Waiters No More: Unemployed Actors Now Drive Ubers

Illustration by: Skip Sterling

Been pitched while in the backseat of a car service? That may be because 60 percent of Lyft drivers also had jobs (or aspirations for one) in the entertainment industry

A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Before passengers exit from the back of Jerry terHorst's Honda Civic, he makes sure to hand them his card. "Future Famous Actor," it says in block letters. Then, if he gets the chance before they make it to the curb, he tells them about the web series he's working on with his roommate. "I don't want to be that L.A. guy who's like, 'Oh, my web series ...' " he says. "But I just make sure that I mention it."

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When terHorst moved from North Carolina to Los Angeles five years ago, he earned a living doing what budding young actors have done for decades: He waited tables. But this year, terHorst joined the growing ranks of aspiring stars who've left the food-services industry behind and instead are supporting themselves — until their big break, that is — by driving for Uber, the lower-cost UberX and Lyft, the app-based car services that have been reshaping much more than Hollywood's traffic patterns since rolling into town in 2012 and 2013, respectively. "I can't imagine a better job," says terHorst. "It's super-flexible, and I don't have to learn new menu descriptions."

According to Lyft (the service with the big pink fuzzy mustaches attached to the grilles of its cars), as of June 2013, about 60 percent of its L.A. drivers also had jobs (or aspirations for one) in the entertainment industry. Uber (which had startup help from such Hollywood backers as Ashton Kutcher and WME) doesn't share data on its tens of thousands of L.A. drivers, but plenty of anecdotal evidence suggests they also are waiting for their close-up, trying to sell scripts or just earning extra dough between gigs as a gaffer.

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"The ability to make money without someone telling you when and where you have to be is amazing," says Zack Rice, who was motoring around town for Uber until September, when he sold his anthology crime series to NBC (cast- and script-contingent, Manhunt will air during the 2015 TV season). Although the pay isn't always as good as high-end restaurant work -- drivers average $25 an hour but can earn closer to $50 during peak hours when Uber increases its rates -- Uber said in May that the median income for New York drivers had reached more than $90,000 a year (in San Francisco, it's just over $74,000). And it's an easy job to land: All it takes is a driver's license, a decent car of one's own and a clean background check.

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For aspiring actors and writers, the best part of the gig is that you never know who is going to end up in your backseat — and be your captive audience all the way to the airport. "I had one guy who had started his own production company," says former Uber driver Justin Park (who also has a job starring on Funny or Die's Buddy Talk web series). "I picked up this one musician who makes music for TV shows. I've picked up a few writers. It's nice to hear people's point of view and have a conversation about the creative process." Not long ago, for instance, Park picked up Saturday Night Live alum Ana Gasteyer. After he revealed his acting ambitions, she offered advice. "It was like having an acting master class in my car," he says.

Recently, terHorst also had some luck, picking up an assistant to a comedy manager who seemed interested in his web series. "I had no business cards left that day," he says with a resigned sigh.

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Of course, Uber and Lyft aren't just improving the lives of aspiring actors. Thanks to such drivers as Park and terHorst, throwing back that second chocolate martini at Bar Marmont no longer presents the existential dilemma it once did. Uber has said that DUI rates decrease in cities where it operates. And though Uber can't be given all the credit, drunk-driving arrests were down 10 percent in Los Angeles over a two-year period beginning in 2011, according to data that Southern California Public Radio obtained from the California Highway Patrol. DUIs were also down 14 percent in L.A. County over Labor Day weekend compared with last year. And in L.A. in particular, Uber and Lyft have done something few ever thought possible: made the city livable for people who hate to drive.

The Uber revolution, however, might prove to be too good to last. Local officials — especially those with ties to the taxi and limo business in Los Angeles — have been looking for ways to crack down on ride-sharing companies, claiming they're not regulated as closely as other livery companies and pose a public danger. The latest attack: Late in September, the L.A. district attorney's office sent letters to Uber and Lyft claiming they are operating illegally and threatening legal action if they don't make significant changes (such as ending new carpooling services that allow passengers to share rides).

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The legal pressure comes as Uber and Lyft remain locked in a price war (UberX recently dropped rates by 20 percent) that could force some drivers off the roads and back to where they started: restaurants. Park, for one, says lower earning potential led him to quit driving. He's looking to return to waiting tables, but he's not giving up his Hollywood dreams. He's thinking of writing a web series ... about being an Uber driver. "I had one guy ask me if he could lick my arm," he says. "If that's not comedy gold, I don't know what is."

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