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Debating Actors

There’s an old TAPA post about wrangling extras that still gets comments from time to time, because it has some unflattering things to say about background actors.

Extras are basically untalented actors… They tend to not listen to instruction, dawdle, or just plain wander off. If you’ve ever been a camp counselor or grade school teacher, you’ll know what it’s like.

That TAPA later amended his statements:

I’m kidding about those prejudices. I’ve met plenty of nice, intelligent, talented background actors and stand-ins. Most of them are, in fact, aspiring actors, but I’m an aspiring writer, so I probably shouldn’t be throwing stones at aspiring glass houses.

Still, Anonymous SAG Member wrote:

The way you view background can only mean that you are that lowly dirtbag pa that gets paid less than union background and treats them like crap. If you ever work with me watch out ill file a grievance with SAG and the DGA and talk to your bosses. I’ve gotten a few production assistant’s- untalented “go-fers” kicked off sets.

Wow. Even ignoring the poor grammar, methinks she doth protest too much. I mean, who brags about getting someone kicked off set?

Still, I wanted to say something nice to balance out the karmic scales, which is why I wrote yesterday’s post about the challenges of making it as an actor.

And then regular commenter Nola Trash Talk wrote

I disagree.

Being an actor is easy. As you said, it’s playing pretend. When these people are booked on shows, it’s nothing short of luck. Anyone can just as likely do what they do. As one told me, “I just stand where I’m supposed to and read the words.” Being a PA around professional actors is no different than being a PA around a dozen lottery winners. The same goes for many in the producer’s chair(s) too. They came from other businesses, they had connections through family and college (usually Stanford). They didn’t sweat out long hours on set or in a production office, learning how the whole process works. They just got lucky and now you have to fetch them a bottle of Fiji water.

Going to auditions isn’t hard. Taking classes isn’t hard. Stuck on location in the middle of summer with no shade for 15 hours is hard. Working at a bar or restaurant is damn luxury compared to the menial stress of day to day production work. I have personally worked with some very well known and powerful people in this business and I was never left with a feeling of awe. It was all circumstantial. They got lucky breaks at the right time in their lives and didn’t completely fumble the opportunity. It could happen to you. It could happen to me. It could happen to that guy over there. Unfortunately, most crews are like gangs of whipped dogs, too broken by the stupid system to realize the bigger picture.

Yeah. Do what THEY say in a timely and professional manner. But don’t actually respect these jokers. The size of their bank account versus yours has nothing to do with work ethic, creativity or a sense of integrity in this industry.

I don’t want to get into a semantic debate, much less a pissing contest, so I’m not going to write a point-by-point rebuttal. I’ve already said my piece on the matter. I’m just putting this out there, so you, dear reader, might see the range of attitudes you might run into on set.

And like Nola says, no matter what your thoughts are, do your job in a timely and professional manner, and you’ll be fine.

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7 Responses

  1. ”Being an actor is easy. As you said, it’s playing pretend. When these people are booked on shows, it’s nothing short of luck. Anyone can just as likely do what they do.”

    As a director, I can definitely say that this is completely untrue. Have ever made your own film or done a casting call? Bad actors exist. There are tons of them. Nobody wants a bad actor in their project. Yes connections can get you to a certain point but if you stand in front of that camera and you suck, then you have to go! A bad actor can ruin a film. Make it a joke. Make the whole project come off as juvenile. If you are working pro sets then you are dealing with talented, experienced actors. Maybe it comes easy to some of them but they definitely have a talent that most people do not have. Also, many of them have been in the game for a long time. They say it takes 10 years to become a working actor, meaning your only source of income is from acting. Yeah, some get a lucky break sooner but most quit way before they make that 10 year mark. 10 years of auditions, rejection, working two or three jobs to make ends meet. There is a lot more to it than just luck.

  2. First, thanks for your always interesting blog. Some fellow writer told me about it, then I started doing background, and that’s when I really started reading.

    I do agree with you that extras can be very frustrating. We have a little joke when we see a bad one: we pull on our collar and mumble, Get that man in the red shirt off my set! So I hear you. I also think that being a PA and being in the Army are the two best ways to learn leadership skills, both pretty tough. So here are my two cents about bg that hopefully will explain a lot and help your scene look better and you, thusly, better.

    First of all, we wander around the scene aimlessly sometimes because WE CAN’T HEAR YOU when you give instructions! If you don’t have a bullhorn, have your 2nds repeat it as they wander around the herd of bg. If you really want to be loved and supported, start off with a short description of the day and maybe a “yeah, you’re here for the full day” so we don’t spend all day wondering.

