Letter to a young actor in Minnesota

Management | Training

Dear Young Actor:

I hear you want to move to L.A. and become a film and television actor? Well, come on out! The weather is fine (now that monsoon season is over).

Yes, it's sunny and in the low 70's here on the Westside. In February, I know that has a special meaning for Minnesnowtans. I have just returned from my daily trek to the beach where I watch the waves and the surfers riding them, and I remember to be grateful for my life here.

Then I go home and contact my agents. Show business in Los Angeles is truly about business. And it's large—industrial-sized. It takes time to develop a career here.

If you are unsure whether to come to L.A. or not, let me ask: Do you want to concentrate on the theater? If so, then stay in Minnesota, or go to New York. Theater is not the reason to be in L.A. There is plenty of it here, and some of it excellent, but other than the Mark Taper Forum or South Coast Rep, and a few others, most of it is done for free (as in "a showcase"). "Equity-waiver" is the term you'll hear connected with most theater in LA and it means, "professionals acting for no pay."

Minnesota, on the other hand, has a terrific theater scene. I often go back to my home state to work onstage, and I am always impressed by the talent in the Twin Cities.

The place to be for film

But if you are interested in film and television, then Los Angeles is the destination for you. This is still Mecca for that industry despite the fact that much of the filming is done in other areas, like Canada, Louisiana, even Iowa.

I recently worked on a zombie movie in Iowa City , and my hubby, actor Chris Mulkey, is in New York this week shooting Boardwalk Empire, a new series for HBO. But wherever films go, they still cast the bigger roles out of L.A. Writers, directors, producers, cinematographers, they all tend to base themselves here. Two costume designers live on my block and next door is a property master who works on huge films. On the other side of me is an editor. We are indeed a film community.

So if you want to have a career in film and television, you want to be here. And you know it won't be easy. (To quote my mother: "If it's easy, it's not worth doing.")

How do you pack a contact?

So, what items will you be essential to your move?

  1. A car
  2. Money
  3. Contacts
  4. A union card
  5. Passion

This was the advice I received years ago when I came out here from Minnesota myself. I pioneered my way west in my Toyota Corolla, stuffed to the gills with all my junk, and my boyfriend (who turned right around and went back to Minnesota). And I found the advice to be accurate, then and now. Plus, it also included this wisdom: Go when you are young —especially women.

L.A. is massive and decentralized—show biz happens all over the place. Casting offices are all over, even at the beach, and studios are everywhere, from the far-flung Simi Valley areas to East L.A. Often I will put 30 or more miles on my car just going for an audition. Public transportation doesn't cut it—you've got to have a reliable automobile. Because, yes, you can spend your life in a car. Most actors I know keep a few changes of clothes—certainly gym stuff as well as a stack of headshots and resumes in their back seat. If you don't have any of the other essentials—have a car! One that works well.

And money is essential in Los Angeles too. Not only because it costs a lot to live here, but also because there is so much of it in this town, and it shows. Like a parody of capitalism, people flaunt their money. Bling is ubiquitous. It can be daunting, and despite your Midwest sensibilities, you may want to front that you have some money too. Many people in the biz will spend big bucks on a "status car" to appear successful as they roll up to the valet or the studio gate. Meanwhile, they may be living in a one room apartment in unpretentious Burbank.

The starving artist routine is not big here, and to be honest, the money thing was quite an adjustment for me. I was raised not to brag about what's in your barn—but it seems like in L.A. you had to look rich to get rich. It's not really true, but until you find your community here and get involved in the work, it can feel that way. (I still can't seem to spend it the way many do.)

The good news: even a medium-sized career in film and television can pay very well. Actors who may not be famous, but who work a lot, can have really nice houses. Since it costs a million for the equivalent of a shack on a postage stamp these days, residuals do flow in sometimes.

In the beginning, you will need enough money to cover some months' rent —$1100 for a one bedroom. Then there's gas—more sticker shock there, compared to Minnesota. And, you will need to redo those headshots many times. It seems the first thing agents and casting directors tell you is to "Get new pictures!"

You should have money for classes too. Actors in L.A. tend to keep studying even after they get their careers going. Good for growth, and networking too.

