Monday, September 29, 2008

"Working Actor" Hal Linden: So much more than "2 down"

I spotted Hal Linden’s name in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times Sunday Calendar crossword puzzle. The clue read, "'Barney Miller' star Hal.” It’s always nice to get 2 down. It makes the rest of the puzzle so much easier.

There could have been another clue to arrive at the same answer: “Working actor Hal.” While Linden is widely known by audiences for his television series work, many forget that he has a long and respectable career in theatre, including a Tony Award.

Hal is the guest we chose to launch our new Web TV series “Inside the Business of Acting” with because he represents the philosophy of our new series on the Virtual Channel Network in every way possible.

“Inside the Business of Acting” features one-on-one conversations with working, successful actors talking about their career journeys, turning pointing and lessons learned along the way. Like the book The Business of Acting, this exclusive VCN series is designed to empower young actors and others in the journeys of their own careers.

Linden’s history is full of pro-activity, even before we knew what the word really meant. His longevity, his career success, is rooted in his ability to stay focused, to remain flexible, to always be level-headed and to always be prepared.

In our four-part interview, Hal talks about his roots and his struggles; he also talks about the valuable lessons he learned all along his journey that still matter today. He also reveals some fascinating behind-the-scenes tales about the TV series that made him a household name and the role that “Barney Miller” played in opening the doors to the opportunities that have followed.

Part one with Hal Linden is now playing on-demand. It’s entertaining, it’s informative, and, in it’s own way, it’s empowering conversation to absorb with lessons and a perspective that might prove very helpful to your own career plan and perspective.

As Hal says, “It’s all about the journey.” Amen to that.

Please feel free to post your comments about the interview here or send me an e-mail at


Saturday, September 20, 2008

You can't be a little pregnant; either you are or you're not. It's kind of that way with union status.

I just received an e-mail from an actor who posed a series of important questions about exactly what it means to be a member of one of the actor unions, in this case, specifically AFTRA, and, specifically, what kinds of work he could and could not accept. He didn't say, but I take it that his membership is fairly new. He didn't say why he joined AFTRA at this particular time, but his concerns are valid and some perspective is needed that I hope will be helpful to him -- and to you.

Indeed, as the old American Express commercial said, "Membership has its priviledges." In this case, however, membership also comes at a price and with some significant drawbacks, especially for a young or new-to-the-business actor.

Michael wrote:

"I recently paid to join AFTRA. What projects can I work on if they are not AFTRA? Can I work on a SAG project (I'm not SAG)? Can I work on student films? Can I work in non-union theatre or Internet projects? If I do, how will AFTRA know? If I do, and AFTRA finds out, what happens to me? What the heck can I act in as an AFTRA actor (and no other unions)?"

I responded:

"The 'official' rule is that once you are a union member, you are prohibited from doing any work that is non-union, whether it is for a project that could have been sanctioned by your union (for example, a non-union television show that could have been under AFTRA’s jurisdiction had the production company opted to go union) or sanctioned by a 'sister' union, in this case SAG or even AEA (Equity) -- and, as the rule is written, that includes student films.

Of course, everything is open to some interpretation and in this changing landscape, a lot of options are up for grabs.
There are two ways in which you can work in a non-union project if you are a union member: 1) File for financial core status, which is your right, which, essentially, puts your union membership on hold and allows you the opportunity to do non-union work. You don’t pay union dues during this time, but, also, the non-union work you do doesn’t count or apply towards (union) pension and health contributions. Also, SAG, in particular, is getting tough on any union member who opts for financial core and later wants back in. Often times, they want you to explain yourself and 'earn' back your union status; other times, nothing happens.

Of course, while it is your right under the law, SAG discourages this because your semi-annual dues are based on a percentage of what union work you do. The more money earned from non-union work, the less money SAG (or AFTRA) can expect from you for dues payments. It’s really, like most things, all rooted in economics and not always in the best interest of the actor.

2) Many actors who hang on to their union cards and union status will often do non-union work, but under a name other than their own. As long as the credit (and the pay check) aren’t traceable back you to, odds of being “found out” are slim to none. However the more successful (read: more recognizable) you become, the less valid this option becomes.

SAG has a special contract agreement for student filmmakers, in their desire to get young filmmakers used to the idea of making union-sanction films. It costs them (the students) very little for the agreement from SAG, which then allows union actors to work in these productions with either a waived (or deferred) fee or a very small stipend.

The truth is that neither SAG or AFTRA can keep on top of the business they ought to be watching, so you’re pretty safe doing student films, whether “sanctioned” by a union or not.

The penalties for a union actor who gets caught doing a non-union job can vary from (usually) a slap on the wrist to hefty fines, depending on who you are and what the circumstances are. For example, during the last commercial actors strike, Tiger Woods appeared in a commercial that was shot non-union. While a great golfer, he’s also a SAG member because of the many commercial endorsements he does. He claimed he didn’t know he couldn’t do the project SAG caught him on.

SAG both slapped him on the wrist and fined him a ton of money (primarily to make an example of him and because they know he had the money to pay the fine).
I always urge young and/or new-to-the-business actors to delay joining one (or any) of the unions for as long as possible.

The goal is to build your resume. In the early stages, it shouldn’t matter whether the work is union or non-union. Experience is the goal. Having said that, you’ve already taken the plunge and the way to proceed is always with caution and always having explored and considered all of your options first, before saying 'yes' to anything."

I hope this is helpful to Michael who already has -- and to anyone else who is contemplating the leap to union membership. I'm a big believer in not joining any union until you have to.

A client of mine was just in this situation. Long an AEA member, he found himself up for a SAG-sanctioned job last week that required his joining the union if he was to be hired. Together, we weighed the benefits and the potential losses his joining SAG at this time would bring -- and together we decided that the opportunity in front of him (and the great, new resume credit that he would earn) was too great a boost not to take the leap. So, he did -- and with good reason.

That's the bottom line, really. If it makes sense, if the financial investment seems worth it, then take that leap of faith and of membership and continue your career journey as a union actor. If not, hold off. Most career actors will have to join one, if not all of the unions, eventually. It's all a matter of time and timing.

Are you a union actor? What were the circumstances under which you signed up? Share your story with us by posting here or by sending me an e-mail to


Monday, September 1, 2008

"Inside the Business of Acting" Coming to the Virtual Channel Network on Monday, September 22!

Admittedly, this is more an an ad than it is a Blog. But, I think it's worth it!

Based on the popularity of The Business of Acting book, we will be taking to the World Wide Web with a new television series for actors to be seen exclusively on the Virtual Channel Network.

Inside the Business of Acting
, which I am thrilled to be hosting, will feature one-on-one interviews with successful, working actors and other industry professionals talking about their career journeys, turning points and lessons learned along the way. Like the book, the television series is designed to empower you on your own career journey. We have a terrific line up of guests, including at least one Tony and two Emmy Award winners.

We're hoping that you'll find it entertaining, informative and helpful, regardless of what stage you are currently at in your career. Whether new to the business or looking for a new perspective on the career you have been having, we think Inside the Business of Acting will be worth your time.

While you're at the Virtual Channel Network (which is a service of Breakdown Services, Ltd., the people who also bring you, make sure to check out the wide variety of other programs being offered up for actors, artists and any one else seeking a career (or to advance a current career) in the business of acting.

I hope, too, that you will share your comments about the new series with us here. It all premieres on September 22, 2008 on the Virtual Channel Network - and once each program segment is launched, it will always be available for viewing - and reviewing on-demand.

Please join us!

Brad Lemack

Neither rain, nor sleet …

The postal service motto “Neither rain nor sleet nor dark of night …”, about always getting your mail delivered (no matter what), applies, from my vantage point, to the first week of September of any year, although this year is, admittedly, special. Neither presidential campaign politics nor weather disaster will stand in the way of the annual back-to-school brigade that happens this week at colleges and universities across the country. Whether first year student or final year senior status, the new academic year is usually, always, filled with anticipation, hope and a bit of anxiety about the school terms ahead. But you forge ahead anyway.

While I can’t directly help with the angst I refer to, if you’re heading off to (or back to) your studies in acting, theatre, performing arts or related field, I can offer up a subjective perspective that I hope will be helpful.

You can never undervalue the importance of a solid academic base. But, at the same time, the focus of academia is, obviously, education, not (always) how that education applies to the real world.

If you’re a student, as you return to class, so do I. About to begin the fall semester of The Business of Acting class at the Emerson College Los Angeles Center, I am about to face the challenge of taking well-taught and well-trained students beyond the safety and comfort of the arena and the environment they have grown comfortable in.

The challenge is in not discounting their academic training, but in teaching them how to apply that experience to the real world, as they begin to consider their transitions from students of the performing arts to careers as professional, working actors.

In a business where the best trained, most talent, highest qualified candidate will not get the jobs based only on those credentials, it is critical to explore how what you know and how your passion for the career you seek can turn you into a pro-active business person who will approach the launching of a career in stealth-like and strategic ways.

My students and I will explore all of the options available to them that they already know about – and then they’ll get exposed to a sizable collection of new ideas and new approaches that they weren’t aware of before. Yes, they must be talented. But, they must also be highly skilled and then learn how to apply those skills to the bigger picture of the career journeys they will soon embark upon.

This applies to you, as well.

So, just because you’re not in my class, doesn’t mean you can’t be my student. Here is what you must do:

Be inquisitive! Ask questions in your classes about how the material you are asked to study applies to the real world in which you want to live in and act. Respectfully challenge your teachers, your professors, your fellow students and yourself. It’s important to learn not just theory, but application and perspective.

In the end, it is the personal perspective you arrive at that will be the most beneficial to you. But, perspectives, like people, like careers, are works-in-progress. You must leave room for change and adaptation as you grow and as you are exposed to newer ideas and opportunities. You must be a smart actor. But first (and always), you must be a smart student.

My comments won’t (necessarily) get you an A in any class. But, I can guarantee that if you start thinking outside the “box” now and if you begin contemplating how you can apply what are learning in class (and in performance training) to what happens beginning the day after graduation, you will be better able to plan for, execute and maneuver all of the twists and turns of the incredible journey that will soon follow. "Smart student" doesn't necessarily mean great grades. But striving to achieve greatness begins at home, is expected in school and is a requirement throughout life. At least that's my philosophy. Long after teachers are grading you on your performance, we need to grade ourselves on how well we are doing all along our journeys of life (and career).

To the incoming class of 2012, congratulations on departing on your four-year transition from young adult to young professional. To those of you with your graduation in sight, relax. The spring is many months off. Don’t rush this last year. Embrace it for all you can. And for those of you in between, be mentors to those new arrivals (remember how daunting your first year at school felt at first?) – and challenge yourselves as often as you can beyond just the requirements of any class or course you take. An “A” is nice, but planning for and thinking about how what you have learned and your experience at school relates, in terms of the bigger picture of your lives and careers, will get you much more.

Oh, to be a student again … I envy you.

Brad Lemack