    And how about a little Acting 101 for newbies? When you tell people to mime and then you hear mumbling, it’s because they don’t know that their mimed convos are not real, so they keep whispering “what?” to their partner and then their partner gets louder, and pretty soon the sound guys are pulling their hair out. Just mention that it’s gibberish! It’s not a real conversation! Pressure’s off.

    And with a big group, to prevent the stampede at the sign-out table, please, for the love of Pete, post the letters of the alphabet somewhere where we can see them, like taped to the wall ABOVE your head! We can’t see them if they are on the table! Hilarity (and a near riot) ensue when 150 people make a run for it.

  3. Why am I in the business? There’s nothing else in Louisiana. I’ve got your standard issue Bachelor’s Degree in Communications and no special skills. Through friends I fell into this business and fell into the typical cycle: work on show – desperately unemployed – work on show – desperately unemployed, etc. Before I could get hired anywhere else, I got called for another show. Having started when I was 26 I had already worked a dozen other jobs (blue collar, white collar, service) so I had my perspectives in place. I know what sucks. It’s not like I was a fresh off the boat college intern on my first gig.

    A lot of what I see around me is people who are married/kids/own houses and are basically neck deep in debt. They don’t have a choice. They need union health benefits for their kids. They need their paychecks for that mortgage. Survival instincts have kicked in and they are indentured servants to these pathetically stupid hours and conditions. Like me, they probably don’t have any other special talents or certifications. This is all they can do.

    So I don’t get sold on ‘do what makes you happy’ as if there’s a choice involved. I see bosses born into their roles or at least were well connected enough. Producers, Production Supervisors and UPMs who were never PAs. Overloaded crews who are, as I said, indentured to this system. Then all the young(er) people who have a fire under the ass to work hard and impress people as it matters. We are in Louisiana, a runaway production state, these shows are here to save money – not to promote from within. These people will be left high and dry eventually.

    I try to get out everyday. But I go on a few interviews, nothing happens, a coordinator calls me and I think “Ok, one more show.” Such is the circle of misery. I remain optimistic that I can have a real job again one day again – like bartender or parking valet or Staples sales associate.

    1. I hear you — this can be a brutal business, especially for those still trying to gain some traction. I came in late, too, getting my first (unpaid) Hollywood gig as a PA at age 27. Breaking in wasn’t easy for an outsider back then: with no internet, I was flying blind — there were no blogs or websites to guide a Hollywood newbie — but there was also less competition for the available jobs. There weren’t film programs at every college in the country unleashing legions of grads to march on Hollywood. For those who did come, anybody motivated and willing to put in the effort could at least get started back then.

      Making real progress was something else, but it could be done.

      Things are different — and harder — now, which is one reason why TAPA’s blog, my blog, and every other honest industry blog makes a point to lecture dewey-eyed wannabes about the difficulty they face getting started and making measurable progress in the film and television industry. We’re not kidding or exaggerating the obstacles that confront every newbie who didn’t have the good luck to be born into the business. Film and TV look great from a distance, but up close, it really is an “industry” — some good, lots of bad, and endless ugly. I say this to every young person who asks about getting into the business: “If there’s anything else you might be able to do in life that could make you happy (or at least not make you miserable), do it.”

      I’ve been where you are — to quote an ex-President and potential future First Husband, “I feel your pain.” After three years of getting my ass kicked on no-budget features, I was 30 years old and burned to a crisp, ready to quit. In fact I DID quit — in my head. While visiting my girlfriend in another city, I decided I’d had enough, and would finish out my commitments in Hollywood, then pack up and be done with it.

      That’s when things finally started to improve — better jobs, more work, and lots more money. I didn’t get rich, but finally got paid enough to start saving money for the first time, and even began to have fun at work, despite the 18 hour days that were routine.

      So Hollywood lured me back… and thirty-odd years later, I’m still here. For better or worse.

      Everyone’s different, and takes a different path into and through the business. That said, I’ve never seen anybody with a really bad attitude climb the ladder and do well in this town. If you’ve been dragging your ass around the set badmouthing actors/producers/UPMs and whining about how hard it all is to everyone within earshot — in other words, if the comments you’ve left here on TAPA the last couple of years are any measure of the attitude you bring to set — then you’re fucked. It’s never going to get better.

      But if you’ve reserved your bile for these on-line forums, then no problem — that’s where I vent my own frustrations with the business. So long as you show up on set with a positive, can-do attitude (a little good-natured carping is fine, but no serious whining), there’s a chance — and hope — that things will get better.

      Assuming that’s the case, then you need to take a good look in the mirror and decide what it is you really want to do in this business. If you don’t have any special skills in that area, then work on acquiring some. Make the effort. Otherwise it won’t happen.

