Michael // Hollywood, California
An actor talks about good reasons to leave a good job, the expiration date of dreams, and the most important factor for surviving Los Angeles.
I hope I can be forgiven for the measured cynicism with which, back in November, I read Michael's blog post, announcing his imminent departure from Philadelphia for Los Angeles.
At the time, I tried to view his exuberance from the angle of life as he'd heretofore known it. He had steady work in local theatre and in film. He even got stopped on the street, recognized by mail carriers and construction workers as that guy on TV.
"I had some gum surgery done, and the receptionists at the oral surgeon were like 'We know you, you're on TV!'"
I wrote him and asked if I could interview him in the coming spring. By then, I'd be back in California, and he would have had a good five months to get the stars knocked out of his eyes.
He very kindly agreed.
Five months later, I walk into Solar de Cahuenga, and immediately feel my pulse rise at the sight of innumerable greased heads and skinny denim-clad legs. Hollywood does this to me--I've been an easy mark for it, ever since I was a kid. I don't want to be an actor, but trying to have human interactions in this town makes me feel as if I ought to at least be trying. As if I'm the crazy one for not maxing out my credit cards in order to wear the correct brand of jeans.
And then I spot Michael. His eyes are disarmingly clear--I'm no producer, but even I can recognize their potential. He has the springy hair and square jawline of Errol Flynn, and a humorous smirk lingering at the corner of his easy, suspiciously confident smile.
He stands up when I come to the table, and asks me if I want anything. It takes me a minute before I figure out what's so strange about him: he's behaving exactly as if we've both already arrived at what we want to be. He's an actor, I'm a writer, and what could be more natural than that we should both be meeting here, where we happen to be in town?
It's lovely, it's charming, and, as I said, suspicious-making. I wonder what secret ace he's holding...or if, despite his seeming aplomb, he's actually clueless about how hard and heartless newcomers are supposed to find Los Angeles.
Michael started as an engineering student at Drexel University, but he only spent a year before he realized that he and engineering weren't right for each other. His extracurricular activities in theatre seduced him into the film department; by the second year, theatre had led him out of Drexel and into Temple, which has a stronger arts program.
Straight out of college, he premiered a play with 1812 Productions at the Walnut Street Theatre. He got himself a local agent and one in New York City. He did commercials, theatre, and street performance as one of Philadelphia's colonial inhabitants, leading tours around the city's historic sites. He was a particularly big hit wearing fake blood on his face for the Spirits of '76 Ghost Tour.
"I created my own character--there's a park in Philadelphia called Washington Square, and there's about 2000 soldiers buried in the park. I liked to have thought I was one of them."
Michael seems to have single-handedly made the tour what it is today. He appears on nearly all their publicity and yes, that is him on the website's header. But as much as people enjoyed his performance as tour guide--maybe, in the weird way people can be nice, it was because they enjoyed him so much--they occasionally offered him unsolicited guidance, in return.
"One time, this guy from Boston, tough as nails, said, 'You spend $100,000 a year to go to school and be an actor? You famous, or what?'"
(It should be noted that he does the tough-as-nails Boston accent very well.)
"I said 'Do you want to talk about where I get my health insurance, too? We can have that discussion.'"
Actually, Michael didn't really say that. Instead, he showed the Boston guy a copy of a local magazine on whose cover featured Michael in his colonial costume.
The guy, he says, responded with, "'That's you? Get the fuck outta here! Here's my card.'"
He gives a phlegmatic shrug.
"When you're there with the public, and gotta put yourself out there, you kind of let it roll off your back."
But, even in Los Angeles, an atmosphere thick with movie hopes, that cynicism runs even stronger. It was voiced perfectly by an ad executive who, on the recommendation of Michael's old company Chatterblast, gave him a freelance gig writing copy for a men's shaving product: "Oh, you're an actor? How long are you going to give it?"
"People look at it as an investment. They say '30 or bust.' You'll get a return or you won't, and you'll pull the plug."
Maria Bamford says that the only real reason for getting into show business is so that people will say hi to you. It's certainly the only one that seems plausible, to me. If all you wanted was to pay the bills, or work in the arts, there are a lot more lucrative...not to mention dignified...ways to do it.
This is why, without having heard any of his LA story, I'm already convinced that Michael should never have left Philadelphia. He was working, he was remunerated for his work, and most importantly, he got recognized by perfect strangers. Why in the world would an actor mess with that kind of success?
"To be honest, Philadelphia's theatre scene is sort of insular. It's very..."
He reflects for a minute, then settles back on:
"Insular--that's the word. There's a certain level you reach in a regional market, and that's it."
And, he acknowledges, it's a great way to live--you have a close community, creative satisfaction, and the comfort of a decent living on the side. Actors in Philadelphia will book about three shows a year, and in the meantime teach private lessons, or even carry on a full-time job that gives them flex time for performing.
"People do it because they love it. You can be completely happy in that environment."
