Eric Kan’s professional acting work has been featured in the New York Times and The Atlanta Journal Constitution. He regularly performs standup comedy and his work has been profiled on NPR. He has appeared in many TV series including ER, Gilmore Girls, and Days of Our Lives. He has also studied improv at Upright Citizens Brigade and Second City in Hollywood. More credits at his IMDB page: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1018241/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1
When did you know you wanted to be an actor and how did you get started?
It was really an accident for me. I wanted to be a doctor. At least, that’s what I thought I wanted to be. But that changed in college.
Where are you from originally and where did you do to college?
I’m originally from California. But I lived in Georgia from half of middle school till college. I got a degree in Exercise Physiology from the University of Georgia. While I was there, I tried multiple majors. I took an acting class as a requirement I needed to graduate and I really liked it a lot. I didn’t know anything about acting. I started doing campus plays and talking to professors in the department, talking to anyone that knew anything about acting.
This was before the Internet was huge with all the information on it. So you had to do your own footwork and not just look it up online. It would have been easier if I had been at UCLA or University of Southern California. But I was in Athens, GA and not in LA or New York. I continued with my science major because I had completed so much course work already. Meanwhile I was also taking acting classes in Atlanta. I was traveling from Athens to Atlanta once a week for scene study classes and rehearsals. So that’s how I got my start.
Did your family support you in this transition to an acting career?
In the beginning, they were not happy at all. They didn’t understand what I was trying to do. It wasn’t like I’d shown any desire to become an actor when I was younger. For them, the acting thing just came out of nowhere.
They also worried whether I would be able to manage financially. The moment they really started to support me was when they saw me on TV for the first time. That’s when they began to come around. They saw that I was starting to be successful and do what I said I was going to do. They started supporting me more then. Being able to see it with their own eyes was a big thing for them.
When did you move to LA?
I wanted to move to LA immediately after college but from what everybody was telling me, I was under the impression that I wasn’t going to get any work in LA. California is a union state. The Georgia actors were telling me I had to get with a union like SAG or I wasn’t going to get work and that I needed to start in Georgia because it would be easier. Otherwise, I would never make it in LA. I didn’t know any better, so I believed what I was told.
I spent two to three years, including when I was in college, pursuing my SAG card in Atlanta, GA and in Miami, FL. I got my SAG eligibility by being an extra for one day on a set in Florida. About three or four months later, I got upgraded. I guess I made principal from the commercial when it ran for about a year. I received my SAG eligibility from that. Then I moved to Los Angeles so I’ve been in the union since about 2000.
When you started working in Atlanta and Florida after college, did you get an agent?
I had a lot of agents. Back then, you could have more than one agent. I had five or six agents in Atlanta working for me at any given time. I had to finally sign with one of them because he insisted on me working with him exclusively. In Florida, I had several agents in Orlando and in Miami. Nowadays though you have to choose one agent to work with exclusively.
In those days was the work mostly commercials and industrials, or was it more films and TV?
Back when I was in college and after graduation, it was probably the worst time because they had just finished running “Designing Women” and “In the Heat of the Night”. “Forrest Gump” had already come and gone. By the time I really got into it, the film industry had already gone. Maybe once a while you would get a movie audition.
But they only used the southeast for environments for civil war or historical movies. There really wasn’t anything for me to be in because I’m Asian. I’d see my non-Asian friends get auditions and parts. I would audition for parts like a dad, and I was fresh out of college and looked even younger than my age at that time. There was not a lot of opportunity for paying work for me. I mainly worked for free on independent and short indie films so I could at least make a reel.
I wasn’t making any money as an actor. I was waiting tables to support myself and I was acting for free. That’s why I moved to LA. I wasn’t really in love with the idea of living in LA. I like it out here in Georgia. I was very happy here. I moved to LA out of necessity. I was looking for work. If I had gotten more paid work in Atlanta, I would have just stayed here. I don’t think I would have ever moved to Los Angeles. There just wasn’t any work for me then, like there is now.
I see actors like me now here but they are 10 or 15 years younger than me. There are so many different opportunities. Diversity really matters to people now. It’s cool to see this happen. I wish I were younger now because I got in when the business was on the low end in Atlanta. There just really wasn’t a place for me back then. All of the agencies loved me but there just wasn’t anything for me to do. And the few auditions they had for me, I was totally wrong for or I just looked too young. I just kept going to class. I finally made the decision to go to the west coast to get work.
When you went to LA, was it like starting all over again?
Yeah. Atlanta is a big city but LA is even bigger. There is no real center of the city, it’s all spread out and huge. When I moved to LA, I had never even visited there. I didn’t know any other actors or folks in the industry there. I only knew actors in Georgia who didn’t have any plans of leaving Atlanta. I drove out there with my brother one summer, made a trip out of it.
It took about a year to get an apartment and find a job in a decent location. The first six months, I was driving from Orange County two hours each way. I lived with my cousins in Orange County because I didn’t know anyone in LA. I was going to these networking events trying to talk to people. Young actors today are moving out to LA together. I think what they’re doing is much smarter. They have Facebook now and other social media sites where they are able to make connections really fast. They can speak to someone in LA and get advice. They can drive there together, be roommates and save money.
