Interview – Alex Collins

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Born and raised in both England and Atlanta, Alex Collins is a 12+ year member of SAG-AFTRA, and a co-founder and former Managing Director of Straitjacket Society, LA’s wildly popular sketch company whose alumnae include Jillian Bell (Saturday Night Live, 22 Jump Street, Workaholics), Lenny Jacobson (Nurse Jackie, Big Time In Hollywood, Fl), Kelly Levy (Producer, writer, sketch performer on E’s Soup!), and Sarah Tiana (national and international touring standup comic), to name a few. Collins has worked in independent and award winning films, episodic television, national and regional commercials, industrials, voice-overs, and new media and recent credits include his role in The Accountant with Ben Affleck and Anna Kendrick, Sleepless Nights with Jamie Foxx and Mena with Tom Cruise as well as roles on Sleepy Hollow (Fox), Satisfaction (USA), The Game (BET) and a recurring guest-star role on The Haves And The Have Nots (OWN).

IMDB Page: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1180204

 

When did you know you wanted to be an actor and how did you go about starting that?

I grew up in England, and I was always an energetic and expressive kid. I really enjoyed watching American television. As a kid in England, we only had four channels. One of the TV shows that I remember watching was The Fall Guy. And he was a stunt man. That seemed like a glamorous way of making a living. I thought that’s what I wanted to do but there weren’t any avenues for that. I moved into athletics, and then playing soccer. My family moved to the US right before I started high school, which is where I took a few drama classes and got my first opportunity to actually work on stage.

 

Where was high school?

I went to a few different high schools. But my opportunity came here in Atlanta at the Lovett School. Through Jay Freer, who is still the Fine Arts director there today – he gave my first true acting opportunity on stage. I’m sure I was quite awful. I went on to college and I wanted to act but it never worked with my schedule. I got a degree in finance and a degree in marketing and ended up working for a couple of different Fortune 500 companies in a couple of different cities. Then I ended up back in Atlanta.

 

One of my lifelong friends would email me or call or leave a voicemail everyday saying, “Quit your job you know you want to act, quit your job you know you want to act”. After about six months of that, I did it. I didn’t really have a plan in place at that point. I promptly returned the favor to him and told him to quit his job. And he did! We ended up bartending and working at restaurants, got in a few different classes together, studied, took an introductory acting class at the Alliance Theatre, took a very early improv class and then found our way to the Professional Actor’s Studio. At that point, it was one of the only schools that had an LA mentality. There were places that were teaching theatre technique like at the Alliance Theatre. The Professional Actor’s Studio was really the only place teaching on-camera work. After a few years, I had learned a few skills and felt like I was doing a reasonably good job. I was represented as an actor in Atlanta. I got some different projects. The landscape back then was very different, back in the early 2000s. Very different from what it is today. And then I was fortunate enough to get my union eligibility here. My friend and I then decided to make a move to California.

 

You were working at Fortune 500 companies in corporate jobs. Was it a challenge for you going from that into the starving actor mode?

It was tough. I think back then I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Ignorance is bliss for lack of a better term. Personally, I’m a planner, very methodical, a list-maker. Had I actually taken the time to plan out what I was going to do, I probably wouldn’t have ever done it because the odds are overwhelmingly against success as a career as an actor, depending on how you define success. If financial measure is the only measure of success, it’s going to be very difficult to make a living as an actor. But if you can define success in other ways, then you can find success. For me, in the corporate world, making that decision to leave was a reactionary decision – like jumping in the deep end of the swimming pool and then figuring out how to swim.

 

You were born and brought up in England, so you are originally British?

Yes, I carry both citizenships. I carry a British passport and an American passport. My family and I moved here from England. It took about 10 years going through the natural channels to become a citizen. So fortunately for me, as an actor, I was able to obtain a British accent and about half of my work comes as an English actor, a British actor. Most people can’t tell. My day-to-day life, I live as an American. But when I need to, I go back to being English. It’s a little hidden thing.

