"We're going to have to let you go..." were the first words that prompted my acting journey.
I had been working in IT for nearly 22 years when my company down-sized and, after a testing time personally, with a difficult divorce, I made a decision. They say that as one door closes another opens, well, the door to regular and comfortable salary-earning did slam firmly shut and like any redundancy, fills you with that initial fear and trepidation. What has happened since then has seen me expand my professional and social network many-fold and I have a passion and focus that to be fair, drifted wildly. I simply didn’t have one! Cue a number of doors flying open.
I had registered with a talent agency in Auckland, New Zealand around September 2008 and began to get regular work as an extra. I can still remember the buzz I got from going to their offices, having a couple of photos taken and being up on their website the same afternoon. 'Ok', I thought, 'I’m not an actor yet', but getting roles on New Zealand staples, such as Shortland Street and Power Rangers (the latter being my very first role) gave me the kick-start I needed.
I remember turning up 30 minutes prior to call-time on Power Rangers one cold Sunday morning on an Industrial estate in South Auckland and I was the proverbial kid in the candy store. I have always loved films and had been following a few actors throughout my life and admiring the ease with which they projected themselves on screen. Surely anyone can act! It’s easy!
Breakfast came out and I immediately helped myself to bacon, eggs, sausage, mushrooms, beans, toast and coffee. Someone approached me, who I figured must have been a crew-member and he asked with a serious demeanour "What are you doing?” My innocent response bemused him even more, but it was then that I realised my fellow extras were still seated at the back of the makeshift set (a tent) and watching me with amusement. “Eating”, I said meekly. “Actors and crew first mate, sorry”. I then figured that the ‘actors’ were in robes to prevent spillage from their feast. 'I want a robe one day', I muttered quietly to myself; and I want a line of dialogue, much like one woman who did have one line and was denoted on the call-sheet as a featured extra, getting paid relatively well for that extra piece of work.
After this first taste on-set, I decided to step up a gear. I found a short course run by South Seas Film and Television School. It was a three day introduction to On Screen Acting. As a measure of my commitment to acting, after two months, I remember going straight from the set of a TV commercial, which was an overnight shoot, to the first day of course, no sleep but with a burning desire to give it my best.
At the end of the three days, the course tutor asked if I would like to audition for a place on the year-long On Screen Acting Diploma course. I greeted his question with as much bemusement as the third AD did when querying my breakfast habits on Power Rangers! but then, after Johnny Givins, the course Director told me that there was no commitment to accept a place, even if offered one, I thought ‘why not!’
I had a couple of nights to learn the ‘break-up’ scene from one of my favourite movies, Good Will Hunting. I was so nervous on the day, I thought I was literally going to crumble in front of the three panel group who were taking the auditions, but somehow, on the third take, I got a reaction from my fellow actress (playing Skylar) that led to a very genuine reaction from me. I found an anger and voice from deep inside me that seemed to come from nowhere. ‘Skylar’ cried and looked deeply moved. So much so in fact, that at the conclusion of the scene I had to ask if she was ok? I offered a kindly hug.
Maybe I should reveal at this point that I was 41 years of age at the time. I was embarking on a journey that is not completely unknown, with many actors starting their career in their 30’s; Denis Leary, James Coburn, Bryan Brown and Gene Hackman. In terms of actors starting even later, I was joining a lesser numbered group including; John Mahoney, Walter Huston and Liz Smith.
When the large, well-filled envelope arrived a week later in the post, I actually shed a tear (I’ve always been able to easily access emotion and I’ll admit that, even as a man). I had been offered a place on the course and my adventure was really beginning.
Getting my make-up applied. Game of War – South Seas Film and Television School (2009)
The people I met on the course were not only an inspiration to me, not only because nearly all of them were so much younger than me – which I knew was probably going to be the case – but they were so much fun to hang out with outside of school. I look back now and regard that year, in 2009, as one of the best of my life. I was able to get myself a good agency after leaving South Seas, so left my talent agency for good.
Better auditions and roles started to come and I spent 2010 living on savings, at the same time taking all the acting roles I could. I did 10 unpaid short films that year, but also knew it was an important time to network. I got some business cards printed and handed them out to anyone that I enjoyed working with. I was of course hoping that they enjoyed working with me too! Thankfully, I am still making films with many of those people today.
Still from Continuum (Auckland University, 2010) – a web series.
So, 40 or so short films later, a guest starring dialogue role on Shortland Street, a soap on which I started as an extra and six feature films to my name, the journey continues unabated. I also do corporate voice-over work for several companies, which is paid.
I have a few projects coming up this year and just before Christmas last year, I had a call from my agency who had been approached by a US casting director inviting me to audition for a feature film, shooting in New Orleans. I almost dropped the phone when she told me the details and again, almost fell off my chair when I saw it was a leading role in a ‘A’ list filled movie.
I am still awaiting the result of my self-taped audition as I write, but even if this project doesn’t come off, at least I know my new showreel is working and getting me on the radar, which at my age, I could only dream of.
I am also involved with a group of friends; writing, producing and acting in short and feature length projects, to fill the void between any paid work that might come along, which is another great way to get your work out to the audience.
Publicity still from Blindside – Short Film (2012) – Zodiac Entertainment.
I would be quite happy acting as a pastime for the rest of my days, because I literally ‘come alive’ on set. It was definitely a leap of faith and is a continual test of sanity! but I love acting and will never give up in my quest.
ABOUT SEAN OCONNOR
Born in England and emigrated to New Zealand in 2004. Sean started acting in 2008 and quickly made the transition from background extra to professional actor after completing a year-long training in On Screen Acting at South Seas Film, Television and Acting School on Auckland's North Shore.
Represented by The Robert Bruce Agency, Sean acted in over 40 short films, several features and a few stage plays. A feature film project late in 2015.
His two gorgeous daughters are his inspiration and acting has provided a new perspective on life that he is privileged to be partaking in. You can network with Sean on Stage 32.
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