November 12, 2015

Rich Sommer encourages me not to go mad

"I was eating pork chops and drinking a beer while I taped it, because, well, I figured it was never going to be seen anyway." -- Rich Sommer, describing his self-taped audition that led to his breaking-in role in The Devil Wears Prada

You know what they say... a Rich Sommer is better than a Poor Winter.

Why do I do stuff like that?

Anyway, I got in touch with Rich Sommer, probably known best as Harry Crane on AMC's runaway hit, Mad Men. Rich grew up in Minnesota and has made it in Hollywood. Geographically, our paths are similar. Buuuuuttt... he's a little farther along the path than I am. Matter of fact, I can't even see him with my max-magnification binoculars from Pervs R Us.

But I'm inspired. And humbled he took the time to humor my inquisitive mind.

Rich Sommer - photo by Ben Kusler
Born in Ohio, raised in Minnesota, Rich got his undergrad degree from Concordia in Moorhead. He went to Cleveland for grad school and then moved to New York City in 2004 to continue the acting career he'd already started. A commercial in Cleveland got him his union eligibility and a commercial in NYC not long after got him into the Screen Actors Guild (SAG).

"I think you have to join [SAG] as soon as you can," he advises. "It's tough to be taken seriously without that."

Rich was a part of the union very early in his career. For me, I was happy to remain non-union in Minnesota because there was such a dearth of SAG jobs in that market. Now that I'm in Los Angeles, I'm anxious to join SAG and my eligibility paperwork is pending right now. It's a good step for me. As Rich Sommer says, "The actual work requires being in the union. I wanted to do actual work."

Me, too, Rich. Me, too.

Of course, getting into SAG doesn't guarantee actual work. With far fewer jobs than actors, it takes patience, diligence, luck, and talent to elevate oneself into the coveted status of full-time actor.

It also takes thick skin.

I reached out to Rich after hearing him as a guest on Pilar Alessandra's On the Page podcast. I know I've raved about Pilar and her podcast before, so I won't do it again here. More than once. Pilar's On the Page podcast is great and if you're not listening to it, you're mad, man.

See what I did there?

I got sidetracked.

That's what I did there.

Back to Rich and the thick skin segue I hijacked from myself.

On Pilar's podcast, Rich shared the story of his adventures through pilot season 2006, when at one point his manager was called by the CBS comedy division. The suits asked Rich's manager to stop sending him on any more comedy auditions because he wasn't funny. The only callback Rich received that entire pilot season was for Mad Men.

The rest, as they say, is language arts. I mean, history.

With my slow start out here in Hollywood -- and granted, three months is hardly enough time for anyone to really get themselves established in a new market -- I'm encouraged by Rich's 2006 pilot season. Not because I take pleasure in knowing a very talented actor wasn't getting called back, but because it proves that it's just a numbers game. The key is to stay in the game until the numbers work in your favor.

Naturally, I wanted to know if Rich had considered throwing in the towel after the less-than-encouraging phone call from CBS. "It wasn't a super fun phone call to get," he says obviously. "Of course there were times I considered bagging it all, but most of those preceded that pilot season."

It makes sense he would stay in the game. After all, he'd landed the role in the Meryl Streep comedy, The Devil Wears Prada, a summer earlier. He had a good manager, who he says he'll be loyal to forever. He'd booked commercials and was getting called in for auditions.

He even claims the CBS people were right. That he wasn't funny.

I doubt it.

But it's that kind of humility that makes me root for Rich Sommer. And it's his thick skin that allowed him to press on after a rough message from the CBS comedy division that encourages me to stick in this game.

He adds, "Besides getting a career-changing gig (Prada), I didn't know what else to do. I did three years of grad school for acting, and I wasn't ready to chuck it all yet. There are people who have been grinding it out for decades. Two years and a bad phone call from CBS isn't a reason to bag it. For me."

