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LA's Atmosphere by Jacqueline Nyahay

July 2005-December 2005
Jacqueline's memoirs on returning to the Los Angeles entertainment industry after spending 5 years on the East Coast!


Los Angeles home, sweet, home at last.  Elation filled me that mid-July as the caravan trip; Cally or Bust, 2-week drive across America from New York to LA was finally over.  I breathed in the smog filled air and sat in traffic for hours as memories flooded back of everything this place means to me.


Immediately I got busy looking for acting jobs.  I signed up with Central Casting the biggest background agency on the west coast.  I was sending out my headshots like mad, to all the soaps, etc. but knew they would only get me so far.  In LA everyone has color headshots now and no one accepts anything over 2 years old. 


Of course we had promised my 4-year old daughter, Zyla, Disneyland, so when a day appeared looking overcast and cool in early August we drove down.  While lunching in the Magic Kingdom I got my first call for a gig.  The casting director for the soap opera “Days of Our Lives” wanted me the following next two days for a Bridal Shower/Bachelorette Party scene.  I couldn’t believe she would book me without having an interview first.  In NY, “Guiding Light” was very picky about making sure you looked like your photo before ever booking and they usually booked you a week or so in advance.  Getting to set was insane.  I had been told to park in the lot across the street from the NBC-Burbank studios and walk up and have the guard tell me where to go.  The guard instructed me to walk onto the lot and go as far as I could, make a right, then find an awning and ask someone there.  I am serious those were the directions.  So when I found the awning it turned out to be the lunchroom and I had no idea who’s meal to interrupt to find out where the “Days of Our Lives” set was.  I stumbled into someone as I was walking out the door and he told me to go across the way and down a corridor.  I walked over and entered that building and was told to go back outside and make a right down to the hanger.  At the hanger entrance someone said to go to the back.  There I finally found security for the show and was told to go down the hall to find the stage manager.  When I arrived at his desk he was out to lunch.  I was 15 minutes early so I was just going to wait, but a PA came and told me to come with him to sign contracts.  After I filled out my paperwork, he told me to wait in the green room until an announcement said lunch was over.  He must have been new because these instructions almost got me fired.  There was no announcement for lunch to end and the green room was not where I should have been.  Everyone else who showed up was taken to the Background holding rooms.  I decided after 20 minutes to see if the stage manager was back and found him.  I told him what happened and he seemed irritated since it now appeared I was 20 minutes late and rushed me off to wardrobe.  Another difference between this place and “Guiding Light” in NY is that in NY you get one of the principal performers dressing room who might not be working that day as your dressing room even when you do BG work.  At “Days” there is a general BG room for the women and one for the men where you all change together.  On set we were shooting the bachelorette party scene and two male strippers came.  The choreographer encouraged us to stick dollars in their pants and be overly excited.  The stripper took off his cowboy hat and stuck it on my head and kept dancing around me.  At one point the first AD told us our names had been put in a hat and this other girl won in getting the upgrade of an U/5 (under 5 lines) and was told to stick a dollar in the strippers pants in a close up shot.  She had been working the show once a month for the last six months so I think it is more whom you know than a story of names in a hat.  Half way through the day I was paged over their intercom to go sign contracts.  I went back to the office and wondered why I was doing this again since I had done that first thing when I got there.  I guess the PA who had directed me to the green room, also messed up the contracts and they had to be redone. 

The day ended at 7pm and we were told to show up the following morning for the bridal shower, opening of the gifts scene.  A week later, I got a letter in the mail saying they had upgraded me to an U/5 as well and when the show aired the following month, everyone was calling saying they saw me in all the previews for the bacholorette party episode!


While I had hung out with the other BG girls on “Days” I found out that there are three main websites that are legit for getting casting notices and being able to submit yourself when you don’t have an agent working for you yet.  I signed up with all of them, NowCasting.com, Lacasting.com and ActorsAccess.com.  I started submitting myself for everything in my age range, convinced I would be called in soon for bigger roles with dialog and meat to them.


I had a meeting with Tom Walsh, the creator/producer/director of “14 Stories”, the show I filmed at NBC Miramar, FL.  He had moved his entire production company back to Los Angeles and was still working on getting the pilot picked up by a network.  He told me they had created a new version of the pilot, which was CGI characters only.  His plan was to sell that one and then write the live actors back into the scripted show to bring back the original cast. 


