Chi worked regularly as an actor for all of 2011 and is working even more as 2012 begins. Not sure what this portends for potential schedule conflicts with the Panache Orchestra once spring/summer festival season gets underway, but I’m sure glad he’s working!
Listen while you read to “Luck is Coming My Way”, another unpublished track that we eventually plan to properly record, but haven’t decided when or what album it will be on.
Chi’s primary vocation for his entire adult life has been as a professional musician, but since we moved here I haven’t been able to find any sustainable work for him, so for most of the seven years that we have lived in California he has done practically nothing. This is due to several reasons other than sheer discouragement and lack of initiative on his part: mainly that the amount of work for professional instrumentalists has been steadily declining since at least the late ‘80’s, with a steep acceleration in the ‘00’s. There still is a bit of “real” session work left in L.A. (that hasn’t yet been exported to places with cheaper labor), but although he certainly has the chops and musical background for some of that type of work, he doesn’t have the head for it. His main passion is live performance, but there doesn’t seem to be much viable work left there either, even for well- established players.
He also got a rude awakening that again, contrary to his expectations, jobs for Japanese people who have no English language skills, even if they are legally eligible to work here, are in short supply and typically pay extremely poorly. In fact, I have been shocked at the exploitative conditions he has reported being offered to him at some interviews he has attended. It sounds like some Japanese business owners, especially in the restaurant industry, are happy to take advantage of impecunious young people here on student visas (on which work privileges are restrictive or nonexistent altogether) who need a little pocket money, but have little to offer adults who need to earn a livable income.
When we moved to L.A. in early 2006, apparently Chi had a look around the various Japanese community publications and said that he wanted to try background acting work. I was ok with that no matter how poorly it paid, as anything that would get him out of the house and productively engaged would be fine with me. I just didn’t really account for the extreme pushback onto me that that line of work would entail.
It’s been a long, agonizing, impoverished process with me having to do all of the heavy lifting to make it happen (on top of having to do everything to keep the household functioning). What I mean is that since he can’t function in English and has absolutely no inclination to do any rigorous research or anything at all to make things work for himself, I was the one that had to spend all the hours researching how to go about this, and once I figured out how to get him registered with various casting agencies, I then ended up having to spend several more hours every single day (at least whenever I remembered to — usually while I was on the clock at the day job I’ve had to work to support the whole household since he hasn’t been producing any income on any regular basis since we moved here) on the phone calling and calling and calling the casting hotlines to find out what jobs were available on any given day, then spend more hours again calling and calling and calling to get through to the casting directors to try to get him booked.
It didn’t stop there. Once I succeeded in getting him booked for something, I had to spend still more time in the evening calling the information lines to find out the details of the job, i.e., wardrobe/ look, location, details about that particular production/set/scene/etc., and then drag him, almost always kicking and screaming (literally), through the whole ordeal of getting prepared for the job, i.e., selecting the right wardrobe, and background are almost always required to bring several options, which means that he had to carry at least two additional outfits with him and have the clothes in a wearable condition (i.e., not a wrinkled mess stuffed in a duffel bag!). There are also specific directives as to what kinds of clothes to wear and what NOT to wear (usually “no black, no white, no red, no logos, no crazy prints”, as black, red and white don’t film well, prominent prints are distracting, and you can’t use another company’s logo in a production without paying bigtime for its use.
I also have to print out detailed maps of how to get to the locations and get him to understand every step of the way to get there, often with him fussing and whining and throwing a fit because he didn’t like the “brand” of map I use (Google Maps as recommended and used by the industry, instead of Yahoo Maps, which he prefers. Sometimes the locations don’t even exist on the maps, and I’ve found Google Maps better at more precisely pinpointing imprecise locations than Yahoo Maps.).
Since this was looking like it could at least turn into a somewhat sustainable source of somewhat regular employment for Chi, last year I decided to take a gamble and offload the most time-consuming and onerous of the work to a calling service. That’s exactly what it sounds like: a service that does all the calling for you to book the jobs, and leaves me with only having to receive their calls telling me that he is booked for whatever job on whatever date on whatever production, and then I make the evening calls to the casting line to get the details about the jobs and get him ready for them. This costs about $80 per month and saves me about $800 worth of my time and brings in about that amount more work per month than I was able to get for him when doing the booking by myself. His attitude has improved concomitantly with the increase in regular income, which of course is a great relief to me.