"There was a standup comedian I knew from Philly," he tells me. "I won't give you his name. He moved to Los Angeles two years ago. He was very public about his trials and tribulations. He lived in the Valley and couldn't find a job, and he would take to Facebook and say 'I still haven't found anything.'
"He had gone out very publicly, and then failed, and was posting about all of this. He had a meltdown online. I saw it and was like 'Jesus Christ! What if I go out there and it doesn't happen?'"
His thoughts of moving to Los Angeles were haunted by visions of being out of work, ending up on the street, calling his mom from a payphone. He knew people who had come back from LA and New York, with "this look in their eyes, that they had seen some things. The system had chewed them up and spit them out, and they didn't want to do that anymore. They were happier in a small market, having a family..."
Maybe it was their happiness that made his community a little reluctant in supporting his idea of reaching toward the next level. Nobody turned on him, but few were very supportive of his dreams, once he decided to head west with them.
"I remember talking with one of my old bosses from work--'What if I go out there and fall on my face?' He said, 'That's not who you are.'"
"Having the strong love and support from my family is a big part of the reason I've been able to do this. I know if I didn't have that, it would be difficult. I know I've been very lucky."
On October 31st of last year, right before Michael left town, he was at a party where he ran into a stand-up comedian he knew, who was also planning to transplant to Hollywood.
"He said 'Do you have a place to stay?' I said yeah. He said 'Do you have a car?' I said of course. He said 'I don't have any of those things.'"
"You'll get them," Michael assured him, perhaps in an overflow of his own confidence...which, it turned out, was justified. Within that first week of November, he moved in with an old friend he knew from Drexel theatre, who worked in reality TV. His former roommate had come out to do comedy, ended up doing a lot of drugs, instead, and had just left to teach English in Korea, leaving behind a great place just off Franklin and Grace, just around the corner from where Michael and I are talking.
Before long, Michael ran into the Philadelphia comic. He'd been staying with a friend, putting his name on a few open mic lists, but nothing was happening for him. He ended up leaving town at the end of January.
"That story really stuck with me for a long time."
His voice has the gentle hush of someone discussing a death in their high school.
"Why did that not work out for him? I know he wanted to be out here Shit. What did I do? What did he not do that I did?"
Because for Michael, the move to LA has been improbably successful. It's almost like nobody told him that newcomers are supposed to get their dreams drop-kicked to the end of the velvet rope.
He blogs frankly about the area's lesser charms (the traffic, the gas prices, the never ending traffic, "the let’s hang out soon mentality of people who 'like totally want to hang out,' but you can never track them down to schedule anything.") But when I ask him how he's found it, he readily answers:
"I love everything about it. The weather, of course. The people have been super friendly, and open, in a way that surprises me."
Right after moving, he met up with friends from the Drexel theatre scene--to his surprise, they remembered him even though he didn't graduate with them. Then, he got invited by a fellow UCB classmate to audition for an independent team. Through a friend at the Improv Olympic, he also tapped into a group of journalists, writers, artists and actors, whose Monday poker night has become his new "family."
"If I didn't have that support, I don't know where I would be. Here in Los Angeles, having that support is so important."
Michael could have gone to New York, where he has worked before and has contacts and a body of work to start from. But, he says,
"Moving to New York from Philadelphia would have been a safer thing, and I wanted to push it. I wanted a big challenge. I wanted just a big shakeup."
This comment doesn't only resonate, for me; it smarts a little. It reminds me of how many times I find myself clinging for dear life to the shakeup I've precipitated. I console myself with the knowledge that Michael is helped by his natural penchant for order and organization. He confesses to a great love for Excel spreadsheets and to-do lists. He keeps a big white board in his room, where he writes them for himself. He scrupulously submits his resume to five agents every week.
In fact, right now is when those submissions will start paying off or not. Agents reevaluate their rosters just before spring, coinciding with pilot season.
In the meantime, Michael goes on a lot of commercial auditions--which, he says, are pretty much the same as what he experienced on the east coast: "Look left, look right, hey Michael give us a look, thanks we'll let you know." He has no qualms about taking a side gig to make ends meet (and offers touching solidarity to other actors who do the same). While in Philadelphia, he worked for a company called Chatterblast, handling social media accounts for clients as venerable as the Reading Terminal Market. A similar company in LA hired him...on the strength of his blog, no less.
"I knew the first year would be trying enough, as it was. I didn't want having enough money to be an issue. If I'm still there after 2 years, I'll be like 'What am I doing?' But for now, I feel perfectly fine being there, working, and also doing something else."
And now we pause, to enjoy an excerpt from Michael's Chatterblast days:
We’ve all Googled ourselves from time to time. The process is similar to looking into a mirror: it serves the purpose of seeing what you look like, and of course the chance to be vain.
