DGA) a deal that's still bad, but better than the one the Studios offered the writers. The DGA rolls over and puts pressure on the WGA to take the deal. Eventually, the WGA also signs the below average deal because everyone has mortage payments due. Now the studios look reasonable; they've negotiated with TWO unions successfully. The town now begins to turn it's attention to SAG.

Phase Three: Let the actor's slit their own throats. This was a series of bonuses for the Studios. First, big stars like Clooney and Hanks come out against the strike (and why not? They get paid 25 million a picture, who cares about a few thousand more per picture that could help some OTHER actor insure his familes health. ). Next SAG decides to negotiate its contract without its sister union AFTRA. The SAG higher-ups must still be feeling good about their chances to get a good much so that they kick their partners at the contract table to the curb. The studios salivate at this.

Phase Four: Capitalize on the dischord. SAG's gripes about AFTRA constantly undercutting them with lower wages per shows they represent and bad health insurance are well founded. Unfortunately, the timing was terrible. Like a jilted lover, AFTRA finds acceptance in the big, strong arms of the Studios. They give them a deal, a bad one indeed, that AFTRA takes as if to spite SAG. SAG tries vainly to vote down the deal with dual member votes, but to no avail. Now SAG is the odd man out and if they down't want to negotiate, then AFTRA will fill their shoes.

Phase Five: Cackle with glee as they slide the bad deal across the desk to SAG. Checkmate. Nowhere to go, no more peices left on the board. SAG will hem and stall for a while but eventually, they will topple their king. The Studios will be magnaminous and welcome actors back while SAG spins the deal and deceased SAG presidents spin in their graves. Wait till next contract will be the rallying cry.

But it will be an empty promise. The Studios have already toasted each other with goblets of DVD money from high atop their lairs. They may be evil, but they aren't stupid and can clearly see the next fight long before anyone else does. They'll be ready for the next fight.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

How to Book a Commercial

Reprinted from October 13th, 2006

How to book a commercial.

So about a month or so back, I booked a Dodge commercial. This was a big, crazy commercial that involved blowing up cars and dropping cars. If I'm lucky, it'll pay me pretty well, at least well enough to keep my insurance. If I'm not lucky, then I made scale for the day.

When I was on set one of the ad agency guys was talking to me and told me that even after my first audition, they loved me so much that I was in. "We had three groups of two guys we were choosing from", he explained, "and you were in all the groups. We even thought about casting you as the other guy!"

So with that stunning assessment of my talents I thought I would pass on to you, gentle reader, the exact method to booking commercials in Los Angeles.

No clue.

Well, that's a glib answer which is only partly true. But it is how I feel after I do or do not book commercials. I audition a lot, maybe 50-100 commercials a year. I get maybe 25% call backs and have booked about 15 commercials in my 8 year career. There are some, where afterwards I'm certain that they loved me and I do book the job. But all too often I will leave an audition or callback, call my wife to tell her I 'nailed it', and then never hear from them again. Even more perplexing is when I feel like I completely blew it, only to find out that I booked the role and they loved me. So it may be more accurate to say that I know enough to get in the door and do a good enough job to keep getting auditions, but when it comes down to the last few steps, they're still a mystery.

But if I had to give you, gentle reader, rules or steps to at least having a shot at being in that callback...that I can do. So indulge me as I map this out for you (and probably me as well)...

Step. 1
If you're 18-28 and beautiful/handsome, stop reading this. Go directly to the nearest commercial agent, show them your face, get signed, go out on auditions and book work. Seriously. You will be in those commercials where talent is irrelevant, but hotness is not. Just be able to look like you want to make love to the product, and by extension the opposite sex and you will very wealthy.