He worked steadily all of last year, and has been working even more this year, and in fact seems to be getting requested by various productions, presumably since however much of a nightmare he is to me in trying to get him prepared for the jobs, once he got there he did a great job and was always on time at the correct location in the correct wardrobe. Also, he is very photogenic and often positioned within the frame where the “action” is, as opposed to being buried amongst a mass of bodies. His English is improving too, since he has to understand directions given on set and communicate with other actors during the times when they’re not on set – there’s a LOT of down time where they’re just sitting around for hours waiting to go on set.
It seems to depend entirely on the production company, but the working conditions tend to be pretty tolerable most of the time, although he occasionally reports working under conditions that sound like they would constitute human rights violations under the Geneva Convention (i.e., having to stand for hours in the withering southern California sun with no access to a toilet or water, being held for many hours in a dark, freezing-cold room, again with no food or toilet, etc.), and other times conditions are exceptionally good. I have been astounded at the delicious food he has occasionally brought home for dinner from catering on set, and he has made some new friends.
Apparently with the declining economy, recent cost-cutting measures implemented by some production companies include no longer providing food or heat (or even light, in some cases!) in the holding areas for non-union background actors, and there seems to be a trend in which sympathetic union actors “sponsor” the non-union actors by giving them their extra food vouchers so they don’t have to sit there starving all day.
The days are usually long, averaging 12 hours or so, and sometimes shorter, 6-8 hours, and the work can be frustrating, like having to wait all day under miserably uncomfortable conditions, and then finally get called on set only to have to keep re-running the same scene over and over because everyone is so fatigued by that point that they keep making mistakes, forgetting lines, etc. He has been kept on set as long as 16 hours, and in fact during January worked an entire week of back-to-back 13 – 16-hour days. He got some nice, fat paychecks, but boy was he tired!
Call times can also be brutally early, like 05:00 a.m. He has gotten home at midnight from a 15-hour day in Santa Clarita only to have to turn around and be somewhere else at 5:00 a.m. the next morning for another 14-hour day. That means that I have to be up at 04:00 a.m. to check the call time change line for any changes and make sure he gets up and ready on time, and make certain that he clearly understands how to get to the location. Although he’s slowly getting better at finding his way around, especially when he first started doing this work I used to regularly get panic-stricken phone calls from him when he got lost on the way to the location, or a freeway exit was closed for construction, or he couldn’t find the place to check in once he got to set, or there was some cock-up with the parking, etc., etc. Needless to say, this continues to make my life challenging at my day job.
Since his acting career seems to be steadily trending upwards, I am researching how to help the process along. I have naturally assumed the role as his manager, given that I have professional skills in that department even though I do not particularly like the work. It just makes sense for me to do it for obvious reasons. For readers unfamiliar with this situation, the entertainment business is extremely competitive and fast-paced, so no one, and I mean no one has time to deal with people who aren’t fluent in the working language and can’t find their way around town, and don’t understand that wardrobe specifications are requirements, and not “suggestions”, so for him to be able to do this at all, I have to do what I’m doing for him. In fact, I have been struck by how unfamiliar the various industry professionals I have dealt with here are in dealing with a situation like this. I guess it should be explained that most Americans are at least as ethnocentric as the Japanese, and every bit as monolingual. (Contrary to popular belief, the average Japanese person cannot speak English, however skillfully they can parse English grammar. To them, English is merely decorations on t-shirts and household goods and exotic advertising copy, rather than a means of communication.)
Finally, I must admit that I get some sort of perverse fulfillment out of taking things on that I have absolutely no background in or natural affinity for, and figuring it out and making it work, so let’s see how this plays out!
For readers who are interested in what productions he is in, I made him a Twitter feed here: https://twitter.com/#!/ChiSaitoActor and am making him his very own website: http://www.chisaito.com/ It should go live within the next week or so, or however long it takes me to figure out this new hosting service and the various site builder programs it works with.
Here is an example of a commercial he was in last year: