Mike Pniewski is a SAG-AFTRA actor based out of Atlanta. More information including demos, credits and link to his IMDB page can be found at http://www.mikepniewski.com.
When did you know that you wanted to be an actor and how did you go about pursuing that?
When I was a senior in High School, I was fortunate enough to get cast as a lead in our Senior musical Fiddler on the Roof. It was a huge success and I had a wonderful time but I never thought of it as anything to pursue as a career. I had a scholarship at UCLA to study sports medicine. So that was going to be my path – I was going to do some form of sports medicine which, in the late 70s when I graduated from High School, was a really hot field. But I started having a hard time in school and was doing really bad, got assigned a counselor to try to help me out. Looking at the courses that I would have to take to figure out my four years to get a degree, I discovered that I had to take a lab where I had to dissect human cadavers. I decided that it really probably wasn’t for me. That drove me to do a lot of soul searching – about the fact that I was at a great school, which is where I wanted to be, how could I make this work. I wanted to find that thing that I was passionate about studying to take advantage of the opportunity and to help pull myself out of the hole that I had dug for myself. After talking to a lot of people and really digging and searching, what it came back to was that experience of acting in high school. Not only was it fun and successful, but it was profound and the first thing that I’d ever done in my life where I was completely one hundred percent self-motivated. Nobody had to tell me to do anything. In fact, there were days where I was pushing harder in rehearsal or staying longer than anybody else. It’s the first thing that actually drove me like that and I felt like it meant something. I gave up my scholarship, which was big and scared my parents to death. I walked out of the training room at the end of my sophomore year and by the end of my junior year, I was on the dean’s list. I had pulled myself out and I never looked back, I found my niche.
You are originally from California?
Yes, born and raised in California. I was born in Los Angeles and I grew up down in Southern California.
After UCLA, you stayed in LA looking for work?
Once I graduated, I stayed out there for ten years and started looking for work. When I got out of school, I had to get a job. I was a runner at a modeling agency, a job that probably doesn’t exist much anymore. I was doing deliveries and driving little 18-year-old girls around town. It was a great gig then because I was out of the office quite a bit, doing errands and delivering model books and pictures. If I had an audition I could go do it, nobody would ever notice. And if I got a job, I’d just call in sick. I did that job for probably two and a half years before I started working enough where I didn’t need the job anymore. What made the difference for me is when I started doing commercials. Because commercial residuals can be really nice. And once you have that residual stream come through, that really made a difference in allowing me not to need that day job.
Has getting an undergraduate degree in theater been worthwhile for your career?
Absolutely. And I qualify this all the time by saying that this is my experience, I understand that there’s more than one way to do this. But in my experience, I developed a real, I believe, understanding and appreciation of the fundamentals of basic acting techniques. I still had to study once I got out of school because I had to learn how to get a job. But UCLA really taught me how to act. I also made some great friends there. And was lucky enough to be in that department with people that are now, 30 years later, significant in the industry. Those relationships are priceless, and have been over the years, not just as friends but a lot of those relationships I’ve been able to turn into work, over the years, which has been nice.
Also the college experience of being in that kind of environment as a student, where you experience different cultures, different points of view, meet friends that are different majors, it gives you a world view which is helpful as an actor. Some actors make the mistake of studying in places that are too solitary and just the acting program without exposing themselves to lots of other things, which eventually feed characters that they play. I enjoyed the social experience, of college, I enjoyed the friends I made, I enjoyed the place and the location and all of that it afforded me through those years. It’s made a gigantic difference in what I’ve been able to do in my career.
Being in Los Angeles probably made a huge difference?
Yes. Los Angeles, where you’re right down the street from the industry. We had some industry people take part in the department back then, nowadays there are more people involved than there were back when I was there. We had some showcase events where they would come. But surprisingly, back then in the late 70s, early 80s, there weren’t that many. But you were close enough that you still had access to information and knowledge and certain things that were helpful.
Did you take any classes after you graduated?
I took some classes outside of college. I took improv with the Groundlings, which was a great experience. I studied out there for a number of years from a fellow name Brian Reese, who did scene study and cold reading, from a real practical perspective of “how to get a job” point of view. I always tell people, UCLA taught me how to act and Brian told me how to get a job. He’s still a great friend to this day but I learned so much from him about how to approach the business, how to brand yourself, how to market yourself, how to go into the room and command attention in a productive and creative way. A lot of working people over the years have studied with him. Clooney’s been there. Mike Dorn from Star Trek. Jim Hanks, Tom Hanks’ brother. Numerous actors who have worked and are very successful in the business. It was a great place to study and learn how to be a working actor.