Step 2. Have the right 'look'. Here's a couple of them: Soccer Mom, Dad, Young Dad, College Kid, Beer Drinking Guy, Elderly, Really Fat, Really Thin, IT Guy, Nerd, Viagra user. If you fit into those roles EXACTLY, you have a shot at booking commercials. You have to have that stereotypical look that is recognizable in about 2 seconds or it's no good, because the other 28 seconds in the spot are reserved for the product. If you fall somewhere in between these types, as most people do, then you must cultivate one of the looks intensely until you are spot on, or prepare for a long, arduous struggle. Think I'm lying? Tag along with me to an audition where they're looking for a "Nerdy IT Guy". Watch me sit next 50 other guys who look like the brain trust of Microsoft, Dell and Apple combined. Looking as nerdy as I can, a lot of times I feel too 'normal'.

Step 3. Be good with improv. Forget acting. Acting requires rehearsal and choices made through that process. With commercials, you get the script moments before you go it. It's usually tacked on a board somewhere, if at all. The style of each one is completely different so in one reality you're shocked when your bananas talk to you, in another, it's perfectly reasonable. You go into the audition studio where the casting associate (The casting director will watch all this later on tape) will explain for the 90th time that day that as you are talking to the banana, the casting associate will be making a gurgling sound, which is of course the 70 foot sponge outside the door looking for the radio. He will tell you to not react to any of this as the director wants "Real" reactions. Got all that? Good, let's do it...

Commercial acting is improvisation, pure and simple. There's no way you can prepare for any audition except to be prepared for anything. If you are really serious about commercial acting, save your money on commercial workshops and take an improv class. Of the actors I audition against in callbacks, I think abut 80% are excellent improvisers.

Step 4. Have the right 'look'. Wait, I already did this one. no, actually, this is different. When you finally make it to the callback, you can have the best audition out of everyone and still lose the part because you're 'balding' but not 'bald. because you have blond hair instead of black, because you're 6'5" instead of 5'6". Because you are left handed instead of right.

At this junction, the director, ad agency and clients are all trying to assemble a puzzle, and you're just a piece. Your 'wife and kids' should look like they belong with you. They need to make sure you're manly enough, or nerdy enough to make the product look good. Oh, and interracial couples? Hah! In short, you will lose or gain many a role at this stage based on nothing you can control. This step is one of the most maddening, as you are about 4 hairs to few from a part.

Step 5. Know somebody. A commercial director in San Diego calls me once every couple of years and asks, "Mike, I'm shooting a commercial, wanna be in it?" At which point I check caller id to make sure it's not one of my jackass friends before I say yes.

Lots of directors have favorites and will use those people over and over again. I'm not real good at schmoozing on set, the last time I tried it, everyone was more entranced over the midget who was dressed as an elf. But if you have a contact, use it. There's no shame when you walk to the bank to cash the check.

Step 6. Recognize that this is just a commercial, and not life. in other words, just do the audition or callback and forget about it. I used to keep in depth journals about the entire process - product, casting director, how I felt, what I wore, ect. It turned out to be a great way to get really agitated about auditions before, during and after them. Nowadays, I simply do my best, walk out and try not to think about it.

Actually, if I was to pinpoint when I book, it's when I'm distracted. When I'm late, or late for another audition or if my wife and son are in the other room it pulls the plug out and allows me to just be natural. Also, directors and clients love to see someone who is confident to the point where they don't even seem to need the part. I was 1 1/2 hours late for a callback one day. All I wanted to do was go into the Casting Office and apologize personally to the casting director. When I got there the waiting room was empty. Finally the CD came out and I started to say I'm sorry. Before I could, she said, "Oh good, you're the last one here. Just go right in." Confused, I walked into the casting room in front of 10 clients, ad agency people and director and proceeded to book the job (you can see it here), when all I wanted to do was apologize. It helped that the guy also looked a little confused, but you get the point.

So, there it is, another diatribe that I'm sure none of you wanted. The truth is, recently these blogs are really more for me than you. I've been acting for 20 years now and it's time to start connecting a few of the dots. I'm happy to share these because A. It's good karma and B. except for one guy, no one who subscribes to this is in my type.

So next time you see a Dodge commercial with a guy being blown up in the car, think of me. Better yet, look at me, as that is me.

unless they recast.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

I'm Mad at Men...