Full disclosure -- I asked him if he considered quitting the game after the CBS phone call without knowing the correct timeline of when he booked Prada. To have a significant role in a major studio picture starring one of the greatest actors in the history of cinema is reason enough to stay in the game no matter what the next year brings. Duh.

Still, we actors are a sensitive lot. I know I have a tough time believing my past successes are any better indications of my true talent than my current failures. But that's just me.

Rich has encouraged me and I hope anybody who stumbles across this little blog entry finds encouragement as well. Perhaps the tastiest nugget I devoured is Rich's story about his self-taped audition for The Devil Wears Prada. To go along with his quote that prefaced this writing, he says, "I took the result of [the audition for The Devil Wears Prada] as a lesson. Putting myself on tape is a pretty laid-back affair, and I definitely owe it to that little happening."

In the end, all of what we do as actors should be approached with a laid-back attitude. Not lazy. Not half-assed. Just relaxed.

If we can't find a way to relax in this game, we're all going to go mad, man.

I did it again.

October 30, 2015

Q & A with Casting Director Scott David

"Here I am! Look at me! See what I can do!" -- Every Undiscovered Actor

Half a lifetime ago, I believed my acting talent would open doors for me. I had grown up in an environment where I had plenty of people applauding my juvenile impressions of Mike Myers, Dana Carvey, and Jim Carrey. Looking back, it's hard to believe every bit of praise was sincere, but there were a few people that I know weren't blowing smoke up my formerly toned behind.

In the last 20 years I received further validation of my talent by being cast in a variety of roles in feature films, commercials, industrials, and a handful of live theater gigs. I can call myself a professional actor. And a good one at that.

I continue to train and study and practice my craft at every opportunity. I want to get better. And better. And better.

But with the big 4-0 looming, I can't simply hone my craft and wait for the bigger doors to open. I have to get in front of the people behind those doors who can get me the gigs that pay more than a tank of gas.

I recently got in touch with kind-hearted Scott David, Casting Director of the CBS hit crime procedural, Criminal Minds, and the spinoff, Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders. He graciously answered some questions I had as a recent small-market transplant to Los Angeles. More than anything, he confirmed what I already suspected, which isn't bad or good. It just -- is.

Scott emphasizes the importance of acting classes before one arrives in LA and also to take classes once relocated to LA. "Acting classes and studying your craft are of utmost importance," he says. I agree, and I've taken many classes over the years, most of which have contributed to my craft -- some better than others. I'm surprised by some of the excuses actors contrive to avoid taking classes. Even the most successful stars take classes.

Scott also highlights the importance of learning audition technique and how to do self-taped auditions. There are audition classes, but in small markets, the audition techniques are usually focused on commercial auditions which differ considerably from film and television auditions. A good starting point for learning how to audition is to read Casting Qs by Bonnie Gillespie and The Actor's Encyclopedia of Casting Directors by Karen Kondazian. If nothing else, the books give insight into what casting directors are looking for in auditions. (Hint: they're looking for you to be you!)

Casting Director, Scott David
Self-taping has trended upward in the last few years. Anybody with an iPhone can self-tape an audition, but understanding framing, audio, basic editing, simple color correction, upload specs and video compression practices can go a long way in making a self-taped audition stand out. There are companies in LA that will assist in self-taping auditions, but they seem to charge anywhere from a couple hundred bucks to a kidney. I'm fortunate enough to be an editor and decent camera operator so I can put together good audition tapes with little effort, but once you learn how to do it, you'll see it's remarkably simple. Heck, if I can do it...

Now for the tricky part of this blog entry. I asked Scott David, "Once in LA, what are the first steps one should take to get noticed by casting directors?"

He answered, "The BEST way to get noticed and to start making relationships and networking is to invest in Casting Director Workshops on a regular, consistent basis at The Actor's Link."

Why is this tricky? Because Scott David owns The Actor's Link.

My cynical side can't help but wonder about the nobility of such a suggestion. Pay my company $30 to $50 and you'll get to perform a short scene in front of a casting director who may or may not call you in for a real audition based on the impression you make.

