The posting from an online casting site announced an audition at a local theater for a production of Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians.” Each role specified the age, gender, and race, and I matched one of them. I was 62, female, white, and a few years into retirement from my 37-year career as a probation officer for Los Angeles County. For the last two years, I had been taking an acting class for seniors in Los Angeles, but I had not tried to get paid work out of it until now.
I’d read in one of my acting books to dress as the character you’re auditioning for, so I ran around my house pulling out clothing that was the opposite of my usual wardrobe to create an English spinster outfit: an A-shape, mid-calf, tweed skirt; plain, long-sleeve blouse buttoning to the neck; horn-rimmed glasses; flat shoes with laces; hairpins to flatten my hair; and no makeup. I was tall and slender, and I knew I was attractive enough with my medium-length blond hair at the time. When I was done with my transition, I looked and felt drab, dowdy, and old.
I had decided to attend the audition after networking with other retirement-age students in my classes who were not only going to auditions, but booking parts. The idea intrigued me. Most people think of actors as being in their 20s or 30s, with Botox-free and bikini-ready bodies. Few outside of the casting world think of the myriad roles available to those of us at or past retirement age.
It’s a subsection of actors who have little trouble finding gigs, and the idea of becoming an actor after retirement is popular since many senior centers offer classes in acting. Last year, nearly 200 seniors signed up for a seminar, “Showbiz After 60,” on how to break into the business. About 14 percent of my agent’s clients are over age 50, though he represents more senior actors than most agencies do and estimates that about five percent of paid actors in Hollywood are seniors.
When I entered the audition room that first time, I immediately wanted to bolt. It was filled with actors, some in their 20s, some elderly and beautiful, some homely, slender, portly, gruff, sophisticated. All of them, including those there to audition for the same role as I, were dressed in jeans and T-shirts.
I had a schizophrenic internal dialogue going:
I want to leave.
No, you’re staying and going through with this.
But I look like a jerk.
It doesn’t matter, you’re doing it.
I asked someone what I was supposed to do.
“Put your name on the list, get the sides, and wait until your name is called,” he responded without looking up from what he was reading.
“What are sides?”
“A part of the script for you to read,” he answered, again without averting his gaze.
I wrote my name on the sign-in sheet and picked up my sides from a pile. When I was called, I walked into a bare room and was met by five people, near-clones of each other, sitting at a long table.
“She’ll be your reader,” one said, nodding to a young, attractive woman standing in a corner. “Start when you’re ready.”
I didn’t know what a reader was, and I was too embarrassed to ask, so I began to read my opening line. The woman read the other character’s line in a bored monotone.
Oh, so that’s a reader.
I survived the audition and made my getaway.
I didn’t get the part, but I did get a little bump in my self-confidence. Over the next 10 years, I continued auditioning. Now 72, I have appeared in dozens of commercials as well as roles in television, film, video, and theater, typically playing grandmothers, society women, and even sexy seniors.
The union for movie and television actors has a diversity-in-casting incentive program, and seniors are one of the targeted groups. I once got an audition and then booked a day-player role on General Hospital as a result of this program. I’ve also landed roles like “Queen of the Gym” in a mock news segment, and another as a Granny rapper.
The funny thing is, I had long suffered from stage fright when speaking in front of large groups. As a probation officer, I spent my days writing criminal sentencing reports for judges and supervising those convicted of crimes. I had never wanted to be an actress.
I grew up in a middle-class family in Los Angeles, went to UCLA, got married and had two children, and eventually three grandchildren. After retiring at age 60, I found a class in the online catalog of Emeritus College in Santa Monica, which offers courses for seniors. It was called “Scene Study” and was listed in the Theater Arts section.
It didn’t compute in my mind that class members actually acted. Had I known, I would never have taken the class. Instead, I pictured students sitting in their seats with each one reading a line or two from a play before the class analyzed it. I’d always enjoyed plays and figured I could handle that, so I enrolled.
I walked into the classroom on the first day. People of all descriptions in the baby boomer and senior age ranges were making their way to their seats. The teacher was a petite, energetic woman. Most of the students seemed to know each other; they had been taking the class for a while. I was the newbie and felt intimidated.
