10 October 2008

My Giant Squid Encounter (Capital One)

This is the story of how I landed one of the coolest jobs I ever had: being violated repeatedly by a giant squid on national television. Long gone are the days when a commercial actor could count on 2 or 3 jobs being able to pay for a year of life as an actor. This spring, it took me seven jobs just to survive until July. So I am long overdue in telling the tale of the job that brought me out of debt for the first time in almost fifteen years.

Let's start at the beginning, with the audition. It was a holiday, Presidents' Day or something, and for the first time in a few years I was sick. Nothing horrible, I've handled much worse. But it was bad enough for my roommate to insist on driving me to Santa Monica and back. I did the Emergen-C, the multivitamin, Jamba Juice with an energy boost, a little bit of crack...whatever it took to stand up. Delivering the lines would require some Divine assistance.

The first audition is usually you and the session director, running the camera and walking you through the blocking and the denoument. (Did I just remember a word from college? And did I spell it right?) A stuffed snake was clipped to a C-stand (that's Industry-speak for 'metal thingy.') Obviously you can't rehearse that whole upside-down part of the ad, so the auditioners wrapped the snake around our faces for the famous "What's in your wallet?" line. As for the callback, I read for a different commercial in the same campaign. But I read that line the exact same way. That's the one bit of advice I could pass on to others after this process. Don't give them your own brilliant interpretation of their campaign. It's not "What's IN your wallet?" It's "What's in your wallet?" Not too hard, not too soft, just a bit of emphasis on your. The ad agency and writers spent a long time coming up with their slogan, and they've already pored over every possible way to deliver the line. You, as the actor, are the empty vessel who is there to deliver the goods exactly as they and the director envisioned. Coke is IT. I LOVE this game.

A couple more days pass, and I have a second callback. Usually, this happens when they are down to 2 actors whom they both like, but just can't decide on. This time, it was a stunt callback. I drove north into the Simi Valley to the stunt coordinator's home, and strapped myself into a flying harness in his studio-sized "garage." They wanted to make sure I could handle doing a few flips and hanging upside-down without wigging out. No prob.

A couple of weeks later, we started a 1-day, 1-night shoot at Paramount Studios. First night was for the interiors of the Nautilus-inspired sub. I was First Mate Roderick to the Captain, played by Rick Overton. I learned on set that the shoots had been marred by several snafus. I wanted to bring some good Mojo to the set and help change misfortunes. I accomplished this by puking twice after coming down from the harness.

I was strapped into a vest with wires running down my pant legs and attached with Velcro to my ankles, and then strung up from a pulley 20 feet above. A guy on set puled me up and down on the pulley as I flailed around trying to pull levers for the good captain. I wore two wool sweaters, sandwiching the vest, plus an undershirt that I sweated through in about a minute. I was then wrapped up in the giant foam tentacle, furnished by the Stan Winston folks. (I may always regret not grabbing that souvenir!) Luckily, I had to be drenched with water before every take, so I never got too hot.

I had to lay on the floor after pinning the tentacle to my person, and then they could lift me up feet-first on the harness. We soon learned several valuable lessons. First, I could not hang and be jerked around upside-down for more than about three minutes. Well, I could. It was just the going back down and standing right side up that caused the problems. So early on, I lost half my breakfast. Bravo to the crew for the convenient trash can.

I went back up to my "one position," that is, hanging out like Batman again. This is the part when we learned what a great idea it was to slime up the squid and drench me with water before hanging upside-down. Sliming the squid involved brushing the foam with a clear, thick goo that is the thickening agent used in fast food milkshakes. And I will never, ever have another fast-food milkshake. But brushing that stuff and then spraying it and me down with water caused this crud to go straigh up--uh--down my nose. And that's when I lost the rest of my breakfast. I took a few minutes off, popped a couple of Pepto and was ready to rock the waves again. At lunch, I played it safe with a salad and a couple slices of bread. Had no idea where my energy would come from, but I got through the rest of the day with no incidents and plenty of laughs.

Part two of the shoot came two nights later in the "tank" at Paramount. The tank is a section of parking lot which is about three feet lower than the rest of the lot. Pipes fill it with water, and a neighboring building is a solid wall that can be painted to suit the production. (I believe this is where the end of The Truman Show was filmed.) This night really brought it all home what a huge production it was. The Nautilus was in the middle of the tank and the director, cinematographer, and a few others camped out on an island in the middle of the water. Giant fans sprayed water onto the set as three men in jet skis went in circles in each corner of the tank to create the waves. The noise generated by all of these things going on at once was enough to make it very difficult to hear the director through a megaphone only 20 feet away. Upon seeing all of these things in action during a rehearsal, I realized the good old-fashioned movie-making I was a part of. Old school effects and techniques followed by weeks of post-production CGI effects that I'd see only when it aired.