I did not book the previous audition. A little surprising, but not shocking. New audition tomorrow. Small part for an ABC Family series, 4 lines but closer to health insurance if I get it. Wish I could tell you more about the series, but as far as ABC Family goes, it's all "GREEK" to me. Did you get that?

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Life in Purgatory/Batter up.

It is a long hall full of lost souls. They shuffle about aimlessly, back and forth, never going anywhere. A constant stream of mumblings are barely heard from each of them. The mumblings are not random, but a continuous loop of snippets of dialogue. Eventually, each of them is called in for judgment by a higher power. For most, they will be banished to an outer ring of hell. For the most select few, salvation.

Purgatory? Nope, casting office.

Today I auditioned for a TV show. to be honest, I haven't decided how much I can/will divulge about the specifics of each audition as it may someday come back to bite me in the ass. Suffice it to say that if I told you who I was auditioning for, there would be some pretty Mad Men stomping around. See what I did there?

Anyway, the first thing I want to talk about is the Actor Shuffle. This is the little two-step that a lot of actors (myself included) perform while we're waiting to audition. We pace about, running our lines in our heads or out of our mouths at a constant pace. The lines are almost a mantra, a chant to ward off the evil spirits of dropped lines or mispronunciation. They are the practice swing golfers take before they cut loose on the fairway, the one last analysis to gain insight. Those who do not shuffle sit on chairs or the ground, hoping to in turn ground themselves before they are summoned. The audition can be a one shot deal - blow that first read and you may not get a second chance - so everything is invested in the pregame workout.

I was one of those shufflers today, waiting for my chance. I had been to this casting office many times before and this show once before, so the nerves were not overwhelming. The role was mid-sized, about six lines spread over two pages...something they call "One Day Guest Star". A few years ago it would have been called a Day Player, but I'll take the bump in respect from the arbitrary title. I felt good about the role and my approach but still did the dance out of habit.

Turns out my read was pretty good, maybe too good. As I'm leaving the executive producer and director start to chat. I hear a "Why not?" and then the casting director calls me back in. they ask me to take a look at another role. I agree. Dumb move.

Here's why. Okay, they liked my read enough to consider me for another role. So in some way I hit it out of the park, a home run to fit the baseball analogy. Now I have the uphill battle of getting a brand new script, analyzing it, making strong choices, being as off book as I can and then presenting it to people who know the role far better than I do. All in 15 minutes. I'm pinch-hitting and the bat is a broomstick.

So I did the audition and did pretty well, considering. I'd give myself a solid triple. Now a triple is wonderful, but for those who just saw you hit it out of the park, not so much. Suddenly, you're not as great as they thought, certainly not for this new role. As far as the old role, well they already earmarked it for the second best guy who read. the guy who hit the triple in that role.

I tried my best to escape before they asked me to read, but I didn't make it. Once, a casting director chased me down the backlot, shouting my name. At first I pretended to not hear her, but eventually I had to turn to her sweaty but beaming face asking me, "Could you read another part?" I still haven't come up with a good enough excuse to get out of the alternate role but not look like a jerk. So my best bet is to get the Hell out of there before the casting bomb does me in.

Happy 4th of July, Americans.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

British actors are dumb.

When I first started acting in the TV series "The Invisible Man", I had my wife (who was also working at the studio) stop by and give me some feedback. I had very little experience in front of the camera and want to make sure I did well. The camera was about 20 feet away from me and so I made sure that when I hit my 'joke' moment, that it stuck.

After the first take, my wife (actually fiancee at the time) came up to me and told me to pull it way down. I was surprised because I thought that I was pulling it down, but she said no, not even close. I agreed and when the I finally saw the scene, not only was she right, but even after she told me, I still couldn't dial it down enough. I spent the next few episodes really working on what I saw as a deficiency in my acting.

We had a hiatus the first season where I got married and I acted in the stage show "You're a Good Man Charlie Brown". The first couple of weeks of rehearsal were really frustrating, because once again, I had to readjust to the stage. Every other note to me was to make bigger choices. These were choices which 6 months ago felt spot on, but now felt bloated and untruthful. After the show was over, I had to transform again, stripping away all that I was to the core so that I could be on the TV show. It was an eye opening experience. One that I brooded upon until now.

