Holding on to Dreams: An Actor's Life
by: Leelai Demoz
Title appears: Addis Ababa, Ethiopia 1973
INT: Arat Kilo. A large spacious apartment, decorated in the latest early 1970's
Ethio Chic. New furniture from Mosvold. A large piano dominates the room.
Camera pans to reveal Leelai, a 5-year-old kid dressed in a brown plaid
"Hey, What you see eezzz what you get, honey."
Leelai walks around strutting like Flip Wilson as Geraldine. He puts his hands on
his hips and pretends he has long brown hair.
He stops and signals to his father standing by the stereo.
Heet eeet Brozzer.
The sounds of James Brown' song "Baby, Baby, Baby," blasts out of the stereo.
"Babeee, Babeee, Babeee" . . ."Babee, Babee, Babee. OW! HEY!"
Leelai whirls and spins doing the funky chicken dance, doing the splits and
pushing himself up. (He hasn't quite got the strength to do it like James Brown.)
He bobs his head up and down and finishes his routine doing a Temptations type
twirl and landing on his knees.
Camera pulls back to reveal Leelai's entire family standing and clapping.
Grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins clap, as a few of them give him a
Camera freezes on Leelai's smiling face.
Fade to Black
The scene above is the beginning of the movie of my life. Ever since I was
conscience of being alive, I have always known that I was meant to be an actor. I
was fortunate to have parents who were artists. Though my father was a
professor, he was also an amazing illustrator. My mother was not only a classical
trained pianist, but also a visual artist. They always encouraged me to explore
whatever it was I wanted to do.
When we moved to Chicago from ager bet at the age of six, I was well on my
way to being an actor. My first role was playing Ebenezer Scrooge in "The
Christmas Carol." It was my second year at Orrington Elementary School and I
am sure that they had never heard an accent quite like mine. Though I spoke
English, I had a very heavy accent. Nonetheless, I did not let that limit me. I just
loved playing the part.
In Chicago, I enrolled in an amazing theater school when I was ten, and not only
did I have a creative outlet, but I made an amazing circle of friends who are still
the closest ones I have today. Every Saturday when I was growing up, I studied
acting. We would rehearse for shows after school, and perform at night. My focus
was always on performing drama or music. My parents never had a problem with
my artistic ambitions. All they said was do it to the best of your abilities.
Getting the job
People always ask me what the process is to getting work. The usual way is that
you get an agent who takes 10% of any income you earn. The agent cannot get
you work, only auditions. Everyday, they get a breakdown of all the big TV
shows, plays, and films that are looking for talent. They would then have a 3-
sentence description of the character, which includes age, race, sex, and size (if
applicable), and any other important descriptive features. If it is a real big part, it
may be cast already, so they will note that. Your agent will then find the parts that
you may be right for and submit your photo and resume to the casting directors
who are working with the producer. Increasingly, everything is being done online,
which saves a lot on photos.
The casting director will then decide if he/she wants to see you and make an
appointment to see you. It is also possible to send in a tape if you are outside of
New York and LA.
Once the casting directors know you, they will call your agent and ask to see you.
That is a good place to be, since that means you have made an impression and
they like your work. There is a lot of waiting for the phone call. You wait to hear if
you have an audition. You wait to see if you get a call back. You wait to hear if
you got the part. That is why actors check their machine 10 times a day.
So your agent sends you scenes and you rehearse on your own and go in.
Usually, you go in and you meet the casting director first. She will read with you
and it means she has done this about 50 times during the day. I don't mean to
imply that all casting directors are women, but a lot of them are. So if you are
reading the part of a soldier and the person reading the lines of your Captain
happens to be a 50-year-old woman named Mitzi, you have to supply it all. You
can't rely on the casting director to give you anything. It is a very difficult thing to
do. But do it, you must.
If they like your work, you come back and meet the director. That is usually better
because the director will work with you and give you notes. If it is a TV show, you
may go through 4 or 5 auditions, the last one being when you go to "Network".
