The Actor's Challenge to Make a Living
By Jeffrey Weissman

Tuesday, September 11th, 2012

Today's guest post comes from an acting vet with over 50 film and television roles under his belt, including a role in two of the biggest grossing sequels of all time. With so much success, you would think things would come easy for Jeffrey Weissman. Not so fast, my friends. I asked Jeffrey to share his tale with the Stage 32 community. He graciously accepted. His story is one of highs and lows, fast breaks and false starts, and lessons learned the hard way. It's also a story of love, passion, and perseverance - a love for your chosen craft, the passion to improve, and the perseverance to stay with it no matter what the obstacles. Enjoy. RB

The odds and the realities of making a living at doing what we love, acting, put in perspective, isn't pretty.

Actors really have two jobs; first the audition, in which you must be brilliant, and show that you are easy to get along with. And second, after you book the job, to do the job well.

Making a living in the industry is not an easy task. Daily you race to auditions, sometimes with only a few hours notice to prepare, and often in an unforgiving environment, stressed by traffic or lack of parking, only to face rushed casting directors that sometimes don't know what they want "until it walks in the door". Whew. A commercial casting director recently told me that she gets 2000+ submissions for each role she puts out on breakdowns. These are not great odds for landing the role, but even to get through the door to audition! Further, qualified talent might not be brought in because they have an agent that casting directors don't trust. Or the talent is new to the casting directors, and they want to "cast from their files", or in other words, go with who they know, the proven commodity. It may take a few years just to get in the door to an established casting office to strut your stuff and gain a reputation.

In addition the playing field has been leveled with new technology, so everyone and their mother can now make indie films or webisodes. (As evidenced by AFM, which has grown 1000% with product being offered to distributors in recent years). The studio system seems to be tightening its grasp on box office "names" to keep distributor deals, and focus is on using "the four or five quadrant" (kids, teens, tweens or twenty-somethings, and older audiences) production model to actualize the highest profits. Stars whose talents cover all of the quadrants can command 20 million & 20% of the gross. But those stars are diminishing yearly.

Today we find the once "name" talent are taking smaller roles and TV work to make their living. Or they will agree to being paid scale, or much less than their big fees, just to keep working. It could be partly due to ageism and the 'packaged deals' that the mega agencies leave out 'yesterday's stars' in the Hollywood consciousness. But these "has been" stars need to pay their bills. And, of course, they have the desire to act.

Many actors live off residuals. A running national commercial is desirous when you can earn 20-40 grand annually for one day on a set supporting the hero (product). But remember, 2000+ submissions for each role, and there are talents that have been focused and working the commercial calls for years. It took me three years of auditioning before I was cast in my 1st national (I got lucky and booked two in the same week). Having a role in a major theatrical release that goes to cable TV sometimes means that you get a residual of almost your entire session fee again, and perhaps a second time when it goes to broadcast TV.

Further, with new technology, we are faced with trying to protect our residuals as our work gets unauthorized postings on the world wide web. I've seen bits of shows I've been in, even entire shows on the www, and have received no residuals. Unfortunately, the SAG doesn't have the personnel to go after every website posting unauthorized material. Naturally sites need content, so they grab available short pieces or run bootleg or unauthorized copies of features until they get caught and remove them.

If you are not already a "name" talent or have a great commercial or theatrical agent working hard to get you the opportunities that can land you a role on a major project, you know your chances are slim that you'll make a living in the industry, or achieve fame, fortune and leave a legacy as an important artist. But if it's in your heart and you are compelled to act, I do believe that success comes to those that persevere. Many actors who put fame as the main focus, fail. You need to love your chosen craft. The desire to be better has to be at the forefront. As for fame, keep in mind it's taken some 20 years to become an overnight success. But, those who get there have focus, drive, creativity, an outside the box mentality, professionalism, structure, the will to network, and thick skin. They are smart, don't waste time, and avoid scams with promises of short cuts and quick paths to fame. They work toward putting together a team consisting of an agent, manager, trainer, and publicist. They develop relationships with professionals who can help their careers and from whom they can learn. They develop personal relationships with these professionals and remain in their realm, so that when jobs come up, you're the first thought, and not an afterthought.

After 30+ years of pursuing my chosen profession, I hope you'll believe I speak from experience.

I grew up in LA and always wanted to be an actor. I tried desperately to get on the sets of productions, sneaking onto backlots. Eventually I was paid to be listed for non-union background calls. Soon after, I landed roles in classics like The Rose, FM, I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which, although got me onto working sets, was ultimately unfulfilling. I wanted to have more to do than just "hurry up and wait" to walk through a scene or be a face in the crowd. So I gave up on Hollywood (the first time) in 1978, and 'moved north to hone my craft at ACT. Casting directors tell you they often go right to the training on your resume, so this seemed like a logical move.

