Lee Armstrong is a SAG-AFTRA actor who has worked in Los Angeles and the Southeast. He currently resides in North Carolina and is represented by STW Talent (firstname.lastname@example.org). (Rafiq’s note – I’ve worked with Lee when I was casting an Indian feature film, IVIDE, that was set and shot in Atlanta.)
Where are you from originally and when did you know you wanted to be an actor? How did you go about pursuing it?
My father was in the military. I’m one of those kids who moved from base to base so I lived in a number of different places when I was growing up. Usually the new kid in school, so you learned to adapt pretty rapidly. I was 7-years-old when I decided I wanted to be an actor. It wasn’t a big glory kind of thing. I thought I could be good at it. But you know what? It was only girls that were involved in the theater classes. Who wants to be the only guy in a bunch of girls at that age?I had to mature past that. The first acting-related thing I did was in third grade; and then about eighth grade. I started doing plays, I went out and auditioned. I wound up with the lead.
It was an interesting experience and I started in theater. I went to Illinois State University to get my Bachelors. Turns out it was kind of a golden era, there were so many working actors that are out there now that were my classmates when I went to Illinois State. After that I went to University of Iowa and got my Master’s Degree; and from there I headed to Los Angeles.
Your Bachelors and Masters degrees were in fine arts and acting?
Right, so I’m educated. But it was mostly in theater, and there wasn’t a lot of film. I knew that I was interested in film. My thought was, if you could make it in film, then probably you could get a job in the theater pretty much wherever you wanted to go. I went to Los Angeles from ‘79 to ‘91. I worked two or three times a year. I had a fairly good resume by the time that I left; it was a family thing.
I had a small child and Los Angeles was just not that kid-friendly. You were living in cramped little spaces that you could afford. For quality of life, I moved to North Carolina. There wasn’t a lot going on in the early 90s. Some production in Wilmington, but it really was with the advent of the digital camera about 2000/ 2001 when people could afford not to have the big Hollywood cameras to work exclusively in film. They could record on digital video, and suddenly, production started springing up all over the place. Once that started happening out here, you could do a whole lot of work. So at this point, I’ve acted in 96 films, done 15 or so television projects. I’ve worked a lot and enjoy that regularity of being able to work frequently.
By the time you left LA, you had done some work and you were already a SAG member?
Yes. Joined SAG in 1983. I left LA in ’91.
Why North Carolina?
We had friends, my wife’s job brought us here. And really it was because of being a dad. My child was 2-years-old when we left. The cost of living was not all that higher. The one single thing that was extremely higher was housing. When we lived in LA, we lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Burbank. When we moved to North Carolina, we bought a three-bedroom house. Our mortgage was $50 a month less than our rent was in LA for our one-bedroom apartment.
When you have kids, with my priorities, God is first, family is second and career was third. I was clear on what my priorities were so it was a sacrifice I made without even thinking about it. But the Southeast has certain advantages in that there are a lot more opportunities that you can get that you didn’t have back there. I worked a lot more each year than I ever did when I was in Los Angeles. But a lot of the bigger projects are shot there. Casting people still have a prejudice that the good actors — the really good actors — are from New York or Los Angeles.
I even tell them to come to Atlanta, its such a big center now. But frequently, the lead roles are cast on the coast and the smaller supporting roles, or under-fives even, are what’s available to actors that are being cast locally. Because I lived in Los Angeles for 11 years, I really have no fear of those actors. I don’t put them on any pedestals. I have a high regard for talent, and there are many talented actors that are based out there and live out there.
In the 21st century, we have airplanes. All it takes is to get on an airplane and go someplace in order to be able to work. I’ve got a series that’s gonna shoot in August in St. Louis; it’ll be my first time shooting there and I’m looking forward to that experience. Even actors from LA or NY, they have to travel to Atlanta to shoot there; why doesn’t it work the same way? Nobody’s asking for priority to be cast, but the thing is just opportunity.
What do you think of Atlanta’s growth? Is it something that’s going to continue to grow overtime and maybe, hopefully change overtime, the perception that there is a depth of talent available in the Southeast?
To some extent, it is changing a little bit already and what we have to figure out is if the Atlanta boom is here to stay or is it simply the new hot spot? A few years before Atlanta, it was New Orleans, a few years before that it was Vancouver, and then somewhere sandwiched in between there it was in Michigan because of the great rates and incentives.
Politically, here in North Carolina, we elected a state government that totally got rid of the incentive programs. So much of the production that we had in North Carolina — there was a lot — Iron Man shot here, a huge number of large films have shot here, but because of the incentives they are moving elsewhere. Even South Carolina has work. You know they are shooting the Vice Principals down there with the people who were on Eastbound and Down that I was on. There’s a lot of work, but producers are going to go where the incentives are.
Atlanta kind of boomed, you got some really big producers down there — you got Tyler Perry, you got the Pinewood Studios that’s going on, and they’re building a lot of infrastructure and facility so I would think that there was a really good likelihood that Atlanta is here to stay, I know so many people are thinking about moving to Atlanta from this area.