That means that you go to the heads of the networks and do your reading. This is
usually in front of 10 people and, at this point, it is usually down to 3 contenders.
The surreal part about it is that before you go to network, you sign your deal. So
you sign a 5-year contract spelling out what you're going to be making including
billing, and everything. If you get it, you are going to be making more in a week
than a lot of people make in a year. If you don't, you dream on. There is nothing
like getting the phone call from your agent when she tells you, "You got the part."
My first job in TV was a movie with Mr. T called "The Toughest Man in the
World." I was a junior in high school and it was really great to skip school for a
month and get paid a lot of money. I followed that up by doing an episode of "TJ
Hooker." This was a show with William Shatner from Star Trek. The character I
played was a drug dealer and William Shatner chased me in a high-speed car
chase, and finally got me. The climax was him throwing me into the paddy
wagon. In my mind, I only saw "Captain Kirk." I would pinch myself thinking about
how I grew up watching William Shatner, and now we are acting together. My
professional career continued throughout college, where I continued to do plays,
commercials, and TV in Chicago.
When you are working on a project, there is a process that you go through during
the time of rehearsal. It takes time and a lot of research and experiment.
Rehearsing for a play is a really spiritual and mysterious process. There is
usually a 4-step process. The first couple of days of rehearsal are usually spent
reading your lines out loud at the table. This is when you get to "hear" the play.
You then get up and "block" the scenes. This is when you figure out where you
move and when. It is a combination of the director making the suggestions, but
really you as an actor feeling out your relationship with the other actors and the
event of the scene. You then begin your blocking and you run the show right
through. Costumes and lighting are introduced near the end at the "tech
rehearsals." At this point, it is usually the lighting director, the costume designer,
and the set designer figuring out how the actors look on the stage. It is a very
tedious process, which involves a lot of stops and starts. This is where you figure
out how you do costume changes, how long it takes the sets to move on and off,
and other technical matters.
After the tech is done, you begin your dress rehearsals. You run the show exactly
as if it was a performance incorporating all the elements. You then have Opening
Night. This is when you officially open the show. You have press, family, friends,
and fans at the opening. It is filled with energy because the audience is really on
your side. During a shows run, it is always changing and evolving. It is never the
same from show to show.
The filming process much different. First, you will do a read through of the script.
After that the project is usually shot out of sequence. Everyday there is a plan of
what will be shot. Whoever is in those scenes is called for that day. If you don't
have a scene with somebody, chances are you will never even see them. The
shot is set up with lights and cameras, and the actors are brought in. Usually you
shoot a "master," which shows both characters at the same time. The crew then
sets up "coverage" which means shooting the scene from the vantagepoint of the
characters. The tech crew re-does the lights and the cameras, and the scene is
shot with one character saying his lines just off the camera, and the other hidden.
This gives the illusion that the camera is one of the characters. You then do the
same scene from the other point of view. If it is a really big budget movie, you
may have numerous set ups for one scene, and it may take a couple of weeks to
shoot. It is all a question of budget.
One of the most amazing things about acting, whether it is a play or a show, and
most of my experience has been in the theater, is the sense of closeness and
intensity one has with your fellow actors, technicians, etc. You are together for
usually 3 weeks of rehearsal followed by a run of a few weeks to a few months.
You become unbelievably close. You work, you talk shit, you tease each other,
you have romances, and when the project is over, you don't see each other as
much as you say you would. When you work together, it is truly like a family. It is
one of the things that make it so great. That sense of community is unparalleled.
Whenever you finish a show, you feel a tremendous sense of loss. It usually
takes me a week to recover. I feel really depressed and sad.
The Next Project
One of the realities of being an actor is that you are unemployed. I belong to 3
unions SAG, AFTRA, and Equity. The first two are film and television, and the
last one is theater. The rate of unemployment for the unions is something crazy
like 85%. As the late great actress Rosalind Cash once said, " The artist part of
being an actor is not when you're working, but when you are unemployed."
