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This story first appeared in the May 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
When a production decides it must have a certain leading lady from England or a costume designer from New Zealand, it’s up to the immigration lawyer to secure the necessary O-1B work visas. “You always want to hire the best person, and sometimes that means studios and production companies look abroad,” says Sherman Oaks-based immigration lawyer Alan R. Klein, who has handled work permits for every Warner Bros. pilot and series for the past 15 years.
To qualify for an O-1B visa, for “individuals with extraordinary ability in motion picture or television,” the attorney must furnish proof of the foreign national’s achievements and provide approval letters from the appropriate union and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.
And “everything has to be done yesterday,” says Sherman Kaplan (A Single Man, The Road), who exclusively serves the entertainment industry. That’s why O-1B visa applicants often opt for $1,225 premium processing, which guarantees a response within 15 days.
Certain countries of origin take longer than others, and some may not even let their citizens leave.
“There’s always a risk we could be doing the work without assurance of an exit permit,” says Frida Glucoft of Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp, who recalls trying to import a band from Cuba.
Other foreign actors sometimes have trouble convincing the U.S. to let them in, especially if there’s an arrest on their record. Kaplan once sought a visa for a non-U.S. actor who, late in the process, mentioned a decade-old DUI arrest. Since it was so long ago, the U.S. embassy cleared him for entry — but he also had neglected to mention that just two weeks prior, he had celebrated landing his new role a little too hard and gotten arrested for a second DUI.
“By the time everything got cleared it was several weeks, and the studio had to recast the role.”
The process can be stringent, but it’s not without logic.
“The reason [the government has] a standard of exceptional ability is because they want to make it clear that when these people come over, they’re not taking jobs away from Americans,” says Klein. “These people are critical in the making of the project.”