It was one of the most physically demanding acting jobs I've ever had, and it was months later when I had the pleasure of pointing, clicking, and oh my Gaw paying off my Capital One card! Yes, I've got one. And I'm hoping when I go and use the Card Lab myself, I can use a picture of Roderick in all his slimy glory.

04 August 2008

Wal-Mart China: First Trade Union Formed. Wal-Mart USA: Employees Told How to Vote. Mao's Frozen Corpse Turns Red, White, and Blue with Envy


Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, has operations in 15 countries, many of which have at least some employees that are union members.

The United States, Keck said, is the "clear exception."

The change comes at a time when Wal-Mart is already battling the proposed Employee Free Choice Act -- which might allow unionization of Wal-Marts on this side of the ocean -- by attempting to sway its employees from voting Democratic.

This country is broken.

13 July 2008

Lloyd's BBQ is so yummy, I'd eat it cold. Off the floor. In a bear's house.

30 June 2008

YOINK! Oh, I'm sorry. Did you want that job? You're a bit too...male.

Well, here I am in my cave, blogging with a refreshing import brew by my side. Which is odd, since I was supposed to be on set for commercial #7 of '08, extolling the virtues of a certain mass-produced domestic beer, which shall remain nameless, but will heretofore be known as "Pisslyte."

The story begins last weekend, with an unusual Saturday afternoon callback. Normally not a big deal to me as I don't venture far these days, but of course, that's the one weekend I had a plan to get out of town. And at this rate, probably the only vacation I will get until Thanksgiving, if that's a vacation. So I delayed my road trip a full day to make the callback.

Fast-forward to today. I'm on set, after three walk-thru rehearsals, moments away from last looks and getting the establishing shot. That's when a production manager asks me to follow him for a second.

Yeah, that's your first clue that something's amiss. When a set full of half a dozen principals and 8 or 10 extras patiently wait in their places, a guy having you follow him out of the building is a bad thing.

So, it turns out that the big honcho from Pisslyte had just arrived on set. Mr. Big Cheesenuts, fresh off his private jet, takes a look at the lineup of the 3 "hero guys" and thinks.

"Too much penis."

Cheesenuts want girl with boys. Cheesenuts not satisfied with only one girl in spot, so I guess Cheesenuts picked his favorite extra and totally made her day. And home I went.

Not much you can do in that situation. I do take a lot of solace in knowing just how many crew members there I had worked with 2 or 3 times in the last few months. They've seen me do some crazy shit to sell product, they know what I'm all about and we'll have a good laugh about it one day, just as heartily as we laughed about how Verizon doesn't like paying its stunt men. Man, good times! I look forward to Cheesenuts seeing my other spots running later this summer and just knowing he's seen that face somewhere... But chances are, tomorrow morning he won't even remember he commercial-cockblocked me. I, meanwhile, am revising my expected income this year by a good 15-25%. Wonder how Cheesenuts would feel about that kind of a salary adjustment. For the actor, it is another reminder of that saying with the chickens and the hatching and whatnot.

But that's all you can do. Throwing a tantrum, taking it personally, anything other than just taking it gracefully is bad for business and would ruin any goodwill built up between actor, agencies, and crew. And it would make things awkward when it comes time to shoot whatever import/independent brew commercial is waiting for me in the coming weeks. This is the time not for sulking, but for putting my energy to just how amazing it would feel to be hired as the spokesman for any rival import, or good beer. And to make it successful enough to put a nice dent in Pisslyte's quarterly earnings. "Highly motivated actor seeks beverage campaign! Preferably a beverage with flavor, but willing to consider all options..."

In the end, I'll get my session fee for the day, which will pay for my groceries in late July or early August. Unless I have to pay for something else, like the bills that are 2 months late, and then all bets are off. It's phenomenal to have booked this much work this year, but I have needed every single penny of it. July looks bleak, as I will have about $300 after rent is paid. (And a maxed-out credit card.) I have no idea when any more checks are due, and the only reason I will be plus-300 rather than minus-300 is the economic stimulus bribe check which finally arrived. So the next time to feel like ridiculing your waiter/waitress for their acting career, keep in mind that they may very well be consistently working. Acting full-time is an edge of your seat, hold-your-assets journey. Ups and downs are guaranteed, so take it easy on the drinkie.

