Warped Reality

This Week: Actors Pretending to Be Real People Pretending Not Be Actors

Reality doesn’t exist.

31. That’s the number of breakdowns via Breakdown Services released to talent agents in the past twelve months for reality programming seeking actors as ‘real’ people. It’s been no industry secret that those ‘real people’ you see on Survivor, Big Brother and similar non-episodic programming that clog our cable providers have not been filled solely with people pulled from the local mall but sweetened with actors cast in sessions put together via submissions from talent agencies. If this is news to you; welcome to reality.

Among the ‘real’ shows revealed in my breakdown search seeking ‘real people’ (who just happen to have real talent agents) the projects included:

– An untitled, reality, fashion show seeking ‘real’ photographers who by coincidence are also actors. (Faux-cameras need not apply.)

– A non-union, major cable, untitled, reality show looking to tear apart BFFs – who happen to be actors – as they fight for the affections of one man. (Gives new meaning to ‘BFF’; bitch fist-fights.)

Then there was one reality program seeking real lawyers who by chance are also actors. (There’s an infinity mirror gone hell-ish. Representation with representation.)

My personal fav reality show breakdown was one that was searching for a mugger. Yes, it would seem that the streets of New York, LA and Chicago are not filled with honest deviants of battery so the producers needed to look elsewhere for true assault; an actor to be a thug but not declare that they are a thespian. The mugger character description read: ‘must be rough/scruffy looking’. That could be any actor who has just emerged dazed and dreary from a week of tech.

What’s the point Paul’ you may be asking? None. O.K. well yes I have one or I wouldn’t be working my fingers as the winter winds howl outside my window.

When reality programming first became the rage of the early-aughts of the 2000’s actors themselves got enraged. Employment was being usurped as television execs found a cheaper form or programming. Now those jobs are coming back to the actors. But nearly all are non-union as so too must be the actors (if they’re honest). And unless a winner for whatever contest is being held there remains no money. Only exposure.

The producers exploit the cheaper-to-‘hire’-talent at mostly free wages and the union actors remain on the sidelines, again, as the number of small-screen, union jobs, diminish. Worse yet; union or not, actors are no longer competing for employ-slash-exposure among the overwhelming volume of their peers but now have to go up against civilians as well. Is it no wonder that some actors scream silently in their cranium about lack of opportunity, Who do I have to fuck to be noticed on YouTube? (Try a sports icon. If you’re desperate; a Governor or Senator.)

And then there’s the misguided thought of the ‘actors’ or civilians with acting aspirations who land a reality show gig gloating, ‘This is gonna make me!’ Uhmmm… not for very long my high-def  dilettantes. More than likely you’ll be forgotten as the next male enhancement commercial flails before our eyes. Reality might be a short-cut to extreme exposure but so far the statistics on long term endurance remains doubtful. William Hung anyone?

The most recent news on Mr. Hung’s official web site was from June 10, 2008. He was the highlighted guest of an international Mahjong Tournament in Hong Kong. Oh, can his star on the Hollywood walk-of-fame be far behind?

What can actors do to cauterize the wounds of lost employ to ‘reality’? Union actors with activist ambitions would do themselves and their membership brethren well by involving themselves on union committees which negotiate contracts. Non-union actors would better serve their long-term interests and that of their peers by reducing participation and consumption of reality programing. Pollyanna? Yes. Realistic solutions? No. But one answer does not solve a host of problems. And this current deluge of ‘reality’ on TV was brought upon by multiples of economic and contractual tsunamis.

We, the audience, have only ourselves to blame for encouraging the growing shrinkage of paid employ on television. And so now actors willingly step up to fill that void by bartering the lack of a paycheck in exchange for exposure.

So next time when sitting in your Hell’s Kitchen studio that’s not a million dollar listing –with your average Joe, big brother or better half — to tune-in to see if America’s got talent and you’re flipping out over the next best thing that has the it factor remember moving up from the real world to the surreal life is a shark tank of anything for love that in the end is an amazing race where there is only one survivor and all others are the biggest loser.

(Yes, I know… but I couldn’t resist temptation of that last paragraph. And there are 17 of them in there by-the-by. 17 pieces of reality chipping away at opportunities for actors getting paid to create fantasy.)

My Best,

P.S. The February Access to Agents (Musical Theater version) is now registering. The most recent series got three actors signed with agencies plus several other actors received additional call-backs and agent meetings. Only 10 participants per series. Info Here

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Paul Russell’s career as a casting director, director, acting teacher and former actor has spanned nearly thirty years. He has worked on projects for major film studios, television networks, and Broadway. Paul has taught the business of acting and audition technique at NYU and has spoken at universities including Yale, Temple and the University of the Arts. He writes a column for Back Stage and is the author of ACTING: Make It Your Business – How to Avoid Mistakes and Achieve Success as a Working Actor. For more information, please visit www.PaulRussell.net.

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