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California Dreaming

For decades, talented locals have gone in search of a Golden State. What they’ve discovered is often something else entirely

By James Tennant

  • Actor Caissie Levy, like everyone else, found herself at zero, living out of suitcases and watching as friends found jobs on the outside, hoping they would eventually lead inward. Until that big break, she and others continue to wait tables, babysit, become personal assistants or fill temp roles. But it turns out that making a living can stand squarely in the path of making it in show business
  • Actor Kathleen Robertson  graduated from Canadian TV work in her teens to a breakout role on Beverly Hills 90210 that served as a springboard to the stateside silver screen
  • Film and television composer Jason Frederick, cracked the market with a mix of realism and self-deception.
  • Actor Jaimz Woolvett lives with his family outside of Los Angeles in Long Beach, which he likens to “Hamilton on the west coast.

Los Angeles. The city of angels, both hallowed and fallen. A city defined not by its people or its geography, but by what it represents: a self-perpetuated mythology that draws thousands of success seekers to its doorstep every year. Drawn by the image of L.A. rather than the city itself, these outlanders arrive with images of power, glamour, red carpets, champagne toasts and beautiful people skipping from power lunches to lavish parties, waving to the paparazzo and brokering million-dollar deals. A place of happenings. A place of promise that makes no promises.

Naturally, the real Los Angeles lies beneath the shimmer and sparkle of the Hollywood vision. Angelinos, those true, born-and-bred denizens of Southland, are as likely to work in manufacturing, international trade or the service industry as they are the entertainment business. For those longing for the city of dreams, however, these people are the outsiders – even though they own houses within the county lines.

Apocryphal images of doe-eyed actresses disembarking trains are no longer mistaken for the reality of Los Angeles. Yet people still go, year after year, willing to gamble, knowing, on some level, the bet is an underlay and the probabilities don’t justify the wager. It’s a long shot and odds are in favour of Los Angeles. Hundreds of people arrive every week. Hundreds of others head home. Some merely frustrated, others utterly broken, they found that even in L.A., they remained on the outside. Faces pressed against the glass looking in. The Los Angeles they came to find was in front of them but still unattainable.

The pilgrimage to Los Angeles requires a certain grit, resolve and suspension of disbelief. Arriving yearly from all corners of the globe, hopefuls and would-bes wilfully ignore the simple math that all but predicts failure. Self-delusion, in this instance, becomes a virtue. Without it, no one would have the strength to even try.

Imagine the courage it must take, then, for the many Hamiltonians who have made their way to the west coast. What chances do you have when you are – in direct comparison, at least – a relative nobody from a nowhere town? When you’ve come the distance and can’t even legally work in the country, let alone city? More than ever, determination and delusion – or at least a temporary disregard of the bleak reality – are necessities.

Film and television composer Jason Frederick had no need for delusions at first. After living in Hamilton playing with local rockers The Walk, he chose a realistic and level-headed (some might say “Canadian”) route to realize his dreams: studying film scoring at U.S.C. because of its work visa arrangements and its proximity to the hub of the film industry. After graduation, however, Frederick realized that despite his approach, he was still standing on the streets of L.A. with everything to lose. “School only put off the inevitable,” he says. “For a year and a half you get to write music and not worry about the future, but eventually you just have to hit the pavement and start doing embarrassing things.”

Step one: Get on the grid. Frederick did so by paying his taxes (“They make it real easy to start paying taxes,” he quips) and eagerly completing every credit card application that came along. He read business and marketing books, ventured out to parties and functions. And he struggled through his moments of doubt, including the day he realized the extent of the competition. “I was at a party and I met composer Lalo Schifrin,” he recalls. “I walked away thinking ‘Wow, he’s here, so why the f**k am I here?’ I’m angling for the same gigs as the man who scored Enter the Dragon.”

Frederick jokes that the proper combination of self-deception and realism means exercising your delusion muscle. “If you’re too realistic, you are aware of how much competition there is and how little originality,” he says. “If you’re a little deluded, you realize that regardless of anything it’s going to be really competitive so you might as well keep going.”

Mark Howard is a producer and engineer who built a name working with fellow Hamiltonian Daniel Lanois. After converting an old Mexican theatre into a studio in Oxnard, California, he and his family moved to Silver Lake. While he wanders the globe, recording artists using his portable studio, he’s mindful that L.A. is, as they say, where’s it’s at. “Los Angeles is a crossroads,” Howard explains. “And you’ve got to situate yourself in a crossroads. I work in music and a lot of the work comes through here. It’s where the money’s at these days.”

Howard was reasonably well established when he arrived in L.A, but this didn’t ease the competition. It simply brought it to a new level. “There’s so many people fighting for the same thing,” he continues. “You go to a show and there are ten other record producers fighting for this one act. I think ‘God, I’m not even going to try,’ and walk away. Then you bump into the artist outside the venue and end up working together. It’s the luck of the draw.” No matter the level of your success elsewhere, L.A. has a way of levelling the playing field. Everyone draws from the same deck, and Howard is not the only local to have discovered this.

