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Breaking Out Is Hard to Do

On the eve of pilot season and the annual actors' migration to LA, Sandra Delgado looks back on last year's weeks in the wilderness.

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Lurking at the far edge of a tony shopping district west of La Brea Avenue, the office building at 8060 West Melrose was an eyesore of gray brick and yellowing white tile. Its interior was drab and airless, smelling curiously like a dentist's office, with a collection of dead and dying floor plants holding court in the lobby. Sandra Delgado, a 27-year-old Chicago actress with impressive stage credentials, took the elevator up to the fourth floor, head shot and resume in hand. She'd flown out to LA in late January 2001 for pilot season, the first four months of the year, when new TV shows are being created and the Hollywood casting machinery goes into high gear. She'd been in town for two weeks already, but this audition was her first real shot at a series.

"Now I'm starting to get a little nervous," Delgado whispered as she stepped off the elevator. "My heart is beating so fast." In the waiting room of Marathon Entertainment, one of the countless casting agencies that serve Hollywood, a square-jawed actor stretched his calves and warmed up his voice. The receptionist was listening to the original cast recording of "There's No Business Like Show Business." Delgado was dressed simply in jeans and a T-shirt, her dark hair pulled back, her modest lipstick and makeup enhancing her bright-eyed, girl-next-door quality. She bore only a passing resemblance to the alluring ingenue in her head shot.

A blond woman emerged from an interior office, and both actors snapped to attention. "Did you sign in?" the woman asked sharply. "You're early. Five minutes early."

Delgado was auditioning for the pilot episode of Wilder, created by former teen idol Shaun Cassidy. The show was about a former child actor who opens a private detective agency with his ex-cop brother, and Delgado was up for a recurring role as the wacky neighbor--Marisol, an eccentric and naively flirtatious psychology student who rents a garage apartment from one of the leads. "This is something I could conceivably get," Delgado said. "She's of Hispanic descent, she's in her early 20s, she's a psych major, she's kind of like earth girl, peacemaker. She's kind of like me, I think."

The blond woman returned, glanced at the sign-in sheet, and beckoned Delgado inside.

A lifelong Chicagoan and a graduate of UIC, Delgado has honed her acting skills with CollaborAction, a tiny, haphazard outfit that's blossomed into a respected off-Loop company specializing in new work. She's appeared in shows at Steppenwolf and in the Goodman's revival of Zoot Suit, not to mention a handful of independent films and a string of commercials, industrial films, and voice-overs. In 1999 she signed with Stewart Talent, one of more than two dozen agencies in Chicago. Given the limited amount of paid acting work in town, most local agencies are boutique operations, specializing in a specific aspect of the business. By Chicago standards Stewart is large and diversified, with three film and TV agents, two for voice-overs, one for industrials, one for commercial print ads, and two for child clients. It represents about 110 actors, 50 of them (including Delgado) on exclusive contracts.

What Stewart Talent doesn't have is an LA office. Like most other agencies in its position, it typically sends out videotaped auditions for specific roles, hoping a studio or casting director will fly the client out for a follow-up. But most Chicago actors who've scored during pilot season did so by moving to LA--like Amy Farrington, who was cast for The Michael Richards Show two years ago, or Johnny Kastl, who landed a recurring role on the new NBC sitcom Scrubs.

This year Stewart Talent tried an unusual strategy: it invited 20 of its best clients to move to LA for the duration of pilot season, sending along Maryann Kohler-Drake, an agent who's lived in Hollywood and who worked in casting for many years before coming to Stewart. The agency wasn't offering transportation, housing, temporary employment, or any sort of per diem--only the services of an experienced and well-connected agent, without which no actor has the ghost of a chance.

"For some reason it all just came together this year that we had this group of 20 amazing actors that were ready to go," said Kohler-Drake. "Being ready to go means you have some film experience. God willing, you have your [Screen Actors Guild] card. You have some money in the bank. And you have your head screwed on straight." According to Kohler-Drake, Delgado fit the bill. "She's a good person. She's very ambitious. She has her ducks in a row. She's young, she's lovely, and she's Hispanic. And there is a market for that."

