So You Want To Be In Show Business
As I watched the last 20 minutes of the Oscars, my mom asked me if I dreamed of attending the Oscars one day. My mom, who knows me so well, was surprised when I told her that I don’t think about it. I only watched the last few minutes of the show because I wanted to see if Quvenzhané Wallis was going to win for best actress. My mother said when she was growing up, watching awards shows was a way of escaping the loneliness of her early childhood. When I watch the awards shows, my favorite part is seeing the excitement of the nominees. I love seeing them so happy and cheerful. It makes me happy. When celebrities I have met, are up are for an award, it makes the show more fun to watch. When the movie, The Help, and it’s cast were nominated for a lot of awards two years ago, I was on pins and needles to see if they would win. I had attended SAG screenings and listened to the cast talk about their auditions and the long journey to get to where they are at. Most people don’t think about what it takes to get to the Oscars or my favorite, The SAG Awards. They see the red carpet, stars, fashion, and the press. They see the fairy tale. That is the way it should be to a little girl dreaming of giving her acceptance speech, a fairy tale. A few years ago I made a list of who I wanted to thank after getting my SAG award. It was just pretend but I still worried that I couldn’t include everyone! Now that I’m older, I don’t watch the awards shows with the same innocence. I’m wondering who Mr Denzel Washington has for an agent. Did Quvenzhane attend an open casting call for her movie or did a manager send her? Who did the casting for Django? Why didn’t I get a call to audition for a certain movie? My innocence, when it comes to show business, is gone. Show business is hard work and ruthless. It is not about how much money you can make. It’s about how much money can you make for the industry. My mom is a part time actress also. She does mostly background, but has done enough principal work to qualify for the union. We have worked on three projects together, a Bon Jovi video, Saturday Night Live, and a Pepsi commercial. This blog is to explain a little bit of what goes on behind the scenes of a young, nowhere, nowhere, nowhere near rich and famous, in and out of work, teenage actress. Of course I’m speaking of me. Because I didn’t want to leave anything out, I asked my mother to help me write this month’s blog.
People ask me all the time what it is like to be an actress. They think the acting business is a life of fame, fortune, and fashion. That is the life for some actors that have made it big. The majority of people you see in a movie or television show are extremely hard working, low paid actors that go to class after class to improve their acting skills and meet agents and casting directors. They show up as extras on a set and do the same thing over and over again until the director is satisfied. When I was much younger, I did background extra on different shows and movies and it didn’t seem like work. I saw friends on set and got to meet new people. I was having fun.
Whether actors want to admit it or not, they are divided into categories. You know when you are watching television and you see people walking, or eating in restaurants, but can’t see their faces? That is an extra or background actor. Some are union, and some are non union. The non union background actors have it the hardest. Non union extras make the least amount of money, work long hours, and don’t get the appreciation they deserve for taking work that other actors sometimes don’t want. They can’t be doing it for the money, so it has to be because they love the business or have that dream of becoming a star. Now that I’m older, background is not as much fun as it use to be. I rarely do background or extra work unless it is for a commercial. Next, are your union background actors. Because of the hard work of the SAG/Aftra union, background actors get a lot more respect now than in previous years. They make more money and eat better on set than non union background. If there is a problem on set, they can call a union representative at anytime. Because it use to be sort of hard to get into the Screen Actors Guild, proud SAG actors will let you know in a flash, “I’m SAG.” Getting into the union is considered the first step toward making it big.