 

Well, there’s something going on in England that they’re all booking these roles in the US. So it’s good that you can leverage that in some way…

There’s always been a different sort of respect for British actors. It’s that they tend to have a theatre background, a lot of training in the theatre from a younger age. There’s definitely an influx of Australian actors as well working in the past 10 or 15 years. And I think folks in England and Australia tend to really understand the work, the years that it takes. We’re still sort of in this paparazzi, tabloid economy in the US, where we think that the shortest distance between two points is the easiest one, the path of least resistance, and that’s not necessarily correct.

 

You don’t have a formal degree in drama?

No, not at all.

 

Do you sometimes wish you had something like that?

No, I’m glad that I don’t have a degree in theatre. It’s a wonderful thing to have – it provides you with an immense amount of training, in theory, in different acting techniques, in the history of the theatre whether it’s Greek, Roman, what have you, classical English theatre, knowing how to break down a script especially Shakespeare, a bit of that. But in the on-camera world, it’s two totally different disciplines. Being a great theatre actor is no way to indicate that you’re going to be a great on-camera actor. It goes to support the notion that you must have discipline to work hard, to rehearse, to take direction but it doesn’t mean you’re going to be a good actor, a good on-camera actor, by any stretch. A lot of people who just have an undergraduate degree, a Bachelor in Fine Arts, there’s no guarantee that where they’re coming from is teaching them anything relevant to today’s industry on-camera. It changes so quickly.

 

After nine years in LA, what prompted your return to Atlanta?
I was in Los Angeles from 2003 to 2012. Right in the middle of that, in 2008, there was a writer strike that had a big impact on how television was made. That also coincided with some shifting paradigms in the way technology was being used to make television. And still, there was a conversion from film to digital, conversion from SD to HD. There was much more presence on the web, at new media around that time frame. Everybody freaked out. Nobody knew where their next job was coming from. As a result, film actors started taking on roles on television. That’s why you see people like Steve Buscemi doing Boardwalk Empire. Now that these megastars were doing series leads, those roles were never available to television actors so they had to take recurring roles. Those actors who did recurring roles had to ripple down to take smaller recurring roles, who had to ripple down to take guest star roles, who had to ripple down to take co-star roles. It was a massive saturation. It became a lot more competitive. And you combine that with the fact that there was a lot of runaway production happening, film and television was going to Toronto, it was going to Vancouver, it was going to Michigan, to New Orleans, and ultimately to Atlanta. A lot of the work in Los Angeles had dried up, so opportunities dried up. Actors, who the year before may have been getting 3 or 4 or 5 auditions a week, were getting 1 or 2 auditions a month. It changed the landscape for the entry level actor, and even folks who had credits. There’s also a gatekeeper mentality in Los Angeles where certain casting directors are only going to see certain actors who are represented by a certain agency. If you’re not with that agent, a right agent, you’re never going to get it to the office, which means you’re never going to audition. There’s a lot of political maneuvering in Los Angeles. It’s a really difficult uphill marathon. If you’re there long enough, you can navigate it. You can get through a lot of the gatekeepers and access points. But it’s not, by any means, an easy road.

 

You happened to have a base in Atlanta and then you saw Atlanta is booming. It worked out well that way that you were able to say I want to go back to Atlanta?

Yes. I had always maintained communication with my Atlanta agent when I was in LA and I’ve always maintained communication with my friends who are actors. I saw that they were able to keep a pretty good pulse on what was happening. Between 2008 and 2012, technology really changed, primarily with Facebook. It allowed people to stay in contact with each other in a much easier way and MySpace was a precursor to that. It was easy to passively observe what was going on in Atlanta. There was a theatre company that had a Facebook page. Someone was making a short film and fundraising, they had a Facebook page. So I could always see what was going on. And when the tax subsidies were enacted in 2008, around 2009, 2010, things started to turn into a positive note in Georgia while the economy nationally was going down outside the industry. The economy was especially hit hard in California. Combine that with the writers’ strike, California was not looking as wonderful as it had. I thought about moving. I thought to come back in 2010. I just stayed longer in LA because LA is gorgeous, the weather is great and my friends are there, the other sketch comedy people. Ultimately, it was the right decision to move back when I needed to.