My pessimist side wonders, "How else can I get in front of these casting directors?"

And my practical side pries, "I'm out here to make connections and build relationships with the people that can get me work. Suck it up and pay the money."

And here's the thing. I really don't think Scott is a swindler. He's been as accessible as anybody out here and I've heard first-person accounts from actors who got called in to audition shortly after meeting a casting director at a workshop. While certainly not a guarantee of booking gigs, Casting Director Workshops are a legitimate way to get in front of the people who can get actors work.

Aside from workshops, the only control one has over getting oneself on the radars of casting directors is to directly communicate with them. Sure, it would be nice to know our agents are pitching us and fighting for us to get called in to audition, but the reality is that nobody is going to be more passionate about finding acting gigs than we are.

With resources like IMDb Pro and Backstage, it's generally easy to find contact information for nearly every casting director from New York to Atlanta to Austin to Los Angeles. I've personally sent out almost 50 postcards and nearly that many e-mails to the casting directors and associates who cast the shows for which I feel best suited. Considering most of these people receive hundreds, if not thousands, of unsolicited messages every week, the chances I'm being noticed are pretty slim. Still, if I want to win the lottery, I have to buy tickets.

I asked Scott his thoughts on the line between tactful self-promotion and becoming a nuisance. "That is a fine line," he said. "It's like dating. Rejection is the hardest aspect of life, and most of the time actors are rejected."

Ouch. Most of the time actors are rejected. I mean, I know that. But it's still tough to swallow.

"Don't push too hard," he continues, "and try to make relationships with professionals IF they are open and accessible to doing so."

That last sentiment is perhaps the most difficult for us creatives to accept. In our minds, we know we have so much to offer and that anybody who isn't open to getting to know us and our work is truly missing out. Right?

Well, if our work is that good and we are truly worth knowing, eventually the wall will crumble and we will have access to those that are currently inaccessible. The trick is to find those who are accessible and (patiently) prove your value to them first. Then, who knows who will eventually give you access to their inner circle?

In Minneapolis I accumulated a lot of credits, from features to commercials to industrials. I asked Scott if my long resume of mostly unrecognizable credits means anything out here or if I would be better off having one credit from a recognizable show like Criminal Minds or The Big Bang Theory. "Being able to show that one has TALENT and is a good actor is much more important when the actor does not have many legit credits, if any at all," he explained. "TRAINING... is very important, and marketing oneself is KEY."

Bottom line is this: Keep training. Keep working. Keep finding new connections. Do as many casting workshops as the budget will allow. Eventually, all the hard work will pay off. For me, it's been fifteen years of hard work. I gotta believe I'm due. You are too.


If you've stumbled across this blog and any of the above information is new to you, I encourage you to check out The Actor's Link. If you're in Los Angeles, you can start workshopping immediately. Of course, it's best to make sure you're good before spending the money, but that's obvious, right?

*** More About Scott David ***

A member in good standing of the Casting Society of America (CSA), Scott David has been casting everything from small Equity Theater to Studio Feature Films since 1996. He is currently Casting Director of the long running CBS hit TV series, Criminal Minds, and also the new spinoff series, Criminal Minds Beyond Borders. Scott also consistently works on indie films throughout the year.

Scott enjoys meeting all sorts of actors from all sorts of places. He has an appreciation for actors and is totally passionate with his efforts in helping out newer actors. He admires their hard work and diligence in pursuing their dreams.

Check out Scott David's iOS app on iTunes: Scott David Casting

September 18, 2015


"How different would people act if they couldn't show off on social media?" - Donna Lynn Hope

I've only been living in Los Angeles for six weeks now, and I've already worked on Grey's Anatomy, Secrets and Lies, How to Get Away with Murder, and an exciting new show debuting in October called Crazy Ex Girlfriend. I've done scenes with Terry O'Quinn, Juliette Lewis, and Sarah Drew, among others. I was accepted into the UCB Improv School and signed across the board with a very well respected talent agency, Media Artists Group.


