“As an actor, I really don’t like reality shows. As a hypocrite, I watch a couple of them.” — Bill Lippincott (SAG/AEA)

A recent discussion on the Showfax Actors Access message boards sent me back to my notes from the past couple of years on a column I’d been outlining about the pros and cons actors face in considering doing reality TV. Of course, “reality television” is probably the most popular oxymoron out there. By now, everyone is clear that there are characters, stories, and arcs produced for maximum oomph, just like with any scripted programming. The difference is, you don’t need a SAG card in order to be nationally televised on reality shows. In fact, being perceived as an actor can ruin your chances of getting cast in this “game show” environment.

Working actor Kristen Rutherford, who can currently be seen getting a haircut on Bravo’s Blow Out, shared the following important reminder for all union members:

Make sure that if you agree to be on a reality show that you sign a release that has a clause stating that you are appearing as yourself and not performing. For example: “My appearance and participation in any aspect of the Program is not a performance, and I am not portraying any role or part or taking direction as a performer, but am appearing as myself. My appearance on the Program is as a non-performer only, and is not employment, and does not entitle me to wages, salary, or other compensation under any collective bargaining agreement or otherwise.”

Before you consider doing a reality show, you have to first take a look at your overall goal as an actor. Is your goal to be famous or to develop an enduring acting career? If your goal is to be famous, get on any reality show you can, right now. If your goal is to have a career as a working actor, either don’t do a reality show or choose to do the reality show that will cause the least amount of damage to your career (because almost none of the reality shows out there will actually help your acting career along). Note that actors who appear on reality shows are rarely depicted as actors (since reality show producers don’t want their shows to be seen as fictional or manipulated in any way, even though all of them are to some degree). Should you apply to be a participant on a reality show, it’s likely that you’ll be asked to call yourself a “teacher,” “waiter,” or “tutor.” (I can’t begin to tell you how many people I’ve seen on reality shows whose headshots are in my files!) For most reality show participants, once the show airs, you’ll be perceived as a personality, not an actor. Most of your credits on the IMDb will be along the lines of appearing as “himself” from here on out.

If you were working as an actor before your stint on reality TV, you’ll typically work at about the same level after. (Those who were already acting seem to have the same level of progression that any aspiring actor can hope to expect.) If you hadn’t worked as an actor before, you’ll get very few new shots at working actor status due to your appearance on a reality show. (Most reality TV “stars” have little more than extra work on their IMDB pages.) The “after the show” life of most reality TV stars includes the lecture circuit or The Surreal Life route if you were a major character on your reality show; The Real World/Road Rules Challenge series if you were on one of the two shows that filter into those, etc. Members of the young-and-drunk set tend to do really well on the Reality Booze Cruise or Reality Bar Crawl tours. Sounds like fun, but it’s a grueling schedule: morning drive-time radio interviews followed by a nap, then a lecture at a college in the evening followed by a club appearance into the wee hours. Most “hit” reality show stars earn about $1K a week doing these gigs.

But what about Ashton Kutcher and Jamie Kennedy? Okay, let’s talk about the stars/producers of Punk’d and The Jamie Kennedy Experiment, respectively. They reached a well-above-average level of success as actors and then created and starred in these prank/reality shows. Unless you’re at the level Ashton was after three years on That ’70s Show or that Jamie was after Scream, you’re not likely to have such a good run of it. Most actors who attempt acting careers first and then do reality shows (Bruno Marcotulli on Black. White., Schatar White on Flavor of Love, Shane Powers on Survivor, Sarah Kozer on Joe Millionaire) risk being perceived as people who want to be famous (not necessarily working actors, although they’ll take that too, as a means to an end). And casting directors would usually rather cast an actor than a fame-seeker.

Let’s look at a few reality show participants-turned-actors who have had any measure of success. There’s Johnny Knoxville. He branded himself as a character of a certain type early on and built on the success he found as his Jackass prank persona. He slowly rose through the ranks of supporting actor to film star between 2000 and 2005. But remember, he wasn’t just a participant on a reality show. He was exec producer and writer of Jackass too. He knew exactly what seed he was planting and how he’d come across in the finished product. Most reality show participants can’t have that assurance.

Other successes? Jacinda Barrett (Real World: London was a ratings bust, but she has won roles in The Human Stain, Ladder 49, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, and Poseidon in the decade since), Kristin Cavallari (Laguna Beach led to Veronica Mars and Fingerprints with Brittany Snow), Kyle Brandt (Real World: Chicago launched his successful run on Days of Our Lives), and Yaya DaCosta (the America’s Next Top Model runner-up is now in commercials for Radio Shack and Garnier, plus the feature film Take the Lead and hit series Eve). Some reality show personalities-turned-actors are finding success in commercials (Joe Millionaire‘s Zora Andrich for Weight Watchers; The Amazing Race‘s brothers Brian and Greg Smith in a campaign with James Hong for Budweiser; Real World‘s Heather B. in spots for AOL), talk shows (Survivor‘s Elisabeth Hasselbeck on The View), radio (Real World: Seattle‘s Lindsay Brien), or prank shows (Real World: New Orleans‘ Melissa Howard on Girls Behaving Badly). Not bad. But I bet we could all name a whole bunch more reality show “stars” who we’ve never seen or heard from again!

