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TEN THINGS TO DO TO SCREW UP A CAREER
Written by Gersh Morningstar
Reprinted with permission from The Florida Blue Sheet
Actors do not
have a monopoly on stupidity...
they just seem to have.
you know, is ignorance unattended to; that is, not knowing something you need to
know; and, when told you need to know it, you don't do what is necessary to find
out. It is in the spirit of compassion for other weak minded souls like myself,
that I offer the following: The Top 10 Things talent can do to screw up their
lives and their professional careers. The countdown beginneth:
#10: NEVER CALL YOUR AGENT.
Even in a strong agency state -- New York, California,
Michigan, Ohio, Illinois and a few others, where good agents represent only a
handful of actors -- even these agents don't generally don't feel an obligation
to keep in touch. That's the actor's responsibility, or at least that's what
most agents believe (they also believe you work for them, which is, of course,
nonsense. They work for you; that's why they're called "agents.") The fact is,
if you don't call your agents, you won't get much work, beyond the occasional
low paying extra gig (no matter what the agents may tell you.) The trick and the
skill lies in not harassing your agents but simply reminding them from time to
time that you are there, ready and willing to work. If phoning makes you
nervous, send a postcard with your head shot on it. (If you don't know where to
get such postcards, contact us. We'll give you a couple of dandy places.) Keep
your agent informed of anything you do to enhance your value: Plays you're
in, speeches you give, awards you win, nonpaying but professional work you may
do (as in low budget independent films), volunteer stuff, talking yourself out
of a speeding ticket -- better yet, talking yourself out of jail. If you appear
to be working a lot, you'll look more marketable to your agent -- you'll BE more
#9: ALWAYS BELIEVE WHAT YOUR
FRIENDS, AGENTS, GIRL FRIEND, BOY FRIEND, MOM, AND OTHERS SAY ABOUT HOW CRUMMY
YOUR HEAD SHOT IS.
A high quality
head shot will get you work, and you owe it to yourself to get the best you can.
But once you've got even an average head shot, stay with it until something
about you is distinctly different: Your hair changes color, your nose falls off,
you grow another ear, that sort of thing. Ignore completely any advice to
the contrary. You will always get a serviceable head shot from a professional
photographer. You will almost never get the work of art you think you deserve --
unless you happen to be Mona Lisa. So stay with it, even if you hate it. The
only people who should have more than one head shot a year are kids who are
growing like weeds. (Obviously, if you're commercially flogging your new born
babe, you can't take one shot shortly after birth and not take another until the
kid is shaving.) A head shot will never directly prevent you from getting work,
even if it's grainy and out of focus (which it won't be if you've used a
professional.) What may happen is that your average picture may have to compete
harder against the other mostly average pictures for a casting director's
attention. (The competition is always less, by the way, if the Casting Director
knows you personally and what you can do.) And if your head shot makes you look
a little strange or even ugly, rejoice! There is far more work out there for the
Wicked Witch of a West than for an innocent ingénue. Because most of your income
will be derived from commercials (unless you're big enough in the business so
that your agent has to call you, and is often put on hold when he does), if you
are lucky enough to look like Quasimodo, you'll always have money in your
pocket. Pay no attention to anyone who says you "need a new head shot." It's
probably not true, and it's probably a scam to separate you from your money, and
generate a kickback to whoever it is gives you that advice.
#8: ALWAYS SERVE AS A BANK FOR
Rewarded behavior is repeated behavior. If an agent
knows you will cut his heart out if you are not paid, you will get your check in
a timely fashion. If you are a wimp about being paid, count on it: You'll have
to wait. Unfortunately there are Florida agents, for example, who use you, their
talent, as a bank, holding your money, paying their bills with it, and stringing
you along with the old wheeze, "The client hasn't paid us yet." After 30 days,
you should suspect it's a lie. After 60 days you should be sure of it, unless
the agent can give you absolute proof -- copies of "demand" letters, for example
-- that he hasn't been paid. After 90 days, it is a lie; and you need to
do something about it. You have many remedies for getting your money, if you are
willing to use them. In Florida, the most effective and least expensive is to
make a claim against the agent's bond (every licensed agent must have one.) It
almost always works, if you have the proof of your claims, and it generally
scares the schantzschwanker out of the agent when the bonding company
comes after him for reimbursement.
