The last time I saw my first agent, he called me into his office to film a reality television pilot for the E! Network. To protect the individuals involved, we’ll refer to this agent by the completely fictitious name, Hal Gazzar.
Hal called me on a sunny morning, telling me to come to his office the following day to film a pilot episode for E! about actors and agents in the entertainment industry – a new reality series that would give the audience another glimpse into The Business.
Being a young, naïve actor just starting out, I was thrilled to be called to perform in a new reality show that would air on a cable network I’d actually heard of. I showed up at Hal’s office the next day, ready to be my regular charming self in front of the camera. Who knew where this opportunity could take me?
A quick word about Hal’s office: He rented a small suite in Studio City, a small two-room operation. He had an assistant when I first met him, but she left his agency soon after, so there was never anyone at the front desk to let me in. The front room also had a connecting door to a neighboring suite. That door was always locked because there was a separate business operating out of that suite and they had nothing to do with Mr. Gazzar. But – and perhaps this spoke volumes about my first agent – Hal had put a plaque next to this eternally locked door that read, ‘Employees Only,’ as if his office had additional rooms, to appear larger. But not even Hal could pass through his ‘employee’ door to the realms beyond.
I arrived for the E! TV pilot and Hal quickly showed me the ropes. “I want you to stand here next to this poster and talk about how I’ve helped your career,” he said, using the term ‘career’ generously for me. I began:
“When I first joined [the name of Hal’s one-man talent agency], I was sent out for an audition– ”
“Hold on,” he stopped me. “Let’s try that again, except this time just mention me by name. You can’t say the name of the agency.”
I was slightly skeptical that this job was going to be a surreptitious promo for Hal’s agency, but I desperately wanted it to be a legitimate TV gig. When he said I couldn’t even mention his agency by name, I became despondently certain that this was not a real TV project.
Next, we sat in his office and had a genial conversation in front of the camera. Hal asked me, “How’s your tutoring going?” I was surprised that he remembered my day job and said as much. “Of course I remember,” he replied. “You’re my favorite client.”
“Really?” I asked, equally surprised. I assumed that if I were his favorite client, he would send me out on auditions. Hal seemed faintly hurt by my disbelief. I quickly apologized, he smiled wolfishly, and we moved on.
“Oh, by the way,” he said casually, “Did Sylvia call you about your Showtime audition?”
“What!?” I said, more shocked than before. I couldn’t believe he had actually arranged an audition for me with such a premier network.
“No, I had no idea,” I continued. “I have an audition for Showtime? I can’t believe it.”
“Yeah,” he grinned. “You better believe it. I always deliver for my clients. Big things are happening for you, my friend.”
I was thrilled. The only problem was: I’d never heard of Sylvia before. Did Hal get a new assistant that I didn’t know about? The reception area was still empty.
After the cameras stopped rolling, I turned to him and said, “Did I really get a Showtime audition? Nobody told me.”
“No,” he laughed. “I just made that up.”
And I never saw him again.
When I first moved to Los Angeles, someone suggested that I buy this monthly publication that listed talent agencies currently looking for new clients, along with their contact information. Since this was the first piece of concrete advice anyone had given me, I went and purchased the agency listing.
I sent out a number of blind submissions, saying, “Hi! My name’s Yaki. I’m an actor. You should represent me, etc.” The submissions were worded a little better than that, but I didn’t have any prominent credits to my name, so I just sent out the cover letter, some mediocre headshots, and an anemic resume.
Not surprisingly, I didn’t hear back from anyone. Except for Hal Gazzar. All of the other agencies couldn’t care less about someone sending them unsolicited submissions. But Hal called me in for a meeting, determined to discover the next big star among the anonymous masses. I dressed in my Sunday best (or Saturday best – I was coming from my teaching job at a synagogue, right after services) and went to his office. They taped me doing a Welch’s grape juice commercial and talked to me for a little while.
