A Web Site For The Young Ethiopian Professional. Volume II   Issue I    
Tuesday November 12 2019

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Holding on to Dreams: An Actor's Life
by: Leelai Demoz

Black Screen:

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 polyester suit.

LEELAI

"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.

LEELAI

Heet eeet Brozzer.

The sounds of James Brown' song "Baby, Baby, Baby," blasts out of the stereo.

LEELAI (Sings)

"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 "shilemat".

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.

The Meeting:

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."

The Job

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.

WHY

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 you did.

Future Projects

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.

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