Michael is a successful working film, TV & stage actor as well as acting teacher & on-set acting coach. In the 2002 edition of Who’s Who of American Teachers, Michael was honored for his work. He is the Artistic Director of The Renaissance Project theatre co w/ dozens of stage credits & directed over 30 productions. His aggressive teaching style is driven by his passionate belief that every actor deserves a chance. He is represented by Houghton Talent in Atlanta.
When did you know you wanted to be an actor?
I stumbled into it. I did grow up around it, in the business, with my uncle who was in a television show called The Mob Squad. He played Pete Cochran. He’s also my namesake. He’s Michael Charles Cole. I’m Michael Highland Cole. As a kid, I was not that taken up with going to work in Hollywood and seeing him shoot. It was very boring and it took an awful lot of time to record very little stuff. My uncle was not supportive or encouraging me to be a television actor. A lot of it was because of the bad experiences that he had. However, the first time I did something on stage, I was 12 or 13-years-old, I really liked it. Within a year or two of that, I started doing it more and more. Anywhere I could find opportunities to do stuff on stage, I would do it. And that went on for a while.
Was all this in California?
No. Some of it was in LA. Most of it was actually here in Atlanta. And some of it was up in the New England area. A friend in Atlanta said, “Hey, I’ve got this agent that represents me here in Atlanta. And I think you’re really good for this audition for a Rhodes Furniture pirate”. So the agent sent me the information. I went to the audition. And the very first thing I did, I booked. Then the next four things I auditioned for, I booked each one of them. And I went, this is easy. How little I knew. I had a bit of a falling out with that agent. It was about 17 years ago, that I was approached again. Somebody saw stuff that I was doing and said, “I would really love for you to audition for a part.” It was a different agent, and I did, and for the last 15 years now, it’s been a major part of my income.
You were not actively pursuing acting when you got that invite 17 years ago?
I was, but on stage, not in film and television. When I had that bad experience with that first agent, I didn’t want to mess this. It wasn’t until about 17 years ago that I was approached yet again, and got involved. Within a couple of years, I found I was able to make pretty good money doing it. Not completely, but enough to supplement my income quite well.
Were your parents or siblings also supportive of this career?
Yes. There was never any “Aw man, that’s so stupid. Why are you doing this?” My uncle said, “Okay Mike, I know it sought you out. Let me give you some red flags to watch for.” He didn’t hide it, and when he saw one of the things I did, he was very supportive and has always been supportive.
When you were starting 17 years ago, Atlanta was not the hotspot it is today?
So when you started getting work, you decided to continue working here. Never thought of moving out?
No. I lived in LA, San Francisco, Sacramento, Atlanta. But I’m now an adult, with children, and the cost of living was so high out there. I was doing stage, and teaching for extra income. But what I was really doing well in was commercials. The film work here and the television weren’t until 2007 when the tax incentives first were in place for a full 12 months. And after 2008, it went crazy.
Have you been with the same agency all these years?
I am with Houghton Talent. Came to Houghton in 2004 or 2005. They were my third or fourth agent.
A lot of new actors want to know how to get an agent. But in your case, you’d been doing work. You were approached by your first agent. And then you built enough work that you didn’t have a problem in being able to switch to Houghton?
Houghton knew that I was with an agent called CodeTalent. It was my second or third agent. That agent was just a one-person agency. They had a close relationship with Mystie (at Houghton). I had a contractual job as the voice of this animated talking deer head for a company called Tinks. CodeTalent handed the contract over to Houghton, so I scheduled a meeting with Mystie. I’d never met her before. I walked into the office and the very first thing I said was, “I’m here to make you money. Give me that chance.” She smiled and said, “I like the way you think.” And it’s been that way ever since.
That’s definitely an unusual path. Most actors don’t get in that way.
It was a lot easier for me getting an agent. It’s a lot harder right now to get top tier agencies because the agencies can be picky. You have to realize that the bread and butter for the agencies still is not film and television. It’s the commercials and industrials because it requires them to do a lot less work to get those bookings. And the chances of their actors booking them are a lot higher. Also their commission is higher. So the agencies primarily did film and television to appease their actors. Now that there’s a lot of film and television work, the bigger agencies are able to make a commission. They’re only getting 10% of off this. So what they want is bookers with their agency because they’ve got to pay their staff, put gas in their car, and put braces in their kid’s teeth.
What kind of training have you had, and how do you keep your instruments sharp between projects?