Central Casting called and booked me on “Without a Trace” as an FBI agent.  I loved going to the WB lot and noticed a big difference compared to the experience at NBC.  The guard to the parking structure already had my name on file and when I went onto the lot I was greeted with heavy security checking my bags, and walking through a metal detector, I felt like I was at LAX.  At least they gave me thorough instructions on how to get to the correct stage.  One thing that is different in LA from NY is that in LA you don’t get paid for walk away lunch if it is on a studio lot.  Since most shows shoot on studio lots that means no more catered lunches the majority of the time, unless it is a location shoot.  But the crafty was always full of good food, so you don’t starve and hot breakfast was served first thing in the morning.  My husband Edward had the day off and brought Zyla to meet me for lunch.  I left the lot and we found a little Indian restaurant close to the studio and shared some good food and wine.  It was wonderful to have a break from set to spend with my family.  Another difference I found was LA doesn’t pay night premiums - NY does, and overtime starts at the twelfth hour instead of eleventh in NY.  In the BG holding no PA sat with us, just a walkie which announced when they want us on set and how many.  A lot of the BG actors showed up with their laptops, trying to line up more work in our down time or working on writing their own scripts.  And it must be an LA thing but I also notice BG actors bring their own reclining lounge chairs to set.  So many little differences from NY.


The casting agent of “Charmed” called me in to audition for a guest star role.  I had submitted through NowCasting.com, but I had a feeling she called me because she was a friend of mine, whom I knew from the old Zalman King days.  Back in the day, Kimberly Foster was the assistant casting director at Zalman’s when I was one of their lead actresses.  Now she was working for Spelling!   The role was a spoof on “Desperate Housewives” and they needed look-a-likes, but since I had chopped my hair I didn’t look like anyone on that show and my role had been changed to Eva Longoria’s so I didn’t get called back.  I was called again two weeks later to audition for the role of ‘Poltergeist’ and I did get a call back for that role.  I auditioned in front of seven producers for the show.  There were six of us at the call back and we all looked completely different from each other, long hair, short hair, curly hair, straight hair, brunette hair, and blonde hair.  I didn’t end up booking that role, but the producers loved my audition and gave me good feedback so I know they will call me again.


Central Casting called me again, this time for “My Name is Earl” to play a mommy in a mommy/daughter beauty pageant.  I went to my fitting and they put me in a beautiful blue gown.  We were also fitted for bathing suits.  When I showed up the day of the shoot they had make-up and hair waiting to doll us up for the shoot.  This was a pleasant surprise since BG usually does their own.  I was told it would be a 3-day gig and the first day we shot the scene of arriving at the pageant in regular clothes.  None of the women playing mom’s knew who our children were since we weren’t in matching clothes the first day and hadn’t met each other yet.  While we were in holding we tried to figure out which child looked like us.  When we went to set they asked us to pair up and I said which little girl is in a blue gown?  So my stage daughter was found, and everyone took the cue and said what color their gown was to find their matching daughter.  ‘Earl’ played by Jason Lee was very funny in the scene and the show seemed like it was going to be a hit.  We all had a fun, easy day and none of us could wait until tomorrow when we would be in our gowns.


The following day we sat in our gowns for twelve hours.  They never got to our scene.  I felt especially bad for the little girls who had been dolled up all day and never got to go to set.  They decided to cut the scene and didn’t have us return the next day.  At least I got a picture to remember the day by!  Some good news I learned from one of the other actresses there who does BG work full time was that contrary to NY rumors I had been told, doing BG work in LA does not blackball you from getting bigger roles.  And just because you do BG on a show does not mean you cannot go back the next week auditioning for a guest star role.  They have so many actors and so much going on they cannot possibly keep track of who is on what set.  Since the industry is smaller in NY I can see why I was told by casting that I could not work “Law & Order” principal parts until it had been six months after my BG gig.  And then not being able to do BG work again on the show until six months after my principal gig.  I was finding more and more little differences between the coasts.