And don't forget to tip your waitstaff and pay your stunt men!

25 June 2008


For the second time this year, I've done the ridiculous and booked two (or more) national commercials in a week, bringing the total to seven in 2008. I'm not sure what I have to say for myself. I will try harder. Seriously, I'm on pace to pass Barry Bonds in several categories. Let me just say right now that I am not now, nor have I ever been on the juice. Although I do occasionally take the Juice Plus vitamins.

And it couldn't have come at a better time. The funds have dwindled to $43 after my pension/health care payment went through automatically. Not enough to fill the tank any more. I've run up the balance on my credit card giving me only $80 or so for emergencies. I've talked to my agent's assistant about letting me know when I can come in to pick up any checks that arrive, as every day counts at the end of the month. This month's ass-saving check will be the $600 economic stimulus bribe, and it will be the only way I pay my $600 share of the rent. Thank goodness I have stocked up a lot of frozen foods, groceries will have to go on the back burner for the next week, at least. And there's another great benefit of booking: I will be fed well.

And like the sands through the hourglass, these are the days of the "middle class screen actor." An actor who has far surpassed his known parameters, lived within his means, and booked an enviable amount of work. And it took booking five commercials in the spring just to have enough to make it to this point at the end of June. I was, for the umpteenth time since moving to LA, at the end of the line, about to consider calling former employers who are still on speaking terms with me. Kidding. I wouldn't call the ones who aren't.

Here's a chart detailing average actor salaries broken down by years of experience. I'm fortunate enough to be on pace to be on the high end of this range. To be fair, none of my nationals have aired yet, but that can be expected. After you shoot a commercial, you could be waiting a few weeks, months, or more than a year before it airs. Crazy stuff happens. But these times in between those life-giving residuals are getting more and more difficult to cover.

And the AMPTP wants to roll the goal posts back into the stadium parking lot.

17 June 2008

Auditions are Getting Expensive

I've been keeping meticulous mileage wreckords for a few years now. Why, I don't know, because I've never once qualified for the mileage credit come tax time. But I have to satisfy the obsessive-compulsive demon within, so I can tell you down to the mile what I drove last year. (If you cared, and since the IRS doesn't...)

I've done enough OCD driving about town to know that my car gets roughly 23 miles per gallon. My closest audition is a twenty mile round trip. There's $4.00 right there. More often than that, however, are the two-gallon Santa Monica auditions. And at least half of those will be three-gallon trips during rush hour. So, for one audition on the west side from the Fred Dome in Glendale, I could be paying about $15.

I never bothered to calculate mileage expenses down to the mile, even in my time as a messenger. But the other day, I missed a street and before I knew it, took a five-minute, five mile detour. And there's another dollar.

Now figure in the proverbial they who always say booking one job for every 100 auditions is par for the course. If that's average, then the average professional actor is still waiting tables, personal assisting, house sitting...whatever it takes to scrape by in this city, and are lucky enough to duck out for an audition every once in a while. The primary focus on SAG's contract negotiations is restoring the strength of the middle-class actor.

I'm so grateful to be able to say that I've booked six jobs in my last fifty auditions. But I never would have expected that I would need every last penny to stay afloat for the last three months. Two of those bookings were national commercials in which I didn't make it off the cutting room floor. One job is (so far) internet only, which will net me a couple grand over the course of a year. One is on the shelf due to some mysterious circumstance, and I'm still waiting on Capital One to air. So even after going on a 6-for-51 tear, which included 4 national commercials, I'm down to my last $200, with a $900+ credit card balance. (Yes, it's a Capital One!)

This is the time of the month when I start looking ahead at what I will have in the bank come rent time. And I start gathering all the items I can find which might net me a few bucks on ebay. It's amazing how many times I've skirted by because of a surprise residual check, and I think I'm due for a holding fee before July. Sure do hope I am! But just living this "middle-class" actor life is an incredible leap of faith.

And coming soon...the story behind the Capital One gig.

08 May 2008

Daily Show Just Like O'Reilly?

A journalism think tank studying "The Daily Show" doesn't believe many people get their news from Jon Stewart - because otherwise they wouldn't get the jokes.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism also said it was surprised at how much the Comedy Central late-night program resembles "The O'Reilly Factor,""Hardball" and other cable news shows in content.

Yes, but The Daily Show is INTENDED to be a parody.