When I started, I did the school of hard knocks, and if I wanted to act, I created my opportunity through stage to do it. Even writing plays and helping others out. On my own. I just wanted to act. I loved getting in front of people. I love affecting people and changing them, and making them aware of whether there are social issues or personal issues.
I did some classes in college, and I found them to be very boring. My degree is in graphic design. It’s not as an actor. When I left college, I earned a living while I was doing stage. I headed up a studio that was creating animatronics for a children’s television show, where I would do sculpting and clay, and create molds, and do illustrations and paint them. I had a crew of five people under me. I loved doing that. I love working with my hands, which is why I like theatre, because I could build and design the sets.
So everything was giving me an opportunity. Whether I was in it, or I was directing it, or I was facilitating it, I loved doing theatre. As a director, or as an actor, or just as the artistic director helping people, I loved knowing that I’m beyond the scenes and helping a play go up that really touches people’s lives. That was my school of hard knocks. It wasn’t until about 1999 or 2000, just prior to me getting more into film and television, that I started at Professional Actor’s Studio. I enjoyed Nick (the owner of the Studio), but most of my instructions came from working with the other actors that were there, that became long-term friends with me. What I found was that Nick can only challenge the students so much, but the students had to challenge themselves.
I was always making myself do things that pushed the envelope on what I was doing. It wasn’t because I wanted to become a better actor. It’s because I was bored if I didn’t do it. If I’m going to do a scene, I want to do a scene where I have to be a convincingly gay man. In dealing with subject matter, I want to do a scene where I’m crying about something that people don’t cry about. Because I enjoyed it. It was entertaining to me. It’s like a big scene I did.
One of the last scenes at the Professional Actor’s Studio was called “The Pilot House Scene” from Jaws. I hand selected Tom Thon and Vince Pisani. I said, we’re all going to do this together, and I’m going to put the script together because it’s the scene where Shaw, who played Quinn, and Brody, who was the sheriff and Richard Dreyfus’ character, were in the small boat at night in the pilot’s cabin. They were showing off their battle wounds.
I did Clint, and the reason I wanted to do Clint was because I added in this kind of strange accent. I had to come in singing and also be a little inebriated but not stone-faced drunk. I did it because it was fun, not because it was developing my talent. Everything for me has been based on me enjoying it. If I went to a seminar, went to a workshop, if I was bored within the first 15 or 20 minutes, whoever was talking, I’d leave.
I love being around people who are challenging. I love casting actors that I love hanging with because it’s fun to hang with me. They become good friends to me. I love doing the creative process together. Why? It’s fun. I’m self-taught in Meisner Technique now. I was drawn to it because it’s fun.
Do you think theatre is one way to keep your instruments sharp, to keep be in touch with yourself and know you have the commitment to do this?
Yes. There are people who are going to argue with that, being on the other side of that, and point out successful actors. I like looking at it this way. If you were to list the top two dozen A-list actors in Atlanta, they’re the ones who are usually booked. Every one of them, if it’s not theatre, it’s performance improv or sketch comedy. And many of the A-list actors are Equity (the Theater Actors Union) as well. Once they book a lot of film and television they can’t do much of it.
But when they’re not doing film and television, they’re doing theatre or they’re doing improv shows. Why? Because it’s the nature of them, to just perform. And if none of that’s happening, they get a video camera and they click record and talk. That’s why they’re A-list actors. I love Chase Paris, before he left Houghton to become a casting director. He’s very successful at that of course. About a year after he was doing casting, I asked, “So what’s the big thing? I know you’ve got a lot of revelations from going, from being a talent agent to casting.” And he said the biggest revelation to him is that more than three quarters of the actors that he sees, do this as a hobby, and he feels it. They’re not really committed. And then you have these actors that come in the room, and they own the room. They want to be there because they’ve got an audience. And if you walk into an audition with the intent that “I’m here to book” you’re going to live in a different planet all your life. That’s always one thing I can guarantee you. When you walk into an audition that’s live, or you’re being put on tape by somebody, you have an audience, what are you going to give them?
You had periods where you struggled and faced rejection. And you’ve wondered what am I doing?
When I was struggling, it was not related to acting itself. I was struggling with whether I wanted to put up with the crap of this film and television industry. I was never struggling with the craft of acting. But this business is a pain in the ass.
Can you give some examples here? Some things to be careful about first for new actors, any issues or vices?
If you want to get taught by somebody, the best choice is to make it a current working actor who auditions and books. The reason for that is this industry is changing so rapidly, so quickly, that you’ve got to have current insight. It’s what this person is experiencing. Are there other instructors that you can go to that used to teach, and are still reliable? Sure, but they’re usually very expensive and none of them are here.