      While you’re at it, consider this: maybe working in production really isn’t for you after all — in which case, think about one of the technical trades. You’re smart and articulate, and might someday make a good key grip, gaffer, prop master or special effects man — or maybe post-production would better fit your needs and personality. There are politics in all those arenas as well, but it’s more of a meritocracy. What you know and how good you are at your job are more important than who you know, because good workers are always in demand.

      If a crew gig isn’t your dream life, then understand that there is no “dream life” — there’s just life, which always involves compromise. It’s your call.

      I guess it all boils down to this: the path you’ve taken thus far doesn’t seem to be working for you — so why no do something different? Try another approach. As much as I hate this stupid cliche, “think outside the box” — the box you’re currently stuck inside. Otherwise, how are things ever going to change for the better? Keep doing what you’re doing and they’re likely to get worse.

      Don’t squander your time and energy pissing on people who you think don’t deserve their positions in the industry — none of that matters or is remotely relevant to you. Worse, that kind of non-productive self-indulgence will only spin your wheels and sink you deeper into the sand. Don’t worry about anybody else, but instead concentrate on what YOU can do to improve YOUR situation.

      This is your one and only life, Nola. Only you can make it better.

      Good luck…

  4. Every comment I’ve ever seen from “Nola” on this blog has come with a bitter, angry, and resentful tone — but this one takes the cake. Granted, a fat bank account alone is certainly no reason to respect anyone in the film industry or beyond, and we’ve all encountered too many all-hat, no-cattle “producers” who were handed the title simply by being connected to some VIP, but to claim that “being an actor is easy” displays a breathtaking ignorance of the craft itself and the industry as a whole.

    I’m as far from being an actor as is possible in this business, but I’ve worked with thousands of actors on set over the years, and only a very tiny minority have been true assholes unworthy of respect. The vast majority were hard working professionals who’d paid their dues (and then some) to earn their place in front of the cameras — and some of them were among the nicest, most gracious people I’ve ever met.

    Although here’s some degree of luck and good timing involved in moving up through any profession, it’s equally true that you can make your own luck in this business — and you do that by paying attention and working hard. Learning to do a job well enough to be successful is never “easy,” whether you’re a PA, juicer, producer, director, writer, or actor.

    Still, having read so many negative comments from Nola in this forum, I have to ask him/her: why are you still in this business? If you’re so unhappy, then do yourself — and the industry — a favor, and find another path to walk through life. We all wade through our share of crap in this business, but if you concentrate on the negative aspects, you’ll always be miserable — there will never be any relief. And if this is how bad you feel now, at the beginning of your career, imagine how miserable you’ll be in ten years, at which point it may be too late for you to change course. It’s not worth it. Life’s too short to be unhappy working with people you can’t, or won’t — for whatever reason — respect.

  5. “Today’s junior prick, tomorrow’s senior partner.” – Working Girl. Seriously, don’t bad mouth anyone in this business – not some extra, not some AD or Director. No one. It will come back to bite you. Even if that Director tells you to fetch him a coffee, then doesn’t take a sip but instead throws it into the trash right in front of you to make a point of power, just mind your mouth and walk away. Later on, you may be in a power position to hire that director and you will have the power to prevent him from being hired. It’s like any business. You never know where someone will land later on. Treat them like dirt today, they’ll remember it tomorrow. With all of its flaws, the entertainment industry is still one of the best in the world. If you’re working inside of the entertainment industry, you’ve also hit a lottery of sorts whether you realize it or not. If you’re in a paid position, remember lots of people are working for free in this industry just for experience. Work inside of another industry and you’ll see backbiting, politics, regular unwarranted firings and working poverty. Leave this industry, you’ll want to come back. No matter your level or your job, you’re a contributing partner to the end product whether you garner a credit or not. Appreciate it and make strong handshakes that will take you to the next level. I’ve worked in the extra group and I’ve been treated like garbage. Guess what, those people aren’t working anymore. I’ve worked in production and I’ve seen people call other people names or start arguments with other crew members, those people aren’t working anymore. I’ve worked in the executive building and I’ve seen people take shots of tequila before they go in to see the executive because she’s an unwarranted screamer if she doesn’t hear or see what she wants, she’s not working anymore. There are tons of stories out there like mine. You don’t like your job, get out or take an anger management therapy course stat. If you can’t be nice and respectful of everyone, don’t play the game.

  6. I think it’s facile to say all actors are like that, all PAs are like that and so on. Far better to look at the individual and – in this industry as well as many others – ask who is PROFESSIONAL and who is not.

    There are professional actors who work hard; there are pretend actors who don’t. In most cases, the professional actors will rise to the top, the pretend actors won’t. And of course this applies to all jobs within the industry.

    I’ve met some crappy ADs and PAs and some excellent ones. And then years later I’ve bumped into those same people and you can see by the work they’re doing whether they fell within the PRO camp or not…

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