24 April 2008

Birthday on Set

Back in January, after a frustrating run of Avails* to no avail, I gave myself an absolutely ridiculous goal. I even told my agent, whether he remembers it or not. "I want to book 5 commercials before my birthday." When I told him that was April 23, he kind of laughed it off, as he should have. Never booked more than 3 in a year before, and five in a year would be a very, very good year for just about anyone.

So how did I spend my birthday?

Shooting my fifth commercial of 2008.

I love this game!

(* = Avail is an industry term, referring to the production checking on the actor's availability. The production will put their top choices "on avail" so that at least one of them may experience the ol' "Haha! PSYYYYCH! You lose, jackass," moment later on. See also: "released")

08 April 2008

Black Saturday

Well, if you watched the Final Four, you know that my VW commercial with Bobby Knight debuted. Without me. Thanks, Coach.

If we did 25 takes, 23 of them were the far superior version with me. But Coach Knight just HAD to improv. Geez, Bob, you're not gonna see me marching out onto a court or into the ESPN studio and doing YOUR job. Taking ten, fifteen grand outta your pocket?

Well, these things happen all the time. I was actually prepared for this possibility, and had already accepted that I would walk off that set with not a single souvenir, not a photo and certainly not a finished commercial. Good thing I found a book for him to sign, otherwise it may have all been a figment of my imagination. Truth is, I would never have been cut out if Bob wasn't any good at what he was doing. The ad's final product was the last take of the day, and he gave himself only one chance to get it right. Never has watching a scene be completely nailed been so heartbreaking.

What I WASN'T prepared for was that Kansas-UNC game, and the Heels saving their worst basketball of the season for the Final Four.

Bob, I do appreciate your analysis on the ESPN, it's nice to be brought more in depth than the other talking heads can do. It's also great to see your reactions (mirroring mine) when Dick Vitale goes off screaming out empty platitudes and retarded acronyms in place of actual game analysis. Please Bob, smack him around for me, will ya? You owe me one.

But hands off my residuals, dang it! I gotta rebudget...

12 March 2008

My Triple Play, or, The Time Bobby Knight Coached Me on Chair-Throwing

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to call a friend of mine and recall one of his fondest baseball memories. He was at Fenway Park and saw a record that will likely never be broken. "Weren't you there at a game in which two triple plays were pulled off?" I asked.


"Cool. ...I just booked two national commercials in one day."

That was how the week ended. Let me back up and dish the details of how it began. With that other booking.

It happened as fast as any commercial I've been a part of: about three days from audition to wrap, and one of them was a Sunday. Auditioned on Friday for a VW ad with All-Time NCAA Men's Basketball wins leader, Bobby Knight, and casting asked that we familiarize ourselves with this clip:

As if I hadn't seen it a hundred times already. But really, not every actor cares about college basketball, so I did have a leg up on some of the competition. I probably knew who he was when I was 12. I feel no guilt for perfectly fine afternoons spent watching ACC games, or for buying a mini-TV to put in the car while messengering during the early rounds of March Madness last year. It's not the first time my sports geekdom has gotten me work. (See the ESPN clip in the sidebar, if you're killing time.) It is, however, the first time my deeply-hidden secret short fuse got me a job. (But not the last, I'm totally gonna play John McCain one day!)

So for a guy who grew up in college basketball's Mecca, Chapel Hill, I couldn't have been more stoked booking it the next day. Without a callback. It was shooting Monday, I clearly knew how to throw chair with anyone and be a dork without trying, so who needs the hassle of a Sunday callback? Head-spinning had begun.

Monday morning, I'm on set at 8am. I met Coach Knight and his wife in their trailer, and he talked with the agency folks about the spot. A few minutes later, we walked on set wearing in matching blue V-neck sweaters and brown slacks. 'Holy crap, I'm Bob Knight's doppleganger.' I could see the crew chuckling already.

I don't want to give too much of it away, because however it turns out, it's going to be a damn funny spot. It's exactly the joke you'd want to hear after Coach Knight's retirement if you're familiar with his career. But the "Are you dadgum kiddin' me, is this really happening" moment came after the first rehearsal. My task? Throw chair. And Bob Knight turns and looks down to me and starts coaching me on proper chair-throwing mechanics. A handful of crew guys get this goofy look on their faces that must have mirrored the one I was wearing. He started talking about some golf coach who uses the chair-throwing clip as an example of a good golf stroke. "Get both of your hands back, and as you're following through, you transfer your weight from the back foot to the front," he said as he demonstrated with the chair.