Mommys and Stage Daughters
Set of "My Name Is Earl" August 31st, 2005


I booked to shoot new headshots with Armen Asadorian.  I found him advertised on the NowCasting.com website and loved the look of his work.  He was very professional and we got some beautiful shots, I was very pleased.  I sent out the new photos to everyone I had mailed to before hoping these new pictures would bring in more phone calls.  I went and registered with some more BG agencies, Jeff Olan and Sande Alessi, which were listed on the SAG website.  Sande gets all the Spielberg movies and was moving into commercial work.  Jeff gets a lot of TV shows and was trying to move into commercial as well.  They both charged money to be with them, just like Central Casting, but neither has a much work as Central.


Two days after registering, Jeff Olan calls me to work on “Grey’s Anatomy”.  I was told I would be playing a nurse.  I went and bought white tennis shoes thinking that is what nurses wear, but when I called in for my call time the night before the shoot, I found out the show only wants non-white tennis shoes!  I was told to bring an outfit for a bar scene as well, that it would be winter season, so coats, scarves, and gloves, were expected.  When I showed up to set at the ABC lot, which had parking on the lot and not as crazy security as WB, I went to check in and was directed to wardrobe.  I was told I would be a patient instead of nurse and they gave me a gown, bathrobe and slippers.  For the bar scene, they went with the coat and scarf I was wearing.  I headed off to our holding, which was in one of the sound stages.  There was no craft service, food, water or anything in there for us.  All of that could only be found three sound stages away on set of “Grey’s Anatomy”.  I was surprised they would hold the BG so far away and not provide SAG standards for us in our holding.  And no PA stayed with the BG in holding.  It was crazy at one point because some crew were building a set for some future scene and using cranes and it got dangerous and they would drop things and some of the BG would move their chair out of harms way.  No SAG rep ever shows up to half the sets in LA, there are just too many shows going on.  If this was NY, a SAG rep would have been there, getting things into proper perspective, this was insane!  As the morning wore on, I was told one of the cocktail waitresses didn’t show up and now I was going to be a waitress.  They rushed to change me and get me to set, but they already had filled the set and didn’t use me for another hour.  I had to stand-by in the dark by the craft service that was in the sound stage for the show.  It wasn’t too bad; since another waiter wasn’t being used either and we hung out and chatted.  I still feel God directs my steps and whatever set I am sent to is where I am meant to be to speak to someone who needs a good listener.  Most of my time on set is spent talking with people and connecting to deeper issues than just doing BG work.  It is a whole underlining meaning to the jobs.  We eventually got brought to set for the last scene in the bar and I was handed a tray and given instructions to mingle and take drink orders.  Most of my day was spent in the stand-by area, which was weird because it was so dark.  You couldn’t really read anything, and one BG actor brought a mini-DVD player and watched movies all day.  Another brought her laptop, some people slept, others whispered.   Edward had the day off and came to meet me for my walk away lunch.  That is a perk I love about being here in LA that never happened when I worked in NY.  We live so close to all the studios that it makes meeting for the hour lunch break very convenient.  The rest of the afternoon I spent in wardrobe’s bathrobe and slippers and when I worked my 15 minutes on set, I walked down the hall in the hospital, led by one of the nurses.  Most of the SAG talent was wrapped early to avoid getting paid more money since we had gone way into overtime.  Of course they aren’t really suppose to do that, yet again breaking another SAG rule.  When I called Jeff’s hotline about more work, they were not taking any SAG that had already worked the show, only new faces, but non-union could come back any time. 


“Days of Our Lives” called again, I was hoping this would become a regular monthly thing between them and me.  They wanted me for an Irish pub scene.  I sat at a table with my date, sipping coffee throughout the scene.  It was a quick easy day, but no upgrades.


Extra, Extra Casting had been so positive about me coming to LA when I registered with them in NY last April.  They had told me to let them know as soon as I got here and they would transfer my info and start sending me out.  Days after I got here, I called the owner to let her know I was in LA and give her my new contact info.  Considering they were sending me out in NY only weeks after I registered with them and the fact they are the biggest commercial BG company out here in LA, I assumed I would be working with them at least once a month.  But every week I would call the hotline to let them know I was available and send in my new pictures to no avail.  After being here three months they still were unable to produce any jobs for me.


