Monday, July 28, 2003

When No Means No and Yes Also Means No.

In what I sometimes call my "real life" world, I learn all about different theories on how to do business better. It's given me insights to the importance of customer service. Two quick stories:

My dry-cleaner lost a pair of my black pants years ago. They apologized and looked and looked, but never found them. The lady behind the counter asked me how much they were and I gave a guess and instantly that became my "tab" at the dry-cleaners. I wouldn't have to pay for dry-cleaning until that amount was reached. Years later, they are the only dry-cleaner I go to.

A couple of years ago we had some "lawn experts" do our lawn for us. They called the year after to confirm they'd be doing it for us again that year. I told them that, well, LAST year we were pretty disappointed with the results - the lawn was brown and the only green parts were the weeds. So, here again is an opportunity to make a customer for life. The guy on the phone says, "Okay," with a very brusque tone and hung up.

We do the lawn ourselves now.

In the BIZ, it's a stranger world. In the BIZ, the answer is always, "Yes." Even when it's "No", it's "Yes". This can be frustrating.

There's an arc to a person's perceptions about doing movies and stuff. At first it's glory and glamour. I can remember standing "off-stage" in the black, cables snaking around my feet, getting ready to appear in my first commercial (the lottery commercial, a background poker player with Fat Dick, just a couple of guys behind the REAL action). I was sweating and my guts were rolling from nerves. When the commercial's all done, you go home and sit and wait and finally jump up from the couch when at last it appears on TV. You call around and ask to get copies of the commercials so you can have them on tape at home to show off. You call your agent, the production company, the ad agency.

They all tell you, Yes, they can get you a copy.

And sometimes they do.

Other times you wait and wait and then call again. Yes, they tell you, and the cycle repeats.

You learn that the stock answer to any question is "Yes." Even when the answer is "No," you're told "Yes." I can only assume that it's done to keep everybody happy ... or at least to not have people be mad a YOU. You said yes, after all.

The only time I was told No, was from Agent # 3.

Agent #3 bought and assumed control of the talent directory from Agent #2 who, as you will recall, bolted town with his co-agent wife and took all the peoples' money with them. Agent #3 was from Florida and had the distinction of once having appeared in Playboy. Agent #3 has since gone back to the States and yielded the reins to her then-secretary, now-president, Agent #4. I'll wait a moment while you jot all this down on your scorecard.

So. Agents get you auditions, auditions infrequently get you work, work gets you your cheque. Woo-hoo! You're a professional!

When you receive a cheque for having done work for TV and film, you get the whole amount. By comparison, when I receive a cheque from my "real job", I only get about half the whole amount. The government gets about half in taxes and pension and unemployment insurance and all that. But the acting cheques come deduction-free, and that rhymes with "T" and that spells Trouble.

The government's going to want all that money sooner or later, see, so that's why you have to be careful with acting money.

I'm sure you've heard of people more famous than I who have gotten into trouble over this point.

So when the acting cheque comes in, I do the math. Amount divided by two. There's my half. From the other half, pay the agent her commission. Pay whatever other expenses. Whatever else is left over, that goes to mutual funds. What goes to mutual funds doesn't go to the governement as tax (not yet, anyway). All of this financial wheeling and dealing gets recorded in a spreadsheet that I maintain and submit with my taxes. Everything above board and clear as a bell. Everybody's happy.

Revenue Canada was not happy.

What happened was that the payroll company gave me a T4A, which is a declaration of earnings, for the full amount of all the acting cheques I received. I had recorded the full amounts of all the individual cheques on my spreadsheet, and from each took away all my expenses and put what was left over on my income tax form. Net income from professional services. Revenue Canada, not seeing the GROSS number, the number from the T4A, the number that they WANTED to see on my tax return, assumed I hadn't declared ANY of what I got and lo and behold, my $200 tax rebate was transmogrified into a tax-owing bill for $500.


This has happened three times now. The last time it was when I sent my taxes out to my mutual funds guy to do them and he got caught the same as I did. I had since figured out a better way of clearly showing that acting income and I let him know how to solve the problem. But the first time it happened, I was a little panicked and I went to my agent to ask for help.

She told me no.


It's a personal problem, I was told. It wasn't her business.

It's a business problem, I said, related directly to my work as an actor.

No, it was a personal problem. Go away son, you're bothering me.

Frustration, bitterness, gnashing of teeth. Eventually, of course, I sorted it out on my own. But I'm still noticing how the agent (even Agent #4) is happy to take her commission … but for that you get notice of auditions and that seems to be where the service ends.