Here's the truer version of the above paragraph...

I've been living in the Los Angeles area for six weeks now, and I've only been able to secure background work. Anybody with a driver's license and social security card can do what I've done. My blurred image will be seen behind the mentioned actors, but I certainly didn't "do scenes" with them. Aside from some inconsequential small-talk, I didn't even interact with any of them. UCB doesn't hold auditions to get into their classes. They hold fees. I paid the fee.

The agent part is true, and while I'm excited to have representation already, I owe it completely to a connection I had.


I've always been one to highlight the thorns over the roses. So be it. I have nothing against positivity -- I'm really trying to improve mine -- but spinning things in order to get shallow Facebook comments of "You're a superstar!" or "So proud of you!" or "PTL" is just not my bag, baby. Truth be told, I've unfollowed plenty of peers who lack any sense of self-awareness and realistic assessments of what they've accomplished.

So let me just get this off my chest: I've accomplished nothing. I'm nowhere near where I want to be. I don't deserve praise or accolades for anything on my resume or IMDb page or, God help us all, YouTube.

When and if I ever do feel like I've accomplished something in Hollywood, I'll be sure to brag about it all over Facebook. But I'll be sure to be secretive about several details so I can get the much-desired comments of "Tell us more!" or "Can't wait to hear all about it!" or "You're a superstar [even though I don't have any clue what you're talking about]!".

Some people. Right?

Look, I'll admit that I've actually enjoyed my background work. As I've always said to my real Industry friends, the worst days on set are still alright. I've actually been treated pretty well for the most part, aside from one PA who was a distant relative of Satan. How she gets work is beyond me.

The food is always good. I meet good people. I see the pros doing their things. I make almost enough money to buy a tank of gas.

I wouldn't have these opportunities in Minnesota, so I'm thankful to be out here. Not exactly living the dream, but I feel closer now than I did before we moved.

But still...

September 3, 2015


"This hill goes on forever!"

Says I when I run in the hills overlooking the Santa Clarita Valley.

"It's a good burn!"

Says I when I near the top.

"What? That's NOT the top?"

Says I when the road winds around a corner and my muscles turn to undercooked cheesecake.

"Stop talking to yourself."

Says I when people give me weird looks.

So I'm here in Los Angeles(ish). Actually a little north. But only a half a podcast away from the places I need to go. Well, the places I hope to need to go.

But as I laid out in my first post nearly seven years ago, my journey was never specific to geography. So while I've technically made it to Hollywood from Minnesota, I am still a long ways away.

But I'm closer than I was seven years ago. Seven months ago. Seven weeks ago. At least I hope I am.

I've still got a lot of big hills to climb, metaphorically and literally. Seriously, running in my neighborhood is brutal. If nothing else, living out here is going to get my quads back into shape.

I can vouch for the views at the top of the hills. They're amazing. Dry. But amazing.

So as I continue to climb uphill, I remind myself that the view from the top is worth it.

February 3, 2015


"I know that sounds like a cat poster, but it's true." -- Vitruvius

The optimist inside of me believes I have an amazing Hollywood career ahead of me. Unfortunately my inner pessimist keeps pinning the optimist down, sitting on his face, and launching lethal butt missiles.

Dare I say that the optimist is finally fighting back? Finally emerging from the pessimist's cheeks? Finally launching a few weapons from his own turret? He's always had his moments, but they were too few and far between to really give the pessimist a run for his money. Or his gas mask.

Now is the time for the optimist to fly like a kitty and heed the words of a master builder. It's time to prove I am special by building myself up and destroying the blocks in my way. Today I will construct a new outlook and Lego of the deconstructive attitudes of the past.

Tomorrow I will stop overusing references from that one movie about those little block-like things.

Can you feel me?

Let's have a little inspirational session. Just you and me and a few people that have accomplished a thing or two in their lives. Hopefully we both feel better after this virtual hug fest of pastel colored unicorns and strawberry flavored hope.