Right after I sat down, an elderly, stooped, gray-haired man approached. “You want to read this with me?” he said, holding out a few sheets of paper — the opening scene from Death of a Salesman.
“Okay,” I responded.
He walked up to the front of the room and turned to see if I was following him.
“Come on,” he said with a spark of irritation in his voice, because I hadn’t moved from my chair.
Oh my God, I thought, we’re supposed to read standing in front of everybody?
I could hear my heartbeat banging against my eardrums. Slowly, dragging it out as long as I could, I walked up to the head of the class and began to read my lines in a shaky voice.
Suddenly, a strange thing happened. I became so engrossed in the role that I completely forgot a roomful of strangers was watching and judging me. When we were finished, everyone dutifully clapped, snapping me out of my trance.
I looked up and realized where I was, and that I was not the wife in the play. What a rush — I was hooked and wanted more. That started me on a weekly journey of attending class, rehearsing, learning about the world of acting and enrolling in another acting-for-commercials class for seniors in Hollywood.
In that class, the teacher distributed commercial scripts to the students and gave us time to study them before filming each student performing the simple dialogue. At the end, we viewed ourselves as the teacher replayed the video and added comments.
I hated seeing myself on film; I seemed so amateurish. But over the months, I learned how to deliver the copy, always giving a little extra punch to the name of the product I was hawking.
The teacher lectured about getting professional headshots, creating a résumé, attending auditions and finding an agent. I started reading books about acting. I found myself analyzing the performances of actors I saw in movies and on television, often thinking I would have delivered that line differently than a Hollywood great.
My classmates were from different backgrounds: teachers, a doctor, a few lawyers, some housewives, a flower shop owner. Some students were taking the class just as a pastime. But others were partly supplementing their living from it. A former salesman had been in several major commercials on television, including one for a clothing warehouse. My peers gave me referrals for photographers, casting sources, and agents.
I’d always suffered from insecurity and worried about what others were thinking of me. That probably came from growing up with a domineering father who had to be the center of attention with my mother, sister, and me in the background.
I was frightened to be in the spotlight. I might have failed in public for everyone to see. The thought of becoming an actress pushed those buttons. Yet I couldn’t resist it.
I had my headshots done by a 30-something, low-cost photographer who led me into the dark, depressing living room of his apartment which he had turned into a studio. I would have left if my classmate hadn’t assured me that he was legitimate.
The photographer proved to be a pleasant guy, and two weeks later the headshots were ready. I studied the proof sheet carefully as tiny images of myself with a variety of facial expressions stared back. Every photo seemed mediocre, and I hated them all. I had thought I’d play characters in their 50s, but the photos told me that was unrealistic, and that my dyed-blond, short, blow-dried hair was way past its due date.
What did I think I was doing?
A few weeks later, an agent visited the acting-for-commercials class and advised the seniors to let their hair grow out, get rid of the fake colors, and audition for older roles. “You’ll book more work.”
I had been dying my hair blond since I was in my 20s. I didn’t even know what my natural color was. Slowly, my hair grew out to a snow-white hue. I kept it at chin length and let its natural curls have their way.
The agent was right. With my new hairdo, I got more attention. In fact, there seemed to be a lot more work for older actors. Soon, I booked my first paid acting job. It was a commercial in which I held the sign of a legal services company while roller skating down the sidewalk.
Somehow I managed to stay upright on the skates, but I couldn’t stop myself and had to roll into the arms of a “catcher” who was standing off-camera. I earned 400 dollars. I couldn’t believe it. Didn’t they know I would have done it for free?
Some months later, an agent, Daniel Hoff, came to the acting class looking for seniors to add to his client roster. He filmed us as we each read the script he had brought. Within a few weeks, his office called and offered me representation. Now that I had an agent, the auditions and jobs were rolling in.
I started to feel like a real actress as my résumé began filling up.
I once rode a mechanical horse for a commercial. Another time I was a grandmother riding in a Subaru on the moon with my family, all of us dressed in space suits.
I have played a homeless woman sitting on a bus bench in L.A.’s Skid Row at 3 o’clock in the morning for a music video. I was a trash-talking gangster granny holding a machine gun on Comedy Central’s The Ben Show.
