I was wearing nothing but a Speedo, a cowboy hat and a pair of ill-fitting pointy toed cowboy boots, surrounded by bronzed, oiled-up, male bodybuilders who were square dancing. A massive blond Austrian international bodybuilder was on stage, calling out square-dancing moves in an accent so thick it made Arnold sound like a Valley Girl. I was cold, my feet hurt and I had no idea what I was doing here.
I imagine you’re probably saying to yourself “Good GOD, Leary! How many of these stories do you have?!”
But, this one is actually legit — I was stone-cold sober and had been hired to be there. It was a commercial way back in 1999 or 2000, for some regional cell phone carrier (remember back when they were all regional? Cingular, Primeco, Nextel) that I had auditioned for and booked. I was now on set and “in costume.” Pretty sure this was going to ruin whatever career I had managed to eek out.
The concept of the spot had something to do with me and another “schlubby guy” (that’s how it was described in the breakdown for the part) being wallflowers at a body-builder square dance. I always thought there would be male and female bodybuilders. I thought wrong. Very, very wrong.
But hey, I was getting paid, and if the commercial ran regionally I could expect a decent chunk of change for the next 13 to 26 weeks. As the morning wore on that regional commercial idea slid away faster than the baby-oiled muscles boot-scooting across the dance floor. I could see the look on the client’s face as he reviewed the footage in the monitor. Then the panicked looks on the ad execs’ faces as they realized that the concept they had in their head — and had spent a couple hundred thousand dollars on — WAS NOT happening in reality. It was reading less as a wacky cell phone commercial, and more like… well, an ad for Country and Western Night in West Hollywood.
There was lots of yelling at one point, a chair may have been thrown, and we wrapped early. Thankfully, I don’t think the spot ever saw the light of day – hopefully, the undeveloped footage is sitting in a storage vault somewhere in central Florida. Just one more adventure in the life of a working commercial actor.
For most of my 12 years in the City of Angels, commercial work was my “bread and butter.” I added it up once, and I think I may have done somewhere between 25-35 commercials. To put it bluntly, commercial work is weird. I’ve portrayed a drunk clown, a terrified man in a glass coffin, a creepy groom, gotten beat up by a bird, had an igloo dropped on me, and walked around a busy office with a porn-stache yelling “I Feel Great.” And gigs that included everything in between.
It was good work. Fun work. But it was not the work I moved to L.A. to do. If you had told 10-year-old Jimmy Leary running around the woods pretending he was on the forest moon of Endor – with dreams of being in the movies – that he would one day end up shilling light beer and praying he got that Abreva spot because it shot in the Bahamas and paid triple scale (‘cause your face would be associated with having herpes); 10-year-old Jimmy would have crashed his imaginary speeder bike into a tree.
I know how entitled that sounds. At the end of the day, I was still getting paid to make believe, and I tried to make the most out of every job – mostly, because you never knew when the next job was going to roll around. The life of a “working” actor, unless you are a Hemsworth, is not all limo rides, mocha soy-chai-lattes-no-foam-light-whip, and after-hour parties at Leo DiCaprio’s house (I did attend a Super Bowl party with Mario Lopez once, though). The life of a “working” actor in Hollywood is, well, basically… auditioning.
Over and over and over again.
Spending 2 hours in traffic (to go 17 miles) to make it to an audition in Santa Monica at 4:30, only to have it run an hour behind and make you late for your 6:45 audition in the valley is par for the course. At first, this part of the life was exciting. It was full of endless opportunity. Every day was something a little bit different. One day, you’re dressing up like a Leprechaun; the next, you’re doing your best Dr. Evil impression because a decade after Austin Powers came out ad copywriters freaking loved Dr. Evil so every audition called for a Dr. Evil-esque actor (Riiiigggghhhttt, still not funny). After a while, it becomes a grind.
I’d say on average, if you’re lucky, an actor who is half-way decent will book maybe one job for every 100 auditions. And you’re probably saying, hey, that’s like 1%, that’s horrible! Yes. Yes it is. Imagine if 99% of your job was going to look for other jobs. And jobs where it really didn’t matter how qualified you were or what you could bring as far as experience, but most of the time depended on how well you looked in plaid, or being six inches taller, or not looking like the asshole ex-boyfriend of the client or casting director. Your job is basically getting rejected 99 times before getting one yes. And that’s just for commercials.
Hollywood is a very weird place, and with the benefit of hindsight, being an actor facing judgement, ridicule and rejection on a daily basis was probably not the best career for a formerly shy kid who desperately wanted everyone to like him. The 14-year-old who thought if he wore the right pair of Reebok sneakers, the appropriate Polo shirt with flipped collar, and the day-glow Wayfarer shades that the “popular” kids would accept him. That if he made the right jokes, the pretty girl would notice him. That getting a room full of complete strangers to laugh and clap would somehow make up for the emotionally abusive stepdad at home. That kid who never felt comfortable in his own skin and wished so many times that he was anyone BUT himself, yet finally felt at home on the stage — just wanted that feeling to last.
Hollywood is also a very cruel place. I found that out pretty early on, after I had done a staged reading of a short screenplay at UCLA. It was a funny role, with way-over-the-top comedy — my milieu. I was still fairly new to L.A., but in my short time I had managed to book a national commercial, and a series-regular role on a Spanish-language sitcom that had just gotten picked up to series. I was feeling pretty damn good about myself.