#7: SIGN UP WITH AN AGENT AND
WAIT FOR THE PHONE TO RING.
This is almost the same at #10 above, but different enough so that it deserves a
# sign all its own. I get at least 50 calls a month from actors who are
relatively new to the business complaining about their agents not calling them,
and, therefore, their lack of work. "My agent never submits me for anything,
even the stuff I know I'm right for." Ever heard anyone you know say that? Ever
said it yourself? If you haven't, you're not a working actor and never will be. Of
course it annoys you when your agent doesn't call. But you call yourself an
actor. So act! Play the role of Top Talent Marketer. And in that roll, go out
promote yourself to the skies. Florida agents (and most agents in Right-to-work
states) don't build successful talent. Not their fault. They are caught in weak
agency systems that were around before most of them were born. Under such weak
agency systems, agents are rarely more than order takers for casting directors
producers. It's the rare Florida agent, for example, who succeeds in getting a
client into a long running, high paying TV series or into a feature role in a
big movie. It happens sometimes, to be sure; but its notable for its rarity.
Well, if your agent isn't going to get you all the work you need, what do you
do? The answer is simple. In your featured role as Top Talent Marketer, write
letters, pound on doors, go where the elite gather, make phone calls till your
ears drop off. People who manage to get known are people who get work. Period.
End of story. The winning formula: Be an actor 30% of the time; market
yourselves 70% of the time. Get yourself to meetings where people in the
industry gather; always carry your head shot and resume with you and don't be
afraid to pass it out to anyone who shows the slightest interest. Take down the
names and addresses of everyone you meet, then write them a note on your head
shot postcard about how much you enjoyed meeting that person (even if you don't
remember what they look like.) You've seen actors who do this, and you know it
works. You know it works because you often see their names in the Blue Sheet.
They blow their own horns loudly. Blow yours even louder -- but with as much
class as you can muster. Never work a job without sending "thank you" letters to
everyone from the producers and directors to the dog groomers. Strange as it may
seem, almost no one does that. Those who do, tend to get remembered and tend to
get rehired for subsequent jobs. When your mother told you about how courtesy
always pays off, this is what she was talking about.
#6. THE ACTOR IS THE MOST
IMPORTANT PERSON ON THE SET. ACT LIKE IT!
Make demands, never requests. Operate on your own time, not the production's.
Take outward offense at anything that doesn't fit into your star image of
yourself. Do all of these things and start looking for another job. There was a
time, when movie people ran studios and stars were important to getting a picture
funded. Prima Dons and Prima Donnas were tolerated then. Now studios are run by
accountants who look only at the bottom line and who will fire without hesitation
anyone who costs them money not budgeted for. Successful independents have
learned from the lessons of the studios. The act of dumping the rude,
obstreperous, demanding, discourteous actor, has filtered down to all levels of
production -- it's especially true on commercials. If you've forgotten what it
takes to be a lady or a gentleman, it might be a good idea to take a course in
etiquette and get a book on good manners.
#5. DON'T DO ANYTHING TO MAKE
YOUR AGENT MAD OR YOU WON'T GET PAID, AND YOU WON'T GET ANY MORE WORK.
Few actor notions are dumber than this one. Nevertheless, many actors believe
it. I once did 15 radio commercials for a group of Saginaw Valley automobile
dealers. I was supposed to be paid $75 each (not too bad for 1953). The ad
agency that booked me not only took a 10% commission from my pay (legal in
Michigan then), but didn't pay me when it got paid. After 30 days I became
anxious; I was a college freshman with insufficient funds for an adequate social
life. After 60 days, I began calling the agency, only to be stalled at every
turn. After 90 days I got mad and got yelled at for my trouble. After 120 days,
I'd had it. I went to the court house, threw myself on the mercy of a kindly
court clerk, and, with her help filed a law suit against the agency for the
$1,125 they owed me plus the expenses of filing the suit. (Small Claims Court,
as it exists in most states today, was relatively unknown in Michigan in 1953.)
I paid a deputy sheriff $10 to serve a summons on the agency head. You could
hear screams the length and breadth of the big mitten. He called me in fury and
vowed that I would never work again for any ad agency in America. I told him I'd
see him in court. Apparently, he talked to his lawyer, because less than a week
later I got my money, less $112.50 and a note saying never to contact them again.
