Trying to make it in Hollywood: ‘Any notion of self esteem or dignity is a perverse fantasy’
When it comes to Hollywood, what we are fed in the pages of showbiz columns and on the multitude of celebrity websites and TV channels which in turn feed this mammoth industry belies a truth that is as brutal as it is sad.
From 2000 to 2004 I lived and worked in Hollywood, having arrived intent on establishing a career as a screenwriter (silly me). To make ends meet, I embarked on work as an extra on some of the myriad TV shows, sitcoms and movies that are shot there day after day.
Starting out as a non union extra on minimum wage, I progressed to attaining that all elusive SAG card that marks your entry into the comparatively privileged ranks of the actors union, the Screen Actors Guild. This entitles you to double the pay of your non-union counterparts, plus various add-ons for walking back and forward in the background of sitcoms, dramas and big budget movies for anywhere from eight to 14 hours a day. It also means you’re now eligible to be cast in much sought after roles on commercials, replete with residual fees for which many would literally offer themselves up in shameless supplication to attain.
On any given day in any of the major studio lots in and around Hollywood, not to mention the innumerable productions being shot on location, thousands of extras, a vast army of men and women of every age, ethnicity, and description are to be found being herded, derided and in many cases abused by hard pressed assistant directors, second assistant directors and production assistants. In the process they are left in no doubt that when it comes to the unwritten but rigid caste system of Hollywood, they are the untouchables. They are the bottom feeders in an industry and in a town where status is the only currency worth having, and where social being not only determines consciousness, it also determines who can afford to pay their rent and who cannot.
In my time I witnessed extras being escorted from the soundstage of the sitcom Friends by set security for the crime of arriving for work five minutes late, pleading to be allowed to remain as they hadn’t worked in weeks. I watched old age pensioners being bullied and yelled at by production assistants barely in their twenties for moving too slowly. Prior to working on a major movie, I was instructed by the casting director not to look directly at the star or else be immediately escorted off the set.
I have found myself almost being arrested after swapping punches with the producer of a low budget independent movie after he began yelling abuse at me and the other extras. And while working as Ben Affleck’s stand-in on a Christmas comedy that sank without trace, I was privy to the utter venality of an industry in which human beings are reduced to such a state of servility that any notion of self esteem or dignity is the product of a perverse fantasy.
Rather than fame and fortune in Hollywood, it is desperation and despair which abounds. Of the vast army of hopefuls who arrive each and every day from every part of the globe, heads filled with dreams and hearts with desire, those who manage to succeed constitute the tip of the tip of a mammoth iceberg. And of the majority who don’t succeed, many of those are genuinely talented – the product of the best acting schools and creative writing courses in the business.
But talent alone is not enough in this town. More important than talent, much more, are connections. In order even to get a script read or secure an audition you have to know the right people. And it is here where the art of supplication reaches its climax. Young and not so young Hollywood hopefuls clog the bars, restaurants and nightclubs all along the Sunset Strip and beyond, working as waiters, cocktail waitresses, busboys, valets, doormen, bar tenders, and hostesses. Each and every one hoping to come across a major producer, director or movie star who will take a shine to them and provide them with that golden opportunity they’ve spent years waiting for. It is a recipe for the rampant exploitation and abuse that pervades in this part of the world, measured in the damaged humanity it leaves in its wake.
But of course this reality lies concealed behind the mask of glamour and excitement that Hollywood exerts so much effort in presenting to the world. In the words of Marilyn Monroe: “Hollywood is a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul”.
John’s memoir of the years he spent in Hollywood ‘DREAMS THAT DIE’ is due out on paperback on 25 January 2013 from Zero BooksTagged in: acting, Ben Affleck, hollywood, tom cruise
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