Anyone who proclaims that stage and on camera acting is the same is wrong. They're probably British and have a bunch of British theater acting awards to their name and are now in big budget American films waving wands or shooting laser all the while retaining their dignity and booming voices. They tell you that acting is the same no matter where it is done or how it is done, pat you on the head and give you a cookie.

But they're wrong, and either they don't realize it, or they're hiding it from the rest of us. Film acting and Theatre acting is like when Sting and Pavarotti sing a duet together. They are both forcing air from their lungs to sing, but it is totally different in style and delivery and neither would last long in the others arena of expertise. If you want acting proof, watch Patrick Stewart bellow out orders and contort his face for the first season of Star Trek before he noticed that the camera was 2 feet from his face. On the other side, pick any TV or film actor (how about Julia Roberts) that has recently tried to act on stage, but make sure you bring you hearing aid and telescope or you might think you're watching a painting. These are two completely different mediums linked only by the humans passing through them.

But wait, Mike! Ask any British Stage Actor to clarify his beliefs and he will admit that the external trappings will be different, but the internal process is the same. Ha! Check and mate!


This is where I'll really piss people off, but what the hell, they can stop reading this. I think the internal process is different as well, because of what the external product is. On stage, you need to show us what you are thinking and feeling in grand gestures and loud voices, lest the audience continue looking at the set, the other actors or their watches. At best, a stage actor is about the size of your hand in front of you, desperately trying to get your attention because they are so small in your world. So as a result, everything has to be vomited forth onto the stage by the character. You cannot hide anything, it will be lost, so even introverted stage characters must be extroverts to survive.

On camera, you must hide. The camera will root you out, find you and expose you. It is so relentless that you you must burrow within yourself to be interesting. Even the most extroverted character has to hold something back, a few nuggets of interest that he or she will present toward the end of the film. You must approach these characters from the deepest place inside you, inside your soul or the camera will not believe you, and will find someone else more interesting. It essence, it will start looking at it's own watch unless it thinks you have a secret.

So, hold on. What about that British actor? You know, the one who brilliantly preformed all that Shakespeare in England (or so I've heard) and now has made the transition to the big screen effortlessly? What about that guy?

First, check to see if they ever acted on camera in said faraway place. go get their first couple of films and tell me if they chewed up the scenery or not. Second, what roles are they playing now? Wizards? Dark lords? Cannibals? Pretty over the top roles, stage friendly roles if you ask me. Finally, they may in fact have made the switch effortlessly. they may have walked on to a set, looked and the big cameras everywhere and said, "Oh, I get it", and then proceeded to do just that. If this is the case, I contend that it's not because the acting is the same, but rather that the actor is good enough to intuitively make the adjustment. They're probably so good, that they don't even realize they made it, and can now freely walk around proclaiming that the two disciplines are one and the same.

And that's where they screw us all over. Because we believe them, or want to believe. We want to be that caviler, that bold as to speak for every human being when they talk about the intimate process of acting. We really want to think that the magic we see on stage, is the exact same spell cast on screen. In short, we want it to be just a little easier.

But it's not, and we should be okay with that. What we really should do is find the actors who say, "There's stage acting, on camera acting, and about 30 other kinds of acting and you have to train for each of them. " We should then aspire to learn as many forms of acting as we can and wear them proudly. There's no shame in not knowing how to do something, only a thrill at learning it.

As for the British actor, well, he'll probably keep on spouting off about the homogenous aspects of acting. More power to him. After all, he's entitled to his opinion and more importantly, he's a wizard, and I don't want to tick him off.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008


It's what everybody asks me these days.

Simple answer: if AFTRA does not ratify its contract, then yes, there will be a strike. It will be AFTRA doing SAG's work. If the AFTRA vote is approved narrowly, there's about a 50% of a strike by SAG. If it is overwhelmingly approved, there is a 0% precent chance of a SAG strike.

there you go.