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Even from the standpoint of those of us aware of his abilities, Heath Harper’s professional success has come quickly.   The dream is that one can move to Los Angeles and almost immediately find work as an actor; the reality is that every waiter has either a headshot or a screenplay.   But since Heath appears to be well on his way to supporting himself through the craft he loves, we thought there might be something other young actors can learn from his experience.   The following Q&A took place over a series of emails in summer of 2009.

If you have a question for Heath, send it to QandA@PlaysInPerpetuity.com

[All submissions become property of World-Stage LLC and PlaysInPerpetuity.com.]

  

PIP:  You’re making this look easier than it is. How did you lay the groundwork that led to you being able to support yourself as an actor so quickly?

HH:  Knowing what I was bad at.  I developed a really bad articulation problem early on in my career (a nasty habit of runningallmywordstogetheronstage).  When I got to college I knew that it was a habit I'd either break or one that would break me, and so threw myself into dialect classes and all kinds of training that would solve the problem.  Thanks to a certain playwright/producer/drinking buddy, I found myself learning monologues the length of my arm, and dragging myself by the fingertips through every Shakespeare sonnet I could get my hands on. The end result is that you can actually understand me on camera -- a less common skill than one might think.  Everyone knows what they're good at (those are the parts of your craft that get you all the applause and laughter and approval), but it takes a real actor to know what makes them awful.

PIP:   Amazing.   My words have healed the sick.   What about the technical side of things?

HH:   I immediately joined Central Casting  (www.centralcasting.org ), the company which handles most of the background casting in the LA area, and was just plain lucky.   I started getting even more work when I joined a call-in service called Joey's List (www.joeyslist.com), which actually hunts down the jobs for me.   After that, it's a matter of showing up on set on time (such an easy way to impress people), touting yourself as an experienced, professional performer, and working overtime and extra hard. (I made good on the set of "90210" by putting a little character into some background work and then talking about Shakespeare with one of the Assistant Directors).  In the end, you have to be positive, and have well-polished armor.

PIP: “Armor,” eh?  What have you encountered so far in the way of negative reactions?  Not meaning your not being offered every role you audition for, but any overt nastiness?

HH:  I've only had one 'nasty' experience so far (a record, I believe), when I stood up to a real slimeball claiming to be a producer, who was going after a lady friend of mine.  That issue was solved with a couple of threats and a call to LAPD.
         By "polished armor," I mean that you must accept that you will fail, and must still look sexy, smart and professional...while failing.  People will tell you "no" -- even when it is the difference between eating or not eating, let alone not scoring that perfect role. You have to have polished armor so that you can deflect the negative responses in the industry and look GOOD doing it.  This means keeping your cool in the face of rejection, being impervious and looking forward to the next job so quickly that you don't even have time to consider "failure."  If you find yourself begging, pushing for sympathy or telling the story of how your boyfriend cheated on you in order to guilt someone into giving you a part, what armor you might be wearing isn't polished.

PIP:  Regarding that "eating and not eating" comment: at this writing it's been about six months since you left, and recent pictures attest that young Heath has a lean and hungry look.   It appears you've dropped about fifteen or twenty pounds, and you were not overweight to begin with. Given the fact you're a vegetarian, the diet part of diet and exercise would seem a given, so what did you do to drop the weight so effectively? And what can you tell other actors who are about to make the move to Los Angeles, regarding expectations of appearance and/or conditioning? From watching TV, it would seem there is a place for the "Fit Friend" character and the "Fat Friend" character, but far less room for the Fit one who has let himself go for a few months, or even weeks.

HH:  You have to be honest with yourself and look at the actors who are working.  They're in

shape -- even the 'big guys' for the most part tend to move well, and are usually if nothing else pretty strong.   But appealing looks and casting directors aside, the average shoot day is about twelve hours long. You're going to need energy. Lots of it. Oh, and during that twelve hours, they're feeding you...pretty much constantly. You better be willing to run it off. Get in shape -- no matter what that means. 
        For me, I do what Grandma always said -- eating those veggies and getting outside.  Being a vegetarian keeps you away from drive-thrus, and on set there's ALWAYS a huge salad bar available.  If you're a meat eater, count on salmon, tuna, grilled chicken, and occasionally lean beef.  Of course, on set there's also ribs, pie, cheesecake, candy, and donuts, so be careful.
        And once again, know thyself. I'm a big guy -- I don't have a body like Jude Law, and only starvation would get me there. I used to play football; I have huge shoulders and a tendency to get lovehandles.  So I don't seem to accomplish much if I'm doing just cardio, and lately I've been doing a run/walk of about 4.5 miles about 2-3 times a week. Then every other day, I'm in the gym, doing lots of ab stuff (pilates ball crunches, medicine ball sides and good ol' fashioned situps), and then free weights (triceps, pecs and biceps). I don't have any illusions about how I look and I'm still not completely where I want to be.
        So, it's worth it for me to just hit that damned gym. . .Plus I ran into Jennifer Garner there the other day, so it's not all bad.

PIP:  That's surprising about the ribs and cheesecake.  Seems cruel.  How about screen credits? What does it take in terms of on-screen activity to merit a mention in a show's credits?