To answer your question specifically about Atlanta, the jury is still out. I wonder if decades down the road this is gonna still be the hot spot. But certainly it is at the moment. And because of the infrastructure that they’re creating there, that looks good, politically, it seems like the government has realized that there is a lot to bring to the state because of film, and so they seem to be supportive of it. But you know you could have another administration that changes things, the legislature, that could change overnight like it did in here in North Carolina. And so you know there’s no crystal ball on politics.
Do you have representation outside North Carolina?
My agent is based in Wilmington, but she does have an office in Atlanta as well. I don’t know if she’s currently getting work down in Los Angeles. I submitted out there, I had a call back for a series last weekend for Los Angeles and I self-submitted it by Skype. I can’t remember exactly which site it was on but everyday I’m looking, I submit, and so I don’t usually remember exactly where it was I found the audition. I keep working and of course it’s not the bigger stuff, but you never know who you’re gonna meet and one of my good friends that’s a casting director says “work begets work.”
You don’t have an agent in New Orleans, LA or New York?
My agent does submit to New Orleans and part of the Southeast, when they’re sending out the breakdown. She submitted me to Texas, as far away as Kentucky. She does know her clients, who’s willing to travel and who’s not. Most actors in the Southeast also have additional sources of income. Day jobs, or whatever else you do. I work three jobs. I am a professional actor. Some years acting is my second, and some years it’s my third, but you look for flexibility. People that you can work for that allow you to, at a moment’s notice, take the morning off; to go take the audition.
The biggest challenge of the older actor is the technology, I am just not good with the tech. I know how to use the computer. But to shoot it, have the lighting right, to have a reader, I really appreciate a service that does that for me. And does it at a reasonable rate. There are some people in Wilmington that are just great. [Actors Arsenal — shameless plug] Looking through the Screen Actor’s Guild is also another way to access and find who is casting and projects that are being cast.
You’re a SAG actor in a right-to-work state and mostly right-to-work area, has that been a hindrance in any way?
Yeah, it’s a big issue. I am in the position of acting as a union advocate to some independent producers who think of SAG-AFTRA as some really difficult organization to work with, and actually the opposite is true. From student films, to short films, to all of the low budgets, to the new media that’s out there for television, the internet distribution, for all of those levels, the signatory agreement, and there is paperwork involved and you need a producer to fill out some forms but that’s part of the business.
If you’re not professional enough to fill out some forms, do I really want to waste my time with you? I hate to put it like that, but really it’s not that big of a deal anymore; and so I am still working, I think last year I hit my goal, which was twelve projects to film during the year. So I hit my goal that I set at the beginning of the year; that’s gonna be twelve film and television projects, and I did that. And it’s still my same set goal for this year, I’m at three right now.
But the right to work thing is difficult from the standpoint that you’ve just got to explain it to some producers. And I’ve certainly have lost jobs because I’m in SAG. And the global rule one if you’re a Union actor — you don’t work on non-union sets. It was an issue with an independent feature I did recently too.
They said SAG when they invited me down to audition. After the call back, they said would you work non-union. “No!” It’s a potential $5,000 fine or boot out of the union if you do that. To work for $100 a day to torpedo a career, am I going to do that? No. And the other issue with the right-to-work state is the SAG-AFTRA eligible actors. These are the actors that have done enough work that they are able to join the union. But some don’t. I worked with one guy recently who was in his 50s who became SAG eligible as a child actor. He was still SAG-AFTRA eligible. I have some actors, because I teach acting as well at the college level, it’s one of my three jobs. I try to tell young actors, if you’re SAG-AFTRA eligible, people understand if you just became eligible within a year and you want to accrue a few more credits before you go professional, they get that. It’s not a big deal. But when you walk on a set with actors and you tell them proudly that you’re SAG-AFTRA eligible, and then they ask you how long you’ve been SAG-AFTRA eligible, oh for 13 years; and I’ve done three network series with recurring roles as a SAG actor. It’s like you’re able to work for Union wages, get Union residuals all because of Union actors like me who pay the dues to enable you to do that. If there weren’t union actors, there wouldn’t be a union.
If you’re gonna regard this as a profession that you’re really serious about pursuing, there comes a point where you need to just step up and become a professional. I can’t tell you how many productions have done SAG signatory agreements because they wanted me on the show. It’s usually five a year or something like that. The strategy we have as SAG actors is simply that if there are more SAG actors out there, producers are going to realize that if they really want talented people on the screen, they need to be able to access union talent.
What else is it you do to supplement your income?
I work in human resources for a manufacturing company. That’s the job that gets me my benefits. They’re very nice to me. I’ve been with them for over 20 years.
They know about your acting career?
Yes. I don’t push it in people’s faces because there are a number of people that are also interested in it. There’s one woman that I work with that this year became a television producer. She produced an Internet soap opera. I work for a very good company and they give me the flexibility that I need to be able to get off most of the time. Now if there were some business need, and it hasn’t quite come up yet, I’m usually able to juggle things. But if there was some business need that came up and they say, look you need to be here or you’re gone, well I have to figure out, what do I want, a job that pays me over $60,000 a year or to work for $100 a day at some other place.
Does this HR job require you to be in the office, but then you just have to notify your manager when you want to take off?
