The bad audition

By Hassan Nicholas, 18
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Hassan is embarrassed to admit that the weird little kid with the moustache on the splash page was him. It was his first big job singing and dancing on the PBS series, Kidsongs.

When people find out I’m an actor, they’re usually surprised. I think it shocks them to know an average person like me can be on TV.

Since I was 10 years old, I’ve been on 12 TV shows, including Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, All That and For Your Love. I even did a voiceover for the cartoon version of Superman. But I’m not famous, I’m not recognizable, in fact I’m shy. I live in an apartment, not a mansion lined with palm trees, and I don’t even have a car. Even though I consider myself to be pretty successful, compared to many, I’m still getting my foot in the door.

I get about 5 to 7 days of work a year, which with union wages has earned me about $3000 to $5000 a year. The money I make tends to go back into my expenses, like acting classes and head shots—the 8×10 photos that are an actor’s calling card.

I’ve worked hard for my modest success, but I still have that hunger to rise to the top. I want people to know my name. I want respect. I want directors to call me and offer me roles without even giving me a screen test.

For many, acting is a potential paycheck, instant fame and success, but for me, acting is an art. I like getting paid, but I’m not expecting to get rich. I just like to perform. It’s hard to describe the feeling I get just being on the set. Fun—everything is fun, but at the same time, I know I’ve got to measure up. There’s this feeling, the feeling of walking out on stage and the live audience is looking at you. All the attention’s on you. It’s scary, but exciting at the same time. Acting is such a release. You get the freedom to put your energy out and let it go. The words come out, and the energy is radiating off you. It’s great.

The star treatment is fun

No matter how small your role is, the staff of the show pampers you. They’ll have a chef who asks what you want for lunch. They give you a trailer. They have a tram to take you around the lot. You feel important. There’s a guy with a walkie-talkie who tells someone, "Hassan’s ready. Bring him on." I’ll joke around with everyone, maybe play basketball with the sound guy. As you’re walking around the lot, someone will say casually, "Oh, ‘Friends’ is filmed on the next sound stage." You feel like you’re a part of the entertainment business.

1991: For my first head shots, I was so bored sitting there under the hot lights tilting my head and smiling over and over. My mouth was tired from smiling.

I’d always dreamed of being on TV. When I was 10, I bugged my mom so much that she set up an appointment for me with Talent Television, a local agency. Having no knowledge of the entertainment business, my mother paid $1000 for what they said covered the lights, renting the set and cameras. Soon after, my mom found she had been scammed. The company disappeared and couldn’t be found. We were back to square one.

Then I got into an acting workshop set up by the father of one of my classmates. I attended regularly and caught the father’s eye. An actor himself, he got me an audition for an agency, and one of the agents agreed to represent me. That’s how I got the first thing you need—an agent.

Then it was time for mom to pay out some more money. A real agent gets a percentage of your earnings instead of money up front—but there were still expenses. I needed head shots. These 8.5 x 11-inch photographs of your face and a little of your shoulders will be your "applications." Casting directors decide whether to ask you in to audition based on your head shot. They must be done professionally by the right photographer. Often your agent will ask for two sets of head shots; one for theatrical (more serious look) and one for commercial (smiling).

A typical deal might be to pay $250 for two rolls of black and white film, two 8×10 custom prints, three wardrobe changes and a makeup artist. You might have to buy clothes, get a haircut or make other changes to look right for your head shots. After your agent selects the best poses, you will have to pay for 300 head shots per pose, which might cost $75 or more. You should get new ones made at least every three years.

My first break

1997: The photographer made me wear this horrible shirt, but I still got jobs.

The final thing I needed: a resume. At first I had to conjure something up because I really had no experience. I made a resume based on some acting classes and being in a talent show at church. But that was enough to get me my first major job—a role on Kidsongs, a variety show that aired on PBS. The show was about 12 kids who produce their own TV show, so the plot centered around what was happening with the kid crew behind the scenes.

As it turned out, that was one of the best experiences I ever had. For three years, I got to act and sing on the show every summer for several months. I spent my time in make-up, getting wardrobe, reading scripts, memorizing lines, performing and just waiting around. My days were long—6 a.m. to 5 p.m., usually—but I loved it. I’m still friends with a lot of the kids I got to know from the show.

Part of the fun was goofing around with the other kids, but we also had to work hard. Once, I was shooting a serious scene, and one of my friends started making faces at me off-stage. I could not stop laughing. Finally the producer came down and escorted me off the set to a quiet room. I knew I was in trouble. The producer sat me down and looked at me with her stabbing eyes and said, "OK, let’s go over these lines." I realized I had to learn the meaning of focus. I ran through the lines, went back on set and got through the scene without a problem.

In addition to the show, I did some music videos, and since then, I’ve just kept trying to get work. That’s the strange thing about acting. No matter how many shows you’ve done, you still have to go to auditions and keep struggling to get the next role. You have to be patient and dedicated.

I know people who’ve been going to auditions for two years and haven’t gotten a job. Sometimes that’s why people quit—it doesn’t happen fast enough for them. You might go to an audition, get two call-backs and meet with the producer, and still not get the job. (On the other hand, I have a friend who’s getting $23,000 in royalties every few weeks because of a big commercial he did. He’s on his fourth car now—he crashed the first three.)

In the busy season—September and October—I’d have one or two auditions a day. My senior year in high school, I went to the attendance office so often to get excused from class they knew me by name. Ironically, I missed so many rehearsals of our school play, "Raisin in the Sun," I got kicked out of drama—my most fun class! If you’re going to a lot of auditions, you are going to have to sacrifice something else. For me, I couldn’t hang out with my friends as much, and it was hard to do my homework and get good grades.

If the audition went well, my agent would call and say: "Hassan, you’re booked." That’s when I’d scream, drop the phone, run around, and once I’d calmed down, pick the phone up again. Then they’d tell me where to go for wardrobe. Then I’d celebrate by eating banana-vanilla-chocolate-swirl ice cream with walnuts, with fruit punch mixed in (I know it sounds gross but it’s really good).

I played an alien reptile

2000: They put me in a V-neck sweater and shot me head-on so I could have that clean-cut look. It's good for getting commercial jobs.

One of my favorite jobs was working on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. I played an alien reptile which meant two hours in makeup. Then I had to breathe through my nose the rest of the day, and wear this really tight constricting costume. But I was on the actual Star Trek set—I loved every minute of it. I felt so professional. At one point I wandered out on the lot and a tour bus was going by. All the tourists were looking at me, flashing pictures and pointing. Somewhere out there, someone has a picture of me in their photo album.

I also had a lot of fun doing a commercial for K-Mart. They gave me certain clothes to wear, turned up the music and told me to dance or do whatever I wanted. I was horsing around, pretending to do aerobics moves, and it was a blast. It’s fun when you can show a little creativity.

Other jobs have not gone as smoothly. One job, I showed up at five in the morning. I didn’t get on set to shoot until eight at night, and the director had already left. One younger kid had to leave, so I had to say his lines. It was late, everyone was tired, they didn’t give me any stage directions—I don’t like working in that kind of confusion.

There’s a movie called Welcome to Hollywood about this struggling actor. He gets a job on Baywatch. He has one line: "Hey, he’s drowning." He practices the line for hours. Once he arrives on the set, they make him go in the water, he steps on a sting ray and an extra gets to say his lines. I could see that happening. I love that scene because it really shows what an actor is up against.

Despite the difficulties, acting has given me some of the most rewarding and memorable experiences of my life. I would recommend it for anyone who’s up for the challenge.