Then you have your commercial actors. Commercial actors can be union or non union. Here is the big difference. Union actors are not allowed to do a non union production whether it is film, tv, commercial, or video. Non union actors can work non union or union productions unless the project specially calls for all union actors. Although a production maybe a union job, they can still have certain spots for non union. It can be confusing. Commercial sets are totally different than film and movie sets. The set is smaller and most of the filming is done inside a studio. Less equipment and people are around so the vibe is more friendly. You feel like you are an important part of the production. For the background actor, the money is much better as a commercial extra than as a film or television extra. Most actors dream of getting their first union commercial. If a non union actor get a principal role on a union commercial, the actor qualifies for SAG. The same goes for film and television. If an actor book a speaking or principal role, the actor can become a union member. Just like actors dream of being on a weekly television series or getting the lead in a movie, commercial actors dream of becoming “the face” of a brand. Examples of how one commercial can change an actor’s professional career and put a lot of money in their pockets, the “Can you hear me now?” Verizon guy, Flo fromProgressive, All State spokesperson Dennis Haysbert, and the “That’s the power of Pine Sol” lady. They all started with the first commercial that led into commercial after commercial, money after money. When you become the face of a brand or product, you have hit the big time in commercial acting. Dennis Haysbert is successful in film, television and commercials. The extremely nice actor really has it going on. Being closely associated with a brand or product, limits you from doing a commercial for a similar brand or product. If an actor does a commercial for the Ford car company, he has to wait a certain amount of years before he can do a commercial for another car company. The wait could be anyway between 4 to 6 years. This situation is called, “a conflict”. If I booked a principal spot for Mr Clean, I’m not going to be able to do Lysol for at least 4 to 6 years. State Farm would never use the Flo lady in their commercials no matter how many years passes after doing her last Progressive commercial. Her face will always be connected to Progressive. When I was 7, I was a principal on a national Toyota Pruis commercial. I had to wait 4 years before I could audition for another car commercial.
You would be surprised at how many people ask me or my mom about residuals. It wasn’t until around 2 years ago that I started learning about the finances of the acting world. I still have a lot to learn. When you do a feature or principal role in a union produced film, television show, or commercial, you can earn residuals. I still get small residuals regularly for Wonder Pets and Sesame Street. I taped Wonder Pets when I was 4. I did Sesame Street between the ages of 4 and 6. That’s 9 years later! I have been going to SAG meetings since I was 5. When they talk about new contracts and pay raises, I’m lost. I’m just starting to learn about scale pay, meal penalties, wardrobe allowances, night diff, hazard pay, weekend scale, prop allowances, and travel allowances. All of this earns you more money. It is really complicated. One day I’m going to read the booklet from the union that explains all of it.
I’m going to tell you what I do know about, upgrade! An upgrade is like a promotion. Say you are an extra or background on a commercial. Doing the taping, you ended up on some footage where you are clearly recognizable. When the director or ad agency do the final editing, they might like the footage where you are recognizable and upgrade you to a principal. They may used some of the original footage for a variation of the first commercial and you will get paid all over again. An upgrade is like your birthday and Christmas all in one because of the extra pay and possible residuals. Your neighbors will hear you screaming all over the building. The more that commercial is shown, the longer it is on air, if it goes national from cable, if they use it for the internet, or print ads from the footage, it will be HUGE increase in the original amount of money you started with as an extra. I have been upgraded 3 or 4 times in 2 years. That is why I don’t turn down commercial background. Upgrades are possible with television and film but is extremely rare. It doesn’t happen a whole lot with commercials either so I have been blessed.
One area of acting most people don’t think about is voice over. This is when you hear the actor but don’t see the actor. The voice over actor, that does the introductions for all the Law and Order shows, never have to work another day in his life. Talk about residuals! He gets paid for every episode of every Law and Order show every time it is on television! Most people don’t even know what he looks like. They don’t see him. They just hear him. He is Steve Zirnkilton, the “voice” of Law and Order. Alright, I confess. I only know because I looked him up for this blog. I have only one voice over credit. When I was 5, I let out a huge scream for Dr Miracle hair products. I don’t even remember it. Mom told me about it. She said it was on the radio for awhile. Voice over actors are in huge demand but it is not an easy field to break into. Going to voice over classes is on my to do list.
