I had been toiling in the background (literally) for a little over a month now. PAs had begun recognizing me and trying to get me more work. They knew that I could do the job and behave like a normal human being during the shot. They trusted that I wouldn’t ham it up for the cameras or have some melodramatic reaction to whatever was happening in the scene. They could feature me and not worry that I’d cause continuity errors or piss off the director in having to fix an extra.
That’s all well and good, but I had no desire to remain an extra. No aspiring actor in their right mind wants to do extra work, agents hate it, and only the desperate and foolish (which I was) would list it on a resume. For me, it was an immersion program where I learned how the industry operated, and I hoped against hope that I could somehow get precious SAG waivers.
It used to be back in the day that you could join the Screen Actors Guild anytime you wanted. However, after SAG merged with AFTRA, creating SAG-AFTRA, you needed certain qualifications to join. Namely, three SAG waivers from doing background, or a speaking role on a SAG production. Every single actor that you’ve seen in television or movies is a part of SAG, there is no getting around it. No one wants to qualify for SAG from doing background work, but it’s a way in. And it’s not just doing background work, you have to be chosen from a number of factors that are quite out of your control. Getting three SAG waivers from doing extra work is a fucking crapshoot. Some people have gotten it literally the first three days they worked, other have been working for years and haven’t gotten their third. It’s a lottery, but the average from what I gather is around 1-2 years.
Here’s the brutal secret, a lot of auditions won’t even let you try out if you’re not SAG, but then how are you supposed to get SAG if you aren’t allowed to audition for SAG roles? It’s a twisted ‘chicken or the egg’ scenario. Again, I knew that I was playing from behind, so I thought that if maybe I could sneak a SAG membership through background work, it would open some doors.
Then I got an audition.
I had been grinding away doing nothing but BG for months, not even getting a whiff of anything more significant. When this audition came through, it was like a bolt from the blue. After I got the text, I felt like I was floating. After weeks of seeing zero progress, there was a light at the end of the tunnel, finally a shot. The pay for one day of work would be the equivalent of a month of background work. But fuck the pay, this was an honest-to-god audition, a signal that I was moving forward.
I didn’t do any other work for the two days prior to the audition, I just worked on the one line I was supposed to deliver for this commercial. Twelve words, one sentence. I imagine I rehearsed that line thousands, if not tens of thousands of times in my apartment those next 48 hours. I tried every delivery, every emotion, even fucking around with accents for shits and giggles. I had the line printed and taped to my bathroom mirror. When I closed my eyes I could see those twelve words burned into the back of my eyelids. When I woke up the day of the audition, I knew I was ready, nothing could stop me.
I arrived at the studio 15 minutes early and signed in. It was disconcerting to see about thirty other Asian men waiting in the space, knowing that you’re all auditioning for the same part. But whatever, that didn’t throw me off my game. Of course there would be competition, and I’d fucking smoke them in the room. Finally, I was called in, noon on the dot. I walked in, set my things down, and stood on the ‘X’ in the middle of the floor.
“Ok, can you slate for me?”
The casting director turned on the camera. I just stood there, mouth slightly agape like an idiot.
I had no fucking idea what a slate was. So I asked. The casting director looked at me with disdain in her eyes and explained that it’s my name and height said to the camera for reference.
“Terence Chen, 5 foot 10”
Now, it was game time. Stand and Deliver.
And I couldn’t. I fucking couldn’t.
The casting director let me have five takes, out of pity I think, and I didn’t nail a single one of them. As soon as I walked out the door I knew I didn’t get it. I don’t remember the next hour or so, but when I came to, I was in my apartment. I think I was catatonic. I took off my clothes, of which I spent the last two days planning for the audition, and collapsed onto my bed.
I had never felt that ashamed and pathetic in my life. This thing, this foolish dream that I blew up my entire life for, I had definitive proof that I was a fraud. A phony. A sham. A pretender. A failure. Twelve words, one fucking sentence. Those secret fantasies about one day starring alongside the actors that I admired, of creating something that I could be proud of, of being in something that people would love to watch— those fantasies became spears that I wanted to impale myself on. I could not even say one line. Forget about booking the job, I knew that the odds were against me, but just to have a decent audition was all that I wanted, and I couldn’t even do that.
I wanted to die. I know that sounds melodramatic, but it’s true. This opportunity that I probably didn’t deserve, this opportunity that had fallen in my lap, that I had been waiting months for, just blew up because I couldn’t even be competent. This thing that I was so driven to do, something that I was willing to sacrifice my life for, I couldn’t even complete the most basic part of the process. My failure laid bare how much of a fool I was.
I’m not sure what happened the rest of the week. I didn’t answer the phone, I dont’ remember eating, I sure as shit didn’t shower or shave. I just wallowed in despair. I remember looking in the mirror and not recognizing the person that stared back. Gaunt, dirty, unshaven, lifeless. It was as if I’d passed already and someone just forgot to tell me. I remember the one thought I had in my head:
“Just die already.”
I had no one to call, no one to text, no one who would comfort me. They all told me that what I was doing was dumb, and deservedly so. Leaving it all for an infinitesimal chance at a dream. My friends and family loved me, but that was of little solace. You need fire, you need belief, you need conviction, you need lightning in your soul.
I had none of that.
Everyone’s psyche has a defense mechanism, and I swear at that moment mine kicked in. It was as if seeing this pale imitation of myself in the mirror woke up the beast.
GET THE FUCK UP.
You fucking coward, get the fuck up.
So you failed. Get the fuck up.
I don’t care whether you live or die, but you will not die like this.
You will not die on your knees.
“Why does it matter how I die?”
Because it does. And if you go, so be it, but you will die standing.
And just like that, existential crisis over, self-doubt wrestled back down into the pit.
I woke up.
I ate an actual meal.
It was an out-of-body experience, but sitting down, I took a deep look at myself and why I chose to do this. And I remembered why, I remembered that simply choosing this path was choosing to stand on your two feet. Choosing to find meaning and passion in what I do. I expected failure, but I guess I hadn’t expected the enormity of my failure. I looked at my phone and I had about a hundred emails I had to get back to. So, I got back to the simple act of surviving. All of this may seem like bullshit but I can guarantee you that it’s still so vivid in my mind, especially that one phrase:
“You will die standing.”
Looking back, I know I overreacted, because hell, I had only been doing this for a little over a month, but those are the standards that I hold myself to. It’s still the standard that I have placed on myself. I’m starting later and I’m a minority. My mother always said if you’re an immigrant, you have to do something twice as good and in half the time if you’re going to get noticed. I’ve had people call me crazy for being this hard on myself, but for me it’s the only way I can temporarily silence the constant specter of self-doubt. That dark moment was a turning point for me, one of my lowest moments ever, but now a cornerstone in my emotional foundation.
All work is arduous but in this especially in this industry, self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy are not only sources of fear, but powerful motivators in how we explore ourselves and learning how to communicate those emotions. I’m not sure how we control those feelings but coming to grips with it in such a raw way put into perspective how much I needed to mature in order for me to do the work.
I’d have no idea how important that’d be in the next few weeks…