So You Want to Be in Pictures? These Hollywood-Watchers Say Salesmanship Cuts More Ice Than Talent

updated 08/08/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/08/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Next to the return of the swallows to San Juan Capistrano, it is California's most celebrated migration: the annual arrival in Hollywood of people who want to see themselves in the movies. In due course, sadder but wiser, many of them pack their bags and go home. Those who remain often lead lives of frustration and poverty, sustained only by the unrealistic expectation of stardom. Actor-director M.K. Lewis and his wife, Rosemary, a former consumer affairs reporter for the New Orleans States-Item, believe that people who think they ought to be in pictures at least ought to know what they're in for. For seven years the Lewises have been teaching the Hollywood Actor's Survival Seminar in L.A. Now their advice is available in a book: Your Film Acting Career (Crown, $8.95). The Lewises discussed the ins and outs of surviving in Hollywood with PEOPLE'S Paul Corkery.

What's the most important thing I would need to break into movies and TV?

A salesman's go-getter personality. If you're the type of person who can go from door to door and sell a set of encyclopedias or pots and pans, then you can be a successful actor. In a business where there are 55,000 people vying for about 100 jobs in any given week in L.A., you have to be able to sell yourself.

Doesn't it help to have talent?

Talent has very little to do with success in Hollywood. Ninety percent of an actor's working time is spent not acting, but looking for jobs. As an actor, your real job is job-hunting. That's why some of the most mediocre actors are the most successful ones. They know how to get jobs.

How important are looks?

It helps to be gorgeous, but it's not necessary. Right now the most sought after people in movies and TV are white-bread types. That's the wholesome, clean-cut, all-American look. You don't have to be white to have it; plenty of black actors have this bland quality too. But ethnic types—including Italians, Latins, Blacks and others—may do better on the stage in New York.

But what about Sly Stallone and John Travolta and the dozens of other stars who don't fit that stereotype?

Their success just goes to show that anything can happen in Hollywood. Both Stallone and Travolta got their first important breaks in roles that called for ethnic types—Travolta in a TV series, Welcome Back, Kotter, and Stallone in the movie Rocky.

What are the first three things I should do when I get to Hollywood?

Get an apartment. Get a car—you can't pursue an acting career in L.A. without one; the distances are simply too great. Get a full-time job. Too many actors come to L.A. expecting to make it overnight. Instead, they starve. You should take a day job to pay the rent, and start going to acting classes and doing theater at night.

Should I change my name?

Not if you're thinking of becoming Rock Granite or Jasmine Julep. Those days, thank God, are over. In today's Hollywood, real names, even ones like René (Benson) Auberjonois are acceptable. But if you're a borderline ethnic type, with an ethnic name, a more nondescript pseudonym would draw less attention to your ethnicity and increase your opportunities. I changed my name because Maurice Kowalewski drove my agent crazy.

What should I include on my résumé?

More important, what shouldn't you include. Don't give your age. Supposing a role calls for a 28-year-old and you're 27? Don't give your home address, Social Security number or measurements. Résumés can fall into the wrong hands. And don't emphasize your singing or dancing ability. There are still plenty of dumb people in Hollywood who believe singers and dancers can't act.

Should I pad my résumé?

That's a delicate point. Some of the best theater today is outside the Big Apple, but L.A. types are still impressed with New York credits. Lying on a résumé is very dangerous, but, if you're brave, you could take a Dallas community-theater credit, say The Glass Menagerie, and claim it at an obscure New York theater. But be careful. It must be off-off-Broadway. Saying you played the lead in Hello, Dolly! wouldn't be smart.

What kind of résumé photos should I have?

The days of Joan Crawford-like glamour pictures are long gone. Today, casting directors are turned off by photos of painted goddesses. Casting directors want to see how you really look—scars, moles, warts and all. They're infuriated by actors who show up looking nothing like their pictures.

Are these photos expensive?

You'll have to spend about $250 for a photographer's session and photo printing during your first year in L.A.

What if I'm broke?

If you want to be an actor, you can't be broke. Forget the romantic starving artist myth. It takes about $3,000 to get into this business. You must have money. Work for it, beg for it, grub for it, but get it!