Actor Caissie Levy had established herself on Broadway as the green-skinned witch Elphaba in the smash-hit Wicked, reprising the role in the show’s L.A. production. While the experience likely provided a little leverage, it didn’t open the doors quite as wide as you might expect. “I’m definitely pounding the pavement,” says Levy. “L.A. is not a theatre town. I’m not only Canadian coming to L.A., I’m a Broadway person trying to get a TV audition.”

So Levy, like everyone else, found herself at zero, living out of suitcases and watching as her friends found jobs on the outside, hoping they would eventually lead inward. Until a big break, she and others continue to wait tables, babysit, become personal assistants or fill temp roles. But it turns out that making a living stands squarely in the path of making it in show business. “Auditions are an around-the-clock job,” says Levy. “I have friends that had to back out of being in bridal parties last minute because they had a big audition. You want to be available to audition and stuff pops up all the time. You’ll get the notice the day before, and ten pages of material to learn. Sometimes the callback is later that day, or the next day, and you could be shooting next week.”

One cliché that seems to ring true is that everyone is hustling, on some level, no matter where they are. The environment’s overwhelming competition makes self-commodification a basic requirement. “In L.A. you always have to be ‘on,’” Levy explains. “Everyone in the elevator and the grocery store is in the business, so you’d better have your little five-second pitch for yourself handy in case you’re standing next to a big producer. Maybe it’s the Canadian girl coming out of me, but it can be really gross. I have trouble with it.”

As much as struggling actors have to be in character – as themselves – at all times, those already established also play their roles like headstrong method actors. Jaimz Woolvett saw it when he arrived in Los Angeles after working successfully in Toronto for years. He calls his first days “the quintessential trip” for an actor in Los Angeles, where he stayed at the Beverly Laurel Motor Hotel and arranged at least a dozen appointments with at least a dozen different agencies. “Everybody was really accommodating and nice, but just full of shit,” he recalls. “By the ninth or tenth meeting, I honestly didn’t care. I had a real resumé and reference letters from executive producers and directors and they looked and asked, ‘Have you done anything American?’”

Instead of being discouraged, or playing along too willingly, Woolvett relied on some of his hometown breeding to help keep his identity. “Hamilton gave me a little bit of that lunch bucket philosophy, which has come in handy,” he says. “People are like ‘Hey, give me a call, we’ll go out on my boat on Sunday afternoon.’ Is that sincere, or that they’re trying to be nice to me and don’t really want me to call? Where I come from, if I invite you, I invite you. If I don’t wanna invite you, I don’t. People look at me and they’re just like ‘Uh…um…well…’ They don’t expect that.”

Woolvett – perhaps best known for his role as The Schofield Kid in Unforgiven – lives with his family outside of L.A. in Long Beach, which he likens to “Hamilton on the west coast.” “Our friends are nurses and teachers. Up in Los Angeles, the person that washes your car has an idea for a script. Everybody’s there to work something, work an angle, to make it happen in writing, producing, directing, acting. All the power to them, but it’s a real transient community.” Those who are not transient are still largely outsiders – or at least adoptive citizens.

“It’s a strange city in that no one seems to be from here,” says actor Kathleen Robertson. “My neighbourhood in the Hollywood Hills is populated by people from all over – New York, Switzerland, Italy. And yes it’s true – everyone here seems to want to be either an actor, a writer, a producer or a director.”

Robertson headed to Los Angeles and landed the role that made her famous around the world – Clare Arnold on Beverly Hills 90210. While she has worked steadily since, her first days were not without their own challenges. “It helped a great deal to already have built up a body of work instead of just being one of the many who come looking to break into the business,” she says. “But the first ‘American’ jobs I booked I wasn’t able to do. I didn’t have a green card and wasn’t able to get work papers quickly enough to start filming.” It seems that even the beautiful and brilliantly talented can be thwarted by paperwork. Nuts and bolts legalities are yet another obstacle, and one reason Robertson is cautious when recommending a move to Los Angeles. “Unless you have to be an actor, don’t do it. It’s incredibly competitive and difficult and all-consuming sometimes. The people who tend to succeed somehow just figure it out. And love every minute of the struggle.”

Others prefer to keep L.A. at a distance, and enjoy the struggle in a more familiar setting. Ashley Leggat, currently playing Baby in the Royal Alex production of Dirty Dancing, found herself in Los Angeles as a natural extension of her career. After Disney picked up her hit television program Life With Derek, she spent some time in Los Angeles, but was not beguiled enough to remain. “I would work and stay in L.A. but I would never call it home,” Leggat says. “I love Toronto and Hamilton. That’s my home and that’s where I’m going to live.”

Even for someone who had done their share of acting and auditioning in Canada, Los Angeles seemed frenetic and fanciful. “It’s true, you do meet a lot of producers, and everybody wants to put you in something,” Leggat says. “The hardest part is deciphering who’s BS and who isn’t. One time, my mom and I went to a screening and this fifty-something man came up said ‘I’d love to take you on a date.’ In front of my mom! You always need to be skeptical, anywhere you are, but especially in L.A..” Leggat doesn’t harbour undue disdain for Los Angeles. Like many, she recognizes its geographical beauty and its opportunities, however difficult to take. “It’s not all bad,” she says, “which some people do assume it is.”

