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CIFF 2021: Industry Week panel discusses real pathways to careers in acting

By Rachneet Randhawa, November 10 2021—

This year, the Calgary International Film Festival (CIFF) saved you a seat to their first-ever Industry Week event which ran from Sept. 23–26. Industry Week invited those in the film, TV and adjacent industries to mix, mingle, celebrate and learn and included conversations with visionary filmmakers. The Gauntlet attended a handful of these live events including “A Real Pathway to an Acting Career” featuring actors Leslie McMichael, Autumn T. Dang, Pardeep Sooch and the host Blair Young, president of ACTRA Alberta, to learn more. 

For starters, the backgrounds of all the actors and how they launched their acting careers were shared. Leslie McMichael, Ph.D., has been a stunt coordinator since 1996 and daily stunt coordinator since 2015. She was doing her master’s in psychology when she began acting, doing non-union commercials and playing an extra at first. 

Autumn T. Dang is fairly recent in the industry, having begun around seven years ago after she finished her post-secondary schooling and decided to take acting classes to supplement her singing abilities. Currently, her day job is as a systems analyst. 

And lastly, Pardeep Sooch has been in the industry for about nine years but initially had no acting experience whatsoever when he started off, having graduated with a biochemistry degree. He worked at a corporate job before he took the plunge into acting agencies, dedicating himself to a career in acting.

Coming from an extensive musical theatre background himself, Blair Young expressed the long and arduous process of adapting from an 800-or-so-seat theatre, to a camera and live movie set format. 

The first question the moderator asked was general advice for those looking to get inspired and pursue acting as a career. Sooch mentioned that you have to keep an open mind and say yes to absolutely everything as a rookie in training. For example, he took his vacation days off from work seriously by investing them into learning more about the acting experience and to sit back, observe what happens behind the scenes and just soak in the industry. 

Dang added that it’s just a matter of putting yourself out there and being your genuine self and being vulnerable by opening yourself up to various opportunities, including being open to constantly learning from others on film sets. She also continued to do her intermittent training throughout COVID through online platforms including workshops like a Masterclass program. 

McMichael became more active in stunt performing after she moved to Vancouver and did a Kodak workshop and a workshop with Ivana Chubbuck — a well-known American acting coach who has trained starlets such as James Franco, Halle Berry, Brad Pitt, Jake Gyllenhaal and Ian Somerhalder among others. Before becoming a stunt performer her first big break in acting was on a ‘90s TV series Breaker High with Ryan Gosling. All of the panellists mentioned that they did formal training through the Company of Rogues Actors’ Studio — also based in Calgary. 

Young then asked panellists about their “a-ha” moment when they decided that they wanted to fully commit to acting. McMichael mentioned that there’s so much preparation to the actual day on set when the stunt is performed but that it’s is worth it as it’s so much fun. 

Despite her regular nine-to-five corporate day job, Dang mentioned that going to auditions is still possible and that sometimes your bosses and supervisors are open to you cultivating your craft. 

“And so what I found throughout my years of working, whether it was in a law firm or with the current software company I work for, is that you’re showing the work that you’re putting in but you’re being very honest to your leaders as well, and showing that this is my passion,” says Dang. “And sometimes they do have to take time out to go to auditions, I found more often than not, they’re quite understanding of that because they’ve seen people working professionally.” 

Sooch added that he invested his time wisely by taking sick days to go to an audition. He also has an escape room business he started on the side with family members which is useful as it allows him to be flexible with his schedule and set his own hours. 

Young emphasized that availability is a big part of getting started in the industry and because of this it helps if your employer is sympathetic to that and will help rather than hinder your side-hustle of acting. 

Moreover, when it comes to finding mentorship, hiring a coach and contacting agencies, it can become a convoluted process. Sooch said that he had no acting background let alone connections in the acting industry and that he looked up acting agencies in the Yellow Pages back then. This can be risky as some agencies ask for money upfront which isn’t allowed.  

“‘They only get paid when you get paid’ is like a big thing,” says Sooch about a common saying in the industry. Despite this, he was able to find an agent through a friend which is normally not common if you don’t have background experience. 

Young mentioned that you have to be wary of falsified ads for agents and said it’s best to see if they’ve signed onto a provincial code of conduct that includes things like not charging upfront. He also recommends having a few coffee chats with agents — as they come from different backgrounds and have different personalities — before you decide to commit and hire one. 

For Dang, during her formal training at the acting school Company of Rogues, she was able to utilize her classmates and instructors to give her feedback on what the appropriate route was in terms of finding an agent. 