HH:  Credit comes when dialogue does. They give you a line, you get into the credits.  It's sort of the Holy Grail for background artists -- it puts you on the fast track.  The tough part is, if the line is memorable enough, it can hurt your chances for getting picked up by a TV series.   For example, if you show up to work as a background artist and the producer pulls you out to tell the lead on 'Desperate Housewives', "Hey, lady, take your oranges and get the hell outta my store!,"  it makes it tough for you at an audition for that show later on.  The casting director doesn't want to cast 'orange-guy' as the head of surgery at the hospital who falls in love with the lead and becomes a recurring character.  It wouldn't make sense.

PIP:  So you could be too good for your own good.  Now tell us about the whole Union situation, and what one needs to accomplish or have under their belt in order to qualify.

HH: What it boils down to is that there are two major film unions for actors in Los Angeles -- the Screen Actor's Guild (or SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA).  SAG is a much larger union, but AFTRA is growing really quickly -- nearly all of the TV pilots this year were AFTRA.
        The Screen Actor's Guild has three ways to get in. The first (and most common way) requires three 'union vouchers' (otherwise known as Taft-Hartley Vouchers), which are basically receipts proving you worked on SAG shows under Union rates. These are notoriously hard to get.  The most common way people get them is by sheer, dumb luck -- by being at the right place at the right time on set and getting an "upgrade."  This usually consists of getting an actual line or doing something specialized they hadn't intended for you to do. Get three vouchers and you are SAG eligible.
 Another way to join SAG is to receive what is called a "principle role" on a SAG show, meaning a character with lots of lines.  Doing one of these types of jobs merits you the equivalent of three SAG vouchers, making you SAG eligible.  Finally, if you are a member of a SAG "sister-guild"  (like AFTRA) for more than one year and perform as a principle, then you are SAG eligible.  Once you are SAG eligible, you may pay the initiation costs and join.
       AFTRA is, as a general rule, easier to get into but not quite as lucrative.  Once you have done at least one AFTRA show, you are AFTRA eligible, at which point you can pay the much smaller initiation cost (as of 5/11/2009 it is $1300 versus approximately $2200 for SAG), and join immediately.  Currently, AFTRA will automatically simply deduct the cost of membership from each of your checks until you are paid off if you don't immediately pay, though rumors say this might end soon.  Basically, AFTRA is easier to join but the benefits aren't quite as good.  AFTRA daily background rate is $105, SAG rate is about $130 (versus "8 for 8", which means eight dollars an hour for eight hours, or $64/day).  While I cannot speak for SAG, AFTRA will represent you with contract negotiations as well as their normal functions (keeping you safe, well-paid, and respected on set). I personally am a member of AFTRA, and highly recommend it.  I'm also on my way to joining SAG as well.  Both guilds are great, and most everybody suggests you join both guilds as soon as possible.  The only negative thing about joining SAG is that you are prohibited from doing "amateur" acting gigs without permission (which is tough to get). This means that you cannot do student films or small independent films which most young actors rely on in order to get their reels and resumes together.

SAG just recently approved a new contract.  I suggest any aspiring actors take a look.

 

PIP:  In Theatre, actors often have contact with the author of a play.  How much contact do you have, if any, with the writers of the shows on which you work?  Do you see the stars of shows interact at all with the writers, or is that left to Directors and/or Producers?"

HH: A lot of times they 'lurk' around, but you rarely ever have much contact with producers on TV shows -- they tend to leave the creative stuff to the directors. However, on a few films you'll see them actually pitching in an operating as Production Assistants and lending creative advice, though almost never to the actors. With TV shows, writers seem to almost always be on set, as well as a script supervisor, just in case they decide they need a line re-worked or added in.

PIP: On that note, what is the function of a Producer on a television show? In Theatre, a Producer provides financing in some form or fashion, as well as arranging for stages and rehearsal space, while often delegating casting and the like. But on television, Producing credits are now often given to a show's principle actors. This probably has to do with syndication money as much as anything, but have you had any contact with an actual Producer?

HH:  It's more or less the same. The executive producer puts up most of the money -- that's why they get the Best Picture Oscar.  :)  The only producers I've actually met are on the smaller indie films I've done.

PIP:  You're moving from a largely Theatrical background into Television, both

sit-coms and drama.  Any interesting similarities or disparities, or things in hindsight you didn't see coming?

HH:  The biggest change is my 'type'.  On stage, I'm usually an entirely sympathetic character -- a well-meaning romantic or a sweet-hearted best friend, sometimes pushed too far.  On screen, if someone's a total psychopath, I'm usually it.  Something about having a "Dexter-type" look.
          Learning to pull way back has also been an adjustment after twenty years of being told "louder, meaner, more, more, more" in theatre.  But I was a little more prepared for that.  Like Michael Caine said,  "Acting in theatre is surgery with a scalpel, acting on film is surgery with a laser."

If you have a question for Heath, send it to QandA@PlaysInPerpetuity.com

[All submissions become property of World-Stage LLC and PlaysInPerpetuity.com.]

 

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