What made you move to Atlanta?
I met a southern girl. Going to Atlanta was never a business decision. When I got married, and we’d visit here very often, we saw another way. We decided once we got married that we didn’t want to raise kids in LA. We just thought it was best for us. I was also at a point in my career where I was craving something different. It all came together after the earthquake of 1994. It was not a career choice, it was a life choice. It was about my family and their quality of life. And that has worked out fabulously. But with tax incentives now the work’s here, which is even better.
One of the things that attracted me to moving here was that there was a pretty good regional business in Georgia. There were two series shooting here – In The Heat of the Night and I’ll Fly Away. Then there were a number of movies of the week and feature films that would come and shoot on location. It was a pretty decent regional market. Not to mention the whole southeast, North Carolina, Florida – there was a good amount of work.
When you moved to Atlanta, were you still focused fully on acting or did you have to look for other ways to support yourself and your family?
I knew moving to Atlanta that I would not necessarily be making the same kind of money or have the same kind of exposure. Soon as I moved to Atlanta, I opened up a place and started teaching classes. I taught class for probably eight years, the first eight years or so that we were here. An ongoing class was very similar to what I learned from Brian in Los Angeles. And I had one or two and sometimes three classes a week; it was ongoing so I was always teaching. And that combined with the acting work that I did get. My wife still worked, she does hair and makeup, we did OK.
Did you have an agent in LA that you continued to be represented by after you moved to Atlanta?
I did. And a couple of people over time, one was my agent and then she decided to go into casting and then I got somebody else. So yeah I always kept my toes in the water out there. I always tried to spend some time out there when I could.
How did you get your Atlanta agent?
I had already gotten connected with Atlanta Models and Talent agency on a business trip before we moved so I already got them to represent me once I moved.
And you were already SAG?
Oh yeah, I was already SAG and AFTRA at that point.
How do you stay positive and keep your mind in the game?
That’s work and it’s changed over the years. Its evolved with the times so one of the things you gotta try do with your work is keep it fresh. Your prospective about the work and the business has to stay fresh so it evolves over time. I’ve always been pretty driven and very motivated. I always keep my ear to the ground about what’s going on. I get breakdowns every day, I keep up with certain places where you can find information on what’s going on. It’s different now. 30 years in the business, it’s a little different. I have a little bit of a reputation for myself and I don’t have to do that as much as I used to. I have a great family, which keeps everything in perspective for me, and I try to take care of myself, exercise, taking care of the instrument, that kind of thing. Stay busy with productive things whether it’s related to the industry or not. The worst thing you can do as an actor is to sit and wait for the email to come or the phone to ring. You gotta keep your mind active and busy. Age and experience makes you more secure. You’re never gonna work as much as you want to, that’s the nature of the business but I learned it was really only one time that I ever really started to wonder if that was ever going to happen again and I was almost ready to take another job but fortunately changed my mind.
Was that was when you were still in LA?
No, it was when I was here in Atlanta, it had gotten to a point where it was really stressful with money. And I started to think that maybe this isn’t really working out. I’m also a first-born, hyper responsible, and I take that responsibility very seriously. I was sick and stressed myself. I had a friend who was in financial services and he turned me on to an opportunity doing presentations to retirees that was potentially very lucrative. But after another round of soul-searching, I realized that if I were to do that, I would really just be doing it for the money. And I don’t ever think that’s a good reason to ever do a job. Especially if you’re gonna make a big career change like I was going to make, I couldn’t just do it for the money, I’d be miserable. So that just set me on a path of reinvention and rethinking the way I did the business. I got an agent in New York and opened up more opportunities. It’s never gonna be exactly how you want it.
Do you have any specific tips you can give to other actors about how to stay on top of what’s happening in the industry, what to do in terms of marketing and networking?
The number one rule is don’t isolate yourself. You gotta be out there. Whether it’s taking class or going to industry events. Or creating your own work. Whatever, you got to keep yourself out there in the business, spinning in the circle. That’s absolutely essential. You don’t just sit at home and call yourself an actor. You gotta be out there doing it. One of the cool things about where we are today is that it is so much easier for an actor to showcase themself and build an audience for their work than it was when I started. For little to no money, you can create a product and put it up on the web and have worldwide distribution, start to build an audience for yourself, start to build your brand, hone your craft in a way that will potentially get people’s attention and open doors for you.
It’s exciting but it does level the playing field, it does mean that anybody can do that so it does make it more competitive. But the fact that the access is so easy and so affordable, there’s no excuse whether you have to write it or you find someone else to write it.