I fell in love with the San Francisco. It's a place where people can be themselves, no matter how freaky. I've always been a bit silly, and have always been drawn to creative types. While training at ACT and SF State, I fell into an opportunity to screen test for the lead in a major studio picture, War Games. Then, an agent came knocking. I was told the original director of the film, Martin Brest, thought I was perfect for the role. Signing with the agent brought me back to Hollywood. I didn't land that role - The execs at UA/MGM didn't want to rest the multimillion dollar film on the head of a complete unknown - but, I shortly started working in supporting, co-staring and guest roles on features and TV shows. I even landed a handful of commercials. But I didn't rest on my new found success. I still studied my craft, and performed in live theater and improv shows.

In the mid 80's, Hollywood began going back to allowing the major agencies to become monopolies by packaging deals with stars, directors, writers, producers, and other key talent for productions. And in 1986, my fantastic, hard working boutique agent sadly announced she was closing her office. Now I got along well with many stars and directors I worked with - Clint Eastwood, George Miller, John Lithgow, Robert Zemeckis - and yet, because I had confidence that I would work all the time (having this great agent), I didn't do "the business of the business" and network. I didn't make the effort to stay connected with those industry greats. This was a mistake. Compounding this, I had often helped up and coming stars, directors and producers with projects - Catherine Hardwicke, Lawrence Bender, Greg Araki - but as their stars rose, I couldn't even get past their gate keepers to get a return call.

Over the years, I did manage to make a good living between TV and film work by portraying Stan Laurel, Charlie Chaplin, and Groucho Marx at Universal. Then, in 1989, I fell into the opportunity to replace Crispin Glover as George McFly on the Back to the Future films. An amazing opportunity, it would seem. But this was not a role that would further my career. In fact, the producers did all they could to keep me from promoting that I was even in these films! They put me in make up so I resembled actor Crispin Glover. They didn't want anyone to notice the change. So, I had a co-starring role in one of the biggest money earning sequels and, because I couldn't promote myself with photos of my work, I couldn't get anything going. Frustration mounted, and I left Hollywood to find solace again back in the north.
Now I am somewhat of a big fish in a smaller pond. I sometimes get meatier roles in indie films. But the film makers that have the money to make moderate budget indies that can secure distribution, often cast in LA and get a "name" to carry the film, so naturally there is a better chance of getting the film picked up or sold. I may get better roles, but often the acting and/or production is uneven, and/or I work for the low budget agreement of $100 a day with the balance of my regular day rate deferred to when the project sells. I've worked in fine films that could have sold, but several times something keeps them from finishing; the director looses the drive to get the finishing money to make it work, or the film doesn't have the agent or tools to sell it.

To make ends meet, I'll do print ads, voice overs, trade shows, industrials, festival workshops, party work, fund raisers, educational entertainment, environmental theater work, historical reenactments, books on tape, proof of concepts, coaching, speaking on acting, casting, protocol or teamwork on the set, 'teach an improv class, on set consultation, private acting lessons, appear at a fan convention, speak at film expos, SAG foundation seminars, and DGA workshops. Some of these pay a little, but all in all, it's not an easy task. Finding this kind of work is a non-stop hunt, and never ending promotion.

But, I'm still doing what I set out to do. I'm still acting. And I still love it. I hope my story will inspire you to diversify, think outside of the box, and avoid some of the mistakes I've made. Making a living in this profession is a non stop quest. But if you love what you do, it's a quest worth taking.


Jeffrey Weissman began acting as a youth, first on stage in grade school and community theater, and transitioning into film acting in his teens. He trained formally at the American Conservatory Theater and San Francisco State University. He was discovered by Hollywood in 1982 after a screen test for the lead in War Games, which led to appearances in over 50 movies and television shows, most famously playing the role of George McFly, co-staring with Michael J Fox & Lea Thompson in Back to the Future II & III. Jeffrey also co-starred with Clint Eastwood in Pale Rider and John Lithgow in Twilight Zone the Movie. Recently, Jeffrey received rave reviews as OCD winemaker Jerry Hannon in the hilarious mocu-mentary Corked! (streaming on Netflix), and as Mel in the outrageous short Nobody's Laughing, currently in development as a full length feature. On television he played Screech's Guru on Saved By The Bell. He guest starred with Dick Van Dyke on Diagnosis Murder, with Bruce Boxleitner & Kate Jackson on Scarecrow & Mrs King, and a host of other shows and commercials. On stage, Jeffrey's co-starred with Robert Morse in Babes in Toyland at California Music Theater, played Theo in 12th Night, The Matamore in Tony Kushner's adaptation of Corneille's The Illusion, and as multiple characters in Just For Laughs. Jeffrey's ability to play physical comedy has taken him around the world to perform in commedia dell arte, magic shows, period recreations, and as classic film characters. He is a world-renowned imitator of Charlie Chaplin, Groucho Marx, Stan Laurel & Larry Fine. Most recently he's added Mark Twain to his repertoire, playing the great man in a dramatization of Twains trip to the Holy Land in 1867, and on stage for the history museum & California State Railroad Museums. Jeffrey writes, directs, consults, teaches (publicly & privately) and produces live entertainment, stage shows, TV and films.

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