How do you survive as an actor?
For any thesp who’s waited tables or delivered singing telegrams, the answers can by mind-bendingly complicated. “You can’t rely on your friends to tell you how to make it,” admitted Camryn Manheim of “The Practice.” And you just feel completely lost if you don’t have someone who actually can give you insight.”
It’s with the goal of finding alternatives to babysitting the phone that the Screen Actors Guild and the SAG Foundation have kicked off a series of chats dubbed “Conversations.” About 100 rank-and-file thesps — who must first reserve a spot — and high-profile members are thrown together to schmooze about the specific techniques of moving from a temp agency to the William Morris Agency.
“We came up with the idea originally as creating a support group,” recalls SAG special projects director Todd Amorde, a former actor. “While the victories feel good when you’re in the business, the defeats are just devastating. So what we’re trying to offer as a service to members is realistic advice about ways they can feel better about who they are.”
Chazz Palminteri agreed. “It’s the hardest thing in the world for actors to work so hard without any concrete results. But you can’t just spend all day and night waiting by the phone.”
The effort also grew out of the continued push among SAG staffers and elected leaders to find ways of involving high-profile actors in the guild.
“It seemed to us that these talks would be the most effective way to deal with the reality that the instant success stories you hear are not really true,” said Foundation exec director Marcia Smith. “At the same time, we wanted to reinforce the choices actors make in terms of living a meaningful life.”
Manheim kicked off the series last month at SAG HQ in Hollywood, followed by Peter MacNicol; Palminteri, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee have spoken to Gotham members. The events have been SRO. Andre Braugher, Lisa Gay Hamilton, Mitch Ryan and Gloria Stuart are slotted in coming weeks, with some programs headed to branches such as Atlanta and Seattle.
Manheim — who has already pledged to do another program –did not sugar-coat her advice.
“I don’t pretend that I know how to change people’s lives,” Manheim notes. “What I stress are the little things. An acting career is like a connect-the-dots puzzle except that you have to connect 5,000 dots before a picture emerges.”
During her chat, Manheim offered up the following nuggets for her fellow thesps:
- Buy a book of stamps when you go to the post office instead of a single stamp so that the letters that need to get mailed actually do get mailed;
- Make an appointment for every day at 10 a.m. even if it’s just a phone conversation from home.
- If you go to a play, don’t go opening night; go during the preview week when everyone involved will be in the house.
- Be proactive. “The only regrets I have are about things I did not do,” she added, noting that her key move in getting her part in “The Practice” came simply from challenging exec producer David Kelly to a game when she noticed he kept a cribbage set in his office.
As for Palminteri, he cited two key events — his authorship of “A Bronx Tale” as a way of kicking his career into gear and some unexpected advice from Burt Reynolds.
“I came out to Los Angeles in 1989, and Burt was just wonderful to me in terms of advice,” Palminteri recalled. “When I asked how I could show my appreciation, he just said, ‘Pass it on, Chazz.’ So I promised I would.”
That pledge, Palminteri told the audience, led to his rejection of the bitterness that often pervades showbiz. “For me, attitude is just as important as talent, so I’m always happy for someone else’s success. This business really is a leap of faith.”
SAG and the foundation have also been planning a series of financial planning seminars and workshops for next year, with Elliott Gould expected to participate. “We’re doing this partly because so many members come to us for financial assistance when it’s already too late,” Smith noted.