But I did contact them, demanding the $10 I'd paid for the deputy. I got it by
return mail. And the kicker: When General Motors contracted for the next set of
15 spots, they specifically stated that I was to do them. I extracted an
apology, an agreement to be paid after each spot, and a waiver of commission. It
was just (pause) swell. If you make it clear to your agents in the beginning
that you won't be pushed around, guess what? You won't be pushed around.
#4. ANSWER CLASSIFIED ADS IN
YOUR LOCAL PAPER, THE BACK OF SUPERMARKET TABLOIDS, OR IN SOAP OPERA MAGAZINES.
open to ads that invite you to "model" competitions, that say they'll get you
jobs without any experience, and ads that say "swimsuit" or "lingerie." If ever
there was a route to career ending disaster, it is biting on the one of these
too good to be true ads. Often such ads are recruiting devices for prostitution,
especially if the address is in the Tampa or Fort Lauderdale area (where so many
of the pornos the world knows and loves were shot, including Deep Throat.)
It's easy to get sucked into this business, and once hooked, its tough to get
out. While a moral midget can get away with turning the White House into a set
for a pornography film, the public is far less forgiving of actors, even in this
liberal time so far removed from the decency and civility of the Victorian Era,
my time. If in spite of this warning, you still think it's okay to answer
classifieds from companies you've never heard of, please call me first. I've got
some wonderful Last Chance #2 Gold Mine stock I'd like to sell you.
#3. SAVE UP A LOT OF MONEY, OR
BORROW A LOT OF MONEY, OR STEAL A LOT OF MONEY AND "INVEST" IN A MODEL SEARCH
Nothing is more
worthless than a talent/model search. It is worthless to you if you seek to make
your modeling fortune though these rip-offs. It is worthless to your children.
You know your kids are perfect. And you want to believe it when an "expert" (the
con artist running the scam) tells you they are perfect. I know this lady from
Tampa (I wrote about her in an earlier Blue Sheet) who ignored everyone's good
advice and gave scammers more than $11,000 to take her three kids and herself to
New York with one of the sleazy model search frauds that come into Florida with
considerable regularity. She mortgaged her house to pay the bill. She was
conned. You will be too, if you participate. I've never heard of her or her kids
again. No one will hear of you, either, if you adopt this route. "Pilot Season"
promos fall largely into the same category. First, regardless what agents,
managers, and even a few producers may tell you, there is no such thing as
"Pilot Season." It's a gimmick to extract money from doofusses, like you and me.
Several highly reputable publications and professionals have fallen for this
fraud, including a couple of entertainment trades that are almost as important
as us. TV pilots are shot throughout the year, though the level of production
may go up slightly during the summer when actors and crews can be got cheaper.
But if someone tells you they are recruiting for Melrose Place or Brisco County
(curse the Fox Network for their idiocy in canceling this show) or some other
show that's already been canceled, and you fall for it, go to the nearest police
station and have them arrest you for stupidity.
#2. GIVE NO THOUGHT TO YOUR
SOUL OR THE BOX IT COMES IN.
Stuff your nose
with white powder, pump nitroidiocy into your veins, fill your stomach with
strong waters that do bemuse a man and make him even as the wild beasts, sit
back, mellow out and watch whatever chance you had for success in the
entertainment business go right down the toilet. There is almost no end to the
list of actors who did themselves in by doing stupid things with their bodies,
their minds, and their souls: John Belushi, John Barrymore, Rock Hudson, Richard
Burton, Montgomery Clift, Marilyn Monroe, Karen Carpenter, Judy Garland, and
hundreds of others, some, like Belushi, cut down at the top of the game. The
temptations are enormous to be sure and so are the stresses and strains of
getting to the top and then staying there. With even minimal success, the
financial rewards can be extraordinary, bordering on the obscene -- so much
money that it loses value, and all purchases become trivial. We tend to assign
value on a thing based largely on what it costs us to acquire, not only monetary
cost but social, political, and personal cost. If it all comes too easy, if
money is never an object, if there is no pain in the decision making process,
then nothing has value. If nothing has value, then you have no value. And if you
have no value, what difference does it make what you do? But it does matter to
some, to almost everyone who knows you -- family, friends, even your enemies.
