A PA’s struggle for self-respect is neverending. We’re at the bottom of things, we hold no power, we have fifty bajillion bosses, and we deal with an industry with some of the most upsettingly unstable people to still hold a job.
It’s really hard to keep some kind of dignity, some kind of pride in oneself, when the entire world seems to be telling you you’re expendable. But this thought must be fought through. Despite the facts, the caste system is a farce designed to fool you into giving up. Those that disregard these supposed rules are the ones that continue onwards.
What starts me on this tangent?
On a recent job on which, lets be clear, I was NOT PA-ing but assisting in another department, the one production PA on this little gig had this problem. Half the day I thought he was a grip because he was tall, strong, and substantial, no wimpering wallflower. Despite this, after talking to him over various down-time intermissions, I discovered he was totally green; this was one of his first gigs in LA (maybe even his first ever, I didn’t want to ask). It was a very small shoot so he had very little to do, in my infinite wisdom I gave him some basic PA tasks so I wouldn’t have to see his look of epic boredom everywhere.
I told him to get waters for the actors (there were six) and label their caps. Get straws for the girls so that they wouldn’t muss their lipstick. Hand the waters to them. He went off to complete the task. Back to this later.
Later on I found out and he had to leave set an hour early for a personal engagement but was afraid of asking. I told him it wasn’t a big deal, seriously, a day is twelve hours or more. We don’t have a union. We have to stand up for ourselves in order to avoid abuse. I wasn’t sure if he was even getting paid, since when I asked he responded with a sigh rather than speech… unless you made an agreement to work twelve hours for specific pay, there is nothing that should be holding you at work other than your guilt, guilt and fear for your image in front of your boss. This guy was too timid to ask the producer, three heads shorter and fifty pounds lighter, and may I add, a very nice girl, if he could leave only an hour early on a thirteen hour day.
I was kind of astonished, partially because I knew there was nothing to be afraid of, but also because it suddenly hit me how I used to do that myself. Back when I started I bought into the myth that PA’s are basically servants and slaves who get fired if they look their superiors in the eye. I was a complete pushover. Luckily, experience is the best confidence boost and now I know better, but this kid didn’t, and yes, at that point, standing up for yourself is a legitimate fear. Suddenly a basic right had become an insurmountable mountain, the doors to the soundstage where the producer sat beyond, stood booby-trapped like a supervillain’s fortress.
Because he was afraid to tap the producer on the shoulder, he asked me to help him get her attention. I did. All I did was open the door to the stage and force him to walk through it.
Peripheral hearing let me know that she was trying to convince him to stay, since there would be work to do at the end of the day, but this was because of timing: the PA had waited so long to ask the question that now we were on the last take of the last shot and about to wrap, where his help would be needed to clean up. Yes, leaving now would probably look bad. Poor kid had screwed himself over.
Ultimately, the lesson here is that no one has use for a timid PA. There’s a fine line between polite and meek. People like to work with fun, energetic, and confident individuals that get things done. No one wants to handhold another when they are busy doing their own work, it’s fine to make mistakes and one has to accept that, but if you mistake timidity for subservience, nothing good will come of it but frustration, disillusionment, and personal plans that keep getting cancelled.
A good PA may be at the bottom, but no army has use for a soldier with no balls.
Oh and back to the water thing, during cleanup I found the bottles by the set, standing neatly on the side, all labeled, but all unopened. The actors never got their water, I can only assume, because he was too afraid to hand it to them.