He offered up a lot of suggestions, clearly concerned with his image in reality remaining consistent in the script, sometimes offering his own improvisations. He was pretty good, honestly. You gave him a mark, he hit it. In the scene, he's being interviewed on a talk show. The host makes a comment that earns him the death stare from Coach Knight. When he asked if he could react in a way that was more natural for him, the director (some Coppola fella) asked what'd he normally say.

"Well, fuck you!" After the laughter subsided, it was suggested that while that was certainly his most earnest and effective response, it probably wouldn't fly with the client. Woulda been a fun take, though!

We did about 25 takes with me, and two without, the latter being nowhere nearly as funny as the first 25. :) It was all over in a couple of hours, and afterwards Coach Knight signed his biography for me, "Thanks for letting me work with you!" he wrote. I finally found a copy of the call sheet which was a surreal extension of the day. In the talent section, the list went "**** (the top secret voice of the VW), Bobby Knight, me, Heidi Klum, Rick Searfoss." (Searfoss is an astronaut. And no, I didn't meet Heidi. Somehow, she will deal with that missed opportunity.) Bob Knight's ESPN gig starts tonight, and I will wait in eager anticipation for our ad during March Madness.

And at least three more! Sprint and Capital One, which both booked Friday, will shoot in the next week. Advil sponsors NCAA bball, too! Yes, it has been a career month. Despite a strike, January and February were both my busiest months ever. If that's not enough to be thankful for, the jobs I'm getting are as rewarding and funny as any I could have imagined when I got into this business.

Really f$#&ing rewarding.

18 February 2008

Hollywood Fever...Advil to the Rescue!

And now, I'll actually write about acting in this so-called acting blog!

There are some hard-core flu germs floating across LA these days. No six degrees of Kevin Bacon with this one, everyone knows someone or half a crew who's currently sitting on the bench. I was spared to a certain degree...101.1 degrees, to be precise, if I am to trust the Spongebob Squarepants thermometer my mom bought for me as a joke. Worse than that, it starts beeping the Spongebob theme song when it's done, so in my delirious state of mind that's the last thing I heard before going to bed. I had dreams that inspired me to to take SCUBA lessons and buy a pineapple.

But that was about it for me, I was fortunate. Also very thankful that it waited until after I'd shot an Advil commercial last week! Great set, great experience, and a holding room with a view from the 33rd floor of the US Bank building downtown. And hey, now I'll be able to buy a digital camera so next time, I can take a picture of it!

It occurred to me, speed-walking down a narrow office hallway and timing a near-collision with another actor who was not visible to me, that I trained for this role in no-budget USC film school productions shortly after I moved here. (Not the one below.) Sure, you can do fifty takes to get the timing and blocking down, but in the student films, they're limited in the number of feet of film they can shoot on a given project. In the Advil spot, they're shooting 120 frames per second, so we rarely did more than ten or twelve takes on any angle. Them feets adds up! Precision helps.

Some great physical comedy in this thing, and a cast full of great facial expressions. Once again, those USC productions were lessons in visual storytelling, as there was almost no dialogue. In the Advil spot, there's just one thing to know: "Doughnuts!"

And now, I could really use some Advil. Anyways, here's a shout-out to the USC boys who I owe a drink (and yeah, another shameless plug):

10 January 2008

And here I am on a bus

I've had this idea to post the signs around LA that stand out for one reason or another. I'm not sure exactly where this will be seen, but I'm on the side of a bus (in a good way) for the first time.

If you've never watched Bus Pirates, five of the six episodes are available for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy!

05 January 2008

Burbank Bob

04 January 2008

Raw Bits

Lessons learned from another Cripma at home:

There is a vast right-wing conspiracy at work against anyone a few miles of out town limits who wants the high-speed intertubes connected to their house. Geez, you'd think the companies that control the information might want more people to have access to that information.

I need my Christmas in NC just to fill my annual biscuit quota. Good biscuits is hard to find in LA. Once again, I forgot to ask Santa for some country ham to fill that particular need, but that's okay. There's a water shortage anyway.

The futon must go. And with it, the color scheme in my room that I chose when I was four years old. I must have ingested some small toy from China the day my parents asked what colors I wanted.

We are all so thankful for the day that the cats and their litter boxes are forever banished from the dining room. I was introduced to those great igloo-shaped litter boxes which, in a normal household, would revolutionize the air quality. In our house, the cats would sniff around it, peek into the little tunnel and say, "Hell naw, somebody else can go in there. I'm pissin' on the hardwood floors right next to it. And then I'll go fight somebody."