Life in Hollywood, below-the-line

Life in Hollywood, below-the-line
Work gloves at the end of the 2006/2007 television season (photo by Richard Blair)

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Hardest Job on Set

One day last spring, I headed on over to the weekly farmer’s market to pick up a bag of oranges, a tub of strawberries, and whatever fresh produce looked good. There, I ran into an actor friend I’ve known for a while – not a star, but a working actor who has managed to make a living supporting his wife and kids in this business for the past twenty-odd years. You name it, he’s done it -- commercials, episodic television, sit-coms, infomercials, theater. I've seen him on stage and on screen, and the man knows his craft.  He’s good. After the usual hand-shaking and grinning, I asked what he’d been up to.

“I had a really rough gig the other day,” he said, trying to contain a smile. “I had to lie on a table for an hour an a half getting a massage from Jennifer Love Hewitt.”

I raised one eyebrow.

“Your wife know about this?”

She did.  It turned out he’d been cast as a client of Ms. Hewitt’s character in a Lifetime show called The Client List, and was well-paid for his trouble.

As the saying goes, that’s nice work if you can get it.

Working in the film/television industry offers a unique perspective on actors, watching them struggle to carve a solid career out of nothing. Unlike those of us who work below-the-line, an actor brings no tools to the workplace -- no gloves, voltage testers, crescent wrenches, hammers, or screw guns. Instead, an actor steps into the lights and in front of the cameras armed with nothing but his-or-her own figuratively naked self.

That takes guts.

Every now and then I’ll run into a fellow juicer or grip who harbors a dark, festering bitterness towards actors. Guys like that labor under the assumption that actors have it easy -- after all, an actor doesn’t have to carry crushingly heavy rolls of cable, wrangle big hot lamps or deal with lethal charges of electricity, nor do they wrestle with twenty foot steel pipes, sixty foot trans-light backings, or walk six-inch beams up in the perms while working forty feet above the stage floor. Encased in a protective cocoon of wardrobe, perfectly-coiffed hair, and carefully applied makeup, an actor very rarely faces anything resembling physical danger on set, nor has to work up an honest, physical sweat on the job.  All an actor has to do is hit the marks, say the lines, and kiss another beautiful girl, right?

And seriously, how hard can that be?*

Adding salt to this perceived wound of relative inequity, actors get paid a ton of money compared to the rest of us, making more in a single day on a television show than most juicers or grips can bring home after a full week of bruising labor. And those are just the bit players and guest stars -- the core cast of even a low-budget cable show typically make more in a week or two than I'll make over an entire year. As for a hit show on one of the major broadcast networks, the sky’s the limit. During the final seasons of “Everybody Loves Raymond,” Ray Romano grossed one million, four hundred thousand dollars for every weekly episode.

Some back-of-the-envelope arithmetic revealed that it’s taken me nearly thirty-five years of working in Hollywood – essentially, an entire career -- to earn what Ray made in one week of his show. That a single person on a television show can take home more than a million dollars per week while working alongside crew members whose paycheck for the same week will reflect roughly one-thousandth of that amount is typical of the extremes endemic to Hollywood. It’s understandable that a guy on the short end of that stick might feel some resentment. I’ve felt it myself from time to time... but deep down, I know full well this is really just an ugly blend of ignorance and envy.

Yes, the actors make truckloads of money and their every whim is catered to on set... but look at what they do.  The actors performance can save a production that might otherwise spiral into the toilet.  A movie or television show can survive bad lighting, cheap sets, shaky dolly moves and clumsy direction, but no production -- no matter how perfect -- can overcome bad acting.  Everything hinges on those actors, and they know it -- and if you think they don't feel that pressure, think again.  The rest of us can muddle through a bad day on set, but not the actors.  They have to be really good every single day of production.

A skilled actor makes it look easy out there in front of the lights and cameras, but from where I sit, actors have the hardest job on set. Image this: You show up for work, where a wardrobe person dresses you, a makeup girl applies the war paint, then a hair stylist adds the finishing touches and voila, it’s showtime – at which point, blinded by the lights, you walk out in front of anywhere from thirty to three hundred complete strangers and are expected to deliver the goods, becoming a character who is probably nothing at all like your own true self. Given the realities of scheduling single-camera productions, scenes are often shot way out of sequence (two of the movies I worked on shot the final scene in the script on the very first day of filming), which means there is no flow of continuity for a screen actor to inhabit. He or she is expected to deliver a perfectly modulated blend of emotions custom-tailored to each particular scene, and do a great job every time. Word travels fast in this business, and if an actor doesn’t (or can’t) deliver the goods on camera, every casting agent in town will hear about it.  In a very real way, an actor's career rests in the balance with every new job.

That’s pressure.

Sometimes an actor – for whatever reason – has trouble making it look easy, struggling with the process. On my show last year, we had a guest star one week who just wasn’t getting it done during rehearsals. A well-known industry veteran, she couldn’t get in synch with the script, the other actors, the producers, or the director. As show night approached, they were all shaking their heads and mentally writing that episode off as a disaster, a big bump in the road of an otherwise smooth season. It was too late to replace her, so they’d just have to grit their teeth and get through shoot night -- then forget about it and move on to the next episode, and another guest star.