Within a few days, I received an email telling me that Hal wanted to represent me! I danced over to his office and signed some papers. He said, “I’ll start you off with a standard one-year contract. And if the year goes well, I can have you re-sign with like… a ten-year contract.”
Even in my ignorance, I knew that a ten-year contract was too long. This was the first of a number of red flags Hal would wave, revealing shady dealings and unfortunate ineptitudes. He was also a soap-opera actor with an agent of his own, which, according to the California guidelines for talent agencies, was illegal. Hal’s agency would be shut down within the year. But I didn’t know any of this at the time.
“You’ve just got that ‘it’ quality,” he said. “Everything you say resounds with it.”
I was momentarily on cloud nine. Within a month of moving to LA, I had already signed with an agent! And one that would represent me for both commercials and theatrical jobs, like film and television, which, according to those I talked to, was apparently a hard rep to acquire. But somehow I had done it! I immediately began to practice fitting the words, “my agent,” into every-day sentences.
A week or so later, I received notice of my first audition, for a Lipton Tea commercial. I couldn’t believe how quickly the gears were turning. My audition was in Santa Monica, so I left early and gave myself plenty of time to drive through rush-hour traffic. For those of you unfamiliar with LA traffic, rush hour is from 6:00 to 10:00am, with lunch rush hour from 11:00am to 2:00pm and after work rush hour from 3:00 to 8:00pm, except on Fridays, when it starts at two.
So it’s pretty much always rush hour.
I arrived in Santa Monica and parked in one of the giant parking structures near the Third Street Promenade, walking seven blocks to the casting office because I get anxious about finding street parking.
I was also suffering a bladder infection at the time (is this too much information?), so first I had to sit in my parked car and shake my body until it didn’t feel like I was going to piss myself anymore. Then I got out, speed-walked to the casting facility, and discovered they didn’t have a restroom.
Agitated, I sat in the waiting room, looking over the casting notes. There was no dialogue (most of my commercial auditions involved little to no dialogue – just a lot of looking past the camera, then turning my head, then doing it again, but, according to the casting director, “more subtly” this time), so I was expected to just pantomime stuff.
I also noticed a sign on the casting board that read, “This job will be filmed in Morocco or Lebanon, so please let us know if you don’t have an up-to-date passport.” My first thought was, “An international shoot. That’s pretty cool.” My second thought was, “I don’t want to do that.” I’m an apprehensive traveler in foreign countries.
Oh well. This was my first audition ever. “Don’t worry,” I told myself. “Odds are so small that you will successfully book a job on your first audition. You won’t get the job, so you won’t have to go to Lebanon or North Africa.” With this confident certainty of failure, I stepped into the audition.
I walked in with another young guy and was directed to look at different spots around the room, pretending to see things that would be added later with special effects in the finished commercial. For sixty seconds or so, while trying not to hold my crotch or pee in my pants, I looked from corner to corner of the room, imagining I was seeing fountains exploding and people flying through the air. I felt sick and jittery. I could only assume my reactions to these imagined events appeared feeble and half-hearted.
I left, found a bathroom in the Santa Monica Mall and had a celebratory pee.
A week later, I went home to Seattle for Thanksgiving. This was my first trip back since moving to LA, just seven weeks earlier, and the day after I flew into Seattle there was a massive snowstorm that shut down the airport. I was thankful I had arrived home just in the nick of time.
The next day, while walking around a grocery store with my mom and brother, I received a call from Hal. He told me that the producers and director of the Lipton Tea project were very interested in me, requesting that I attend a callback audition.
I told him that I was incredibly sorry to have ruined this opportunity, but that I was in Seattle and there was a big snow storm shutting down all out-going flights, so there was no way I’d be able to come back to Los Angeles for the callback. I reminded Hal that I had already ‘booked out’ (given him the dates when I would be out of town) before he even sent me out on the first audition, so if he knew that I was going to be indisposed during any point in the auditioning process for this commercial, then he shouldn’t have sent me out at all. But I was a new actor and didn’t know how standard auditioning procedure worked, and Hal was a new agent, so I guess he didn’t know either.