Also, Revenue Canada has me in their sights and every year at tax time I notice that they are very watchful of what I submit. They still occasionally like to tell me that I owe them money when I've declared it all in my little spreadsheet.

There's a guy in my office that used to work with Revenue Canada. I told him this story and asked him if it's possible that a person can get blacklisted. He assured me that, yes, there's probably a little red flag on my file.

Which means I'm screwed. I'll never have another simple tax return for the rest of my life. Yay.

I was on a movie set with the ex-Mrs. Eddie Van Halen about a week ago. She has her own trailer of course. All the principle actors have their own trailers. I show up on this hot July afternoon with two suitcases full of clothes, sweaters and winter coats. We're shooting a Christmas movie. "John Christmas" is the name of it. Watch for it this year on CBS. Anyway, I stroll up to the set with all my belongings to report in. The actors are here, the crew is over here and you, Mr. Extra, your room is over there. Welcome to Extras Holding. It's a big, blank room with hard metal folding chairs. In this room I will sit (stand, mostly, because of a current back ailment) for HOURS. There is no glamour on a film set. There is no glory. It's all about waiting. And waiting.

And waiting.

You soon figure out: bring a book.

There were about twenty of us there by the end of the evening in the big blank room. Almost everyone was sitting and reading.

Time passed.

I struck up a conversation with another of the extras and started talking about the "Arc of Expectation" as a movie extra. How you start all nervous, like me in that first lottery ad. How, at first, you wants copies of all the little bits you've done, then later you become less and less interested.

It looked like it was going to be a long night. It looked like I might not even get to go in front of the camera for that last scene.

I told of the time I did background work for a movie called "Magic of Marciano". It starred Nastassja Kinski (who I never saw first or last). For this movie I sat in a different blank room with folding tables and folding chairs. I sat for hours and hours and hours. Fat Dick was there too, unless my memory is faulty. Briefly, I went to the set to start to work on some blocking. I was to be a detective going through a bedroom, a crime scene. Something wasn't quite right though, the crew wasn't ready and I was sent back to Extras Holding.

The next word came hours later and the word was that we were wrapped. Thanks very much. You're done. And I had never even gone before the camera.

I was crushed. Disappointed. I had my cool detective suit on, my shoulder holster, my gun, and I never got to play.

Now, years later, sitting near the set of "John Christmas" where it appeared that once again I might not get to go before the camera, I told the "Magic of Marciano" story to another of the background performers.

And how one of the biggest lessons you learn is that whether they use you or not, the money still spends the same.

Just don't forget to give half to the government.

Still to come!

- Vomit Your Way To Stardom!
- Why I Hate Harrison Ford.
- Rick Mercer, Sela Ward, Valerie Bertenelli, but not Leslie Nielsen

Monday, July 21, 2003


But from the humblest of beginnings. When some scantily-clad morsel whispered in my ear that I had good bone structure in my face. It changed everything. You could get an agent, she said. You could be a model, she said. So I did. Got an agent and everything. Life changed. Fame beckoned. I would become famous and powerful and rich beyond the dreams of avarice.


See, what actually happened ....

I became an extra.

I blame it all on the weak Canadian dollar.

Not the dollar's fault that I didn't become wealthy and famous and powerful. No, no. That was a function of LACK OF TALENT. No, the fact that I got to be in an EXTRA is because Hollywood started farming out its productions to cheaper places and one of them was mine. On account of the weak Canadian dollar, you see.

So more and more, here come the movies. To my home town.

And you out there, yes YOU! You like all the behind the scenes stuff, don't you. Sure you do. My mission then is to employ this ultimate object of virtual self-importance and ego-feeding and pass onto you all the little morsels of my little successes.

No, not the scantily-clad one.

I have some back-story to catch up on, you'll pardon me for not bringing you the latest quite yet. I'm just getting started here! For crying out loud....

Cast your mind back, Johnny and Janey. Back into the farthest reaches of time.

Back, back.

Not that far.

Here's me in a dim stairwell, confidently striding up the stairs to a murky office, a dim vestibule, it was the agent's lair and they seemed to agree with the scantily-clad morsel about the bone structure and sent me out to get pictures. And so I did. Pictures of me in a white shirt and a thin leather tie. Smiling. Skinny little face on me that's still there but hidden by an extra, oh, twenty pounds of fat. Triumphant return to the dim vestible and oh my...

... the agency's out of business.

Locked door.

Big sign on it.

"Out of Business."