When will I start earning money as an actor?

It takes about a year to get your first paid acting job. If you're lucky, it takes five years in L.A. to earn enough money to support yourself acting.

Will I have to do commercials to make a living?

It beats waiting on tables. Sixty percent of all money earned by actors comes from television commercials, which are the most lucrative. Many TV ads are shot in L.A.

Will I need an agent?

If you want work. Finding a good, respectable agent is one of the toughest parts of this business. Never sign up with an agent who isn't on the union's approved list. Some outfits often have impressive sounding names and they promise jobs and publicity, but they're only interested in taking your money. If a so-called agent ever asks you for money, run—don't walk—out of his office. A real agent makes his money from one source only: 10 percent of what you make, after you make it.

How do I know I've chosen a good agent?

First of all, he'll get you auditions and interviews. Then, after you've gotten a part, he'll grow fangs and claws and go to the producers to get you the best money and billing possible.

What unions must I join?

There are three actors' unions—the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the Actor's Equity Association. Eventually, you'll have to join all of them.

Isn't it difficult to get into the unions?

The old hang-up—"I can't get into the union without a job, and I can't get a job without being in the union"—isn't true. There are a lot of ways, all legitimate, around that apparent dilemma. But an actor shouldn't be too eager to join the unions, because once you do, you can't act in a community theater—the best place to learn.

What are some of the side doors into the Screen Actors Guild?

One way is through the unions that govern clowns, extras and musicians. After you've been a member of one of these groups for a year, and if you have done some work, you can automatically join SAG. It's relatively easy to get into the American Guild of Variety Artists, for example. Just get your next-door neighbor to hire you to sing or tell jokes at a party. The only hitch is that he has to pay you $75 and fill out a union contract.

How do I get work as an extra?

The Screen Extras Guild has jurisdiction over all "atmosphere people." You should register with any or all of the union approved casting agencies. Some suggest calling first, but we advise showing up in person. The more skills you can list on your resume, the better chance you have of getting work as an extra. An extensive wardrobe also helps. If you go to one of these casting agencies, dress to kill. If the agency is sufficiently impressed and allows you to register as an extra, be prepared to check in often, sometimes every half hour. Requests for extras come in all day at a furious pace.

What should I know about auditions?

Basically, there are two kinds of auditions: the general interview—or "look-see"—and the cold reading. Don't make the mistake of thinking that the look-see is like a job interview in business. It's a personality interview. Usually, a director will start by saying, "Tell me about yourself." The last thing he wants to hear are your acting credits. He wants you to be interesting. Tell an amusing story. Treat the interview as a conversation.

What about cold readings?

In a cold reading, you're given about 20 minutes to study a script and then read it. Don't worry about how well you read your lines. The director is more interested in how you listen and react to the other actors in the scene.

How important is a positive attitude?

Essential. Don't be desperate. If you act as if you need the work, you won't get it. Producers loathe nervousness, because it makes them nervous. "Oh my God, this guy has too much pressure on him already," the producer thinks. "I can't afford having a guy like this on the set. He'll blow lines. He'll need lots of retakes."

If I am rejected, how do I cope?

You have to let rejection wash right over you. You need to be the kind of person who doesn't mind having doors slammed in his face. Think of yourself as a product. Don't be upset if the director wants a Cadillac and you're a Mercedes. Sooner or later, someone will want a Mercedes. It isn't personal.

What are my chances of getting enough acting work to make a living?

Not good. Some of the most successful actors combine acting with other careers. Laurence Luckinbill, for example, worked as a carpenter. We have friends who teach computer programming and do interior decorating between acting jobs. But you shouldn't wait on tables indefinitely hoping for a big break. You should look for something more than a menial job that you can constantly mix in with your acting career. The key thing is to find a way to support yourself so that you won't be emotionally and financially desperate for work.

Can I ever expect to be a star?

Some people become stars. But not many. Don't concentrate on becoming famous. Concentrate on becoming a working actor.

Well, if I can't expect to be famous, can I at least hope to be rich?

If it's money you're after, go into banking.

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