I was 18 when I first set foot in Los Angeles. I was on a road trip with my family and I didn’t see much but the horrible tourist sites, yet I knew I’d be back one day, to pursue my dreams of being a Hollywood actress. And I did go back. At 19 I took off on my own to spend a summer in LA doing acting classes. I had the time of my life and returned at 20 to do the same thing. At 22 – after attaining my BSc and working full-time for a year – I returned again, this time for eight months in pursuit of an agent and O1-B visa. It didn’t work. At 23 – after one final three month trip and nine months of waiting – I finally moved to the promised land.
Last August 17 I turned 31. That means I now have known many aspiring actors in Los Angeles for over 13 years. This realization more or less coincided with the news of one of them booking a series regular role in a sitcom. Of just one of them having that elusive proverbial breakthrough. I started thinking: what has happened to all the other aspiring actor friends I’ve met over the years? What do the lives of these dedicated dreamers look like after 10+ years in LA? Wouldn’t that be interesting to share? We read the succes stories of actors who made it plenty. But that’s not a very representative sample. What happens to the the ones not in the news? To the other people that packed up their lives into their car and drove from Ohio to LA? The other people who went through the im-migraine-tion process to get the O1-B visa? The other people who left everything they knew behind for a chance to be a working actor?
Of course, I can’t claim to bring a completely representative sample either, as I’m sure I myself have been a biased selection tool while navigating LA. A Dutch girl on a pink motorcycle with ladybug helmet isn’t for everyone, after all. On top of that I switched from acting to writing pretty quickly after moving to LA.
But I can give you a more complete picture than what the stories of successful actors in the news paint. I can tell you what happened to the people I met in all those acting, improv and audition classes. The people I bunked with in dorm rooms of dingy guest houses. The people I met at casting director workshops, networking events, or through Facebook groups. Even on OkCupid dates.
I can tell you what happened to my friends.
So, here it goes…
One friend I met through a Facebook group, during 10-15 years in LA has booked some cool commercials here and there, does a lot of Fringe and independent plays and has a side career for steady income.
One LA native I met through a women’s networking group books indie features and shorts here and there, has started a production company, and has produced some indies she also starred in. She also has a side career for steady income.
One girl I met through a friend I made through my blog starred in a popular musical movie and was booking steady gigs in TV shows and small horror films, but after 4/5 years traded LA for NYC to get an arts degree from an Ivy League school.
One guy I met through a friend came from a successful Broadway career and in 7+ years in LA booked the lead in an Amazon show that unfortunately only lasted one season. He has now booked a recurring role in an upcoming Netflix show and has – as far as I know – always been able to live from acting gigs.
One kickass lady I met through a women’s networking thing, in 8-10ish years in LA started a production company, produced several self-starring indie features, and eventually moved back to Canada where she’s been booking some cool co-stars in TV shows such as The Flash and The Good Doctor.
One friend I met in my second LA acting class, during 6-ish years in LA dabbled in acting and production and produced and starred in a horror feature, before moving to San Francisco and then NYC to continue his prosperous career in tech.
One lady I met through a women’s networking group after 12+ years in LA books commercials and panel speaking gigs and has a side career for steady income.
One guy I met while watching the World Cup at the now closed Happy Endings bar in Hollywood, during 14+ years in LA has booked a few TV guest-stars and indie film roles, produced a short and sometimes enjoys the Hollywood life because of a famous friend.
One friend I met through my blog was doing steady voice work, recurring gigs on TV shows, and leads in indies, but during the last 5-ish years has gotten into writing and directing and is set to direct her first feature soon.
One friend I met in my third LA acting class, after 10+ years in LA is able to live off commercial work for the most part, and keeps busy writing and doing independent plays.
One lady I met through acting class, after 10+ years lives a comfortable life regardless of work, regularly attends acting classes, and does plays and shorts here and there.
One lady I met through a guy I met through a Facebook group, after 7-ish years moved back to her home state to get a degree in Architecture & City Planning and is very happy in her new career.
One girl I met through a Dutch friend, had to leave LA after 4 years due to visa issues but then fell in love with an American in the Netherlands, moved to Seattle and finally returned to LA last year where she’s been doing photoshoots, shorts and promo work.
One friend I met through a “Dutch in LA” Facebook group, after 10+ years of auditioning and doing stand-up has recently booked a lead in an NBC sitcom and is now doing the promo rounds for it. I’ve already interviewed him once on my blog, and another interview is coming soon!
One girl I met at a co-working space for writers, after 7+ years had switched to writing, became an assistant to a writer, and is now selling crystals and oils… or something.
One girl I met through – I somehow don’t actually remember how we met – after 5+ years does a lot of acting classes but never auditions.
One lady I met at a women’s networking event books commercials and became a successful producer of faith-based indie films.
One British guy I met in my second acting class had grown an ego from two ittybitty roles in franchise films and was mostly making money from selling signed headshots at cons until disappearing from LA.
One sweet guy I met through a friend, after 12+ years in LA books occasional shorts and student films, and likes to create social, VR and 360 videos.