“Well, maybe I can get the casting director to agree to a Skype callback with you,” he said to me. “You can have a live video audition through the computer.”
“Yeah!” I exclaimed. “If they’d agree to that, that would be wonderful.”
Hal said he would find out and call me right back.
Five days past, in which I didn’t hear from him, or anyone. I assumed that I had botched the whole thing. Still, I enjoyed Thanksgiving with my family and some of our friends, and I told them all about how I had an agent and went to my first audition, for a Lipton Tea commercial shooting over seas.
“It’s probably best that I didn’t get the job,” I told my parents’ friends. “Maybe if it was shooting in Europe or Asia or somewhere that didn’t dislike Jews, it would have been cool. But if I had to go to Lebanon or wherever, I would just have a panic attack. And I prefer traveling with people I know.”
“It would have been something if you had gotten the job, though,” one lady said. “I wouldn’t have written off an opportunity like that.”
My last day in Seattle, the Thanksgiving leftovers long since devoured, I received a phone call in the morning. It was from the Lipton Tea casting director.
“So…” she said very informally. “You got the job.”
I flew back to Los Angeles, arriving at night, and left the next morning for Beirut, Lebanon. I didn’t have enough time to get a new passport, and was slightly concerned due to the number of Israeli stamps in my passport. At least at the time, Lebanon didn’t allow its citizens to travel to Israel, even though the two countries shared a border. I still don’t know if this was a joke, but the film crew said that they had to first alert the Lebanese government that a Jew was entering the country, in order to get clearance.
I called Hal right before I left, asking him what contingency plan there might be if I got into any trouble. He said not to worry – the Screen Actors Guild would protect me. Not only does SAG not have any branches, or influence, in Lebanon, but the Lipton shoot was not even a SAG project. They literally had nothing to do with this.
I showed up at LAX early the next morning and met my co-star, a nice guy, one year older than me, whom we’ll call Dave. He wasn’t Jewish, had never been to Israel, was just excited to be filming a commercial. We chatted for a while and I tried not to worry.
As the Lebanese crewmembers told me later, their government, while primarily Christian, was apparently a puppet administration mostly controlled by the Muslim terrorist group, Hezbollah (an organization I was made aware of from news reports and from once having been in Nazareth Illit during one of their missile strikes on Israel).
According to the crewmembers (note: I haven’t closely researched their claims), the government only collected taxes from the 40% of the Lebanese population that was Christian. Supposedly the other 60% – the Islamic segment – didn’t pay taxes, apparently even threatening to kill tax collectors, because they only answered to Hezbollah. If the crew’s descriptions were accurate, this was why the country suffered rolling black-outs every day – the country was low on funds and cut costs by shutting down power in different sectors on a rotating schedule.
After thirty-six hours in the air, I arrived bleary-eyed and exhausted in Beirut. I can’t nap sitting up, so I usually get no sleep on international flights. I was so worn out and afraid that the Lebanese officials would see my passport and immediately ship me thirty-six hours straight back to the States. Or detain me. Or worse. Already a habitual worrier, my delirious, sleep-deprived imagination was really running wild now.
At customs, an official looked over my passport, saw the Israeli stamps and detained me. My fellow actor, Dave, was waved right through. He kindly waited for me on the other side as I was taken into a small office.
Despite it’s cramped proportions, about eleven officials packed into the small room with me, speaking in harried tones to each other in Arabic. One bureaucrat took my passport and made photocopies of it, filing the duplicates away in separate folders. I nervously stood in the center of the room, waiting for them to address me.
“Why are you coming to Lebanon?” one asked me in English.
I explained that I was working as an actor on a commercial being filmed in Beirut.
“Why were you in Israel so many times?”
