The elusive Hollywood dream

OH MY G! - Giselle Tongi-Walters -

I felt compelled to break down not only the difficulties but also the intricacies involved when trying to procure work as an actor in America because of all the headlines that buzzed this last month as an acoustic heartthrob announced his departure to Hollywood.

I had flashbacks of 12 years ago when I, too, told the press I would be trying my luck in the city of stars. If only I had known what I know now… And if only I knew Sam Milby personally, I would have been able to give him my unsolicited advice. Not to shatter his dreams — I would never do that to anyone but if only to wake him and others up that “making” it in Hollywood is a fallacy — it truly doesn’t exist! There is always something to strive for and achieve and most of my Fil-Am actor friends like the Bascos who are working steadily in mainstream Hollywood productions have yet to feel that they have “made” it. So here’s a look at how an actor lands a spot on a primetime network show.

If you’re a foreign national like I am (Swiss/Pinay), let’s hope you have a green card or a US citizen. If not, don’t even think for a second that they will fall in love with your work and sponsor you. If you have passed this stage and have the papers to work, then the real work begins — finding an agent.

In America, an agent only gets 10 percent. That’s it! By law, they are not allowed to get more than that. An agent gets you seen for auditions. If you don’t have an agent, then you better hustle and submit yourself on actorsaccess.com, lacasting.com or backstage.com but you’ll mostly only get non-union work and if you want to play in the big leagues, you have to have an agent to be seen for major productions and eventually will have to join the union. But then that is tricky in itself because unless you are referred by someone to meet an agent, they don’t take open submissions. Meaning, if they have no idea who referred you, your headshot and resume get thrown in the trash like countless other hopefuls.

The union issue is really the hardest to work around but with determination it can happen. How fortunate are the actors in America because they are unionized and protected from producers and productions. Yes, as an actor in North America, you have rights! This is a different topic all together and in time I intend to tackle what those rights are to jolt our own industry into realizing that unless we artists band together and demand fair treatment, we will never be fairly compensated for all our hard work, sweat, blood and tears! (Literally, ang artista dito iyak nalang ng iyak dito dahil sa soap operas — yet another topic for discussion.) We need residuals and labor laws to keep up from dying a fast death from working on the job for over 24 hours straight! I don’t want to get started on this topic right now so I’ll just shut up (but not for long…).

So the catch is, you can’t join the Screen Actor’s Guild unless you are in a production that follows the regulations of SAG — which is the major studio produced shows. Now let’s say you do have an agent. Usually pilot season happens in the beginning of the year. This is when the new shows are casting. The producer gets the greenlight to start production and the first thing that happens is that the showrunner hires a casting director. The writer already has certain actors in mind since he has a specific character he has created for the part. The casting people will have a separate list of actors that they call in to audition on a regular basis. These are proven and tested actors that have delivered for the casting director in the past, thus they already have a professional relationship. If you aren’t the character type they are looking for, there is no way you’ll be seen if you are not on the writer or casting director’s pool of network. Plain and simple.

Many people who try to break out in Hollywood take acting classes on a regular basis to sharpen their skills. It’s a given. If you aren’t working as an actor, you better make sure you are doing something to improve your craft. There are many workshops that actors have to pay anywhere from $30 to $60 a pop just to audition in front of the prominent casting directors, with a disclaimer that in no way can you be guaranteed a job through these services. They are for educational purposes only. If one doesn’t know any better, you spend your hard-earned dollars scrambling to be seen by all the casting directors in town. This again is a stupid mistake. One has to diligently understand their type, do the research on which casting director/producer/writer they can envision themselves working with and go from there. And honesty plays the most crucial part. You have to be honest with yourself on what kind of roles you can play. Are you the girl-next-door? The ingénue? The character type?

If you want to “make it” in Hollywood, the reality is you’ve got to have luck on your side, pretty darn dependable contacts that are willing to give you “referrals” to see other people in the industry. If you try open submission mailings which I have mentioned earlier, where one blindly looks up someone’s address then sends their headshots in the mail then it’s just like burning your money on purpose. Meeting the right person who can advance one’s acting career requires persistence, dedication and the goods to deliver on a silver platter. Talent or good looks just ain’t enough. And sadly, the reason why there hasn’t been an A list celebrity who is Filipino American who has truly “made it” is because there just aren’t enough parts written for our people. Why? Because there are hardly any writers who are Filipino-American. Why? because first generation parents would rather have their children pursue being engineers, nurses or doctors. I’m not saying to blame the parents. I’m just explaining why there are so few Filipino-Americans in Hollywood that have truly made it. Besides like I’ve said, what does “making it” really mean? If one can support themselves entirely by acting in film and television, in essence you can say they’ve made it regardless if you recognize them or not.

Perhaps if there is one face that represents the Filipino on screen in Hollywood who works consistently, it must be Dante Basco. The Basco Family comprised of Dante, Darion, Derrick, Dionisyo and Arianna started out in the San Francisco Bay area break-dancing at the birth of hip-hop. Even though they were little children, they became one of the Bay Area’s top groups opening up for such artists as Vanity and Ice-T. Their dancing talents led them to a scholarship at the San Francisco Ballet company. Never losing their urban roots, they continued to break-dance at the 49ers and Raiders’ halftime shows as well as the A’s and Giants baseball games.

Once they relocated to Los Angeles, they jumped into acting. Most notably, Dante starred in Hook and has had the highest profile with his latest movie Take the Lead. Dion starred in NBC’s hit sitcom City Guys for five years and can be seen in Robert Towne’s critically-acclaimed film Ask the Dust, in theaters now. Darion has starred in numerous groundbreaking independent films and currently recurs in Charmed. Derek recently starred in three independent films and has played an array of memorable characters on numerous TV shows including Will & Grace. The Basco brothers all starred in Sony/Tristar’s award-winning film The Debut.

Their next project finds the Basco Family longing for their Philippine roots as all four brothers and sister make the decision to travel together to the Philippines to quench their thirst for their culture. After graduating from UCLA film school, this is my first full-length documentary that I am producing together with Michael Carandang, the Emmy award-winning producer of the Tyra Banks Show, America’s Next Top Model and who was recently trending on Twitter thanks to his guesting on ABS-CBN’s The Bottomline.

The working title: Roots is a journey of self-discovery as the Bascos explore the islands of their ancestors to find out the quintessential meaning to what it truly means to be a Filipino. Shot in a docu-drama style, the camera follows their every move as they jump from island to island to see all the scenic and amazing offerings of the Philippines, which also coincide with promoting tourism for the country. The Bascos take a critical peek at the tumultuous and scandal driven professional entertainment industry of the Philippines while trying to make connections to their own Hollywood experiences.

 The Bascos have put me in charge of arranging several opportunities for open dialogues with other artists who are serious about their craft to understand what it takes to finally bridge the gap of getting more Filipinos and Filipino experiences represented in the elusive town of Hollywood. If interested about what it means to be makers of Philippine culture, subscribe to my tweets @gtongi for more info coming soon!











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