Bill Murphey has been a constant presence on the Atlanta stage since the late ’80s. He has performed at nearly every professional theatre, in over 60 productions, and has been awarded two Suzi Bass Awards for his work. His film and TV credits include The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, The Fat Boy Chronicles, Devil’s Knot, The Game, Army Wives, and Constantine. He is represented by Houghton Talent in Atlanta. More info at his IMDB page: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1705421/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1
Where are you from originally and when did you know you wanted to be an actor?
I’m from here; I was born in Decatur. And so I’ve always lived here, except when I was away at college. I was interested in movies and theatre from a very young age. There wasn’t a lot of theatre being done in my school but I tried to participate in everything I could, and also did church plays and anything around that I could find to be in. Once I got into high school and it got close to graduation, I decided I wanted to study theatre.
But I thought if I’m going to do this, I need to make sure that this is something that I’m not going to regret having spent four years on once I’m done. I wanted to make certain it wasn’t some passing phase I was going through. So I waited a year after high school to start college. I worked retail for a year, and at the end of that time, I realized I was serious about it. The passion had grown, if anything. I went to a small school in Alabama, the University of Montevallo, that had a pretty well respected department. I studied there for four years and went on to graduate school at the University of Mississippi. I studied there for three more years, got my Masters, and came back to Atlanta to get to work. I went all the way!
Then you came back to Atlanta and it was not quite the boomtown it is today, right?
It was not. There was a lot less theatre. There were the bigger houses – the Alliance, and the Academy Theatre, which had a much larger presence than it does now. Theatrical Outfit, the Performance Gallery and some dinner theatres. Some of the smaller theatres were just getting started – the Horizon theatre, and Theatre in the Square. No, it was a much smaller theatre town. There wasn’t much going on in the summer except the Shakespeare Festival at Oglethorpe, and Theatre of the Stars, to my recollection. I spent every summer working out at an outdoor drama in North Carolina called UNTO THESE HILLS. I did that for 21 summers. It gave me a lot of experience – acting, directing, designing, and interacting with people, just a whole bunch of experiences in just about every aspect of theatre.
What made you come back to Atlanta though?
My family was all here. That’s important to me. And I know this place. I thought there are 50 times as many people in New York or LA who are looking for the same number of jobs as there are here. I felt I needed to make sure that I could make it here before trying to make it there. That was my feeling at the time. I don’t know if that’s valid or makes sense. But I could try making a reputation here with the safety and the comfort of my family in familiar settings. Or I could go on my own to someplace where I didn’t know anybody and be terrified. I chose not to be terrified.
Your family has been supportive throughout?
Yeah, they have been. I think they were, of course, a little worried at first. They wanted to make sure that I was doing something that I was going to be happy in, and that I’d be able to support myself and a family, if I got a family, and wasn’t setting myself up for disappointment. But they’ve always been very, very supportive.
Was it possible to make a living as an actor doing theatre, or did you have to do other things as well to supplement your income?
Till about eight years ago, I always had a day job. I worked full-time at the box office at the Woodruff Arts Center for a while. Then I worked full time for about nine years at a Starbucks. And then since 2006, I have not had a day job. I do other little things along the way. I house sit and do other odd jobs. I can bring in a little extra money doing that. And sometimes that’s the only way I’ve gotten by. Once I didn’t have a day job anymore, auditioning for film and TV became a lot easier. If you have a day job, you can’t just take off in the middle of the day and say ‘I have an audition’ or ‘I’m going to be gone for two days to shoot something.’ They want you there at your desk or your register or whatever it is that you’re doing.
It’s a big challenge, not having that safety net. I’m pretty good with money; I know how to save. I don’t spend a lot of money. But even so, there are times when you don’t book something, nothing is happening. You have no idea what’s going to happen. Then you’ll book something. I’ve been very fortunate that it’s never gotten to a critical point.
How do you keep your acting skills sharp?
