Actors facing dearth of work during downturn

SAG PREVIEW: With the economy in the dumps, nobody knows what it's like to chase down work -- and dreams -- like an actor.

Melissa Leo remembers the day the temperature in the room changed.

It was early 1984, and Leo -- who is drawing acclaim for Sony Pictures Classics' "Frozen River" -- was looking for acting work. It was a dream she'd had since she was 4 years old, when her mom took her to Peter Schumann's Bread and Puppet Theater workshop in Vermont. But now she was waiting tables in New York.

One day, she asked a fellow waitress to cover for her while she auditioned for an adaptation of W. Somerset Maugham's "The Razor's Edge." At the audition, she waited two and half hours for Bill Murray.

"I finally got into the room," she recalls. "And he said, 'Oh, you're much too young for this part.' My face must have dropped. So he said, 'Well, just read anyway.' And I read. And as I read with him, the temperature in the room changed! After it was over, he looked at me in all seriousness, for the first time, and said: 'You know, if you want to do this, you should just do it.'"

Leo took those words to heart. When she got back to the restaurant and the manager warned that, next time, he would show her the door, she answered: "'Oh, I see the door. Bye-bye!'

"And I have walked my life as an actor since that day," she says.

Pursuing the actor's path is an all-or-nothing decision, a choice rooted as much in identity as desire. For actors' actors, doing any other kind of work is simply not an option, even when there's nothing on the horizon. If starvation is the alternative, they'll seriously consider it.

This year, many are drawing notice for scene-stealing roles in film and television. For those who have not always been stars, that is all the more meaningful.

"I would go three months without a gig, and then I was on unemployment, and then unemployment would run out," says Viola Davis -- who appears opposite Meryl Streep as the mother of a possible abuse victim in Miramax's "Doubt." After she graduated from Juilliard, she found herself living in New York with multiple roommates, "auditioning for everything" and barely scraping by. "At various times, I would live on chicken wings at Chinese restaurants because they were really inexpensive -- $1.25 for a package of four or five greasy chicken wings and 80 cents for a quart of white rice -- and that's what I would live on and nothing else. And every once in a while, those three-for-a-dollar vanilla creme sandwich cookies. And that's hard."

At times, her confidence faltered. "You can do other things -- you really can. I mean, I have a college degree. But what else are you going to do that you're going to enjoy? It's like someone said: 'What else is there but a dream?' You know you can get another job if what you want is another job, but you can't get another dream."

Bryan Cranston, who recently won his first Emmy for AMC's "Breaking Bad," was a young man traveling around the country on his motorcycle when he realized that acting was his dream. Once he chose to pursue it, he never looked back.

"There are a lot of people who go, 'I've got this plan. I'm going to set up a business. I'll work 70, 80 hours a week for two years, and once I get my business set up, I'm going to have someone else run it and refocus on my acting,'" Cranston says. "I have not known anyone who has come away from that and kept that goal intact. The farther you get away from acting, the farther you get away from acting."

Long before Cranston was "Breaking Bad's" chemistry teacher-turned-criminal Walter H. White, he loaded boxes for a trucking company in downtown Los Angeles. He worked the graveyard shift, keeping his days open for auditions.

"I remember many, many times on that cold loading dock, with cardboard dust, and you have a mask over your head, and a bandanna, and the only thing that's showing is the slit of your eyes. And you have gloves, and you have steel-toed shoes, and you have double-thick pants because it gets cold on that dock out there," he says. "I could work a few days and pay my entire month's rent and still have gas money and be able to go on auditions. That was the only thing that was important.

"I remember just fantasizing about being able to work as an actor: 'My turn will come. My day will come,' " he continues. "That would get me through the night, just thinking about how great it's going to be when I can drive onto a studio lot, and they'll actually have my name on a piece of paper there. And right then, a dock foreman would yell, 'Cranston! Get back to work!' And I would put one foot in front of the other and plow through it. That was my life, and I'm grateful actually for that, because now, many, many years later, I still don't take my position for granted."

Surveying his 25-plus-year career in film and television, Cranston insists that fortune played a role. But he did what he could to give it a helping hand.

"Two years ago, the day after 'Malcolm in the Middle' finished, I went to a charity event," he recalls. "And I bumped into Jason Alexander, whom I knew from 'Seinfeld.' We're talking, and he says, 'Hey, are you interested in doing a play?' And I said, 'That would be perfect for me, coming off seven years of a TV show.' Had I not gone to that charity event, who knows? I very likely would not have done that play. ... Luck is so mercurial. You can't create it, but you can put yourself in a position that you can kind of help it along."

Helping it along was especially hard for Richard Jenkins, now attracting praise for his portrayal of a widowed economics professor in Overture Films' "The Visitor," because he pursued the craft from his home in Rhode Island -- choosing not to move to L.A. or New York -- and working in regional theater for many years.

"Regional theater doesn't pay you very much," he says, "and our first child was born, and I just thought, 'God, I'd like to make some more money, and I love film, and is it possible?' So I went out to L.A. to see if I could break in, and I was totally unsuccessful.

"That was the low point in my life," he adds. "It's hard being an actor out of work in Hollywood. It's hard because everybody you meet has a job but you. And you figure, 'Well, how come I'm the only one not working?'"

Still, he believes that "people who really are meant to be actors don't ever think about doing anything else. They just keep to it. It's not a matter of what they do; it's who they are."

Dennis Hopper, who plays a poet and friend of Ben Kingsley in Samuel Goldwyn Films' "Elegy," sees the profession in similarly stark terms. "Ask yourself in the stillest moment of your night: If it were denied you to create, would you die?" he asks, paraphrasing Letter No. 1 from Rainer Maria Rilke's "Letters to a Young Poet." "And if your answer is yes, then you don't really have a choice. And if it's no, have a wonderful life and support the arts. Don't try to be a poet or an artist. You just have to dedicate yourself to the fact that that's what you are and that's what you're going to do, and if you couldn't do it, you really would die."

And if there is no work? "Try and create something yourself that can give you confidence and can give you positivity," says Michael Sheen, who portrays British TV legend David Frost in Universal's "Frost/Nixon." "That will rub off, then work will come along if you can keep in that sort of frame of mind. I've always been of the opinion not to wait for the phone to ring for someone to tell me that I can be creative. I don't need somebody else to tell me whether I can be creative or not. I might have to wait for somebody else to pay me money to do it, but there's nothing stopping me from doing what I love."

Leo didn't get the part in "Razor's Edge," but she never waited tables again. Instead, when she couldn't find work, she honed her craft at the Actors Studio. And now, nearly 25 years later, she has amassed a long list of theater, film and TV credits, from her portrayal of Det. Sgt. Kay Howard on "Homicide: Life on the Street" to her poignant performance as a down-on-her-luck working-class mom in "Frozen River" -- remarkably, her first starring role.

Over the years, she says, "People fed me. People housed me. People took care of me. I went without. But since that day, I have been an actor and only an actor. It is my life. ... And I love that; I embrace it fully. And it's not all the mountaintops -- even the depths of it, it's my pleasure to walk through."