Delgado landed at LAX on January 29 and spent the first few days staying with a friend in the bucolic suburb of Manhattan Beach. She planned to stay until mid-April, which meant two and a half months with no guaranteed income, and though she didn't have much savings, she'd paid off her credit cards and hoped to keep her spending to a minimum. Another friend who lived in Los Feliz had a room opening up shortly, so her only major expense would be $700 a month for a rental car.

Her boyfriend of four years, actor-director Anthony Moseley, was back home in Chicago planning the Sketchbook Festival, CollaborAction's annual multi-arts event. Delgado was unhappy to be skipping the festival and leaving her boyfriend but excited about her career possibilities. "It's basically just try and meet people," she said. "If it doesn't pay off in the next couple of months it will pay off sometime."

Eight days later she was beginning to get bored and frustrated. She hadn't gotten a single audition, and she'd spent the week moving into her room in Los Feliz and tooling around in her car, checking out the beaches and mammoth Griffith Park. "I've been working straight, like one play after another, for over a year. It's just so weird to not be doing anything."

Earlier that week she'd had lunch with Matthew Lesher, a manager recommended to her by actor Hamish Linklater (who's on Gideon's Crossing), a friend of a friend. "It's all about type," Delgado explained. "Hamish's manager is like, 'Oh, great, I'm looking for that type. I need to represent a young Latina woman because I don't represent one.' So I met with him, things went well, and we're going to talk again....My agent is resistant to it. I'm not exactly sure why."

The distinction between an agent and a manager may seem arbitrary, but most working actors have both. Most managers represent only a handful of performers and work more closely with them, while agents are licensed to negotiate and sign deals. Both charge 10 percent of the client's earnings. (One of Sandra's fellow auditioners explained that for one year, while he was working steadily, he employed an agent, a manager, a lawyer, and a publicist. "Then one day I looked at my checks and realized I wasn't getting any money. So I fired everybody.")

Not surprisingly, the relationship between agent and manager can be chilly. Stewart had stated emphatically that it didn't want its clients seeking additional representation, suggesting that actors new to town have no practical use for management. This was a major theme at a meeting held a few days later at the Marina Del Ray home of Mitchell K. Stubbs, a Hollywood agent whose office Kohler-Drake was sharing. "The biggest thing I learned is that if they like you, keep doing exactly what you're doing," Delgado recalled. "The casting director will want me to keep doing the same thing for every single person. The biggest mistake people make is they think, 'I'm going to show them how good I am,' and that's where people end up fucking up."

But the meeting with Lesher paid off: on Valentine's Day, Delgado drove to 8060 West Melrose and did her four pages as Marisol, the wacky neighbor. The blond casting director smiled and nodded. "You're a really good actress," she said. "You make that look easy." Once Delgado was safely outside the building, her composed facade melted away, and she boogied joyfully down Melrose Avenue.

But the callback never came. There would be no meeting with the producers or the network brass. "I talked to Matt and he said that the lady said I was the best actress she saw all day," Delgado reported later. "But I'm not the right type. There's nothing I can do about that."

Delgado was still determined to sign with a manager, though Kohler-Drake refused to see the benefits. Delgado met with another one but wasn't impressed. "He brought up Jennifer Lopez one too many times for me. I know it's all about type here, but I kind of want to get out of the box. I'm not Jennifer Lopez. I know he would get me work, but it would be doing stuff that I would not be happy doing. You know? The Spicy Latina With Attitude."

Her second pilot audition took place a week after the first, at Paramount Pictures. The studio lot is an imposing compound that stretches for blocks; marked off by a tall hedgerow and a series of brass gates is a complex of office buildings and sound stages and a three-story water tower emblazoned with the familiar mountain logo. Men, Women & Dogs, a vehicle for former MTV star Bill Bellamy, centered on a clique of wisecracking dudes, their ditzy and/or castrating girlfriends, and their canine companions.

Delgado was more impressed by the relaxed atmosphere than by the material; it was nice not to be surrounded by the other women up for the part. "In Chicago the reception area is psych-out central. Everyone looking their best and looking each other up and down." She quickly established a rapport with the casting director--like many Hollywood functionaries, a former Chicagoan--but not enough to nail the audition. "Thirty seconds into my thing, there was this energy change. It's not anything that you can control. I don't know if it was me or her or both of us, or what." She didn't expect a callback, and she was right.