Looking back, I honestly don’t know how I accomplished any of that without the Internet. It wasn’t as widespread and had only limited information at the time. At a certain point, I just had to go take the plunge without full information. But I’m still grateful for my experiences.
Did you go through the whole process of finding agents in LA again?
Sure, I went to class as much as I could afford to, always training and trying to meet agents and other industry folk. I was submitting my own headshots and resumes to casting directors directing commercials on TV. I was actually getting quicker results from contacting casting directors directly than I ever did with an agent or a manager.
I wish I had put more time into finding the right agent. I’d sign with people who told me they would do a lot for me and never really did much. And once electronic technology finally hit Hollywood and casting directors were taking taped audition submissions, it was difficult for actors to get in front of them. I felt if I can’t get to the casting directors on my own and the agents aren’t helping me then what am I doing here? I kept just getting older and not getting auditions. That was around the time that people in Georgia started talking about all this work going on here.
Was this something that you heard while in LA, that there was so much work in Georgia?
Yeah, I stayed in touch via email with people back here. And they confirmed that work had really picked back up here. Then I found out on Facebook that one of my friends had moved from LA to Atlanta. I wrote her a message asking why she was in Atlanta and she responding saying that she was finding way more work there. She said she had an agent and it was great out there. So I thought maybe I should move back to Atlanta because I actually know Georgia very well. It took me about two years after that point to finally make the move. I had to wrap my head around the idea of moving back to Georgia for acting work. Because LA is a really fun and exciting place that can make you feel like nothing else in the world exists. It’s very easy to get there and stay there, it’s like a bubble. Once you are in the bubble, it’s very hard to imagine a life outside of it.
There’s also a pride/ego component. Because there’s a part of you that thinks if you leave LA, you’ve failed. Because it’s so hard living in LA with very little money, you make a lot of friends with the same goals and you encourage each other. You become so close with these people and it’s very hard to imagine leaving them. You’ve invested so much time and energy into LA.
You have to convince yourself that you can leave all that behind. At the end of the day, I could have stayed in LA as long as I wanted to. Nobody was forcing me to come home. But what was the point of being there if I wasn’t happy and I wasn’t working. I wasn’t even auditioning. When I finally decided to go, a lot of the people that I was close with in LA started to leave as well. These were the lifers, the people that you never thought would leave. Some of them stated that acting wasn’t for them anymore and they wanted to do something else or pursue happiness in a different way. So a lot of my core group of friends also left.
It is more important for you to be happy where you are than to try to chase down opportunities by location. I know a lot of actors who did the whole bi-coastal thing. They had an agent in New York, they had an agent in Florida and they were always traveling for auditions. They were spending four months living in LA during the pilot season. I just didn’t want to do that. I was a homeowner in LA, I owned a two-bedroom condo with a roommate that was paying a nice portion of the mortgage and I said goodbye to all of that.
When I decide to do something, I do it 100%. I was not going to stop renting the condo or slide back and forth. I decided to come to Atlanta and really give it a shot. I had friends in LA that told me I could go to Atlanta, get with AMT agency, see my family, and if it doesn’t work out, LA will always be there. I could always come back. So I sold all I could. I gave away a lot of really nice stuff to my friends because they needed it. I drove back cross-country. It was May 2012, so I’ve been back around three years now. People ask me if I miss LA and if I want to go back and I tell them, “No, I do not miss LA, and don’t want to move back.”
That’s not to say it will never happen, but I have really no interest in moving back to Los Angeles as a no-name actor. But if I hit it big out here or a big agency or managing company says, “You’re our guy and we have to move you out to LA. We’re going to take care of you and groom you for something.” I definitely wouldn’t move back to LA to start from ground 0.
What do you believe to be the future of acting in Atlanta?
It all depends on the tax incentives. I could be wrong, but if the tax incentives stay, we got work. If they go away, we got no work. Simple as that. It’s all about money. They’re not coming here because they like us, they’re coming here because they are saving a lot of money.
Do you see the scope of roles being offered to Atlanta actors increasing to TV series regulars and leads?
Everybody believes it’s happening but I don’t see it happening. I know that every once a while an Atlanta actor will become a reoccurring or guest star role. It happens but it doesn’t nearly as much as I’d like to see. They look at us like day player actors, for the most part. The majority of my resume is Los Angeles TV shows and commercials because I lived and worked in Los Angeles for 12 years. And now, just because I live here in Georgia, the casting directors look at me as a local talent. It’s a really weird thing.
But I do understand the producers live in Los Angeles or New York where there is a higher percentage of highly trained actors. It doesn’t really make any sense for them to take a risk with us. There are really good actors here. But if you live in Los Angeles where amazing actors surround you, why would you even look at anybody here for anything major. The fact that you wouldn’t have to put local actors here in a hotel and you can get back 30% of whatever you spend on them, could be a consideration. But when you are dealing with major studios, they have budgets for these kinds of things. They’re already spending all of this money for the cast and crew in the local parts. They would rather not spend all this money for what maybe the wrong actor or not a good fit and go with someone who may be considered New York or LA talent.
