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When being a working actor doesn’t work; ferment at the Brewery

LETTER FROM L.A.: When being a working actor doesn’t work; ferment at the Brewery

copyright 2002, Jim Chevallier


I never forget, as I write this column, that a certain number of my readers are considering moving to Hollywood. After all, that’s where all the work is, right?

                That question gets harder and harder to answer with time. Certainly, in America, there’s probably more on-screen work here than in any other city. But that simple statement is subject to several qualifications:


  • More and more of the work isn’t in America
  • Most of the people who move out here to work in the industry won’t
  • Those who do probably will struggle, continually


Let’s look briefly at the last and most optimistic of these not very bright prospects:  the case of the working actor. In practice, this almost always means character actor. Leads either reach a higher level or effectively ‘convert’ to character actors. More specifically, I am thinking of an actor who is one of the few ‘successful’ actors I know. What does success mean for a non-star? Frequent jobs, a living income. Sure, there are other levels short of stardom. Think of Willie Garson (“Sex in the City”) and Vincent D’Onofrio (“Law and Order: Criminal Intent”), two actors whose reputations within the business were well-established years before the general public had noticed them. Or Kathleen Wilhoite, a character actress you may have seen on anything from “L.A. Law” to “Presidio Meds”.  All these people were ‘names’ at some point in their career, actors known as sure values to casting directors and producers.

                The person I’m thinking of is probably considered a name. In the last year or so, he’s been on “Ally McBeal”, “Angel” and “West Wing”, to mention just a few.  You probably wouldn’t recognize him, though at times his face might seem naggingly familiar. But he works. And yet, after eleven years, he’s thinking of moving back to New York. There, at least, there’s good stage work. His relative success out here no longer thrills him at all. If anything, he makes it sound like a bit of a chore, routine. (I should add that overall this is a positive, energetic person.)

                When, by way of encouragement, I pointed out that he’s one of the more succesful actors I know, he said, “I know! That’s the worst part.”

                What should a New Yorker actor take from this? Well, at the least, the oft-repeated warning that, for most actors, a move to the coast won’t change much. But also the warning that even if you do make a dent, you may have to work hard to keep making others, without ever breaking through. Only to decide in the end it’s not worth it.

                “The different artistic communities in L.A. are starting to come together. There’s more and more energy happening between them.” The person telling me this, Vlad, does physical comedy. We were in the Brewery at the time, listening to music played on huge metal instruments that looked like avant-garde sculptures. At one point, a dancer was hoisted into mid-air and danced upside down to the music. Meanwhile, all around us were experimental stained glass and various paintings and sculptures.

Once a Pabst brewery, the Brewery is one of several converted industrial spaces that opens its studios twice a year. Such events are as much excuses to mingle with other like-minded souls as they are to see art. Once I ran into my spinning teacher there.  She’d acted in one of the experimental videos. The next time I saw a woman from my yoga class, a documentary filmmaker just back from Afghanistan.

In speaking of ‘communities’, Vlad didn’t mean just this sort of thing, though the Brewery itself includes dancers, musicians, video artists and other performers as well as painters and sculptors. He was referring to the numerous ‘arty’ areas that now exist across L.A. – Silverlake, Echo Park, Highland Park, Eagle Rock, Venice, Downtown, Chinatown – all of which it seems were more separate until recently

Perhaps it helps that once artists improve a depressed area, upscale tenants often follow and drive up the rents. In L.A., this process seems to be speeding up. Silverlake, for instance, is already getting pricey. So artists are wise to be aware of other ‘undiscovered’ neighborhoods. They never know when they’ll have to move there.