You will do lunches

Networking is the ultimate business tool. Having contacts in the industry when you arrive will help you get started building your network of support (people who know and like you). Use your contacts shamelessly to help you get closer to people involved in the biz. I made a pledge to make three business calls a day and pushed myself harder than I thought was even seemly. (The "Minnesota nice" thing isn't one of the best tools for actors.)

Your very first goal here is to get representation. You need an agent, or a manager, in order to get into casting offices. It's difficult, as agents and managers are less interested in you until you have an impressive resume. Catch 22. There are online casting sites such as Nowcasting, Actor's Access, and many others that will connect you with auditions but most of those are for nonunion work. To develop a career here you need to maintain good representation and that is a chore that remains constant attention no matter how much work you've done. One excellent source of information is Samuel French's, the publisher of plays. They have bookstores in LA specializing in scripts, as well as catalogues, updated every few months, listing agencies and managers and casting directors.

The union aspect is critical. Yes, there's plenty of non-union work in LA: films, webisodes, and commercials. However if that's the only work you do, you will never be "seen." You need to be in SAG or AFTRA to even audition for television shows and films for mainstream distribution. Most agents won't take on actors without union cards. You can become a union member out here by working on a union project, but if you get the chance to join in Minnesota, do it!

Stay positive

Lastly, passion fuels the career engine. You've gotta love the work to put up with the frustrations and humiliations. Rejection is standard procedure. I realized long ago that one needs to maintain an irrational tenacity in order to stay in the game. Passion will give you that. It will help you get past the money thing I talked about earlier, keeping you focused on the work, not the image.

Taking classes and doing work in theater whether or not you are paid help to feed passion while building your network of support. Your passion should lead you to initiate your own project: write a script, rent a camera and make your own film with your friends. There may be plenty of time in between auditions and jobs and use that time to create a piece of work that can put you on the map.

The industry is fiercely competitive and your passion is necessary to keep your spirits up, so you can do your best—and shake it off when your best doesn't get you the job.

After reading all this, you may want to stay in Minnesota and make your own films. The indie film scene used to be very lively there and seems to be coming back. I've done several films in Minnesota, and some did rather well. Patti Rocks, a film Chris and I co-wrote and starred in, made it into Sundance and received awards in various festivals around the world, before getting distribution in theaters. You can also wait for Hollywood to come to you. The Coen brothers cast quite a few Minnesotans in A Serious Man. North Country did as well.

In fact, it's a good idea to get experience at home before going to L.A. When you are seeking representation, they will always ask to see film of you. They want to look at your reel. I came here after having worked for three full seasons at the Guthrie, and I had a reel full of commercials. The reel was probably more helpful than the theater since I was often asked, "Why does Woody Guthrie run that theater in Minnesota?"

And, one final piece of advice: Be positive, no matter what you think of L.A., privately, when they ask (and they always do), tell them something you like about it. Don't let your Minnesota pride prevent you from being gracious. Yes, you come from a place of hale and hardy intelligent people with well-built homes, who mow their own grass, but you must open your mind up to the wonders of the teeming suburban metropolis that is Los Angeles.

Well best of luck to you, whatever you decide.

Sincerely,

Karen Landry Mulkey

Comments

Accurate Depiction.

As someone who lived in L.A for 8 years, I would say this is a very accurate depiction of L.A. life for a working actor. Add a lot more struggle to it for when you get there. Its not an easy place to work or live. If you're not in show business, I don't know why a person would choose to live there. There are other places with weather that is just as nice.

One thing I would say is, besides web sites like Actors Access and NowCasting (which are both good-I have friends who work at both)-another way to meet agents and get seen by casting directors are through two organizations-Actors Network and The Actors Group. Both organizations charge fees for the works they do, and The Actors Group requires an audition. But both are great groups for getting in front of casting directors and agents and networking. Its how I got my second agent after having an agent that I really disliked for my first 5 years in L.A. How did I get that first agent? By getting a manager. How did I get that manager? An ad in the paper-and the fact that I had just returned from working on a movie. How did I get that movie? Well, it was glorified extra work-but it included work in both CA. and on location in Texas for 2 weeks. How did I get the extra work? I registered with an extras company.