Let me get into the heart of all acting jobs, the auditions. This is the one area of show business that I really know about. An audition is when you try out for an acting job. Most commercials have an audition, then a callback. A callback is when the casting directors choose certain people from the original audition to come back in for a second time. A callback is usually the halfway mark to getting a job. Most principal work for television and movies have the first audition and then two callbacks. If you are being considered for the project after going to the callback, production will put you on what is called a “hold.” If you get the job, your agent or manager will call you and say those magic words, “you’re booked.” If you didn’t get the job, they will release you from your hold. For me, being on hold is torture. The terrible thing about being on hold is, you can’t audition or submit for a job that shoots on the same day as the one you are on hold for. If you don’t get the job that you were on hold for, you may have missed another audition that you might have booked. I go through different stages with auditions. Sometimes I go into an audition and forget all about it when I come out. Other times, I go into the audition wanting the job so much that I think about it for the next two or three days. After I get a callback, I wonder if I’m going to book the project. Most of the time I put the whole audition out of my mind because you can really drive yourself crazy with worrying. Let me tell you how it feels to go into an audition. It can be nerve wrecking. Even after 13 years of doing this, sometimes I step off the elevator and my heart will start beating fast. You walk into the studio and see so many people going for the same role you are auditioning for. I usually see the same people over and over again so I know what the competition is going to be like. When I see a fresh face, it is like school. Who is the new girl? Who is her manager or agent? How long has she been in the biz? Even more important, what is she going to be like in the audition? I soon learned to stop worrying about others in the room and concentrate on myself. When the casting director calls your name and tells you to come in, you better be prepared. If there are sides or lines, you better have them memorized. If you are not prepared, try too hard, is very nervous, it is going to come through in the audition. Sometimes I wonder if I’m good enough when I get to an audition. When a long time has gone by and I have not booked a job, I question my ability.
–A lot of actors do not know this. Casting directors are responsible for calling you in to audition in the first place. After the audition, they send the tapes to the ad agency and director of the shoot. The ad agency and director of the shoot let the casting director know who they want at a callback. Usually the director and someone from the ad agency is at the callback. When it comes to background work, the casting director or casting agency usually do all the selecting of the actors for a project. What I don’t like is that computers have taken casting to another phase. These days you go on line and submit yourself for a project. A lot of work has been taken away from managers, agents and casting directors because of this. This has also produced a lot of “no shows”. A “no show” is someone that submitted on line to work background on television, a film or a commercial and then do not show up for the job. Commercials have very little “no shows” because they pay more money. The day of shooting, casting has to put out a call for a “rush job” because of “no shows”. A “rush job” is where you are called on the day of the shoot and only have a little bit of time to get to set. Because a lot of casting is being done on line, non union actors are replacing union actors. That is also why we have the problem with “no shows.” SAG/Aftra actors are very professional and show up for work. I have been in the SAG and Aftra unions since I was 4. Last year SAG and Aftra merged to become one union.
I have never worked Broadway. I tried out for the Lion King years ago. Out of a thousand girls from an open call, it came down to me and two other actresses. One actress was going to be booked for Broadway and the other actress was going to Vegas. I had a 66% chance of booking the job. I didn’t get it. That was the first time I ever cried over not getting a job. I have told by friends and their parents that Broadway is very hard work. Times Square becomes your new home. There is very little time to do anything else. I had a third callback for South Pacific but didn’t book that either. Show business can be very hard on your self esteem.