Some say that Francis guy was a sissy, but I think he was a saint. If these words of his don't fill you with at least a hint of fuzzy warmth, don't bother reading any further; you're not my target audience.

No matter where you're at in your career, there are necessary things that have to be done. Some of them can be done today; some can be done tomorrow. But they must be done if you expect to get wherever it is you want to be. Much to the chagrin of many who are starting out in the world of screenwriting or acting or directing, there are no shortcuts.

Are there lottery winners? Sure. But not many. Most overnight success stories are actually years in the making. They begin by doing what's necessary (education, practicing one's craft), then doing what's possible (networking, practicing one's improved craft), and finally achieving the impossible (worldwide stardom, private jets, and fancy macaroni and cheese).

By the way, does it really need to be stated that if you're in this for worldwide stardom you're never going to be satisfied? Okay, good. We're on the same page.

Next quote. By a palm tree. How nice.

Even if sports are to you what common sense is to Justin Bieber, you know the name Lombardi. I'm pretty sure half the streets in Green Bay are named Lombardi Street or Lombardi Way or Lombardi Favre. Oh, and the trophy for winning that bowl that's really super is named after him, too.

Vince Lombardi inherited a team that finished with one victory the season before he took over. Under his tutelage, the Packers won seven games the following year. That was 1959, long before NFL teams changed dramatically from year to year with free agency. In other words, the team that won a single game in 1958 was pretty much the same team that won six more in 1959. Lombardi knew what he had and he got more out of it than anyone expected.

My point? I don't know. Something about Legos I think.

Nah, my point is that we all come from different backgrounds, carry different baggage, have different privileges and shortcomings. Yes, plenty of people get their start in Hollywood because they have an "in" while those of us with zero built-in connections pound on door after door only to be pelted with double-edged razor blades and anthrax balloons.

I exaggerate. The razor blades are single-edged.

Still, rejection hurts. Actually, rejection would be a welcome reprieve from the silence that follows so many attempts to reach those on the other side. We can lament our misfortune of being born into blue-collar flyover families, or we can just work that much harder.

Let's combine the quotes from St. Francis of Assisi and Vince Lombardi:

"Start by doing what's necessary with what we have."

It's so important to have a clear understanding of what we have and what we can do with it. I've spent so many years letting my inner pessimist have his way, sulking in my lack of money, connections, and support (another topic altogether that I'll maybe get into at some point).

I finally had to recognize what I do have -- talent, telephone, Internet, books, magazines, podcasts, support (not from everybody, but that's okay!), family, friends, shelter, food, and water.

And gum. How fat would I be if I didn't have gum?

With libraries and Amazon, we have access to more books than anyone could ever read about acting, directing, writing, producing, editing, and everything else involved in making movies. With iTunes, we have access to dozens of podcasts featuring Hollywood insiders who are already experiencing the success we want to have. With the Internet, we can locate the e-mail address and phone number of every agent and producer from here to Timbuktu. I can't tell you how many letters I've written to Al Gore thanking him for inventing the Internet.

Okay, I can. Zero.

The point is everything is awesome when we're living our dream.

Wait, no it's not. The Lego Movie lied to me! I feel like such a blockhead.

Awesome or not, there are plenty of things we need to do before we can realize our dreams. I will keep reaching out. I will keep writing. I will keep acting. I will keep learning. Over and over and over again.

We can't expect to see tangible progress every day as we pursue our dreams of being a consistently working actor, director, or screenwriter. But at the end of each day, we should rest on our double-decker couches and feel satisfied that we did something to get closer to achieving our dreams. Whether we listen to an educational podcast, read something, reach out to someone, write a few pages, or spend twelve hours on set, we need to take time every single day to further our career.

Not every seed will grow and those that do will do so at different times. But if we are patient and continue to plant them, one day we will reap a harvest more bountiful than anything we could ever have imagined.