What you really need is to get with a current instructor whether it’s Matt Cornwell, everyone at Drama Inc., Mike Pinewski, Shannon Eubanks, Greg Allen Williams, Vince Pisani, Clayton Landey, Crystal Carson, Steve Coulter, Eric Goins, Rob Pralgo, to name a few. I want to hear from them. I want to know their experiences. I want to know what they dealt with just last week. It makes me feel current with stuff. That’s my very first thing. Find the actors that you can form a relationship with, or attend their Q&As on panels, or attend their workshops. That’s the biggest piece of advice to start with.
You can do private coaching with a bunch of them. I find that most of the time I learn more by sitting and listening to them. Not necessarily performing because all I’m going to do is to get a critique from them. But what I love is to glean knowledge and motivation from these people. And most of them I can call a friend.
What do you outside of acting? How do you support yourself?
The only other main thing I do is I teach on-camera. I do that because I love teaching. I love working with students. I love giving the knowledge that I get, to them. And I love seeing them succeed. Or seeing them realize that this isn’t what they should be doing. I do occasionally tape people. I don’t do it full-time. I may go through weeks and never have anybody to do. And then all of a sudden I’ll do 4-5 a week. I mean it’s $20 or $25. It’s not a lot of money. I do it because I like doing it. I like helping people, giving everybody a chance at this. I love the creative process of being in a taping session, and helping the actors see the script, and see what it can provide to them. But then again, it’s a small amount of money and the money I do teaching on-camera supplements my income when I don’t book. I can go through long periods without booking.
What do you do for marketing and networking? Do you do any mailings to casting directors?
Once I started in my second season with Being Mary Jane (TV Show), I secured a publicist who I pay on an event basis. Christa Scherck has been with me for a year and a half now, and I really like her. She helps me get interviews. She communicates with BET (the TV Network) to let them know what I’m doing. I also have a Twitter account. My Facebook page is just about my acting. I’ve never done mailings. I’ve attended workshops. I’ve attended a couple of events. But I don’t really focus on those. The events that I do attend are the ones that my publicist arranged for me to go to. If I do an event, it’s usually because I’m being asked to come and speak. There’s a level of networking with that. I make sure that my IMDB page is current so that if somebody looks at me they can see what I’m doing currently. And for me, that’s more than adequate.
You never felt the need for a personal website?
I’ve made so many attempts to start a website. Let’s talk about it from the point of view of practical and applied. I have people who eat, sleep, and breath, and drink, on websites, which is great. If it works for them, great. But I wanted to look at it from a standpoint of “Okay let’s get specifics with how is it going to benefit me?” So I get an audition. Do I get an audition because somebody went to my website and said they want to see me for something? No. If a production company wants to see me, they go to breakdown services. And they want to go to Actors Access and they might cross reference with my IMDB page. I’ve got my reels on Actors Access. I’ve got my reels on 800casting. If they want to see my profile, they can go to these sites and they can see. And I’ve got a resume on IMDB as well. So I’ve got those three sites that are heavily covering what I do. And I have yet to ever have somebody say to me “Oh if you had just had a website that repeated everything you had on IMDB, that would’ve been the lynchpin for me.” So I’ve seen a lot of people go to this great length to do something that they think because it’s out there, that Steven Spielberg is going to Google your name. In websites they lie. You can put everything on there that you want. IMDB doesn’t. It’s linked to the production company. And so the one piece of advice that Chase said to me before he left Houghton: “Mike I want you on Twitter. I want you on Facebook. I want you to get current with your IMDB page.” And he said “I want you to take off anything that is on your resume that is not on IMDB, except food commercials.” And so now if you look at my resume, my resume is consistent with the three sites I’ve referred to. And so I have found, for me that works great. I would love to encounter an actor who says, “My career really took off with me starting a website, and so many people were driven to my website that they just wanted to ask me for auditions and booking.” Do you see where I’m coming from?
Does this mean I’m not going to do a website? No I’m probably going to do a website, but it’s not critical for me. The only reason why I’m probably going to do a website is so that I can also link it to my theatre, and I can have something on there about my classes. So it’s like a business card about my classes and how I can help actors. They can go to my website and they can look up a lot of information. I’m going to use more as a site to help people than it is necessarily about promoting me because I’m already being promoted.
What do you see the future of acting being in Atlanta? Do you think casting and producers will start to see this talent pool here being more reliable and maybe even start to offer some series regular roles here?