Now I’m going to tell you about getting to set and being on set. When a production is shooting in or around NYC, and the set is not in Manhattan, Brooklyn or the Bronx, transportation is usually provided in what is known as a transport van. Transport vans usually pick up actors in Manhattan on 34th street, Grand Central Station or Port Authority 42nd st. Most shoots are very early so you might be meeting the van at 5:00 or 6:00 in the morning. For me, the worst part about being an actress is the early call times. Call time is the time you have to report to set. Some days there might be just 3 or 4 other actors in the van. Other times you could have up to 15 or more actors in one van. When actors meet the van early in the morning, there is no chit chat. Some will say, “good morning” and that is the extent of conversion. Most of the time everyone just goes to sleep. After the shoot, when you are taking the van home, there may be conversion with someone you hit it off with while filming. Sometimes you are so tired you sleep on the way home also. Overall, there is not much conversion among actors riding together in the transport van. The only celebrity I can recall sharing a van with is Christina Ricci. It was on a return trip. She and the other star of the film had a great time talking all the way back to Manhattan. Nobody else said a word. I don’t know why we didn’t talk because Christina and the other actor were nice. The film was After Life. I was an extra. Mom never let me audition for rap videos and horror films or be an extra in them. When I received the call to be an extra in After Life, I had no idea what the movie was about. If I had known Christina Ricci was in it, I might have had a clue. Anyway, the shoot was in Long Island, NY at an old Victorian Style mansion. That day it was cold, dark and raining hard. It was a prefect day for a Christina Ricci movie. When we walked into the mansion, there were coffins everywhere. I mean coffins of all different sizes and colors. I was scared as could be. The mansion was set up to be a funeral parlor. Mom told me that I had to see it through. My mother had never made me do anything in this business that I didn’t want to do, never. This was the only time my mother ask me to do something I was uncomfortable with. My scene was a funeral scene. Okay now! I was the only black child there. Why did I mention race? The director gathered all the background children together to ask a question. “Who wants to be a featured extra by lying in the coffin?” Every hand shot up except mine. Are you nuts? No way was I doing that. He could have made me a principal and I wasn’t doing that. See why I mentioned I was the only black child there. By the way, a featured extra is when you do background but you might be recognizable or shown longer than usual for an extra. I recently accepted a featured extra role in a new film coming out next year. It had been a long time since I worked as a film extra. Since it was featured, I accepted the job when it was offered. I had a great time doing my scene with Sally Field. She is such a great actress. Even when we were not filming, she stayed into character. She was very nice to me.
The one thing that will make you feel like a star even if you haven’t reached that status yet is having a trailer on set. When you are a principal on a television show or in a movie, you often have your own trailer. Mom said I had my own trailer on sets a lot when I was younger. Although I have been a principal plenty of times, I can only remember having a trailer twice. A production assistant is there to take care of whatever you need. You are escorted to set. You have a different wardrobe and makeup artist than background. Sometimes you have food that is catered just for principals. When you have these type of roles and receive this type of treatment, it makes all the hard work worthwhile.
When I see a friend (used loosely) or acquaintance on television or in a movie, I’m always happy for them. If I tried out for the same part, I sometimes talk to God and ask, “why not me? I have been doing this for a long time. When is my time going to come for the big part?”. Mom always tell me my time will come when the time is right. It is hard to have female friends in show business when you are young. You are always going up against each other for the same roles. The parents smile when they see you and say, “Good luck.” Now you know they don’t mean it because their daughter is up for the same role! When someone you have known for awhile gets a role that leads him or her to being a star, your relationship can change. You think about if you should even say hello on social media! Sometimes the new star and the mother might think you want something from them instead of realizing you are just saying hello. Even girls and their moms that have not made it big, get on the defensive. Moms of girl actresses are the worst. They guard auditions and callbacks, the name of their agents and managers, and upcoming projects like the Secret Service guards the President. The only thing other mothers have shared with us on a set is where the craft services is located. Craft services is where you go on a set to get snacks. It is usually water, fruits, nuts, cream cheese and bagels, chips and granola bars.
My mother had always been very open with information until recently. She always shared information while waiting at auditions. If she heard of a casting notice she made sure the parents she is friendly with knew about it. She told so many parents how to get their children into show business. Most of them have been really successful. To this day, she has never received a phone call or a “thank you” from a parent that she has helped. That is why she stopped telling parents about how to get their children into show business. Some mothers can even become vicious and cruel. They will do anything to make the playing field uneven. They will stoop to any level to make their child a superstar. I had a mom to fake an emergency when my time came to audition. That same mom erased my name from a sign in sheet. I have known moms to make calls to their agents and mangers to have another child dismissed from their client roster. Boys don’t have nearly as much drama as young female actresses. Most dads of the actors don’t get caught up in the pettiness.
