Hooray for Hollywood?

Catching up with two actors who left for Tinseltown.

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Nearly one year ago to the day, I wrote about three Bay area actors who had moved to Los Angeles so they could take their shots at the Big Time. Colleen McDonnell and Linda Slade had made a tentatively "permanent" move out to the West Coast, and Petrus Antonius had spent from January to May of 2007 living in L.A. and auditioning for television pilots.

What I learned as I interviewed all three was that L.A. was endlessly tantalizing — and tough. Slade was doing best, having acted in several films and found work teaching theater at a California university. Antonius hadn't gotten anywhere with his efforts, and McDonnell had yet to start the process of auditioning for films and TV. At the end of my article, I said that I admired the courage of all three and that I'd check back with them in a year. Here's that follow-up, with one major difference: Antonius did not go back to L.A. this year due to the screenwriter's strike and financial challenges of his own. So this time my subjects are just McDonnell and Slade. This is what I discovered:

Getting known. "It is going great, absolutely great," says McDonnell from the home she shares with her husband in Santa Clarita. "First of all, I work as a casting assistant to commercial casting directors — they mostly do commercials but also some film work. ... They do everything they can to help me — and I have all these friends who are casting directors now."

McDonnell has done film and TV work over the last year, including three independent movies and one Honda commercial that aired in Japan only. Two of the films were screened at Warner Brothers studio as part of a film festival, and all three will be "making the circuit" of film festivals outside L.A.

There's no consistency in how she's been cast: In one film, she played an abused, alcoholic wife; in another, a militant Christian who blows up a mosque; and in the third a nun in 1930s Poland.

McDonnell is currently auditioning once or twice a week — not too bad, she says, in a city where May and June are the slowest months and where an impending screen actor's strike is interfering with business as usual. As far as live theater, she's not even auditioning: "Mostly, theater out here doesn't pay," she points out. Regarding parts on TV shows, it's largely a function of how well you stand out in a crowd, so McDonnell has enrolled in several workshops where, for a fee, casting directors audition actors they're unfamiliar with. "It's all about being seen and getting known in this town," she says.

Typically, over 4,000 actors submit their names for available movie roles, and it's not unusual for 100 or more to be asked to audition. In conditions like these, one has to be "constantly working on your career, being proactive and treating it like a business," McDonnell says. "It's crazy — I don't like to think about the numbers. You can get discouraged if you think about the numbers."

She depends on her agent and manager to "submit you for everything they possibly can" and does the same herself when it's possible. But, challenging as the life is, she has no regrets about leaving the Tampa Bay area: "There wasn't enough work for me anymore. And we just love it out here. It's expensive, though. That's the only downside."

The other side of the camera. Slade, an incredibly energetic actor, may be making a career change — to director. At least that's how she's leaning, having discovered that there's not enough demand for a 40something, British-trained actress in an American town that's all about youth. "What I'm doing right now is I'm in the middle of shooting a movie, Chapped Lips," she says. "It's a cowboy-and-Indian spoof in the style of Blazing Saddles." Not satisfied with playing a saloon-keeper named Rose, Slade asked the director if she could work with him as his assistant. She got that job too. Moving with her usual speed, she's also scheduled to codirect "another big feature which is happening in October and that's called One Wish, a beautiful kind of Hollywood fable about a little girl." Further, "I've been putting together my own TV show [on public access TV], which I'm producing, directing and hosting, which is called The B.B.C., which stands for 'Breakfast with the British Crowd.'... And I've just finished [directing] three pilots of another show, called Games of Life."

Slade says that her move away from acting is a result of "frustration, I guess, of not being an actor at a level that I would like to be recognized at in this town, simply because I'm unknown still in America."

She's glad to have performed in five episodes of the TV series Heroes and is relieved that a film she costarred in a year ago has finally been released in the overseas market, but she feels the most challenging roles just aren't coming her way. "The majority of work, if it's for women, it's for people who are under 35," she explains, "and if you're going for the older-bracket roles, you are assumed to be established."

As for theater work, she's "disillusioned" with the scene in L.A. and lacks the enthusiasm to work days and then get on stage at night for no pay. So she teaches Shakespeare, voice and movement at the New York Film Academy on the backlot of Universal Studios and takes comfort in the fact that she now has movies on her résumé that would have been nearly impossible to acquire in the small British film world. Not that she's thinking of leaving Lotusland: "I'm definitely going to give it another year," she insists. But a recent visit to the U.K. was exceedingly relaxing, while "here in L.A., everyone's just running around like headless chickens, completely frenetic." And quality of life? "I don't want to burn out, and I would if I stay in this town too long. ... If I can get a few more things off the ground in England, I hope to be able to move backwards and forward between the two countries; that really would be the ideal situation."

I'll check in on Slade and McDonnell — and Antonius too — in June of next year. 'Til then, they have my respect for the risk they've taken. And my best wishes.

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