Do NOT get bogged down in extra work. Do NOT get tagged as an extra only. However, there is probably no better way to learn about what its like on the set of a big film and to get your SAG vouchers to get that elusive Union membership than doing extra work-unless of course by some miracle you get a speaking role. HA! Bonus: Sometimes the food is excellent (Wood-Fired Pizzas made in front of you! Bacon, egg, lettuce and tomato sandwiches on whole wheat for breakfast, make your own fruit smoothies, lamb shanks, steak, WOW!)

Some extra work is better than others-like soaps. Soaps are the best. Two-three hours, and you go home and the pay is great. If you're lucky (like I was) the soap extra work will lead to you being a regular extra-like I became, and that evolved to becoming a recurring 5 and under character-I would appear on the soap for 5 years, half a dozen times a year-and it was always great.

As for her remarks on theatre-its clear what are showcases (and you want to avoid those like the plague) and what are legitimate productions at 99-seat and under places. Its true they don't pay much-but under the 99-seat and under rule-you can make some $-I made around $600 for a run at a company doing a 5 week run of a show. Its not much, but its something-and that show got nominated for some awards at the end of the year.

There are many thriving 99 seat and under and even subscription Jungle level theatre companies doing wide ranges of work-focusing on all kinds of stage movement invoking Anne Bogart and Suzuki or View Points or inspired by Mummenschantz, reinterpretations of classics, original works, revivals, musicals, ensemble created pieces, improv, camp, minority works, so many I can't even begin to name that any one who gives that answer is simply ignorant of what they are saying and what goes on in L.A. theatre.

I was there for 8 years and I have lived here for over a year and I can say this without any hesitation:

There is a wider group of L.A. theatres doing different types of works than there are here in MN. and most of them are more open to new talent than theatre companies here.

The first theatre company I got involved with there Sacred Fools Theatre Company had an open-door sweat-equity policy. Meaning, anyone could audition for any show, and that to become a member you just come to a meeting, join a committee, no dues, help us out with builds and strikes, and you can become a full member of the company-and you will get onstage-maybe not in the mainstage or dark night shows, but definitely in the late night serial comedy show-(which at that point had been running for 3 years every Sat. night after the mainstage and would continue for another 5 years only to be replaced with the one going on now that has been running for almost 4 years) or in the story-telling show, or the once a month open stage shows or any number of other opportunities. Sacred Fools is widely recognized as one of L.A.'s best companies-its been around since 1997-Jon Hamm (Mad Men) was in one of their shows early in his career. Plenty of other celebs have performed their too. The LA WEEKLY Theatre Awards nominations for this year came out today, and Sacred Fools just received 16. Not bad at all.

After my first meeting I was asked by the director of the mainstage show that had just started rehearsals asked me then and there to be in his show, which I happily accepted. Little did I know that that would be the start of a 3 year membership that would lead me to being in 3 mainstage shows, numerous appearances in the late night comedy show and other performances there as well as being House Manager and Facilities Manager and producing a show that would be selected to the Picollo/Spoleto Festival. I have seen nothing like that here in Minnesota-nothing like it at all. Thats just my experience, but I think I can say that without receiving too much criticism I hope. I just don't think Ms. Mulkey's description of L.A. theatre is exactly accurate.

Everything she says about film work and TV work, classes, the Catch-22 of getting an agent and union work, the expenses of everything, driving and traffic, networking, unions, and the ignorance of people there when it comes to other areas (like her example of peoples reply about The Guthrie) I would say that's 99.99% accurate and truthful based on my own experiences. I would also add that she is right about getting out there when you're young-I was 23 when I got there and luckily looked younger than that, so lots of my work was for 18+ to look younger-one of my biggest roles was as a high school wrestler on a Nickelodeon series where my opponent-the shows lead-was 15. Also, make sure you eat healthfully, and exercise-luckily the nice weather makes it easy to get outside. Your health is so important-and you need to stay in shape-if you don't think looks are going to help you in the biz-you're crazy.

I was lucky in a lot of ways, I had my recurring role on the soap and also had an acting job in a show at Universal Studios Theme Park for 6 years too. Still, I had to have 2 other jobs to make ends meet. So be prepared when you go.

Great letter. Thanks for telling people the way it is out West. Now maybe I won't have to answer as many ?'s-I'll just refer people to this.

Matt Saxe.

Wow.

LA sounds great.

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