Unlike a mirror however, Googling yourself allows you to see other "you's." On my last Google search I came face to face with the 34 year-old, 195 lbs of man-meat known as Michael Tomasetti. My googlegänger is an underwear model who shoots "shaved or hairy", but “no nudes.” This Michael Tomasetti approves of his good decency and thinks he has enough muscles for the both of us.
Michael knows his looks put him in the boy-next-door category, but he inclines toward a darker angle.
"I describe myself as Kyle Maclachlan creepy, but in a fun-loving way. I can play weird, fucked-up stuff, but also light and fun.The boy next door that's sort of off."
I ask if anybody else is doing that; he doesn't know of anyone, though he says he hasn't watched "Bates Motel" and probably should.
"I'm taking classes at UCB, because I know that's where it's at. But I know the other side of the coin: they don't pay their performers, it's $400 a class. But I enjoy it, and I'm just experimenting." And, he admits, "I have a really strong foundation, but it's whipping my ass into shape."
With improv and comedy more hand-in-hand than ever, it's not surprising that Michael is also drawn toward stand-up, though it's his place of least experience.
"I've debated--part of me wants to do it really bad. I did standup in Philadelphia once, and loved it. But it was also tricky, and I felt like I had to go some places I didn't want to go. My sexuality..."
"There's part of me that always wants to be the good Catholic boy at the end of the day. I don't want to be a person that is talking about stuff that is uncomfortable for people."
Nevertheless, he frequents the local cornerstones of improv--the Groundlings, Acme, the iO. And a lot of people he's admired from afar are here: his first starstruck moment came when he met Drew Droege, of "Fake Chloe" fame.
"When I met him, I had my first 'omigod!' thing," he effuses. "He's so down-to-earth, and friendly."
As he effuses about other people whom he's met or seen perform, I feel sort of like I did when I watched Mr. Smith Goes to Washington for the first time. It's like nobody told him that actors, to say nothing of comedians, are supposed to talk shit about each other. It's like he's living out of a suitcase full of his hometown's famed brotherly love; I wonder when it's going to run out.
The Drexel crowd has kept him up to speed with others of their class--many of whom started making $80,000 a year out of the gate. Michael admits that sometimes he wonders, "What the fuck did I do wrong?"
He shrugs. His smirk deepens.
"Well, I got a liberal arts degree. I made a very active choice to shake it up.
"I went to a baby shower thing, like two years ago. A girl and a guy that I know, they have a baby, and a house... Now's the time when everyone's getting engaged, and married, and settling down. I was like, 'I don't want that.' I don't know what their honest opinions of that are."
It strikes me that that can be the downside of a highly supportive community--that sometimes their support is conditional on you being in it, with them. I wonder if there would be any weirdness with his theatre friends in Philadelphia, if he succeeded outside of their jurisdiction. For that matter, I wonder if his newfound community here would be fractured if he was to succeed ahead of them.
I ask, and Michael hesitates.
"Okay, I'll tell this story..."
He asks me not to repeat it, though. (Sorry.) Not that it's scandalous. It's just a run-of-the-mill illustration where someone made it who shouldn't have, while someone else almost made it, didn't, and is still pounding the pavement in search of a gig.
"It was the first thing I'd seen where people start out on the same level, and some advance and some don't."
What he's describing might be exactly the pall that I feel whenever I enter Los Angeles: that the only company you can find is in loneliness, bitterness, disenchantment. That the greater your success, the nicer your clothes, the more you are isolated from the community around you...not because you don't want to be friends with them, but because their friendship was based on not having what you've suddenly attained. Success may get you everything you wanted--money, fame, artistic fulfillment, respect--but it will lose you friends.
That, anyway, is what I've been given to understand. I guess it never occurred to me that it could be different...if someone just showed up and, like the young Jimmy Stewart or any of the other idealized idealists, did what was in his heart, without guile or cynicism.
Hollywood likes such stories of transformation. I wonder how it would respond to such a story if it tried to happen here, in real life.
I ask Michael if he has any fears, about losing his vision, about the seduction of comfort.
He'd like to say no.
"If I got a promotion and made 80k a year, would I reconsider my life choices? I don't know. If I'm in this position, still sort of getting by, at 35..."
"What I'm trying to say is I don't want to be where I'm at ten years from now. If it doesn't work out, and I'm able to sense that, then I will do something else."
Lately, he's been reading a book called "Character Actors" about people who, while not A-listers, have made a living playing characters in niche parts.
"That would be great," he says. "Making a living doing it--where I'd be able to sustain myself with, say, 40k a year, doing only artistic things. For me, that would be a success. You could not do that in Philadelphia. I want to do lots of commercials, and do some standups...of course, a TV show would be great. Would it also be great to sell a pilot to HBO for 10 million dollars? Of course.
"I think setting a goal is something you should have in your mind, but it's not the end of the world if you don't reach it. "
"If I don't reach a certain level of success, it's okay. I hope I never get delusional about what I've set out to do, and I also hope I don't lose that love of doing it."