You know, they must have known when they sent me out for pictures. They must have. It was only a couple of days ago. I blamed the photographer, the only one who made money on this deal. A greek guy, named George. Last name also George, but greek. George with a lot of opopulopulous after it, some such thing. I couldn't blame the agent (but I did) he was gone. So I blamed the photographer. Measly, money-grubbing, rashinfrashin....

Here's me at the start. Already ground on the rocks of defeat and rejection. Get used to it, son. You're in show bidness now.

On to Agent Number Two.

Buy courses and more photos and get trained and .. hey! There's a picture of my hand in a newspaper ad, by god! And another one of my hand in a mineral water ad. Stupid little morsel didn't say ANYTHING about my hands, how do you like THAT, huh?

My agent had a policy of holding back performer's money. You needed to have a good excuse to get it from them. I had a trip to Montreal coming up, so they gave me most of mine. And so later, when the husband and wife team ran out of town with everyone's money (honest to god I'm not making this up), what they took only included about a thousand or so bucks that was mine. Little over a thousand bucks.

Agent Number Three. And I still haven't met anyone famous.

So. The first breakthrough.

A beautiful little story to demonstrate how absurd it all is.

It's a lottery commercial. This far back, the movies haven't really found us yet, so all us amateur players keep meeting at all the same auditions and compare who's done what. By and large, it's commercials for the lottery. Or for the phone company. Either - or. My very first work was for a lottery commercial. I was an extra around a card table, playing a fake game of poker with another chronic extra, Fat Dick.

Anyway, the breakthrough. There I am in the audition for another lottery commercial doing a slate (my name, who's my agent). They're looking for a Billy Crystal type for a lottery ad. I don't know what's a Billy Crystal type except that I ain't it. But I go and I slate and then at the end of the slate I mimic Elvis and say, "Thank-yuh. Thank-yuh ver much".

The ad agency sends all the tapes to New York to the director with their recommendations for the four principle roles that they're casting. The director takes three and ignores the fourth. Instead of who was recommended, he picks ME. During the wardrobe fitting (my colour will be blue) the director asks me if I knew why I won the audition. I stammered something unintelligible that I no longer can recall. He said, "No, it was that Elvis thing you did at the end of the slate." As a result of seeing it, he decided on the spot that the role wouldn't be a Billy Crystal type, it would be a guy named Eddie who thought he was Elvis.

Such are the vagueries of luck and showbiz.

I laughed my ass off the whole drive home.

It remains my best work and my biggest paycheque, that lottery commercial, even though I've since done a starring role on TV (high up on the cable dial mind you) which got me into TV Guide. That first one, the lottery commercial with Bill Carr still remains the biggest and best.

"Another Scratch 'Em game, Eddie?"
(me, doing Elvis, sitting on a giant , paper-mache kaiser bun): "Hit me, baby. I'm on a roll!"

You know, I heard later on that there's a guy in the city - all he does is Elvis work. He's a for-real Elvis impersonator. He saw our commercial and he was PISSED. How come they were doing an Elvis thing and he never even got a look?!?!?!

Because ... (say it with me, class) the role was for a Billy Crystal type.

During this, my first real shoot, I learned the two most important words in the film business: CRAFT TABLE. (Bagles with cream cheese and strawberry jam. BLISS!!!!!)

So there I am, on set. Day three of the shoot. The scene had me in this big blue 1960 Ford Galaxy convertible. Saying my lines. "Hey, Jimmy. You playing that lottery scratch and win sports game aGAIN?" Like Elvis, remember. Over and over and over. Thirsty work. During a brief pause I got out of the car and went to get a drink.

"Whoa, whoa whoa!" the assistant director (A.D.) says to me. "Where are you going?"
"I'm just going to get a drink from the craft table."
"No, no. You stay in the car and someone will go and GET that FOR you."

Cool gig.

So time passes, I'm still sitting in the big blue car, still doing my lines (new camera angle) and I'm working on a new thirst. It's a hot, hot day. I say somewhat meekly, "Can I get a water or a juice please?" In a flash there are two people there at my window, one with a water, one with a juice. One might begin to see how this type of power could corrupt the weak-minded.

Four days later I'm Joe Schmoe again. Working as an office clerk. Arranging invoice payments.

Missing my craft table.


- Red Flagged: How to Make the Revenue Canada Black List.
- Vomit Your Way To Stardom!
- Why I Hate Harrison Ford.
- Rick Mercer, Sela Ward, Valerie Bertenelli, but not Leslie Nielsen.