 

Since you already maintained relationships with your agent in Atlanta, you were able to continue that and get back in the Atlanta scene quite quickly?

Correct. I moved back in October 2012 when the industry was closed down for Christmas. Which was fine because I had to move back, get settled, and get organized so I was ready to hit the ground running when production hit back up in 2013.

 

Can you talk a little bit more of how you supplemented your income once you moved back here?

I’m very fortunate. I think actors need to be adaptable. They need to be good at a wide variety of skills. Los Angeles is such a massive city. It’s built around Hollywood so the great majority of people who are actors are bartenders, waiters, valet guys. That’s just a commonly accepted practice in Los Angeles that you’re going to work in the service industry. It doesn’t hurt if you’re young and good-looking. You could make a lot of money. But Atlanta is not so directly correlated or entrenched in Hollywood. It’s starting to get that way but there’s still a novelty here. If you have a good relationship in a corporate environment with your job and they find out that you’re an actor, a lot of times they’re supportive so long as you get your work done. If you don’t let your acting interfere with your work, I find a lot of employers to be relatively or reasonably supportive. If that’s not the case, I think it’s important for actors to evaluate their skillsets. Sometimes actors are great writers and they can work as copywriters or copy editors or freelance ghostwriters on projects. They can live a freelance lifestyle. I know other actors who are web designers or graphic designers or trying to be in a realm where they can set their own schedules like personal trainers, yoga instructors and Pilate’s instructors. It’s about understanding that making money as an actor is certainly no guarantee so you have to be able to think on your feet, and look at both the long game and the short game, and how you can make money.

 

Technology-based opportunities and home-based businesses are changing the landscape for actors. Uber is a great thing. I’m fortunate enough that I have a corporate job that I’ve had for 10 years. I had it in Los Angeles and I still work for that company from my home office. I’m able to set up a schedule that works for me. I can go to auditions or work on projects. I also teach and coach actors at Drama Inc. in Atlanta. In a corporate environment, actors need to show their value as an employee first. Do your job, show up. Be valuable to your employer. When you’ve been there for a while without asking for too many favors and too much flexibility, you can approach, you can understand who your boss is and how your boss is a communicator. Present that you’re an actor and could maybe work a couple of days a week from home? The business landscape is now changing and teleworking is becoming more of an option because employers understand that the work-life balance is important. That eases into an actor’s schedule.

 

What do you do in terms of marketing and networking in Atlanta?

There’s active and passive marketing and networking. For me, passive networking and marketing are unchangeable all the time, which can be good or bad. It depends on your ambitions. But it also allows me to see who in my peer network is booking. Agents are posting congratulations. I can see who my competition is or who among my friends is doing well. I can read about what productions are coming to town – I learned instantly that Sleepy Hollow relocated from North Carolina to Georgia through a Facebook article. There’s definitely value there. The active type of thing – definitely in the acting classroom environment, being open and listening to what’s happening. You hear about “Oh my friend’s producing a short film. My friend is producing a web series.” And just through those organic circles with people that you study with or people who you respect, teachers that you work with, they all hear about casting, they’ll hear about opportunities. I’ve been fortunate enough to be referred for a few jobs and that’s been great. That’s the best opportunity there, when somebody believes in you enough to refer you and you’re able to work for someone else.

 

What about casting director mailings or workshops?