She auditioned for a Buick commercial that, according to the casting director, would feature Tiger Woods, three sassy Gen-X girls, and a hurricane. She auditioned for a deodorant commercial. She auditioned for a McDonald's commercial, playing a drive-through attendant who leans out the window and calls, "But you forgot your fries, sir!" Steppenwolf seemed a million miles away.

The first weekend in March, Delagado flew back to Chicago for a few days: her father was in the hospital after a minor surgery, and she wanted to attend the closing weekend of the Sketchbook Festival. Her determination to make a move west, she said, was beginning to waver. But when she got back, things began to pick up: in addition to a meeting Kohler-Drake had arranged for her at NBC, she was auditioning for another pilot and for a play at the Mark Taper Forum, LA's most prestigious legitimate theater.

Meanwhile one of the Stewart Talent contingent had hit pay dirt: Eddie Shin, a young Korean-American actor, had landed a decent supporting role on his very first audition, appearing in several episodes of the WB family drama Gilmore Girls. Asked how he'd gotten the part, Shin shrugged. "They just said, 'Good job. What are you up to the next couple of weeks? Expect a call from us.'"

On the set he'd gotten a taste of Hollywood, with its bootlicking and surreally misplaced priorities. "The regular [cast members] are on one side, the extras are all waiting in their little holding area. Then you have these 30-year-old guys asking you if you want more latte, asking if they can get you some soup. It's pretty intense." He was excited about the gig but cautious as well. "There's the obvious downside to it, which is that immediately you get pigeonholed. My experience in Chicago has been overwhelmingly positive, because most directors are very open to color-blind casting, and some of the parts I've been able to play are phenomenal....I do not want to be the guy that Jackie Chan kicks through a window."

A couple weeks later Delgado auditioned for Tikiville, a pilot being produced by 20th Century Fox. The casting director's office on Wilshire Boulevard was another drab office building; another waiting room stocked with Variety, Premiere, and Entertainment Weekly; another casting agent offering hearty encouragement, a warm handshake, but little hope of a callback. The meeting at NBC was pleasant but inconclusive, offering no immediate reward except face time with someone at a network.

Delgado was homesick; she didn't feel she was getting anywhere, and the parts she was reading for were stupid. She'd spent much of her free time hanging around at friends' houses, uninterested in the nightlife. "It's kind of weird. The energy is different. It feels like every bar is an actor bar. Like everyone is in the business and you can kind of sense that."

By then Maryann Kohler-Drake had softened considerably on the manager issue, and Delgado had signed with the one who'd kept talking about Jennifer Lopez. But while her boyfriend, Anthony Moseley, was visiting, the couple received word that Moseley's father was seriously ill. Delgado decided it was time to go home, almost a month earlier than planned. "It was too important for me to be there," she said. "I left everything. There's still piles of my head shots under John's bed. I just kind of threw everything into my big suitcase and left."

Stewart Talent has proclaimed the LA expedition a modest success. "Things are coming in now for actors from people that they met out there," said Kohler-Drake recently. "The connections I made there for people are still doing well. We don't know yet if we'll go back. Everything is possible. But I don't know how probable it is."

Eddie Shin has moved on from Gilmore Girls to a new show, yet to be named. Back in Chicago, Delgado landed a role in Undone at About Face Theatre, then A Christmas Carol at the Goodman. Asked if she plans to head out to LA for pilot season this year, she says, "If I actually had a job offer I might go, but as of now I don't have any plans to go back there. I think the biggest thing I got out of the trip is just making what I want to do in the future a little more clear. I really didn't like it there. I know I'm being really naive, but I just felt I could get more out of my career, artistically, here."

Men, Women & Dogs appears Sunday nights on the WB network. Neither Wilder nor Tikiville was picked up. The project Delgado auditioned for that's gotten the most exposure is the commercial with Tiger Woods and the hurricane. It's not very funny.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andre J. Jackson.

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