“I like the Middle East in general,” I said. “I’ve been to Jordan, Egypt, Israel, and now Lebanon.” Hopefully. “I don’t discriminate. All the countries here are interesting.”
He looked me over again suspiciously and then asked me the best question anyone has ever asked me: “Are you a Zionist spy?”
I smiled. Despite everything, I wanted to respond with, “Yep, if you ask that question, then, as a spy, I have to answer it. You got me! Good job!” Then I would hold up my wrists, compliant to receive handcuffs, and they would take me away, making Lebanon that much safer.
Instead I just sort of chuckled and said, “No.”
The official turned to confer with his cohorts in Arabic. After a moment of deliberation, he turned back to me. It seemed his questioning was over. My simple ‘no’ had evidently convinced them that I was not in fact a Zionist spy.
Except for one more quick-witted test: He said he would know for sure and let me go through customs if I just said the words, “Fuck Israel.”
After a pause (since this entire interview was surprising and confusing to me), I sheepishly said, “Fuck Israel?”
“Yeah!” Everyone else in the room shouted gleefully. “Fuck Israel!” They cried.
And I passed through customs.
A driver took Dave and me to the hotel where we would be staying in downtown Beirut. We rode swiftly down fractured streets devoid of any lane markings or traffic lights. The cars would swerve around each other at full speed, navigating the order of passing cars through the intersections without the use of stoplights.
We came to the downtown area, driving along a charming, narrow street, strung up with festive chains of lights and hanging flower arrangements. Expensive stores and boutiques lined the block. Interspersed among the appealing, modern buildings, in contrast, were completely bombed out structures, shells of concrete, recklessly standing like rotted teeth amid the healthy buildings, their insides gutted out.
We arrived at the hotel around three in the morning, which was some other time back on the West Coast. I tried to check my email, couldn’t get onto the hotel’s Internet, and passed out on the fancy bed. When I woke up, I ate a nice Lebanese breakfast in the ornate restaurant downstairs, and waited for the driver to arrive and pick us up. When he showed up, we went up to Dave’s room and pounded on the door until he woke up. Then we headed over to the production offices of the company shooting the Lipton commercial.
The first couple of days were devoted to wardrobe. Considering we just wore pants and T-shirts, I wasn’t sure two full days was necessary, but what did I know? I ended up really enjoying my time in wardrobe. I suddenly felt like a famous actor or model, showcasing numerous outfits while provided with free lunch. And fifteen pairs of pants and twenty-three shirts later, they selected my outfit.
Following that, we had two days of shooting on the Beirut Notre Dame University campus. Why fly two American actors overseas, pay for their room and board, and then film them in a pretty American-looking setting? I don’t know. I’m not entirely sure why they didn’t just cast Lebanese actors; we didn’t actually say any lines. Or Lipton could have kept us and done the commercial on any university campus in America. Either way would have been considerably cheaper. Oh well.
The first day of filming, I woke up at 5:30am, took a hot shower, ran down to the lobby to meet our driver at six, and then we hustled up to Dave’s room to wake him. Our driver was probably twenty-one years old, constantly smoked in the car, and kept asking us to go with him to discos each night. I wasn’t much of a party-animal to begin with, and being asked at six in the morning didn’t do much to improve my perspective.
When we arrived on set, just after sunrise, they served us one piece of fried dough stuffed with melted cheese for breakfast. There was no snack table or other food on set, until three o’clock, when they brought us a sandwich for lunch. As someone who is almost always hungry, I was starving by three in the afternoon. I don’t remember what we did for dinner.
After we finished our cheesy fried bread, they took me to a partially enclosed basketball court for hair and makeup. A short, stocky lady who spoke zero English put in product that made my hair very puffy and stick straight up, which embarrassed me at first, but actually made me look kind of cool, I realized later. The casting director in L.A. relayed the message that I wasn’t to shave before the shoot, but the hair lady was apparently unhappy with the length of my facial hair. She took a straight razor and, without the aid of creams or water, just started flicking the dry blade through my scruff, eyeballing it. With my red cheeks burning from the quick shave, I hurried off to get dressed. And then to my favorite part: the actual filming.