I was in a video clip on The Doctors wearing a rubber suit that added 200 pounds to my frame. I work several times a year at UCLA Medical School portraying patients for student training. I also played the older, rich wife in a music video by country singer Trace Adkins called “Marry for Money.” I was one of six supporting exercisers in the Jane Fonda Prime Time: Firm & Burn workout DVD.
I am now a member of SAG-AFTRA, the actors’ union. Acting hasn’t made me rich, but it supplements my pension and savings. Acting also offers me exciting challenges, fun, and a sense of accomplishment.
Most recently, I appeared in a video comedy skit on the 2014 Film Independent Spirit Awards, playing the smothering mother of the show’s host, Patton Oswalt. In the audience were many Hollywood celebrities, including Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
The résumés of some of my fellow classmates have grown alongside mine. One was a regular in the “Off Their Rockers” TV series. Still others have had roles in plays and movies. We always compare notes when we encounter each other at auditions or acting class reunions.
I could have run out that first day in the senior community acting class 12 years ago or at the first audition where I felt so out of place, but I didn’t. Now, I have discovered my own second act.
Lee Gale Gruen is an actress and author of the memoir “Adventures with Dad: A Father and Daughter’s Journey Through a Senior Acting Class” (available on Amazon.com). She writes a blog, Reinventing Myself in My Retirement.
This essay originally appeared on Narrative.ly.
More stories from Narrative.ly:
First Person is Vox’s home for compelling, provocative narrative essays. Do you have a story to share? Read our submission guidelines, and pitch us at email@example.com.
Lights, Camera, Action...Going for My Dream
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- Length: 2452 words (7 double-spaced pages)
- Rating: Excellent
Lights, Camera, Action...Going for My Dream
For as long as I can recollect, I have always wanted to act. When I
was younger, I would watch the Disney channel and wondering why I wasn't on
one of the shows. My desire to act was strong, only my parents made it clear
to me they didn't want me to get engrossed in the entertainment industry
until I was older. Each year I reminded my parents that I was getting older
in hope that they would get me agent, but they insisted that I wait until I
turned eighteen. Since my parents wouldn't let me set foot into the crazy
world of the entertainment industry, I performed in various school plays and
performed with a local ballet company. Inevitably, I convinced my parents to
sign me up for an acting class in Westwood, called Mode Dion. I loved
performing in my school plays, dance performances and acting class but I felt
like I was not completely satisfied. I wanted to perform on television, but
my parents insisted that I wait.
Finally the day came, my eighteenth birthday. I decided to go to a local
Extra Casting Company. I signed up with Cenex Casting located in Burbank. I
kid you not, I walked into the building and before I even got a chance to
sign up one of the casting agents was trying to get me to work on Clueless
the next day. The first show that I ended up doing was Teen Angel. Then I
worked on other shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Boy Meets World, Love
Boat the Next Wave and my all time favorite Party of Five. While working on
these various shows I earned all the necessary vouchers to become eligible to
join the Screen Actors Guild. I became a member of SAG in March. Working on
the different shows was a completely exhilarating experience. I never knew
how much time and effort went into creating one episode of a show. I finally
understood my parents reasoning for having wait.
For the most part, the experience I have had with acting has only been
through drama classes at school, acting lessons, performing with the Dance
Company and extra work on the set. This may seem like many experiences;
however, I still had questions on how to pursue my dream as an actress. At
that point, I decided to turn to the Internet to get some resources on how to
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Lights Camera Entertainment Industry Dream Casting Vampire Slayer Performances Mode Older Foot
pursue my dream.
