L.A. vs Sydney for Film Actors: an African-American Perspective

by Bolude Watson

L.A. Actress Bolude Watson
When you know what you want, you want to be where it’s at. If you want to be in theatre, you move to New York; if you dream of being in fashion, you find your way to Rome, Milan or Paris-- and if you want to be in film, Hollywood is where you want to be. So when I moved from L.A. to Sydney three and a half years ago, I knew that I was probably doing things a little backwards-- but I fell in love, and love is the best reason to do anything. I knew that living in Australia would be different, and that it would present its own unique challenges for my career, but there was still much I hadn’t been prepared for.

I often get asked what the main difference is between the film industry in LA and in Sydney, and the short answer is: a whole lot. Below are just some examples of the differences I have experienced:
  • Breakdowns: in the U.S., sites like Actor’s Access or Backstage give actors direct access to breakdowns and castings for a fee, but in Australia, there is no access to these except through an agent. Star Now, and similar sites (such as The Right Fit) give direct access to lower-level (and lower-paid) gigs (also for a fee), but professional level self-submissions are nearly impossible to accomplish without inside knowledge.
  • Agents: while I found it near impossible to get an agent in L.A., within four months of being in Sydney, I had several agents interested in taking me on, and had signed with my current agency by the end of that fourth month.
  • Getting in the Room: while signing with an agent proved easy for me in Sydney, getting in the room for roles that supposedly fit my look was hard, and securing them even harder. In Sydney, I am seen as exotic. I was told even before I boarded the long plane ride here that this would work to my advantage: if there was just one role in need of an African American petite woman, it would be mine. I really wish that were true. Once I was here, I couldn’t seem to land a role-- any role, even ones seeking an African American or woman of color. I noticed roles I auditioned for were given to more lightly melaninated women, with looser curls and who didn’t come across “too ethnic” or could more broadly pass for a number of different ethnicities. I have full lips, my curls are not tame and I can’t pass for anything but African (I mean full African, from the Western part). I was certainly not going to fool anyone I was Egyptian or Moroccan. There is no mistaking my cultural heritage, and I’m completely fine with that, but it severely limits the roles available to me-- in L.A., and even more so in Sydney. In three and a half years, I have landed one commercial, one film, and three episodes of a television show that is shot in Australia but for American audiences.
    Still from the feature "Blue World Order" (2017, AUS)
  • Unions: In L.A., you have to land a union contract and pay a hefty fee in order to join the union (SAG). In Sydney, any actor may join Equity, as long as they pay their monthly dues.
  • Competition: the competition in Sydney feels more friendly; I find there is a laid back vibe that permeates the Sydney waiting rooms that seemed to be lacking in LA. Waiting to be called in by the casting director, I always have lovely conversations with other actresses who are obviously waiting to audition for the same role as me, and I quite often leave having exchanged numbers and with intentions to meet up for coffee later. The same room in LA comes with sneaky side glances and looks that betray the real thoughts of the girl sitting next to you: when the traditional “break a leg” wish is given I have suspicions the actress means it literally and is hoping I take a glorious tumble as I walk into the room.
  • Work/Life Balance: when it comes to motherhood and auditioning, I definitely give hats off to Sydney: casting directors are so much more accommodating with moms. I’ve been invited to audition with my young son in tow on more than a few occasions when I didn’t have child care on short notice. This would definitely not fly in LA; and more than likely would help you NOT get the job. I have come to appreciate this so much as it takes the pressure off when I find myself in a pickle and gives me the freedom to show up and perform without worrying about having to choose between my child and auditioning for a desired role.
  • The (Film) Community: one thing I miss about L.A. is the sense of community actors have there: finding one’s tribe is as easy as stepping out for a drink at the neighborhood bar, as you’re certain to meet a fellow aspiring actress who shares your struggles and is willing to co-write and costar in your brilliant idea for a pilot. It took me a while to find my people in Sydney; artists are not in the majority, and added to personal circumstances, I felt isolated the first two years-- the first year because I was new in a foreign city and getting my bearings and the second I was pregnant and then settling into my new role as a mom.
  • Making your own Work: The beauty and magic of being rejected or denied what you want is that you find the miracle within yourself. You discover you never really needed “them” to get you work; all you needed were the plethora of reasons that made you “wrong for the role” to ignite the fire to make you the catalyst to create the life you dreamed. I decided if Australian productions don’t have roles for me, I’ll write them myself. The Australian population itself is extremely multicultural-- and Sydney is one of the most diversely integrated cities in the world. I discovered people like myself who have felt ignored or rejected and created my own tribe, my own village of artists to help me shatter the glass ceiling. And with Sydney’s comparatively affluent and comfortable quality of life, your average collaborator has much more to give, both in money and resources, to self-produced work-- it’s more likely to happen, and to be of quality.

Seasons have changed; I am now a wife, and a new mom in a country I am getting to know better, and I love the new roles I have been given-- it’s given me a new lens through which I see the  world and how I see myself in it. It has also added a new layer and texture to the way I tell stories and interpret my characters. I believe that is the magic in acting; like life, you take what you are given, what you are blessed with and you weave it into the tapestry of the stories you tell.

A lot of film hopefuls worldwide see Hollywood as the mecca for their dreams, but that mindset is changing rapidly with technology and globalisation (as is evidenced by the casting of Israeli-based Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman). I have discovered that I am where I am supposed to be. I believe the Australian audience is ready for more diversity; people want to see characters that look like them on the big and small screen; they want to be able to identify with them. The change in the way people consume media now means content from anywhere in the world can succeed internationally. There are so many stories to tell and the great thing is that there are colorful voices willing to tell the tales, all they need is the chance-- and that is where I come in, that is why I am here.

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