When you are not on a job, the question becomes, what do you do with your
time? The thing about acting is that your life experience enriches your ability as
an actor. Not only do you have to study, but you have to be able to understand
what you are going through and translate that into your acting. Personally, I don't
consider acting as work. It is very hard both emotionally and physically, but it is
also exhilaratingly fun. If you can get unemployment, you take it. If not, you have
to do something else like waiting tables or doing a temp job. I have waited tables
and all the people I knew were actors, writers, visual artists, and dancers. We all
understood each other. When someone got a part or sold a painting, we would all
be psyched, not only because he/she had some good fortune, but also because
we could pick up good shifts at work. I've had friends do the oddest jobs, from
proof reading Ad copies during the graveyard shift, to questionable "escort" jobs.
People in New York do the craziest things in order to pursue their art.
Racism and Industry
It is hard being and actor, but it is really hard being a black actor. A casting
person saying "You know, Leelai, that's great, but can you do it more street" is
very common. It is very frustrating to go out on small bit parts where you're the
drug dealer or you're the kooky black guy. The thing is that you get paid a lot of
money, so it is easy to rationalize away the role. Many writers' frame of reference
is very small. They probably didn't grow up exposed to anything different from
themselves. There are also not a lot of black writers in Hollywood. One of the
many double standards is that producers will employ white writers to write for
"Black" shows, but it is very rare to see it the other way round. It is easy to say
that "whitey" is keeping me down, but that is the easiest path to bitterness.
Usually you sit around and bitch and then you go back to playing the game. You
must ultimately believe that what you do is necessary.
To express, to create, to perform, to interpret. I have been fortunate enough to
have done all those things in numerous ways. I have played in bands, written
scripts, produced theater and films, and of course, acted. I have traveled all over
the world in shows. I have had an amazing artistic career.
There are no guarantees. You constantly have to deal with the fact that you can
be the best actor in the world, but it doesn't necessarily mean that you will get the
job. You may be too short, too tall, or you may just be having a bad audition on
that particular day. It takes a mindset that you must work on very hard, to be able
to deal with the business of acting. You may put your heart into a project and an
agent or producer can dismiss it very quickly. You may be in a play or movie, and
a reviewer can murder your performance and even close the show if he/she
gives a bad review. This is true in New York especially. So you can get
downsized except you don't get severance pay.
When the Broadway show that I was in, The Song of Jacob Zulu, announced its
closing, we were given one-week's notice. The ironic thing about the whole
experience was that the day after we closed, we received 6 Tony Award
Nominations. A Tony award is the theater's equivalent of the Oscars. The
hardest part of the show was the end, when we received a standing ovation, as
we did every night of the run, and I remember being on stage at that moment and
looking around and I was crying as was every one else in the cast. It is one of the
most bittersweet feelings that I have ever had.
In my profession, I have no idea what is going to happen tomorrow. Even when I
have gone from job to job to job without a break, there is never a sense of
security. You always have to think about getting the next job. Somehow it all
works out. A residual check comes through from a commercial or a TV show that
One of the things that happens to you as an actor is that you get sick of not
having control. You are continuously having to prove yourself to get every job.
You are always at the mercy of someone else. In order to have control of your
destiny, you have to instigate your own projects. I have done and continue to
develop my own projects.
I produced a documentary film entitled, On Tip Toe, that HBO is going to buy.
The thing that I am really excited about is my new Internet venture called
PopRox.com It is a company that will produce short shows for the Internet. I am
excited because I will be able to allow people to make shows that would
otherwise not get made. It will also allow me to produce things for myself. My
partners and I are going to launch late summer.
I feel fortunate that the vision that I had for myself when I was four years old has
been met and exceeded by the life that I live today. It is a life filled with ups and
downs, but it is unbelievably exciting. I wouldn't do anything else.