I worked extremely hard to earn my SAG card. All my energy was
directed into getting in the union. I went to an orientation meeting held at
the guild shortly after I joined SAG. The speaker talked about the
overwhelming amount of people trying to break into the entertainment industry
and how hard we would have to work if we wanted to make it. When I first got
my SAG card I felt like I was on the road to success, but shortly after my
orientation I was reinforced with the understanding of the competitiveness in
the world of acting. At that point, I decided to do the research on the
I used several search engines on the computer to look up my topic. My
favorite was DOGPILE. I like the DOGPILE search engine because it was simple
to use. All I had to do was type in the word " acting" and many different
sites would pop up with their descriptions. There was so much information on
my topic that I would spend hours clicking and reading all the different
sites. I started out using AOL, only I kept getting knocked off - so I
switched to Netscape instead. I really wanted to chat with people on the net
about acting only I had a hard time finding chartrooms that didn't have a fee
involved. I kept finding bulletin boards where I could post a question, but I
wanted to chat with a person instead. Well, after several hours one day and
no luck finding an acting chatroom I decided to post a question on one of the
acting web pages. No one responded. I waited a couple of days for a response
and finally gave up with the bulletin boards.
A couple days later I went back to my computer in search of people to
talk to about acting. I went on AOL this time in the member chatrooms. There
were numerous chatrooms about different topics, except a topic on acting. I
went to one chatroom that was titled Arts & Entertainment and there were
three people in this chatroom - they were all males. Considering I found this
chatroom under Art &Entertainment, I was sure one of the guys would chat with
me. Was I wrong, the men were too preoccupied talking about ballet and they
didn't want to be bothered with my questions about acting.
After my attempt with the Arts & Entertainment chatroom failed, I
decided to enter every chatroom asking, " Is anyone interested in acting?"
Most people would ignore me or some would ask me why I wanted to know. I
didn't have much luck finding people to chat with me. Most people seemed to
be antisocial. I lost interest after about 2 hours of tormenting people to
chat with me so, I decided to make up my own chatroom. I named it "Calling
All Actors". I have to admit the name was kind of cheesy. I was so excited
that I created my own chatroom, and finally there was a chatroom for people
interested in acting. I was so excited but slowly that excitement turned into
frustration, no one wanted to come to my chatroom. Here I created a chatroom
and no one entered. Nobody even pretended to be an actor to make me happy. I
waited and waited, still no visitors. I gave up on creating my own chatroom
and continued to enter the member chatrooms on AOL.
There were chatrooms on Depression, so I wrote " I am depressed
because I want to chat with someone about acting, for a paper I need to write
and nobody will chat with me." The people in the chatroom did not find what
I typed in to be amusing. Most of the people chatting just ignored me; even
the people in the chatroom titled Advice 101. I thought I would get some
advice from that chatroom. Finally after many frustrating hours, I was about
to call it quits with the chatting business until I found a chatroom called
"Jesus Answers Your Prayers". I typed in, " Jesus answer my prayer and make
someone talk to me about acting." I t was a miracle, someone finally
responded to me. A person with the screen name Mosesbook2 said that he didn't
know anything about acting. As Mosesbook2 was responding someone with the
screen name FUZZABLE was asking Jesus to bring him drugs. (He was doing this
of course to raise controversy in the religious chatroom). FUZZABLE noticed
my request to talk to someone about acting so he immediately instant messaged
me. He said that the best advice he could give was, "If you can make yourself
laugh, you'll know you're funny". Another person from the Jesus Answers All
Your Prayers chatroom instant messaged me. This person's character name was
COON417. COON417 thought that I was a famous actor/ actress. I told him that
I was interested in an acting career and he said that he was also. He also
said that he had been in a couple of school plays. COON417 told me that his
dream was to come to California to be in movies. COON417 and FUZZABLE were
the only people I chatted with in the chat rooms. I found it hard to get
advice from chatrooms; instead I headed back to the World Wide Web to get
I found a fantastic web page called," Getting Started in Acting".
This web page featured an article that a man wrote when he first started his
homepage about. The article explained the importance of doing theater to
start a career in acting, whether it is in a school or local Community
Theater. He described theater as being the backbone to acting. He then wrote
that the next important tool for an actor was his/her head-shots. He
explained that the head-shots were used to advertise the actor to casting
directors and casting agents. A big tip that he suggested was, that the
headshots should look like the actor not like a glamour shot. Along with the
headshot he emphasized the importance of a resume. He said that the resume
should list different things the actor has done before and special talents.
After getting headshots done and a resume put together he recommended that
the actor send them to casting manager and agents -only if they have an
impressive resume or they belong to the union.