I need to take more classes. I haven’t because when I can afford to take the classes, I’m probably working and don’t have the time. And then when you’re not working and have the time to take the classes, you need to be very careful guarding your money because you don’t know when your next job is coming.
When you have a day job, is it easier to pursue theatre as opposed to on-camera work because on-camera work is typically during the day, as opposed to theatre where shows are typically on the weekends?
Exactly, it’s so much easier to just do one or the other. If you’re doing theatre, it’s hard to be considered for on-camera work when you’re doing a show five nights a week. You tell your agents, ‘yeah I’m available to shoot this but I have to be done by 5pm,’ or ‘I’m available all day Monday, and Tuesday, and Wednesday until 5’, and then they’ll say, ‘well, why don’t we just not submit you for this because we can’t guarantee it’ll be done in time.’ It gets a little frustrating. You want to be at a point where people will work around your schedule rather than you working around theirs, but I’m not at that point yet. Most of us in Atlanta aren’t.
Has doing theater been helpful in terms of marketing you?
I think it has been, yes. I’ve been around here for so long and worked at most of the theaters, so I’m guessing that most people in the theatre community who are in a position to hire me, know who I am. Whether we’ve actually met or not, they’ve probably heard of me or seen me in something. Some agents are very good about coming to theatrical productions, seeing the actors they represent do their stuff, and scope out potential new talent.
Do you do any other marketing and networking?
I’m not really good at marketing myself or networking, other than just posting something on Facebook. I’m not even sure how I would go about it. My mom is much better at marketing me than I am.
What about staying aware of what shows are shooting in town and trying to stay on top of industry news?
That’s a hard one. You want to trust that your agent is on the lookout and knows what’s going on, and wants to submit you for anything that you’re available for. There are times you’ll compare auditions with other actors you’re usually up against for the same parts and say ‘Did you get called in for this project?’ And they won’t have, but they’ll have been called in for something you weren’t. And you wonder ‘Why didn’t I get called in for that Robert Duvall movie?’ But I am determined to feel that if I’m right for something, my agent will submit me. Whether the casting director chooses to see me is beyond my control. But all sorts of conspiracy theories can race through your head.
What about casting websites?
I’m on Actors Access and 800casting and sometimes I look at those. A lot of those things are for little or no pay, and I’m not looking to do things now just because ‘they’d look good on my reel.’ When this run of employment I’m on right now winds down, I’ll reconsider!
How many shows are you having for this current show you are doing?
I just finished the first half of a coproduction between two theatres, a play called VANYA AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE. It ran at the Horizon theatre for six weeks, and then it will run again in October, at the Aurora Theatre for a month. In between that time, there’s another show, a musical called MEMPHIS, which is a coproduction between the Aurora Theatre and Theatrical Outfit. Both the shows that I am now working on, or am about to be working on, will show in two different theatres for a full run. That’s an unusual and really nice position to be in. It’s great for me theatre-wise. I think it might limit me for on-camera work, though, in that I’m not going to have my nights available for a while.
How do you get your theatre work? Do you have a different agent for that?
In Atlanta, at least, your agents don’t send you out for theatre work. It’s all on your own, it’s networking. Casting directors will call you in, or if you’re a member of Actor’s Equity as I am, you can request to be seen for an audition. I’m in a pretty good position where most of the theatres at least know who I am, have at least heard of me, and I’ve worked with most of them. And I think I have a pretty good reputation.
You think all that formal training has made a difference?
I think the main benefit of the seven years I spent at school was the people I met and learned from. I’ve remained friends with many of them, and have worked for them and with them since then. It’s networking. A friend of mine from my undergraduate school is a director and producer in California now. We’ve kept in contact, and some years back he wrote a movie and offered me a small part in it. I have friends in the business all over the country – New York, Chicago, LA, and here. None of my schooling taught any of the methods of different acting teachers like Stanislavsky or Meisner, though I wish they had, but I did get introduced to a lot of people who’ve opened a lot of doors for me. That was the major benefit.
What do you see the future of acting being in Atlanta? Do you see us booking bigger roles out of Atlanta?