Yes, there are jobs like sales or something where you might be out on the road. My job is in human resources, I do work out of an office. And so if I’m not there, I do have to get notification and permission to be able to go, but after 20 years, I’ve liberal vacation benefits; so it’s good. When I was in Los Angeles, I had four jobs at once. I had a 2-year-old and a wife, and I was trying to be an actor; and I didn’t have a huge corporate job then at the time. I worked for a mannequin manufacturer at one point, I taught English as a second language. Unless your dad is a major director or star, you must claw your way into this business.
Has the formal training been helpful to you in the course of your career? Do you think haven gotten the exposure to the highest level of acting in LA helped you book more jobs in the Southeast?
Training doesn’t ever end. So the fact that I have college degrees in theater, theater acting and film acting are certainly related in this craft, but they are very different just like commercial acting is different from film acting and film acting even is a little bit different from television acting in terms of the technical things that you have to learn. So your education doesn’t end. I take classes in Wilmington; there’s a good studio down there that I work with, and it’s basically audition technique that I do and I’ve been doing that for about two years now.
The training that I found in Los Angeles, I’ve worked with a number of different teachers that were out there and did so many workshops. Some of them were meet and greet. The training really has helped me. I don’t know if it’s the big calling card out here, because I really think that people are not looking for what you used to do, they are looking for what you could do now. And they are not looking for who you were in the eighties they are looking for who you are in 2015. So, the nice thing about being an unknown actor is that directors tend to see you in terms of what their needs are.
You mentioned some particular training that raised your game, you were booking four times what you were booking before, what was the training?
Jeremiah Comey is his name. He’s an acting teacher in Los Angeles. He’s got a book out “Film Acting for Actors and Directors” and his studio is large enough in Los Angeles, certainly there are a lot of really talented teachers out there. But his is invitation only, so that you have to be invited to be able to pay money to take his classes, that kind of echelon. He’s got other people that have been students for a number of times that also teach, in his studio during the times that he’s not up and teaching, so some people can enter in one of the subordinates classes or something and they kind of move up. It wasn’t invitation only when I started. It’s Meisner based.
But unlike Meisner, it’s a lot more, it’s the best system that I have to get actors looking good quickly. If you have a film with any kind of depth to it, any kind of emotional depth, learning how to work off the other actor, being unpredictable, not just for the sake of being weird, but, because you’re in the moment, you’re working off the other actor, you don’t want all of your takes to be exactly the same. It’s the sign of a mediocre actor. You want to be in the moment, the takes will be similar, but then it gives your director choices in the editing room.
Actors all work differently, but to be able to have that unpredictability, do a scene brilliantly once, and them being able to catch it and for it to be in the can and make a great movie. Actors like Jack Nicholson, you never know what that heck is gonna go on with him. And that translates into Oscars and a great career.
What do you think you would do differently if you had to do your career all over again?
There are a lot of people that become successful in this business out of celebrity, rather than ability; and celebrity can open a door and get you into the industry; but it’s only talent that’s gonna keep you there. So you’ve got some crossover, people who are stars, like Kris Kristofferson. I was watching him in a movie the other night who become known as a singer, and then moved from music into film; there are people that; there are some reality stars that have had doors and opportunities that have opened to them, into the industry. There are certainly a number of stand-up comics who have been able to translate their stand-up comedy into an acting career as well.
And improv is another one, there are a lot of people that become known in the world of improv who then are able to piggyback usually into commercials first and then from commercials into an acting career; so there are a number of avenues into this. When I was younger, I was totally focused on acting as the technique and the spirit of acting and really trying to give good performance. And while that may make for a good performance, it doesn’t always translate exactly into the biggest job offers. I wish I had thought, what are the other passages into the business in addition to just being good at what you do? Does that sound crass? I don’t know? But if I had to do anything differently, I’d just consider that. You had some people that were like sports stars that become known as actors. So there’s just not necessarily one hat that somebody can wear; so you just got to try and figure out, well, how do I do this?
What’s been keeping you motivated all these years to keep you driving eight hours for one call back to Atlanta for working multiple jobs and pursuing this? What keeps you going?
I love to do it, and it’s not that I have an incomplete life when I’m not acting; I enjoy many aspects in my life, but there’s just nothing quite as fun for me as being able to do this. I like my work and I like what I do. My favorite thing about acting is when you walk onto a set, nobody knows who you are. And then suddenly they see what you can do, and then all of a sudden, you have a whole room full of new best friends. That, to me, is conquering spirit. It’s just a priceless experience, being able to do that.
With this field, you have to be really passionate about it. I do know some actors that are trying to do it because they think they can make money out of it. Money is a good thing and in this field it’s a good thing because usually the more you’re paid, the larger the visibility of the project is; therefore the more people that are going to see it. I still work, I work on student films, because you can get some good film in it, but also that is where the next generation of directors and actors are gonna come from other than in the film schools. So for me it’s part of giving back to the career and the profession, to make time to work with the young directors, because they need to know what it’s like to work with an actor, when they ask them to do something, they can actually do it. Rather than taking 14 takes to get them do something right.