Two weeks ago I got a call from Tadgh Kelly the young actor who played my son on Unfabulous a Nickelodeon Series we were on that ended a year ago. He asked me if I wanted to be in a webisode he was shooting in a few days. He had pitched a major food company the concept of a web series to market their product and was given a green light!
Tadgh is 19.
The money was in place. The production team was in place. Malese Jow, who was also in Unfabulous with us, was on board and he thought I was right for the other character. It was a SAG show, there would be a salary, and a really good salary compared to the usual offer to do a friend’s 2-day video shoot. He didn’t sound frustrated or like he was caressing his last good nerve to stay on the phone with me. He was somehow even and cool about the entire thing. I told him whether it worked out or not with me I was proud of him for putting this together and how smart he was for doing this.
The script was a harmless fun way to tell a story and sell a product. I couldn’t see the down side. The whole thing felt like a no brainer and after a 4 month strike I wanted to go to work. So what was I thinking as I hung up?
A 19 year old just hired me. Nineteen. Where was I at 19? Why hadn’t I been producing things since I was 19? How the heck is this kid so capable and I’ve been so inept? I’m flattered but I’m embarrassed it wasn’t the other way around. Why wasn’t I wasn’t hiring the kid for my latest project? Ouch and Yikes.
I go to the set first day outside on Hollywood Blvd, second day in a small apartment. The 8 people who make up the crew are great, the mood is fun, I’m encouraged to do my best work all day by everyone. The marketing company exec is on set all day holding the hand of the food company’s “Brand Executive” who has flown out to oversee this idea in production. By day two he’s having so much fun that he goes from standing back and censoring dialog for possible lawsuits to carrying props and helping to dress the set.
All sets have a mood and what I’ve learned is that the mood of a set comes from the top. Whoever is running the show ( by show I mean production. Movie TV show etc…) sends down a mandate by direct dialog or by influence that tells everyone on that set how their ego need to be treated, and thus your on-set life becomes a product of that. Shows where the boss uses everyone’s creativity to build a good product are always the most fun, most creative and are usually hit shows. On those sets you can feel that every crew member hired is hired based on their ability to create an environment that allows everyone else to do good work. Then there are the shows that are run on pure insecurity. The ego of the director/ show runner owner/creator/exec that sees talent as a threat, so if yours is allowed to flourish it will expose them as a fraud. They fear the studio boss might learn that every idea on every frame of film wasn’t scripted and directed by them which leaves them vulnerable to being overtaken by someone younger or sharper.
I could easily go into a “look how far I’ve fallen” mind set and see a job on a web series as a confirmation that my career as a vital movie and TV actor is over. I could easily allow those negative thoughts to bully my brain into a depression about my status. Or, I can see this as a fellow artist reaching out to bring in someone he thinks will make a better product and use the opportunity to grow. Fearlessly. It was a great experience for me. It could grow into an ongoing great experience for me.
It’s easy to think budget means quality, budget equals value. After 20 years on all kinds of sets I’ve found that value is made by the people who run the show. Your sanity on the set is worth a lot. When the paycheck becomes to sole motivation to go to work because the set life is so ugly, those are long days. You may be a star but I’ll bet your therapist is getting more attention than the growth of your artist.
Don’t reject a project due the size, venue, distribution or salary. Reject it because you’re getting signs that the only talent you need is the talent to negotiate the daily squashing of your spirit in order to get the check. You do so much more damage to yourself when you act for money first and creativity second. Sure we simply have to sometimes, but sometimes we don’t.
Many people in charge are too happy to perpetuate this negative set life syndrome, they have battle tested techniques and they get paid a lot to employ them. Trust me, you’ll run in to them but when you do know that you are not nuts for thinking there is a better, easier, way to do things. In fact I know a 19 year old who could teach them how.