Sometimes it gets really hard to keep going. Frustration sets in. I don’t have the type of jobs now that I had a few years ago. Since I’m not sent out on auditions regularly like in the past, I’m not working much. I have been doing this a long time. I know I deserve a manager or agent that will send me out when something fits my description. I can’t tell you how many times mom and I have heard how slow it is for girls my age. Every time I turn on the television, I see girls my size and age in commercials, film and television. If they are working, it can’t be that slow. When agents and managers have a new favor of the month actress, they tell you things like “you need new head shots” or “the business is slow right now”. The real deal is they are concentrating on your replacement and hoping you will get frustrated and just leave. Even top actresses never take it easy because they are always worried about being replaced. Because I’m tall, I have been told to concentrate more on modeling than acting. Now I have a top modeling manager and I’m being told the same thing. “This is a hard age to send you out.”
In August I separated from my manager that I had been with since I was 10 months old. I saw them as family and thought they felt the same about me. After 4 months without an audition, they didn’t feel like family anymore. I went to a large bi coastal agency and they didn’t send me out for 2 months. Now I’m with another manager, and I’m going through the same thing. You can’t book a job if your manager or agent is not sending you out on auditions. Sometimes smaller is better when it comes to managers and agents. You don’t get lost among 300 other tweens and teens the larger agencies and managers represent. Because I’m so involved into activism now, I don’t concentrate as much on not getting auditions. I do know that the more young people see me on television or in films, the more they will listen to my messages on stopping human slavery and saving the post offices. That’s just the way it is. I’m taking drama classes, working on my singing and practicing karate and sword more than I use to. All I can do is to prepare myself for that role that was made just for me. I have a lot of patience. The one thing I have learned is to replace my fear with confidence.
I’m happy that my mom and I don’t spend our days dreaming of how to get me on a Disney show. So many times mom and I are told that we should take advantage of all the people we know and ask for a hook up. That will never happen. We will never use a friendship like that. My mother is the type that doesn’t like to ask anybody for anything unless it is for a community event, charity or a humanitarian cause. We would never impose on a friendship for a television or movie spot. I have had celebrities to tell me they are working on something and they want me to be a part of it. I have never called to follow up on promises and I hope I never will. If someone wants me for project, they know where to find me. The one thing mom and I are known for is having integrity in a business that can be ruthless. Let me give you an example. My martial arts instructor is like a father to me. I love this man so much. I’m with him at least 4 days a week. About 3 years ago, Kushinda was going to be a producer on a film Wesley Snipes was producing. He is Mr Snipes’ martial arts instructor also. Mr Snipes had insisted on no casting directors. He and Kushinda were going to conduct all the auditions and do all the casting themselves. Taimak, the martial artist and actor from Last Dragon, was also called to help with auditions. There was a huge turnout in Chinatown for the auditions. Mom was helping Taimak keep everything in order by separating actors and martial artists into groups. Kushinda and Mr Snipes were upstairs where the auditions were being held. Where was I? I was in the line! Believe or not, I had to wait on line like everyone else if I wanted to audition. My mother made sure that I did not get special treatment because of my close relationship with Kushinda. I think that is taking integrity to the extreme but that’s my mom for you.
These days I meet more celebrities from my work in activism than I do from acting. When I see them at various events, I give them a big hug and keep stepping. Sometimes I take a picture so I can share it with my family on facebook. I know this is a very long blog, but I want teenagers to know that show business, for the most part, is not the glitz and glamor portrayed on television. Only a few actors have that type of life. Although I view the business a little differently, I still enjoy it a lot! The next time you are watching your favorite show on television or Spiderman in the movies, take a little time to think about the regular actors and their hard work behind the scenes to make the magic happen. Then ask yourself if you really want to get into show business.
Saturday Night Live, Victoria with Rihanna and Andy Samberg
Victoria and her mom on Bon Jovi video–Superman Tonight