You may not pay much of a price for destroying yourself and turning your future
into a sewer; but to your friends and family the cost will be terrible. If you
were a concert violinist with a rare Stradivarius as your instrument, you
wouldn't for an instant consider tossing it casually about, or letting your kids
use it as a toy, or use it to drive small nails into a wall, or use it as a
paddle for a canoe. You would cherish it. Guard it. Keep it safe at all times.
Treat it with respect. Honor the craftsmanship that went into its construction.
Well, your instrument is your body. It's a work of art, far more complex than
any violin and far more valuable. If you are any good at all, you owe it to
everything you have ever held important to show your instrument as much respect
and honor as you can. And if you don't think you're any good, get out of the
business and don't ruin it for the rest of us.
And here it is: The #1 thing you can do to wreck your career and your life.
To destroy yourself absolutely, to ruin everything you would like to work for,
to fail to achieve the high level of success you know is your due -- whether you
function in front of a camera, behind a camera, or in an office somewhere,
wheeling and dealing, just do this:
#1: TAKE ADVICE FROM THE WRONG
My dad was
about as smart a guy as I've ever known. He was an electrical engineer who spent
his entire working life with the Michigan Bell Telephone Company. Ma Bell
frequently loaned him out to companies and government agencies who had
communication related problems they couldn't solve. In his field, his
accomplishments were legion. Much as I admired him, much as I loved him, I never
asked him for advice about my career in the entertainment industry. He didn't
know anything about it. For that I turned to Harry Graves Miller, a superb
Director, Actor, and Writer. (Besides being the last basso profundo successfully
to play Lady Macbeth on Broadway -- NY reviewers loved the "lady" with the
beautiful, rich voice; besides coaching his friend Laurence Olivier on Harry's
"Gray Ghost" technique for Olivier's 1948 film Hamlet; besides co-authoring
plays with the likes of Helen Keller, he was also a fine teacher.) I went to the
best to learn. I like to think I learned relatively well.
The best set designer I've ever known was a guy studying in the theater
department at the University of Michigan. His teachers were excellent (as you
would expect at Michigan -- people like Ralph Duckwall, Clairabelle Baird, and so
on), but Rick decided he wanted to learn from the best. He took a couple of
years off, traveled all over the world, and did just that, becoming eventually the
only Set Designer/Art Director viewed by film industry bankers ever as a
bankable element (Norman Bel Geddes was his own bank, and Busby Berkeley was
bankable but for his staging, not his set design).
It's probably not necessary for you to go to Rick's extremes, but you should
never seek guidance or advice from anyone who knows less than you do. Like they
say about gunfighters: There is always someone faster and a better shot than you
are. If you've got a brain in your head you'll search them out! Find out what
they know that you don't!
Everyone who is better than you has something to teach you -- and there is
always somebody better than you.
When Lawrence Kasdan decided he wanted to be a Hollywood screenwriter
director and producer, he made his way to California (from the real U of M, I
might add) and sought out folks like George Lucas. He just wasn't satisfied with
lesser lights. He virtually forced the cream of the crop to teach him. And
wouldn't you like to be Larry Kasdan today?
When John Carradine decided he wanted to be an actor, (David, Keith
Robert's dad, you Philistine -- he appeared in more films than any actor who
ever lived), he hitch hiked to L.A., took a bus tour that showed him where John Barrymore lived. Then he went to Barrymore's house, rang his bell, got no
answer, and walked around to the back. He found Barrymore sitting by his pool,
sipping strong waters. Carradine introduced himself, said he wanted to be an
actor, and asked what he had to do. Barrymore was so intrigued by Carradine's
chutzpah, that he picked up a phone and arranged for his "new best friend" to work
the following day. That was 1936. For the next 50+ years, John Carradine was
never out of work.
Amateurs will give you amateur advice. Professionals will give you
professional help -- even if you have to pay for it -- just be sure they are
more of a professional than you are.
You can learn editing technique at any number of film schools
departments; but you won't become an editing genius like Bob Wise (Citizen
Kane) or John Jimpson (A Fish Called Wanda, Kelly's Heroes) without starting to
learn just some of the stuff that Robert Wise and John Jimpson have forgotten.
You can learn the basics of acting in an acting class or even by doing lots
of theater and emulating other actors. You'll never be regarded as a great actor
without significant contact with great actors. Everyone you know has a stupid
opinion about everything having to do with the entertainment industry (and that
includes me). Unless they are better than you, unless they are faster guns than
you, their opinions are worthless. Ignore them.
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