Other tips he gave were to go out for open calls for movies or TV
shows. An open call is where anybody experienced or not, can go and try out
for a part. These he said could be found in the Drama Logue or Backstage
Magazines. He stressed that it is important to go into acting for the right
reasons and not for just the money, glamour and fame.
I really enjoyed this web site. I found it to be very informative. I
was perplexed on whether to send my resume and headshots out to casting
directors or agents. With the information from this web page I realized that
it would be better for me to send my pictures out to agents so I can get
representation, and then the agent could help me by getting me a role in a
I then went to a Web page called Casting Wiz. This site contained the
basic facts of getting started. Casting Wiz recommended that one should do
theater, student films, extra work and independent films. This site also
recommended getting an agent and being persistent.
After going to the Getting Started in Acting and the Casting Wiz web
pages, I went to a page called Agents for Young Actors. This page gave the
low down on all the different things one should know about agents and the
process of getting one. Like the first Web Page, this Web Page said that it
is important to get an 8x10 headshot. This page also suggested that the best
time to send out pictures and resumes would be during the pilot season. The
pilot season is anywhere from January to March. It is during this time that
the new upcoming shows are being cast.
This site also suggested that there were several different sources to
find a list of agents, the one that they recommended was The Academy Players
Directory Reference Supplement. I personally liked the list of agents put out
by the Screen Actors Guild. There are many rules that SAG has for its
members, one being " All Guild members' talent agents must be franchised by
the Guild." In other words if the agent is not a part of the Guild, the SAG
member seeking representation should not sign with him/her. With the Screen
Actor Guild list I was more aware of what agents were franchised by the Guild.
Just as I was looking up the information on the different web sites,
I received an instant message from my friend Brandi who was in Arizona. She
had instant messaged me to let me know that she was coming out to California
with her roommate Stacy to see a screening of student films at USC. She
wanted to know if I would like to go because she knew that I would be
interested, and Stacey's boyfriend Phil, helped direct one of the films. I
was so happy that she instant messaged me with the invitation. I told her
that I didn't want to miss out on the great opportunity. A couple days later
we went to USC for the screening. It was phenomenal! I couldn't believe
people my age were able to put together excellent short films. I saw four
different films. At the end of each film the directors, writers and crew
would go to the front of the theater and discuss the film. The experience was
unforgettable. After the screening we went out to dinner and Brandi and I
swamped Phil with numerous questions about the process of making a film. I
asked Phil where he got all the actors. He said that the film students place
an audition in either the Drama Logue or Backstage magazines. The actors read
about the calls in the magazines to see if they fit the descriptions. If the
actor fits the part they go for an audition. I found out that the actors do
not get paid for the student films -they get exposure instead. The exposure
at times can be more rewarding than getting paid. I also asked Phil
questions about starting out a career in acting. His response was very
similar to the information I found on the Internet. He said to get headshots
and resumes and send them out to agents. He also suggested working on student
films or as an extra to get more experience.
I found the Internet to be a valuable resource in researching my
questions about acting. Even though I had my moments of frustration and
anguish I realized that almost any question could be answered with the turn
of a switch on my computer and a click of the mouse. The web sites I viewed
not only had information on," How to start an Acting Career", but it also had
some helpful acting resources that I may turn to in the future. Did you know
that an actor could post his/ her resume on the Internet? Did you know that
an actor has access to most of the casting notices via web? There were even
acting lessons that one could take over the web. I was amazed at all the
different acting resources available over the Internet. Though I was happy to
get all the different pieces of information, I was disappointed with the
chatrooms offered to people interested in acting. The Internet seemed like it
had a chatroom for everything but acting. I found that searching on the
Internet made me curious to explore many aspects of my topic, which ended up
being very time consuming. The overall experience was great! I felt that I
was able to get sucked in to my own little world of acting.
Agents For Young Actors. http://startips.com/agent.html (12 May 99)
Casting Wiz http://members.aol.com/_ht_a/castingwiz/started.html (12May 99)
Get Started In Acting. http://www.actorsource.com/article.html (13 May 99)
The Screen Actors Guild. http://www.sag.com(13 May 99)