The talent here is already reliable. The production stuff that we have is already reliable. It’s the perception that we aren’t reliable as much as they are in LA – that’s the problem we’re facing. I will say that I agree with them that there’s a very good chance that the pool of A-list actors is higher in LA. But the problem is, I have a lot of friends that are there now, and they’re telling me that pool is shrinking because they’re leaving. I’m so glad that Georgia decided to table the religious freedom law that was passed in Indiana because that would have had a massive impact on our film and television industry. Things like that are what we have to fight because we can lose our tax incentives and it doesn’t take much. We’ve got to make sure that’s still in place. It’s probably only on two hands and one foot with toes that can I name the actors that are making a pretty decent living doing this here. And it’s not because we don’t have talent here, it’s somebody perceiving that they want to give you the opportunity. It’s really that simple. California’s broke and scared of us. They’re throwing everything they can do to move the industry back. But the fact that is there are so many venues to air stuff on cable networks. The pilot season used to be end of January to end of April. Now in Georgia, pilot season is all year long. Everything’s changing. You can drop a pilot in December. The nature of how the business is functioning is changing… and LA is slow to change. Georgia is very slowly whittling away at that perception. Every year that we stay in the game and do more and more work, the better it gets. There is going to come a breaking point where the industry is going to realize we have the talent pool, both as actors and as production. What I say to actors here in Atlanta and production crew: Get training. Be positioned. Do the acting. Stay in the business. Be in here for the long haul.
Luck is when opportunity meets preparations.
Absolutely. Thus you hear the phrase “a lucky break.”
So no plans to move to LA?
No. I don’t really have a financial motive to go there. I’m here, unless something yanks me. And then, at this point, it’s only going to yank me for a period of time.
Do you have agents in the other places?
I have one in New Orleans, and one here in Atlanta – Houghton, representing me for the entire southeast. The only reason they don’t represent me for Louisiana is that Louisiana no longer sends work here because they have residency restrictions. The actors in Atlanta don’t want to go there for a U5 (Under 5 lines) scene and then have to do a callback, except no hotel and no travel. They’re willing to accept that here. I have an agent that represents me in Louisiana, and only in Louisiana. And it’s for when there are big projects where I’m in a big role that they want to see me for that I could do at least three days of work on.
You’re willing to work there as a local hire in that case?
In that case, because then it’s financially equitable for me.
And what about Texas, or LA, or New York?
Those auditions don’t come in our way. And if it did, I’d probably do it through Houghton.
Are you SAG?
I joined last December. I believed that with the number of credits that I had now and the work that I’m doing, that I was getting ready to run into an interference issue of perception about why Mike is not in the union. And the union also changed its rules regarding industrial work, which I also like to book and make money at under a provision called an OPO – “One performance only”. They now allow me to audition for projects like that. As a matter of fact, I have a job coming up that’s non-union and it’s an industrial. And the union is allowing me to do it through an OPO. That helped tipp the scale for me to join.
And you get the perception value now, by being SAG?
Yeah, that I’m a professional actor. People perceive me as an actor but I just didn’t want, with the number of production companies that are coming from LA, for them to see me and see my resume and not understand why I wasn’t SAG yet.
But you don’t suggest that for somebody who’s new, starting out their careers?
No. I have my three boys who also act and I’m telling them I don’t want them to join the union right now even though they’re SAG eligible.
What do you wish somebody told you when you started your career or what would you give as advice to somebody starting out at Atlanta?
Sustainability. And what I mean by that is, this is a very hard path that I don’t wish upon anybody. Film and TV are filled with rejection. It’s filled with very little money. You have to be able to be doing something that you also enjoy, that allows you to sustain yourself financially, that doesn’t bring you fear. And if you can find that, I can guarantee you 10 years from now you’re still going to be acting. But I hear a number of actors that find jobs that completely inhibit them from doing any acting. Or they do jobs they hate, and don’t really pay that much. They’re starving in the process. They don’t think about being here for the long haul. If you’re here for the long haul, you’ll get the training. You’ll build relationships. You’ll be known by the casting directors. 20 years… This is what you’re going to do. It’s not just financially, but relationships too. Don’t put off, if you find somebody who loves you, marrying them. That’s part of sustainability because it’s really easy to get isolated – To work your job and never be around anyone. Do yourself taping at home and never be seen. And you’re cut off. So if you can sustain yourself financially and emotionally, you’ll do it. You just need someone to share these experiences with. Now you don’t want to deal with somebody who’s going to hate you and badger the whole time you’re doing it. Somebody who supports you.