“I’ve come to realize that you don’t need to rush to find an agent, and agencies — it’s a partnership, it’s a collaborative work that you’re doing,” says Dang. “But if you don’t have an agent at that time, it doesn’t mean that all of your opportunities are gone. There are so many independent productions happening in the province right now, that can get your foot in the door so that you can build those types of relationships.” 

As an example, Young spoke of large-scale casting calls like the recent one for The Last of Us which was shooting for 11 months for the first season alone, and a TV adaptation that was looking to hire extras in Calgary. 

As for auditions, Young asked the panellists how one could participate if they don’t own any professional equipment. Sooch claimed that these days you simply need your laptop or smartphone, a standard tripod and clean background. Dang tagged on and said that you can purchase cheap coloured paper backgrounds from Michaels and get inexpensive lighting from Amazon. 

“There’s a ton of different resources out there for you to be able to have the perfect setting and not have to spend tons of money.” 

For the live Q & A session, one of the questions asked was if acting school is a requirement to become an actor. Firstly, Dang mentioned that you don’t need formal training, but that you should invest in some type of training as it can get you to be more comfortable on set so that you’re understanding what’s being asked of you. 

Sooch agreed and said that having started with zero training whatsoever, he didn’t commit to taking acting classes until he was a few years into his career. He added that at the end of the day, you have to approach it so that it’s a constant learning experience in which you want to try to level up. 

McMichael said it’s good to learn the basic terminology so that when you’re on set you’ll be in the same headspace as everyone else. Young imparted some valuable advice and said that although the courses through ACTRA are for members only, you can take courses through other organizations like the IATSE, or the technician’s union. So checking out the different unions in the film industry is a big must in uncovering the right path for you. 

Other ways to get skills for acting include independent productions happening in the province with opportunities through the Calgary Society of Independent Filmmakers (CSIF). For example, you can sign up for volunteer work to be a crew member and start to discover if acting is something you want to do, collaborating with other individuals in the province within the industry without having to pay major bucks to level up skills.

This is a great resource as it attracts a lot of newcomers to the industry looking to get experience and a place where filmmakers can go to get inexpensive equipment. Dang also added that community theatre groups in Calgary are also bustling and another great way to get involved. 

Even if your acting career doesn’t work out, there are transferable skills that you develop like people skills, public speaking and communication, as many of the panellists exclaimed. Moreover, although the film industry has red-flagged a lack of diversity in terms of BIPOC individuals, it at times has overlooked those with disabilities. Young mentioned that policies and procedures are improving.

For example, the Independent Production Agreement (IPA) covers the engagement of performers in all film, television and digital media production in Canada, except British Columbia. This is a contract that dictates pay and working conditions between actors and producers. The latest negotiations included more accessibility for those with disabilities to audition locations, including elevators.

As for what the panellists like and dislike the most about acting, Sooch expressed that the best aspect is getting to meet like-minded individuals. However, a drawback is unpredictability and how things change instantly and that you have to quickly adapt. 

“For one example, I did Don’t Say Its Name which is a recent film. It was -50 [degrees Celsius] on the day that we have film, and they’re like, ‘We still have to go, keep to the schedule.’” 

For Dang, she agreed that it’s getting to work with fascinating individuals that makes it worth it, but the downside is the unpredictability of the film schedule which can throw you for a loop — especially with the pandemic. 

For McMichael, she loves that she gets to do unique performances as a stunt double apart from the traditional type of acting like — being lit on fire — which was an awesome experience for her. She also admires when she meets people on set that are down to earth and regardless of being cast or crew treating everybody the same. 

Young summarized their experiences, and as an actor himself, described working on a movie set as analogous to going to summer camp. You get to visit amazing locations, you might have a “camp bully” that you don’t quite get along with, but you also meet your best friends for life that you go back to year after year. 

“Every experience is so unique and so interesting and different.” 

As a final note, Young imparted some final advice on failing forward and, when it comes to auditions, getting used to collecting a bunch of “no’s” before you hear that resounding “yes.” Young mentioned to allow yourself to let your journey into an acting career unfold and trust the invisible guiding hand, and to remember there is no such thing as small roles, just small paycheques.

A Real Pathway to an Acting Career was part of a series of live panels for the CIFF 2021 Industry Week programming. Be sure to check out these actors including Leslie McMichael, Autumn T. Dang, Pardeep Sooch in their respective films and social medias.

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