Edward got called early one morning from an SAG franchised agent in New York.  We had sent our headshots to her over a month ago when I saw a listing online saying she was opening up an office here in Los Angeles.  She wanted us to come in for a general interview with her assistant in Beverly Hills.  We got ready and met with her and she loved us.  They decided to freelance with us for commercial work.  Finally an LA agent!


Central Casting called me to interview for “Malcolm in the Middle” to be the photo double for Jane Kaczmarek.  If you have seen the show you know I am 20 years younger and my hair looks nothing like hers.  But they wanted me for my legs and feet!

I showed up to the Bungalow on the CBS lot with three other girls and we had our stems appraised and photographed.  Thank god for the pedicure I had rushed out to get the day before because I got the call later in the day saying they had picked me to be her foot double!  The scene wasn’t quite was I was told it would be.  When I showed up to work, my wardrobe was slacks and loafers.  In the scene Bryan (Hal) has prepared a footbath for Jane.  He has her sit down, then removes her socks and shoes and pumices her heel.  I wasn’t told someone would be fondling my feet!  Jane did show her feet in the wide shots but I was asked onto set for the close ups.  She and Bryan introduced themselves and it was fun to watch them work.  I was a bit spoiled that day since I was the only BG on set; they gave me my own trailer room with TV, shower, bathroom, etc.  Make-up had to paint my toes to match Jane’s bright red nail polish.  When she asked how I got the job and I explained the interview she couldn’t believe I was asked to come in to audition in a skirt and heels.  Maybe the director has a leg fetish?  


That same week, I was also called to interview for a court reporter on “Just Legal”.  I went to the Sony Studios in Culver City and found the same heavy security WB had.  The office seemed like a mile hike through the lot to the very back corner.  When I arrived I had been told to ask for Tony who was the 1st AD of the show.  My interview was with him and the director Kevin Dowling.  It went really smooth considering Kevin knew David Platt who had helped me land the “Law & Order” gig last year.  I think that connection gave me an edge up and Kevin told me I was more than qualified to play background on his set.  They booked me for four days as the court reporter role and asked for my headshot to consider me for bigger things in the future. 


I honestly thought I would be on set more after the interview and being picked to be the court reporter for four days on “Just Legal”, but as fate would have it I spent most of my time in holding.  I read two books ‘Girl in Hyacinth Blue’ and ‘The Passion of Artemisia’ both by Susan Vreeland.  Captivating in her detail and command of 17th Century art and history wove passion into my spirit.  I highly recommend these.  I also spent many hours talking with a variety of people.  Everyone from all walks of life can find themselves doing background work.  Lawyers, cops, detectives, marines back from Iraq, bored with what they are doing, maybe have a few free days a month take up BG work for fun.  Conversations range from politics, to religion to global goals or what our president is doing about New Orleans.  I also had a lot of one on one chats listening to others, giving advice and learning about how others see life.  I really enjoyed coming to “Just Legal”, in four short days I felt I grew tremendously as a person.  The crew was wonderful and Don Johnson was very professional, overall a fabulous experience.


“Days” called again but it was in the middle of my “Just Legal” gig and I had to turn them down.  I let them know I would be available the next week, but I never heard back from them.


Two days later I was out shopping when I got a rush call from Central Casting.  They wanted me back down at the Sony Studios in two hours for Adam Sandler’s new movie “Click” to replace a stand-in.  I was told I would be standing in for Katie Cassidy, but as the night wore on and I still hadn’t been used after being there 8 hours I figured out why her original stand in had taken the night off.  The five-page scene they were shooting was originally scheduled to be shot over three days and this was now day four and the call sheet said they wouldn’t finish it until day five.  With shooting averaging a page a day and Katie being only in the last page of the scene, her original stand in must have been bored to tears.  Along with the fact Adam prefers night shoots, the nights were getting longer and longer.  I was finally used to stand in for Dolores O’Riordan of the Cranberries who was in the wedding reception scene singing her hit song “Linger”.  The set was magical and standing in center stage, so to speak, was cool.  When Dolores arrived to set she said ‘Hey sweetie’ to me as I stepped down and she took her place.  We finally rapped up around 3:30am.