One guy I met through my roommates during my first LA stay, after 5 years of working an accounting job to get a resident visa, quit his job, tried acting until he got to a point he had to sleep in his car, then continued his accounting job.
One guy I met through a friend during my first LA stay, after 3+ years in LA had just been on four episodes of Grey’s Anatomy (when it was at the height of its popularity) and then didn’t work for years. But I just looked him up and turns out he’s now a writer and showrunner of a CW show!
One guy I met through a guy I met on a Tinder date (and who I became good friends with), during 10+ years in LA booked a few co-stars, does plays, and makes a living doing plays for kids and working side jobs.
One girl I met through my third acting class, during 8-ish years in LA has booked some co-stars, one recurring guest-star on a Netflix show, and is now directing a few music videos after a successful GoFundMe campaign.
Another girl I met in my third acting class, during 7-ish years in LA switched to New York, stand-up, non-fiction writing and online comedy (which I find her very successful at), and has now started a T-shirt company.
One guy I met through that same acting class, within 10+ years in LA booked a decent amount of co-stars and a few dayplayer gigs in indies at one point, but has been going through a bit of a dry spell with mostly shorts and student films after.
One guy I met through another acting class, during 6/7 years in LA has also booked a few co-stars and guest-stars but has been in a dry spell as of the last few years.
One girl I met during a Groundlings class booked a small part in a prestigious Netflix film last year, does a lot of improv and sketch shows, and makes a steady income from a copywriting job.
Another girl I met during a Groundlings class, in 5+ years in LA booked a dayplayer part in a Netflix movie last year and relies on another job for a steady income.
A guy I used to watch perform in Groundlings improv and sketch shows is now a regular on SNL. Another lady who was a Groundlings main cast member has done a few supporting roles in blockbuster comedies. All the other (40?60?) actors I’ve seen on stage at the Groundlings I haven’t seen since.
A lady I know who was a pretty successful actress and model in the Netherlands, after 8-ish years in LA switched to art and photography which she’s quite successful at, and has moved back to the Netherlands.
A girl I met through a poster design gig, after 10ish years in LA has produced a successful short and booked a few TV co-stars here and there.
One girl who was my roommate during my first stay in LA over 10 years ago had already been on some TV shows in Australia, went back and forth for years, and just a few weeks ago finally got her visa to try it in LaLaLand.
One sweet guy who used to date a friend of mine has self-produced some stuff over the years and now regularly stars in funny Buzzfeed videos.
One girl I met through another friend, during 15+ years in LA has booked some commercials and co-stars in TV shows, but mostly does shorts and student films.
One pretty girl I met in acting class was a model and in 7+ years in LA has booked two co-stars in TV shows and one supporting role in a feature. She was never super knowledgeable about her career though, but had a good agent.
I could go on, and on and on. So many people. So many stories. And these are just the actors I met.
So is there throughline? Can I deduct a formula for why some are successful and others not?
I can’t really explain why some hard-working, decently talented people aren’t successful. But maybe I can explain why some people are successful. It’s all the usual suspects and a little something extra.
As for the usual suspects: stand-out acting talent, commitment, hard work. And I mean truly unique stand-out acting talent. That one in a million kind. And yes, there are absolutely people who are successful without all three of these, but they usually have something else going for them: beauty or connections. Having either one (or to be so lucky: both) of these things lowers the requirement for talent or hard work significantly, though they still help of course.
But one – perhaps most determining – moderating variable for success for hard-working actors without connections or stand-out beauty or talent is this: lack of desperation. Wether it’s due to confidence because they trained at a prestigious school, or because acting isn’t their raison d’être, or because they’re just natural-born confident motherfuckers, in a city full of people begging to be picked nothing seems to be as sexy as someone who would like but doesn’t need to be picked.
This doesn’t mean the people listed above that didn’t find acting success yet are all desperate, untalented or at somehow at fault. I respect each and every one of the people I wrote a little blurb about (ok, there are a few clear exceptions) and most of them are even friends. The acting industry just isn’t merit-based.
But make no mistake: I’m not painting a bleak picture.
LA is a place for searchers. For people who have a strong longing for something more. Sometimes to fill an inner emptiness. Sometimes to compensate for deep-seated insecurities. Sometimes to become rich or famous. Sometimes just to party in Hollywood. But most times to fulfil an unrelenting creative, film-related passion. And acting is just the low-hanging fruit in terms of visible jobs in the film industry. But many discover they’re actually more into writing, or directing, or something else entirely. Myself included.
My blurb in this little list wouldn’t be superior. At all. I’m a chick who spent years struggling to get a visa to be an actress in Hollywood, and after 4-ish years in LA hadn’t booked a single paying acting job. You don’t have to feel sorry for me though, because I switched to writing and now make a living as a writer/director. For small and commercial projects, yes, but it’s a job I love. Plus, it’s likely that I’ll soon have something incredibly exciting to finish the summary off with…
Last but not least, the little summaries above just cover acting careers. They don’t cover love, other creative endeavours, kids, camping trips, travels, friendships, wine-drinking and all the other stuff that actually makes life worthwhile.
Life and your value as a human being, as I have long struggled to realize, are not defined by your career.