Others, on the other hand, find the city fits them like the proverbial glove.

“It is a shame that some people give an impression of the token ‘flake’ or dirty business person,” says musician Carly Paradis. “For the most part, I’ve been fortunate enough to circle myself with great, artistic, supportive people and avoid the flakes with the first hint of flakiness.” While Paradis maintains a working relationship with Hamilton – along with Waterdown’s Brad Lyons, the two are known as local group Oceanship – she has found in Los Angeles the other side of the cliché coin. “I really enjoy the people,” she says. “They’re hardworking. The fact that there are so many artists or entertainment buffs makes it an artist haven and easier to connect with people and collaborate.”

Since moving to L.A., the pianist has played with the likes of composer Clint Mansell (Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain) and various ensembles. Fond of the climate, the mood and the artistic atmosphere, she hasn’t given up home, but has redefined it. “Within the first few days of being here, after years of travelling, I had a very calm sense of...finding my home,” Paradis says. “I’ve never felt so at home in terms of what L.A. has to offer my tastes and ideals. The plethora of restaurants, the mix of people, the amazing bands that come through or are created here, the active film scene, the radio stations, the funky shops and cafés.”

Paradis found herself the city of Los Angeles – the physical space, the geographical location. The mythological L.A. may not have been her destination in the first place. It was, however, the destination for Don Warrener, whose story is perhaps the most unlikely. Warrener was known locally for his chain of martial arts schools and for his award-winning restoration of Hamilton Customs House. In 1996, Warrener tired of his routine, sold his schools (as well as everything else, “right down to my knives, forks and plates”) and bought a one-way ticket to California.

“I think there’s a little bit of insanity on my behalf.” Warrener recalls. “What kind of a guy, at 50 years of age, sells everything he owns and moves to the other side of the continent with no real contacts?” Warrener was willing to make the gamble, and willing to roll up his sleeves once his plane landed. He did not want to act, but to break into film behind the scenes as a martial arts expert. His first stop was Dragonfest, “where all the B-level, wanna-be movie stars go to once a year to try and become famous.”
“My plan was to go up to a hundred people that day, stick my hand out and say ‘Hi, my name is Don Warrener,’” he says. “I’m not the kind of person who can do that easily, but I had to meet people somehow.” It took him fewer than one hundred handshakes to meet Isaac Florentine, who claimed to be a director. Despite his doubts, Warrener befriended Florentine, realized he was legit, and together they built Rising Sun Productions, the biggest distributor of martial arts books and DVDs in the world. Luck was with him, but it wouldn’t have happened without the willingness to take a 4,000-kilometre leap of faith.

“There are two types of people in the world,” Warrener says. “Successful and unsuccessful. The unsuccessful people make all the excuses. They’ll say: ‘I don’t know anybody out there.’ ‘I wouldn’t have a job.’ ‘I don’t have a green card.’ ‘I wouldn’t even know where to go once I got out of the airport.’ The other type of person says ‘Screw all that, I’m just going to go do it.’” Warrener and the rest give that same advice to anyone who wants to make their way to the Sunshine State’s most famous enclave. That, plus a simple caveat: It won’t be easy. Cities like Los Angeles have a way of keeping their outsiders squarely on the outside.

“People say ‘Yeah, I’ll call you,’” Howard remarks. “And nobody ever calls. Everything’s so far apart that people live a kind of lonely existence in their cars here.” For those without some kind of support system, even just friends or family giving support by phone, keeping you grounded and from being swallowed whole or confusing themselves with the insiders they want to be, L.A. can be brutal. “I’ve seen it happen to people I know,” Leggat says. “They came and stayed at Oakwood apartments, which is where pretty much all actors stay from all over the world. When I met them they were just like me. The next year, they’re so jaded and changed. They’re trying to be something they’re not…and when you do that, that’s when things fall apart for a lot of people.”

Where it falls apart, perhaps, is when people change themselves, try too hard to be insiders in a city that has none. Ultimately, this is the truth about Los Angeles. Yes, there are games to play. Yes, there is an opportunity to win the game, to realize dreams that most people never get to realize. Yet making it in Los Angeles is a misnomer. No one makes it in Los Angeles – they make it through Los Angeles, via Los Angeles. The city that has become such a legend is a thoroughfare for people to pass through, as hackneyed as it may sound, on their way inside themselves. They’re looking inward, faces pressed against the glass, but what is on the other side is merely their own hopes and aspirations reflected back at them.

“Every week there are 300 people moving into L.A. to become the next movie star,” says Warrener. “How many of them end up moving right back home? But somebody’s got to be the next Tom Cruise. It might as well be you.” As long as that shimmer exists, as long as the myth seems to be something you can hold in your hand despite the odds – people will continue to seek out the promise of Los Angeles. Even as it promises them nothing in return.