The worst thing actors do a lot of times is that they isolate themselves. Whether it’s a social thing or actually creative productive thing, you’ve got to be out there spinning the wheels and creating opportunity. There’s no excuse. It’s too easy and it’s too cheap.
What about attending GPP or other events, is that something that you think has value for actors?
I definitely think it does. It’s about building relationships. Until you have a body of work that’s speaking for you, you’ve got to get out and meet people and build relationships. And even if it means you volunteer for a committee, help out at an event, in one of their fundraisers or whatever, just because you’ll get to meet a bunch of people in doing that. And you’ll probably meet casting directors, agents, whoever, people who could potentially open doors for you.
One of the things actors underestimate about a group like that, is you got a lot of independent filmmakers that are in that, who are making their own stuff. By building those relationships, they might not even hire a casting person. They go by the people that they know and if they meet you, to be a part of that organization, there’s an opportunity where at the very least you get some footage that you can use to showcase yourself. If not, some really great work that gets seen and noticed maybe.
What about mailing lists or sending out postcards, do you think those still have value?
I’m not sure about the physical postcards anymore. I don’t know to what extent people really read those. I know, in the Southeast, for example, all of the local casting people are on Facebook. And there’s no reason why an actor A) Shouldn’t be on Facebook and B) Shouldn’t be getting connected with the casting people. Most of them are pretty good about if somebody sends them a friend request as an actor, they usually don’t turn them down.
The electronic social media space is probably the place where the actors want to focus their energies now. Most auditions don’t even ask for a printed headshot and resume anymore. Everything is primarily electronic. Casting people are used to working in that space, whether they’re younger or older, because that’s where all the casting and submission process is now, is electronically. I focus on Facebook, Twitter, but Facebook primarily because I know that casting people use that and casting folks from the Southeast are all there.
Everybody’s so panicked these days about releasing information ahead of time about certain projects. Don’t take pictures of the set and put them on Facebook. Don’t take pictures of your dressing room door with the character’s name on it.
You’ve been in the Atlanta industry for 21 years now. There’s a lot of talk within Atlanta of Atlanta being this hotspot. Is there a bit of an echo chamber effect going on here or is this something you see as real, that Atlanta is really coming up as a viable production center for the long term and potentially then hiring actors for bigger roles?
\The hiring actors for bigger roles is something that we’re gonna need to continue to fight for and hopefully can do it with a unified front with the agents and casting people. For the long-term success in the business, I continue to point to the fact that they are not building new facilities in New York and Los Angeles, that they’re pouring concrete on new studios in Atlanta. They don’t do that unless they see long-term viability. That’s really significant that that’s happening here and it indicates that they’re confident that the tax incentives are secure, and they’re confident that the market can handle it, and they’re confident that this place has viability. The long-term prospects – 10-15 years out are very good.
Do you think this separates Atlanta from other markets that were hot in the past, for example, Vancouver, or North Carolina? They built studios there too but then the industry there becomes less hot overtime as other locations offer better incentives.
Right, they’ve had Screen Gems in Wilmington, which obviously was there for a long time, they built that quite a long time ago, I know that they built a lot of space in Louisiana. That’s primarily driven by the fact that their tax incentives are still very viable and even in New Mexico, they’ve had some pretty significant building. But right now, with all of those places, economically, we’re attracting more business than they are. We’re the #3 production market in the country. And a lot of that has to do with all of those things that we’ve been talking about. The talent, the space, the airport, the accessibility. The fact that we have crew here and we have a variety of locations – we have a lot of things going for us. We have tax incentives, which are viable, which have a good long-term structure to them. We have the support of the state government. All things pointing forward are looking good. We just went through a process in SAG-AFTRA interviewing all our local agents about the industry and how we can help each other out. One of the things that we’re talking about is the idea of actors getting access to the larger roles. A lot of times agents don’t have access to the complete breakdown for the entire project because all they get is the local breakdown, whereas if they got all of it they could possibly see a couple of larger roles, supporting roles, that they could and they would have submitted people in the Southeast for consideration.
What do you wish someone had told you at the beginning of your career?
I’m not one that looks backwards like that. I got a lot of great support and help from a lot of wonderful people including my family. I was always pretty realistic about everything. I knew I wasn’t Tom Cruise. And that’s fine. I am who I am. And from the very beginning people always told me that the best years are 10-15 years down the road. They were right – I’m a character guy and it’s just gonna get better as you get older. I feel like I’m finally growing into my niche. Which has been great, it’s just been very good to me.