There are a lot of different schools of thought on that. LA has a very different market than Atlanta in that respect. There has been a big uprising in Los Angeles currently against the “Pay to Play” workshop scenario. In essence, what’s happening in Los Angeles is a lot of workshops, the great majority of workshops, are taught by casting assistants or casting associates who have no ability to be a decision-maker in the casting process. They’re just supplementing their income. But actors are filling these classes up to capacity because they feel like they don’t have an access to the casting office otherwise. You can see where these connect here. Casting associates make $2,000-3,000 a month supplementing their income. Also, the fact that hardworking actors are paying $40, 50, 60 a workshop. I’m against that segment of the industry. Atlanta’s not there yet but I’m firmly against 1 day, 1 night workshops. Why? Because if you are here in Atlanta and you’re studying, and you have a good headshot, an agent will sign you. Sooner or later an agent is going to get an opportunity for you and you’re going to get an audition. There’s not enough casting, there’s really a dozen casting directors in the region. You will get an opportunity to see that casting director, to read for that casting director, to go on tape for that casting director. An actor shouldn’t have to pay for access to that sort of casting director.

 

I don’t believe that can happen in a 1 or 2-hour workshop format. All you’re learning is what particular casting directors need you to do, or what kind of headshots they like, or how do they get into the business, that kind of thing. That’s all well and good but I’ll rather spend $50 to pool that with all my friends and make a web series. Or you take that money, instead of doing a 1-page, 2-hour casting director workshop, take a scene-study class. Take a Meisner class. Take a film weapon class, any of those things. You can use your money to invest in yourself and your training and that’s ultimately going to make you a more desirable actor to casting in the long run.

 

A lot of actors produce their own content that shows their type in the best light. Would you say that’s one of the best marketing tools?

No question. Self-production, proactive production is one of the best things you can do. You can write something, or have someone write something that is in your wheelhouse, your branding, your type. You can package it in such a way now with iMovie and Final Cut. You can make something look quite high budget for very little investment. Have somebody who’s a really talented editor? Great, they’re on your team. Know somebody who’s great with music? Great, he’s going to compose your score. It’s about people doing favors for each other and ultimately everybody can raise their level.

 

Looking forward, where do you see acting opportunities in Atlanta? Do you think we’re going to see bigger and bigger roles being offered to Atlanta actors?

There’s a short answer and a long answer to that. The first part of the answer is yes. Within that, we have to be careful. There has been a yellow brick road idea with Atlanta. And everybody’s seen all the work. There’s all the production and they see the celebrities coming to town. People are blinded by the glitter and glamour of that. What’s happening, as a result, is that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of people who are hobbyists and getting into the industry. They don’t have headshots, they’re not taking classes, and they’re calling themselves an actor. I wouldn’t act in an episode of E.R. and call myself a doctor! The analogy is very similar. Or somebody worked background for 1 day for Captain America, now they’re an actor. That’s not true, and it demeans the value of what it means to be an actor. It demeans the value of people who’ve been working for 10, 15, 20 years seeking out a career through lean. We have to be careful that we give those people on the periphery of the industry too much visibility or too much credit. We need to be careful because too many of those people get audition opportunities. When they tank those audition opportunities, it continues to enforce the glass ceiling here in Atlanta for actors. That, in turn, continues to limit access to the larger roles here.

 

That said, I believe that producers are starting to see the talent here, not just for the under-five, not just for the costar roles but in larger roles. We have a number of people who’ve been through thick and thin who are doing great things. Michael Cole on Being Mary Jane. Lori Beth Sikes who was practically a series regular on Resurrection. There’s a number of the Walking Dead cast, obviously. Studios continue to invest in Atlanta heavily. There’s Screen Gems here, Pinewood here. There are multiple other construction projects going on here. Those people don’t make multi-million dollar decisions quickly or lightly. Productions are going to be here for many, many years to come. The bottleneck now is in crew. They still have to bring out a lot of the top line crew, department heads, from Los Angeles and that’s very expensive to do. So the next step for the industry behind the camera is to train qualified crew people to ultimately pick up the reins and manage large projects.

