Last week, I was getting my free soda refill at Astro Burger when my cell phone rang. It was my acting manager. My heart leapt. She usually doesn’t call unless it’s important. I hurried out to the parking lot where it was less noisy. After I told her how great it was to hear from her, she explained the reason for her call. “I was just calling to tell you there’s nothing going on.” “Oh, okay,” I replied, “Well, thanks for calling.” After we hung up, I had one of those "Matrix-like" moments where I'm suddenly catapulted out of the life I imagine myself leading and into the one I’m actually leading. Oddly, I’d been so busy lately; I hadn’t noticed there was nothing going on. This is one of the great ironies of my professional and artistic life -- sometimes I get so busy working that I forget to make a living. Two days later, when my accountant called to inform me how much my modest little company owed the U.S. government, that nagging little voice in my back of my head was suddenly handed a megaphone. “Time to get a damn job!” it announced.
I’m lucky. As both as a writer and an actor I’ve got a little access to the great givers of employment. People do remember me from time to time and every so often, I go through a short, unexpected spurt of real popularity. But mostly, my career is (and has been) self-generated. Until I looked at my bank statement the other day, I’d been thinking that things were going pretty well. I’ve currently got a project in development at a studio and another optioned script that’s out to some very big deal talent. I’ve been pitching some book adaptations which require a ton of prep work. Plus, I’ve been researching a new spec while drumming up ideas for an internet project and a possible stage play. My comedy short on YouTube has been getting a lot of attention and in case you were wondering, these blog entries don’t write themselves. Why, it’s been a veritable festival of creativity over here, but unfortunately none of these projects come with an automatic paycheck attached. In the flurry of all that activity, I had sort of forgotten I was jobless.
When I was a young actor living in New York, I was managed by this sweet, odd, chubby guy who rarely (if ever) left his apartment. Every time I called him, he seemed to be eating lunch. No matter what hour of the day or night we spoke, he would always say this was the first opportunity he’d had to eat lunch. I remember calling him one day panicked about how long it had been since I'd had a job. I could hear him chewing as I shared my anxiety that I might be a cater waiter for the rest of my life. He let out a deep sigh and launched into one of his trademark pep talks. Suddenly, he was the 14th incarnation of the Dali Lama being channeled through a neighborhood yenta. "Don’t be ridiculous, booby,” he assured me. “You’re not unemployed. You’re just under-employed.” When I asked what that meant, he explained. “It’s not like you’ve never worked. And you know that eventually, you’ll work again. You’re just not earning right now. You’re under-employed. See?!” Somehow this appeased me and that night as I carefully ladled soup into the bowls of museum donors, the phrase “I’m just under-employed,” became my silent mantra. As it turned out, the Yenta-Lama was correct. An audition eventually arrived that allowed me to hang up my tuxedo (at least for a while).
In my humble opinion, the trick is not to obsess or become phobic about periods of "under-employment," but to realize that (for most of us) they are simply inevitable. Even big famous, accomplished people occassionally fall out of fashion and have to wait out a dry spell. The big question is what do we do with that time. Of course, I try to keep generating new work, but quite frankly, sometimes I just need a fucking break. I need to ease off and do a little living. That way when the tide turns back, I will have hopefully accumulated a little “life” I can then put back into my work. Yes, I always need to write, but I also need to occasionally read a book that will never be made into a movie, hangout with my crazy family or allow myself to develop a little crush on someone who will probably never work out. It’s in that "real-life" ebb and flow that my shoulders drop and my best ideas tend to arrive. If I don’t keep an eye on career-based obsession and jealousy, I become an artistic Hoover sucking up nothing but dirt and hairballs from the floor of show business. Plus it keeps me from having crazy thoughts like “Kevin Bacon stole my acting career!”
A few years ago, Steven Spielberg produced a film adaptation of Whitney Otto’s novel “How to Make an American Quilt” (screenplay by the very talented Jane Anderson). The project gave a bunch of wonderful older actresses (Ellen Burstyn, Anne Bancroft, Lois Smith, etc.) a chance to sink their teeth into some big, juicy roles for a change. I remember reading a press interview where Spielberg decried the fact that these actresses were generally so underutilized in films. “Ellen is so incredible. Lois is amazing. Annie Bancroft should be working every day!” he gushed. According to the article, when Ms. Bancroft was told of his remark, she laughed. “Is he kidding? That’s why I went into show business in the first place - so I wouldn’t have to work every day.” I only met Anne Bancroft once when she came to see a play I had written. She seemed like a feisty, but pragmatic veteran of the wars. I was so nervous I don’t remember much of our conversation other than when she was leaving she said “Just keep being funny” and winked at me. My heart skipped a beat. I guess I might have been reading quite a lot into that one little wink, but I took it as a gesture of reassurance from a woman who (by her own freewill) had chosen to marry Mel Brooks. I believed her wink to mean “Keep being funny and eventually they’ll pay you for it.” And eventually they did. And they will again. It’s hard to always keep this in mind, but when fed and watered, talent doesn’t wither. It actually grows. It’s tough to wait, but the wheel eventually spins and somebody gets lucky. The following week, it’s someone else’s party. Eventually, it’s yours. Take heart, Hollywood. Everyone (who is meant to) gets their turn.
Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment
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David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being unabashedly middle-class in Hollywood at http://www.partsandlabor.tv/