The director had previously done some cool commercials and Super bowl TV spots, including one with Jerry Seinfeld and ‘Superman.’ He was a very nice Canadian fellow (to my experience, most of them are). He coached me through a few takes, helped me loosen up a little bit and feel comfortable. In the Lipton commercial, Dave and I held magical Lipton Tea cups that could control people’s movements. It was awesome, and slightly maniacal.
I would roll my cup from side to side and fifty extras sitting on an expanse of lawn in front of me would roll back and forth on the grass in time with my cup. I swung my cup through the air, levitating a soccer goal to the side to make the ball miss. Dave spun his cup and a girl flew down some stairs, spinning like a ballerina (in a harness). I squeezed my cup until the top popped off and a fountain exploded in front of me with geysers of water shooting high into the sky.
It was a wonderful experience. They strapped an older man into another harness and we threw our cups around, making the man and his piano fly away from each other. And ending the commercial on another devious note, Dave and I smacked our cups into each other and two professors on the quad crashed together, their notes and papers raining down on our devilishly grinning faces. Drink tea. It will let you control the world.
There was a two-second scene where I had to stir a chai latte. They started with some other guy stirring the cup (they were only filming his hands, so they didn’t need me). But they weren’t happy with his stirring, for whatever reason, so they had his hand hold the cup while my hand stirred. Eventually, because this looked slightly awkward and unnatural, they just had me hold the cup with one hand and stir with the other. Clearly, I am very talented; I can multi-task.
After the scene, the director told me that the other guy holding the cup was an ancillary member of Hezbollah. “It’s funny,” he said. “A Jew and a member of Hezbollah working together to stir a cup of chai tea.” I never knew when he was joking.
There were maybe sixty or more extras, Lebanese actors and students, working on the commercial. They would be delighted if Dave or I talked to them. They practiced their English and giggled at everything we said. They thought I was a famous actor back in America, despite my assurance that I wasn’t, and they all asked to take pictures with me. They later found me on Facebook and I noticed that they had all used these photos as their profile pictures. This was also my first experience with cute girls who would immediately take a liking to you just because you’re a (relative) ‘big-shot’ on set. That was exciting, too, even if it wasn’t wholly bona fide.
We filmed both days until about midnight. I would be driven back to the hotel by one in the morning and, after turning down my driver’s invitations to “go disco,” I would toss and turn in bed, place a panicked call home to my parents on the West Coast, and sleep for an hour or two when my jetlag allowed it. Then I would wake up at 5:30am and do it all over again, until the trip was over.
On my way out of the country, I was stopped by Lebanese customs agents again and taken aside. In another office, they tried to make a photocopy of my passport for their files. The photocopier broke down, so they walked across the room to a second machine and tried again. This photocopier wouldn’t print anything and, smiling self-consciously, they told me it would be just a minute. They called some more customs officials into the office and no one could figure out how to make the machine print. Finally, without any success, they just handed me back my passport, embarrassed, and told me I could go.
I arrived back in LA at night and, after roughly five days of traveling, filming, and not sleeping almost at all, I came back to my apartment and passed out. I have never really been able to sleep in, and if I can manage to sleep late, it’s a restless affair where I’m awake more often than I’m asleep. But the next morning, I woke up for the first time that day and saw that the clock read noon. And it was good.
After that trip, as is standard procedure, the casting agency sent my agent a check for the total amount due for the commercial. The agent should then write a new check for the client (me), with the entire sum minus ten percent (for the agent). But things don’t always go as planned.
I showed up at Hal’s office at the agreed-upon time, but he wasn’t there. And since no one worked for him, the agency was locked up, so I stood outside, waiting. The one-man-operation showed up in his convertible forty-five minutes later, walking up the steps with a bounce in his step and a blithe grin on his face. “My bad!”
