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.