 

Bringing it back to the actor front, yes, I think what we’re starting to see now is actors reading for larger roles. It’s a matter of economics. Series regular roles on television will almost never be cast out of Atlanta. The simple reason is creative people are not making the final casting decision. Network people are making the casting decisions. They’re called suits, or network suits. They are making the decisions. Often they’re accounting people, numbers people. They say, well this person hasn’t done anything before. This person hasn’t been a series regular before. This person doesn’t have the Q factor or the Q rating that another actor has. He’s not a name, that sort of thing. I do believe that series regulars for television and series leads for film will continue to be cast out of LA. There’s no reason for me to be given a lead role for Captain America. That’s just not art. That’s not going to sell tickets. But what’s happening is that feeling is breaking down and you’re finding Atlanta actors now doing multiple episodes, 3-5 episodes in a season in a TV show. And that didn’t happen in the past. So that’s really, really changing.

 

What do you think needs to happen, if anything, to Atlanta, for actors to be ready for the bigger opportunities?

Training. If an actor is not in class every week, they’re doing themselves a disservice. One of my friends, a series regular in a TV show that shoots here, spoke to my class end of last year. She talked about before she became a series regular. For her first several years in LA, she had multiple roommates so her rent was low. She worked as much as she could to make as much money as she could. And she was in 2 or 3 classes all week. She was coaching. She was paying for private coaching for every audition she could afford. So the difference between LA and Atlanta is actors who are finding success in Los Angeles are making it their priority, their main reason for existence. The going out, partying in the club, going out surfing, going out to rub elbows with celebrities…that’s not the priority. Studying seven pages for class tomorrow, two lines for my audition and coaching for this guest star audition, that’s the priority. In Atlanta, we still don’t have that mentality, and I can’t blame a lot of people for not having that mentality. But in Atlanta people have work, family, life, and then acting is somewhere like 3rd or 4th in the list of priorities.

 

It’s basically about making acting your #1 priority and pursuing it every day?

Yes, but then the follow up to that is – what is each individual’s definition of success as an actor? If you want to be a series regular, if you want to be a known commodity, you’re probably not going to achieve that in Atlanta, you’re probably not going to achieve that if it’s not your #1 priority. If you want to make a reasonable living, enjoy a quality of life when you can still see your kids in the morning, your kids when they come home from school, then maybe have a supplementary income or something freelance. Or you have a nice accommodating boss in your corporate job, and you act here and there when it comes along, Atlanta’s a great place to be. But you have to have realistic expectations of what’s going to happen.

 

It’s funny though how British actors and Australian actors didn’t necessarily live in LA but they still are able to book these big roles.

It’s because a lot of those folks have been working for 10, 15 years in their home country before making it in the American public sphere. You can take Cate Blanchett, Sam Worthington, Guy Pearce, Tom Hardy. All of them were all working for double-digit years before anybody in America ever knew who they were.

 

You are SAG?

I’m SAG-AFTRA. That’s correct. I have been in the union for 12 years now.

 

Do you continue to have representation outside Atlanta?

Not at this time. When I came back to Atlanta, I left LA behind for the time being. But I certainly consider all opportunities. I look at other markets like Los Angeles, New Orleans, as opportunities to secure representation whether through an agent or a manager.

 

Do you use tools like Actors Access or 800Casting to look for opportunities outside Atlanta?

Not so much. Being union changes things a little bit. I advocate non-union actors using all of those tools. Whether it’s Actors Access, Casting Networks, 800casting because there’s a large number of student films, independent shorts, independent features that are all non-union. That’s a big slice of pie that I can’t look at because I’m union. There are still projects here in Georgia that are independent and are union. There’s SCAD or GSU, or through the 48-hour film project, those have a range of agreements with the union so I can work on those. But the lion’s share of my opportunities come directly through my agent.

 

You have no plans right now to move back to LA at any point?