He welcomed me into the office, sat me down, and happily told me that he didn’t have any checks, so he couldn’t write me one.
“But no worries! We’ll jump in my car and drive right over to the nearby bank. I’ll just make a withdrawal and give you that.”
It sounded a bit suspect, but I was eager to get paid for my first real acting job, so I was game. We went back down to his convertible and drove a few blocks to a Bank of America. Once there, Hal found out that for whatever reason, he couldn’t make a withdrawal from his business account. The banker mentioned that Hal would need to do something to properly set up the account before he could withdraw any money from it. He didn’t know how to pay me; he’d never used a business account before, which seemed to imply that he’d never paid a client before now. Was I the first person at his agency to ever book a job?
We sat in comfy chairs in the Bank of America, waiting for someone to help us. Hal offered me a lollipop from their complimentary bowl of candy and asked me about myself. I told him I was from Seattle and described my job in L.A. as a tutor. He smiled the whole time.
Eventually, a representative of the bank came over and told Hal that he would not be able to use his business account at this time. Hal stood up and told me, “Why don’t we go back to the office and try to sort this out?”
Back at the agency, I had my bankcard on me so he called the bank’s customer service number and tried to see if he could just make a transfer to my account. We were told it couldn’t be done over the phone. I didn’t know my bank account and routing numbers off hand, and they couldn’t look it up and make the transfer over the phone. Hal hung up and sheepishly grinned. “Oh well.”
I was less amused at this point. I was owed money – the most money I’d ever made in a single project – and I wanted my agent to pay me, just like every other agent in Los Angeles is readily able to do.
“You know what?” Hal finally asked. “My local bank isn’t too far from here. They know me there. Why don’t we drive over there and sort this out?”
I agreed, not so enthusiastically this time, and we climbed back into his convertible. After a bit, I asked where exactly we were going.
“My bank’s in Encino. That’s where I live.”
I realized this wasn’t going to be the shortest drive. Then Hal launched into a discussion about religion and the afterlife, apropos of nothing.
“Do you believe in Heaven?”
“I don’t know,” I responded, surprised to be having a theological discourse with my agent. “I guess I don’t really, no, but I’d certainly like there to be a heaven.”
“Oh, I think Heaven is real, for sure.”
“Yeah? How come?”
“I mean, scientists have already proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that the soul exists. So if the soul exists, I think that’s pretty clear evidence that Heaven does, too.”
Now of course I was under the impression that science had never proven the existence of the soul. But that could just be me. Hal was convinced otherwise. He described an experiment I remembered from the Dan Brown book, The Lost Symbol.
“Scientists put dying people into a clean chamber that measured their weight and, as the person died, they lost like an ounce, which was the mass of the soul, as it left their body. The soul exists. That’s just a scientific fact.”
“I’m pretty sure that’s a scene from a Dan Brown book,” I said.
“No. It’s a real thing.”
To Hal’s credit, a man in the early twentieth century really did try this experiment, but very few scientists have ever considered it to be an accurate test. At least Dan Brown updated the technology used in his retelling. I guess that was proof enough for Hal.
“Heaven is real. Just like the soul.”
We arrived at the Bank of America in Encino, which I assumed would have the exact same policies as the first Bank of America we went to, but Hal was feeling optimistic. When his efforts failed again, he decided to disregard his mismanaged business account and just transfer the money from his personal bank account directly into mine.
After more than three hours together, I had finally been paid.
At the time, I had hoped this would at least be a great opportunity to get closer with my agent. Hal would always remember our day together and feel inspired to send me out on auditions frequently. I would begin to meet the casting world and just take off from there, working consistently on projects in my ascent to the silver screen!
Or something like that. In reality, I was only sent on one other audition before my first agent was shut down, receding into obscurity. But fret not; in this immaculate city of angels, there’s an endless supply of Hal Gazzars always scrambling for the top, each one borne skyward by the irrefutable knowledge that he has a soul.