A couple of years ago, the most that you could hope for might be landing a bit role as somebody’s secretary saying “Your 3 o’clock appointment is here”. And that’s it. But that’s changing; people are booking really nice parts. The more work that’s done here, and the better showing we make, the more the directors and producers are going to trust Atlanta talent with larger roles. If we step up our game! Anytime I see a familiar face on a locally shot project, an actor friend who’s up on the screen and holding their own with the New York or the LA talent, it’s inspiring. It allows one to say ‘okay, good for them. Next time, that could be me.’ Hard work and ability – you’ve got to trust it will pay off. Now we’ve got so many things that are shooting here, and around the Southeast, the opportunities are really taking off.
What do you think actors in Atlanta need to do to step up their game?
We need to bring it in every audition and every time we book something. We need to come in prepared; we need to come in with confidence. We need to give them no reason not to use us, no reason to say ‘well, we can’t find anybody here; we’re going to have to bring someone from LA to do this part.’ We’re here, we’re ready, and we’re cheaper. They don’t have to put us up in a hotel. They don’t have to get an airline ticket. But proximity can’t be the only reason to use us. We have to be just great. In fact, we have to be better. I get irritated with theatres or production companies that think having a 212 area code or a zip code beginning with 902 makes you a better actor. I want just the 303– zip code and the 404 area code to be a gold standard. The whole mindset of “We can’t cast this out of Atlanta,” that’s baloney.
Do you have representation outside Atlanta?
No, I don’t. As long as the work is here, I would love to work locally. Now, I’d be happy to take a job out of town if offered. I’d love to tour with a show. I’m not glued here, but I haven’t really tried to get work outside Atlanta.
No plans to move to LA or New York?
No, I’ve got my house here, my family…I’ve got my whole life here. Having to move would be…not traumatic – that’s probably too harsh a word, but I don’t see the need to yet.
Being an actor, you’re being rejected day in, day out. It can take its toll on you emotionally and financially. How do you find the motivation to keep going on?
Yeah, it does. Absolutely. This happens to every actor – you get rejected all the time. It’s part of the job. You can’t be thin-skinned and remain in this business long. You go through a barrage of auditions for plays or for on-camera work, and think ‘I would be great for these roles,’ but those casting the projects think someone else would be great for them. It’s frustrating. It’s often completely out of your control. Maybe they had somebody blond in mind for the role, or maybe you look like the producer’s ex-husband, and they’ll say ‘Nope, not him.”
But you start questioning yourself and your career choice, and the bank account starts running low…It’s heartbreaking and you think maybe it’s time to get a day job now, just to tide you over. The bills don’t stop coming just because the paychecks do. Last year, I’d been in one of those slumps, and then I booked three straight things in one week. Things turned around. Often it’s hard to have that confidence that things will turn around, that you will work again. But that confidence in yourself and your ability is what has to keep you going.
I have friends that I went to school with who are running businesses and they have expensive houses and multiple cars and families and kids and go on vacations all the time and are preparing for retirement down the road. I can’t even imagine what that life is like. They can’t imagine how I can be happy knowing I have work lined up through October. They think, “October?!…and then?!” I don’t know; we’ll see! And that’s the life of an actor! There really has to be nothing else that makes you happy to make this work. If you can’t imagine yourself doing anything else, that’s really the only time you should do this for a living.
What do you wish someone had told you at the beginning of your career, or if you had to redo your career all over again, what would you do differently?
I’d probably try harder from the beginning and take more chances. I probably played it safer than I needed to do. Maybe I should’ve given up the day job earlier, just taken that big leap, taken that jump and see where it landed me. But it can be hard to do that when you’re a kid. Some do. I wish I had. You’ve just got to commit 100%. Sometimes it’s hard to, because you want that safety net. I think if you’re not worried about the safety net and take that leap of faith, you might succeed spectacularly or you might fail spectacularly, but whatever you do, it will be spectacular. Everything in between is less dangerous. But the rewards might be not as great either.