So you believe that just being from LA provides that comfort to the studio?
Yes, I believe that’s definitely true. If you were a producer, what would you think? Why would you think that someone from Georgia is a better actor or is as good as an actor from New York or LA? They spend a lot of money into these projects and spend 5 or 10 years developing a TV series, why would they go outside of so much talent in their own town to risk on someone living in Georgia- even if they are good for the part. How are you going to convince producers to get onboard with that? It’s not right or wrong. It’s just business.
I’ve told people the reason I came back here was because the work was here and that is true. But I also knew that moving from LA back to Georgia meant that I was no longer pursuing my acting career as strongly as I used to. There was a part of me that was just tired of pushing and fighting and getting very little. I wanted to start to have a life again. I wanted to have some money in the bank. I didn’t want every dollar that I made to go to the rent or gas. I’d like to have something to show for my life besides just some credits on the screen. The guys and gals that move to LA and really fight, they deserve it. I was out there fighting and hustling and never got a good agent. I wasn’t able to get to the next level. I tried the best I could as far as I could tell. It didn’t work and I don’t have the energy or the desire to do push that hard anymore.
A part of me thought that I was just coming to Georgia for a couple of years and recharge as I spend time with old friends and my family. Then maybe I’ll move back to Los Angeles. But as of now, I’ve been back about three years and I visit LA once or twice a year just to say hi to friends and visit the place. I have no desire or pull to be back there. I am always glad to visit though. When I left LA, I was really ready to go. I thought about going back, but even none of my friends are working. One or two of them are working doing commercials but most of them are just living their lives. Working on a job or doing a web series and meeting every month to network and talk about goals. But no one is actually working. It’s good to go and have drinks and catch up but when I go there, there is no real evidence that tells me I need to go back.
One of my friends in L.A who works regularly says the biggest thing is to find that job that allows you the freedom to pursue acting and not make you want to kill yourself. You have to find the right support for yourself because acting is a lifelong marathon. You’re not looking for a job that makes you feel bad about yourself, doesn’t pay you enough money, or stresses you out.
The biggest thing that makes a lot of actors quit acting is the inability to find that good paying job that allows you the flexibility to pursue acting. You have to find the right kind of neighborhood, job, and support. You’re going to get a lot of close calls and look at the TV and think, “That could’ve been me.” But it wasn’t. You dust yourself off and keep going and hopefully you don’t get a job that makes you feel bad, doesn’t pay you enough money, and stresses you out because that’s going to show up in your audition. You can’t live your life like that. Unless you marry a rich person or you have a trust fund to live on.
What do you do in terms of marketing or networking now?
I’m a part of the SAG committee. I help out with SAG events. I go see plays. I am part of the Atlanta Film Festival. I go to the networking events. I’m with a premier talent agency, AMT. They are really taking care of me. AMT is the only agency that has produced consistently good results for me. I like it here, I miss the excitement of LA but not the stress and I have no desire to go there without a strong support team.
If you could start over and do things differently, what would you do?
I wish I didn’t rush into the business so quickly. I wish I had really researched and gotten really good formal acting training for 2-3 years. It would have put me in debt but I think it’s really important to train properly. A training program where I could really build a solid foundation as an actor with good teachers.
Stop trying to be famous, just do the work. The people will be there and the role will be there when you are ready. When I was getting auditions, I was winging it because I had no foundation as an actor. I then started to find a good teacher to really learn the craft of acting. There’s nothing worse than the chance of someone giving you a shot and you blow it. I called myself an actor, but I didn’t understand it from a textual standpoint. It took two years for my teacher to break down my bad habits and retrain me.
Does it have to be a formal college degree program?
That’s why I said a good teacher. It doesn’t have to be at a formal degree program.
Unfortunately, many colleges are filled with failed actors. The universities, even the good ones, may not teach you the right information in order to do the things you should know how to do. So just because you get a degree from somewhere doesn’t mean that you are a good actor. But you know if you are going to be an actor without any formal training, you should at least go away for a couple years to study with a teacher or a studio where you can submerge yourself in the technique before you start the profession. Just like a doctor, you have to go to school before you start cutting people up. You have to go to school, you have to take tests, you have to be able to understand it, and defend it. It’s important to do the work.
It’s hard because when you are in LA, you see all these people auditioning. But you have to be real with yourself and not compare yourself to other people. You have to be at the point where you are ready to knock it out of the park at every audition. Not rush yourself into doing things. That was the biggest mistake I made, rushing into the business. Just enjoy the process. The people will find you. There are a lot of people who are good actors that are not well trained and can’t deliver when they are supposed to deliver. You have to be able to do it, when they need you to do it. That is the mark of a professional. You only get so many chances. That’s my take on acting. Work on your process, the results will follow.