No. I’m there every few months just connecting with my friends, going out for a long weekend. I would love if I were so busy that I had to move back out there, that’d be great. I don’t envision that happening. I would love to be in a financial place where I could live in both cities but the economics of Los Angeles are very, very expensive.

 

How do you stay positive? This is a very, very tough profession. Do you ever feel like giving up?

I think we all do, we’re all human. And it’s something that you have to get used to quickly as an actor. It doesn’t make it easy, you just have to know. You are statistically going to hear overwhelmingly more no than yes in this business. The majority doesn’t give feedback as to why you got a no. In other professions, if you are interviewing for a job, generally you’ll get feedback as to why someone is not hiring you. At least you could move forward and learn from that. In acting, you don’t know. Was my audition terrible? Or was my audition great but they just went with somebody they thought was a better fit? What If they scrapped the role altogether? You have to trust your instincts as an actor and that comes from just constantly being in class, and trusting that the work that you’re doing in auditions is good work. It’s not that they don’t like you. There are a million reasons why you don’t get tapped and usually only one reason why you do. You just have to have a short, short memory. The way I assume, everything is I’m not getting the job. And that’s a very defeatist attitude.

 

It’s not that I don’t think I’m good and I don’t deserve the job. I deserve every job I audition for. Every audition I put forward is a good audition. I just understand the statistics. It’s easier to function if I compartmentalize things. I’ll do the audition and then the three most words I believe an actor can understand is “Let it go”. I’ll use a different analogy and this may make sense. When you’ve taken your math midterm, turn it in left the classroom, you can’t suddenly walk in and go, can you give me my test back? I need to change number seven. You don’t get to do that, and it’s the same thing in auditions. You go on, do the work, take the test, and when you leave the room, let it go. Because you can’t change your grade, you can’t change the outcome. So do your work upfront, notice you did the good work and then let the chips fall where they may. It is very difficult and hard to understand that because you think somebody doesn’t like you as an actor or doesn’t like your choices but majority of the time that’s not the case. It’s just that someone else was more right for the role than you were.

 

What do you wish someone had told you at the beginning of your career and what mistakes do you think you’ve made, if any?

I’ve made dozens, if not hundreds, of mistakes and I continue to make mistakes everyday in this industry. Understand that you will make mistakes and you have to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and stay at it. You have to develop a thick skin as an actor because this is a thankless industry. Many people don’t understand the sacrifice that it takes to do this, especially if you ultimately want to move to a place like Los Angeles. Let it go. If an actor can really remember that, that will help them. Having a thick skin, not taking things personally, will really help. There are a million things that you can learn as an actor. Technically, how to act on-camera, how to deal with improv. Those things come with time and experience. Those things come with the variety of classes that you take over time, and experience that you have on set.

 

Fundamentally, as a person, if somebody told me stop chasing your tail, stop trying to fit a square peg into a round hole or stop trying to mold yourself into what you think they want you to be. A lot of actors do that. They try to guess what casting wants at any given time. They try and guess what agents want and so they’ll dye their hair blonde because blondes are in right now or they’ll get a tan because ethnic actors seem to be more in right now. But trends will change. And they’re cyclical. What’s hot today won’t be hot for a year and then they’ll be hot every year. It’s really weird. Having confidence in who you are, as a person, as a being. When you step into the room, having the confidence to say, here’s what I am giving you. This is my representation of the character, this is why I believe this is the right interpretation of the character. I’m open to take direction from you if I like your direction.

 

You may not get the job. More often than not, you won’t get the job. But if you could do that, its a lot easier to absorb that rejection, and absorb the no, knowing that you did all the things that you needed to do, and understanding that it’s not you. They don’t dislike you as a person. So many actors, especially younger actors chronologically, especially younger actors in terms of tenure to the business, they constantly seek out this magic formula, or this magic potion. But there isn’t one. They invest all the time and the money trying to change who they are, based on what they think someone else is going to like. That’s definitely one of the things that I struggled with earlier too in my career. But now I do what I do and leave with my head held high.

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