The following day I was called and told I had been picture picked to be in the Lab Tech room on “Mission Impossible 3”.  I didn’t know I had even been submitted for it, but was excited the director had picked me.  When I got to set, I sat in holding for a few hours talking with one of the other BG actors who had been a principal on “Titanic” and was telling me his whole story.  I was beginning to meet a lot of BG actors who had done some pretty good mainstream stuff, but still did BG work as well.  When I finally got to set the 1st AD picked me to be the featured BG of the day.  In the scene, I thankfully return a book to one of the principal’s, interrupting him, as he is making a top-secret phone call to Tom Cruise.  Hopefully it makes the cut!


I was called to return to Adam’s movie to stand-in again, but was already booked doing stand-in/photo double work on an Untitled David O’Russell film.  It was a camera test day and the DP was figuring out shots for the film and needed actors to stand-in/photo double the scenes for him to work out.  Vince Vaughn is slated to star, but the mother role I was standing in for still hasn’t been cast.  The 2nd AD said they would try to hire someone who looks like me.  I’m thinking, why not just hire me? 

So far another misconception I was told about doing BG in Los Angeles was that most of the gigs are outside in the hot, hot sun, but compared to the freezing cold location sets of NY, I thought that sounded fine.  Fortunately for me, I have only shot inside on sound stages here in LA.  Not even the car scene was outside since the DP called for the Jaguar to be driven into the sound stage!  Can we say spoiled by LA?


Sande Alessi Casting finally called after I had registered with them two months earlier.  I found that almost everything on their hotline is for non-union and they didn’t have much union work or they were using their favorites and just not posting it.  They called me for the Mervin’s commercial but I didn’t get the message for two hours and when I called back they had already booked the entire call.  Sucks!


Not a day goes by on set without someone feeling the need to come and let me know, “Hey did you know you look like Cameron Diaz?  You should be her stand-in or photo double, you should call her agent.”  Thanks.  It’s not a horrible thing to look like a star.

So when Central Casting put up on the hotline that they were looking for a photo double for Cameron you better believe I called in.  Falling 2 inches short of the actress I still talked my way into the interview for her new movie “Holiday”.  About ten actresses showed up to the interview, which consisted of the wardrobe department taking all our measurements and photographs from every angle.  It really all boils down to who has the exact sizes to match the actress, so knowing I was 2 inches shorter I doubted I would land this job.  At least I was getting paid, a perk about SAG BG interviews.  The interview was back at the Sony Studios lot and it was interesting walking past stage 15 where the wedding reception scene for “Click” had been completely torn down and the space was empty.  I also happened by stage 23 and found it cleared out as well.  I guess the rumors of “Just Legal” getting cancelled were true; Don Johnson’s law office walls were stacked up on a truck getting ready to go to storage.  I finally figured out who the “Just Legal” wardrobe girl was that had looked so familiar and given me such a hard time.  She had been the assistant wardrobe girl back in 1996 when I was starring in the Mystique Film “Damien’s Seed”.  Amy had been so sweet to me on that film, which we shot for two weeks, on location in Big Bear.  I found a Polaroid photo we had taken together that she had signed to me in my scrapbook.  Going from being the assistant wardrobe on a SAG feature film for the Playboy channel to Jerry Bruckheimer’s Sony set may have gone to her head, or maybe she didn’t recognize me, or she just felt like giving a BG actor a hard time.  It seems everyone’s eyes change toward you when you do BG, no matter if you’ve been a principal before or not, certain people look down on you and try to wield some power trip over you. 


After three months of self-submitting to the supposedly three legit casting websites, I cancelled my subscriptions.  None of the sites had produced any work or auditions.  I did not want to waist anymore time or money on them when I felt they were geared more toward helping non-union actors.  The union jobs listed just gave the illusion of what the non-union actors could strive for.  The reality is that tens of thousands of people are submitting and the overwhelmed casting directors call in those they know or from agents they know.


Extra, Extra Casting finally called but not for a gig.  They wanted me to come to their re-shoot and pay them $5.  I didn’t know why I would need a new picture since I just shot with them in NY in April, only six months ago, but I knew I had better go show them my face here in LA if I had any hope of a phone call from them in the future. 