We did the staged reading at the Kirk Douglas theater (I actually got to meet Kirk Douglas — he was old, and shorter than I expected but had a handshake that was like grasping vibrating steel). At the little after-party reception, this woman comes up to me and tells me how hysterical I was, how she was a manager, and here was her card, and to send her my demo! If you’ve seen the show Friends, she was a shorter, heavier version of Estelle Leonard, Joey’s chain-smoking agent. I’m pretty sure that by the time she came up to me, she had taken full advantage of both the free wine and mushroom caps. But hey, a Hollywood manager was interested in me.
So I sent in my demo reel, which consisted mostly of student films from Chicago and a Daft Punk video that aired a few times on MTV2 but was huge in Singapore, and waited for her to call. She didn’t.
I gave it a week longer than I wanted to before I finally bit the bullet and called her. After leaving two messages, she finally called me back. “Well, James, thanks for sending me your tape,” she said. “But let’s face it: You’re no Brad Pitt or Johnny Depp. Good luck.”
I was blindsided. I had no idea if this woman was a good manager or a shitty manager, but I had gotten my hopes up and thought, “Hey, she saw me, liked what I did and wanted to help me build a career. Shit — she came up to me!” Then, to have the tables turned, and have everything about me as an actor summed up in “you aren’t good-looking enough for me to spend my time on you”? It was the girls at the eighth-grade church dance all over again — except she was 65 and smelled of box wine and garlic.
I would spend the next decade trying to fit myself into whatever little box I thought they – agents, managers, casting associates, casting directors, etc. – wanted me in, instead of trusting my gut and doing what I believed in. No amount of success ever seemed enough to make up for all the times I wasn’t good-looking enough, or that my eyes were too big, or I wasn’t thin enough, or that I had a slight lisp — and if I just fixed that, I would work more. I became frustrated at the fact that while I had spent two years on an award-winning sitcom, to the mainstream industry, it didn’t matter because it was Spanish-language.
Sidebar: I don’t speak a word of Spanish, except for mas cerveza por favor and donde esta el bano and did the whole thing phonetically — again, THAT whole story is for another post.
Even though I became a recurring character on a popular TV show, that because I was in full makeup, no one took it seriously so it didn’t count; an agent actually told me that. A lot of the successful actors I know were able to brush stuff like this off. To ‘not’ take it personally. To ‘not’ let it get under their skin. To remain true to themselves in the face of that judgement.
I was not one of them. It paralyzed me. Took away whatever creative spark I had and I’m sure made me tame, boring, and uninspired.
So in 2010, with a bloodied, broken, beat-to-shit self-image, amidst foreclosure, a severe health crisis and simmering addiction, I packed up the family and headed to Austin, Texas. Why Austin? Well, two reasons:
- I grew up in Dallas, but after getting in countless political arguments on Facebook with people I went to high school with, I figured that probably wasn’t the best choice.
- We had a free place to live.
After slogging away waiting tables and bar-tending– great profession for an alcoholic, by the way… Spoiler: I got fired. Just like, hey, let’s give the pyromaniac a Zippo and a gallon of gasoline, what could go wrong?
…For a few months, I found myself at an interview for an internship at a video game company, doing my damndest to convince them to hire me. Despite the fact that the only video game experience I had was staying up till 4 a.m. playing HALO or Max Payne (I could “bullet time” like a BOSS!), somehow I got the job. There were growing pains, to be sure. This was the first full-time “real” job I’d had since 1996, when I worked for a plumbing supply warehouse in Worth, Ill. (I got fired from that job for going to my first audition at Steppenwolf Theater), so getting used to being at a desk for nine hours a day took some time.
But that itch to perform was still there. I tried to scratch it with 12-packs of craft-brewed IPAs and the occasional Four Loco (by occasional, I mean daily — SHUDDER, that stuff is disgusting), but it was persistent. As I mentioned in Part 2, after getting sober I realized that being a performer wasn’t something I “did”, it was part of who I was as much as having blue eyes or inheriting my father’s bald spot. I started doing improv again, and through that got asked to be a part of a few local Web series (check out #Atown and Server Life — yes, that’s a shameless plug).
Do I miss Hollywood? At times. When I see someone I know get an Emmy, I know two, or a part I think I would have been perfect for on The Walking Dead. Or when I’m watching John Boyega’s amazing reaction to seeing himself in the Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer. I get a tinge of jealousy and a whisper of sadness for a fantasy I no longer get to dream about. And by whisper I mean I had tears streaming down my face watching that. He’s living the dream I’ve had since I was 5 years old, and the joy on his face made me remember that feeling of pure imagination and wonder, and that sometimes impossible dreams do come true — shit! Now I’m crying again — thanks, Boyega, ya Jedi jerk!
I do not miss the soul crushing work of getting work. I don’t miss that at all (although I do a pretty damn good Dr. Evil).
These days, however, I get to scratch the itch without the danger and humiliation of being neck-deep in oiled-up body builders like some kind of twisted Spartacus: Blood and Sand LARP…
Which, now that I think about it, gives me a great idea for an improv show.
Black and White shots via Jeff Nicholson
Read on for Part 5 – ‘Rick James Was Right’
Latest posts by James Leary (see all)
- Confessions Of A G-List Celebrity: You Down With B.D.D.? (Yeah, You Know Me) - February 8, 2017
- Confessions of a G-List Celebrity Part 7: Hardish C*cks (or) Misadventures In The Screen Trade - February 29, 2016
- Confessions of a G-List Celebrity: Part 6 – Big Empty - December 9, 2015
- Confessions of a G-List Celebrity: Part 5 — ‘Rick James Was Right’ - November 9, 2015
- Confessions of a G-List Celebrity: Part 4 – ‘I Am No Brad Pitt’ - October 26, 2015