Given that actors are acutely sensitive to what’s going on around them, there's no doubt she picked up on that suffocating cloud of negativity. She knew it wasn’t going well, and that the producers, director, and fellow cast members were not happy, but she came to the set every day and fought her way through each rehearsal -- and on shoot night, in front of a live audience of three hundred people, she absolutely nailed it. Her performance knocked the ball out of the park.  It was a great thing to see.

From the looks on their faces, it was clear just how amazed and relieved every one of those above-the-liners was -- really, they were happily stunned -- and although that actress must have felt a giddy rush of vindication, her demeanor betrayed nothing. She smiled and took her curtain call like it was just another day at the office.

So don’t ever make the mistake of thinking actors have it easy just because they don’t sling cable or lug sandbags all over the set. They’ve got their own cross to bear every day at work, and that sucker is heavy.  

* I can't speak to reading scripted lines or kissing beautiful actresses, but -- as I found out a long time ago -- hitting those marks and not making a complete fool of oneself on camera is very hard indeed...


BrigittaV said...

I tried out for a play once, a very long time ago. I found out right away how hard it is to act, especially without seeming conscious of yourself. If you watch Madonna in her first movie (Desperately Seeking Susan) you can see her being self-conscious. Fortunately the director and production team was able to use her as both a stunt casting coup, and have her be a character who was a self-conscious person who was always performing, so it didn't ruin the movie. Sometime between then and her next appearance in a major motion picture, she must've taken some acting classes, because that appearance was completely perfect. I'm not an special fan of hers, but I have to give her credit for somehow learning the craft.

I agree that it may not be a physically demanding job, it is one of the toughest I can think of. And sometimes, even if they do a perfect job, but if the production around them is deficient, they still may get the blame. They're the obvious target of blame.

egee said...

Insightful. The sign of the master is someone who makes it (regardless of what "it" is) look easy. I remember watching Gene Kelly in a number of movies. He was smooth and controlled no matter how complex the dance was. Or an actor like Cary Grant who, arguably, played himself in every movie he starred in but he made playing himself look effortless. Only when you try to do it yourself do you realize how demanding any complex process can be.

Michael Taylor said...

Brigitta V --

True, that -- the actors end up wearing it no matter what happens.

Thanks for tuning in...

Egee --

Making it look easy is anything but, and Cary Grant was indeed a master, as were Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, and so many others from Hollywood's Golden Age -- and as you say, all of them pretty much played themselves every time, yet made each performance work. It's always a pleasure to watch such artistry.

Long time no hear -- glad to know you're still out there keeping an eye on things.

The Grip Works said...

I agree with you ... it is by far the most difficult job on set.
And without them, we have no jobs :-)

Michael Taylor said...

Sanjay --

Oh yeah, that. Details...

dstarz said...

I've got to say that this is some of the best writing I've seen/read on the ""Life" in Hollywood, Mike! It nails it in so many ways! As a young(er) actor I had the pleasure of stopping an older character actor in the parking lot of Rock N' Roll Ralphs, after having been here for exactly one week, and asking for some piece of advice. Nonplussed at being interrupted on the way to his car with his bags, he stopped and said two things:
"Just remember kid, you keep 90% of the money for a REASON." and...
"You're job, for the rest of your life, is to get it RIGHT. Those folks on the other side of the camera have been there well before you arrived, and they will be there long after you leave. They have lives and they deserve to get back to them. So do your job."
And with that, he left me in the parking lot. I've passed those words along now for many years to my fellow thespians. For, while it's true that in the end the finished product depends a great deal on the final image, the making of that image is the result of so many folks, it's kinda mind-boggling. Whenever i go out of town, I force folks with whom I attend films to stay and watch the credits. Not just to see who I might know, but to really show them how many fine and talented people go into making the damned thing!
My Dad was an electrician (and rabid Union rep; one of my all-time favorite moments was when we became Union Brothers!), back in my hometown in MA. When I got my first gig, he called to ask how it was.
"Great," quoth I, " they put me into makeup, the wardrobe person set my clothes, the kid got me some breakfast, we did a fast rehearsal, then I sat in my trailer for two hours until they called "Talent to the set", and they drove me..."
"Hold on, hold on; Talent? TALENT?! Is that what you are? Talent?"
"Yes, Dad."
"What about the person who applied your makeup? Any talent there?
"Yes Dad."
"And the person who set the lights? Runs the camera? Any ability there?"
"Yes Dad."
"Then do yourself a favor and remember that and treat everyone accordingly."
Wise words from someone who never came out here. Words to live by, really. I have always taken the time to walk the set at the end of my gigs to shake hands all around and thank everyone for their hard work. This is not an attempt to glorify myself: I think it's the right thing to do. It shows respect. But what surprised me most about that action is how many of the crew are surprised, taking off gloves, stopping their work to say nice things back, but with shock sometimes. It makes me wonder if my side really appreciates what everyone does. I hope so.
Thank for these words, Mike. You ROCK!

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