I was just beginning to wonder if “Days Of Our Lives” was going to call me again since it had been a month since their last phone call and a few hours later, my phone rang.  I was booked to work four days in the L.A.Club Chez Rouge scenes.  There were over 30 BG for the scenes, a large number for any soap set.  The gossip in the lady’s room was entertaining, road stories from the dancers of Madonna and Mariah Carey, pooch clothing lines, and what it would be like to be Opera or Jesus for a day.  We all exchanged emails and promised to keep in touch.  One email was sent out saying we could get the breakdowns for a few bucks a month.  Having already gone that route (illegal breakdowns/self submit) in the 90’s, I did not partake.  Another actress wanted to know if anyone was interested in buying SAG vouchers.  Illegal it may be but it still goes on.  And yet another girl was promoting the three websites I had left behind, and then I realized nobody else there was SAG.  The difference is that anyone can join AFTRA the union that all the soap operas work under and even doing BG work you are paid union wages.  With SAG you have to get three SAG vouchers to join and non-union work pays really low wages.  Most new actors put up with the low wages, practically working for free in the hopes that they will be able to obtain a SAG voucher.  This can only happen if the designated number of SAG actors does not show up to set and production has to give a voucher away.  Or in special cases where they can’t find a SAG actor to fill the SAG spot and only a non-union actor is available, then they can make an exception and give them a voucher as well.  Rumors run rampant all over L.A. about actors paying, giving gifts or even blowjobs for vouchers, and who knows what else.  Supposedly SAG is trying to change the system so that this fraudulent way of getting into the union ends.


I had the worst possible audition ever when I was called back to the Spelling show “Charmed” to audition for the demon role of ‘Phoenix’.  I felt like I was loosing my mind, I couldn’t remember the lines and the casting director kept giving me more directions.  She had me leave and come back into her office three different times; working me into the demonic vision she was looking for.  I have discovered channeling demons is exhausting; can’t I just get a regular role?


I was really starting to question whether I even wanted to act anymore.  My heart felt like it was being drawn elsewhere, and as I gazed up at Venus, the moon and a plethora of stars from Big Bear Lake, circles started forming in my head.  Big Bear, a mountain resort, 2 hours out of L.A., holds a lot of history for me.  I spent my childhood exploring these mountains; not only with my family, but also through summer camps I attended up here.  Now I was bringing my daughter here, to share this piece of Nature with her.  The “Welcome To Big Bear” guide showed a list of movies shot in Big Bear and I was surprised to see “Damien’s Seed” listed amongst the A-list titles.  I took my family to the locations where I shot the movie, feeling slightly surreal looking back in my mind.  It seemed as if 1996 were a lifetime ago.  No trip down memory lane could be complete for me without visiting the boarding school campus I lived at for six months in Running Springs.  Unbeknownst to me the school had filed for bankruptcy back in March and as I looked at the ghostly abandoned campus I felt a tensing up in the back of my spine.  After all these years, the cultic pull of the program seeps back into my skull and I feel the need to escape it all over again.  We drove off the mountain breathing the last of truly fresh air and began our decent back to Los Angeles. 


On my last day of being 30 years old, I went to the set of “24”, tucked away deep in the valley, at their own private studios in Chatsworth.  I was playing ‘Login’s Press’ meaning I was there to cover the President’s speech at the emergency press conference.  It was a beautiful set and everyone was exceptionally friendly.  I had been turning down a lot of jobs lately because the hours weren’t working with my husband’s new job schedule and I needed to be available to pick up Zyla from school.  When production asked if I would come back the following day to be a photo double of a dead girl, I had to turn it down, knowing Edward’s schedule wouldn’t allow it.  Fortunately they found a non-union girl on set who was more than willing to come back because it meant her first SAG voucher.  Even though it didn’t work for me, my loss gave someone else an opportunity to get ahead and I was glad I could help her out.


I was curious about my transcript from Santa Monica College, so I ordered a copy.  I had taken a class back in 1993 while working full time for a delivery company.  My car had broken down and missing the last few days of class, which half the final was comprised of, thought for sure I had failed.  But to my surprise, I hadn’t and with this knowledge of credits to my name thought maybe with all this down time I would pursue a degree again.  For my 31st birthday I registered at my local community college to finish what I started. My educational goals had changed; I wasn’t inclined to pursue accounting anymore and was happy I had waited until now to figure out what I would really like to study.

Click here to read "The Year of the Dog" ~Los Angeles 2006