Today’s reality show participants who try to fly under the radar to play it safe with the editing process find themselves on the cutting room floor more than they’d like. And if you’re hoping to get endorsement deals or key gigs speaking on the campus lecture circuit, being “non-controversial” isn’t going to fly. There are now so many reality show stars that you would have to “bring the drama” in order to earn camera time in the finished episodes. So, if you’re casting yourself specifically in a way that you would continue to be cast as an actor, later, you could do pretty well for yourself in reality TV. But that’s a pretty big IF.

Pros and Cons of Reality TV

I spoke with several actor/reality show participants to come up with these lists.

Pros:

  • It’s fun!
  • Footage. Kristen advises, “If you are looking to get footage for your reel (most likely you will not want to use this for a theatrical reel, but maybe commercial), make sure that the production company will provide you with a copy of the show or your segment. Get it in writing. Many production companies do not give out footage, so do your research in advance.”
  • Notoriety. “Friends and family will be excited that you are on the glowy box,” Kristen remarked.
  • Branding. An actor friend of mine who starred on a “reality talent show” a few years ago (we’ll call her Grace) had this to say: “I am still getting a lot of work in my field after my show aired, so I have no complaints! Also, in performing on the show, I really understood the enormous confidence, self-assurance, and fortitude you must develop to go out there and invite both praise and criticism against yourself in a high-pressure situation. From this revelation, I learned to ease off on my own ‘self critic’ and embrace my courage. I stopped being an armchair critic. I have a lot more respect and sympathy for those who go out there and take a chance and I now readily embrace that kind of energy in my own career.”
  • Publicity. “It’s a good exercise in self-PR,” Grace suggested. “It can be surprisingly hard to go out there as ‘yourself,’ not knowing how you will be edited. After seeing yourself being taken out of context, you learn to edit yourself in the best light (which can come in very handy down the road when facing media or being interviewed).”
  • Experience. “If you are new to the business, it’s a good way to get acclimated to being on set and being around cameras,” Kristen said. To that, Grace added, “You learn firsthand the time pressures in production and that this business isn’t all glitz and glamour.”

Cons:

  • Stigma. “Let’s face it: Reality TV has a stigma attached to it. Be ready to be confronted with that attitude. Decide where you stand on it,” Kristen advised. Will you ever be taken seriously after? It’s a gamble.
  • Pay. Well, there is none, really. You’ll get per diem, but unless you’re the “big winner” on a contest show, you’re going out of pocket while you’re on the show (and on the live-in shows like Big Brother and The Real World, that can hurt your ability to pay rent back home).
  • Contract terms: You agree to being manipulated by producers, since there may be “elements” of the show that they cannot fully reveal to you during production (including the true nature of the show itself). Yep! There is a deception clause built right into the 60-page contract (which includes a confidentiality and non-disclosure agreement with penalties of millions of dollars built in for revealing pretty much anything about the show and the contract itself). If you’re on a performance program (American Idol, Nashville Star, Project Runway, American Inventor, Last Comic Standing, The Entertainer), you also surrender all rights to any original material! That explains why we hear so much “cover music,” eh? Of course you wouldn’t want to give away your hit song or best set of jokes, the patent to your invention or your award-winning designs! Or would you? Well, thousands of people sign up to do just that every season on every show of this type! You also waive rights to your safety and even agree that your family is not permitted to sue the network or production company if you die during the show’s stunts or challenges. You also sign away the rights to your life story. Yep! Even if you were well on your way to having a great story brought to life on the big screen (or even in a book), you owe the network and production company the right of first refusal on any pitch (and they can block you from going elsewhere for several years, while they “decide” whether they’d like to produce your story). All press you do for any reason must first go through these folks too. While this may not seem like such a big deal to an aspiring actor (Hey! Free publicist! Cool!), if you turn out to be the next major reality show personality, their need to “contain” your image could prevent you from benefiting to the max. Remember, it’s the producers’ needs that will be met first and foremost. Just ask any reality TV star whose episodes have been sold and resold in other markets, on DVD, in merchandise rights, etc. That’s a lot of money the producers are making while “participants” in the show got per diem during the shoot and a chance at a prize.
  • No editorial control. Sure, they can only edit what you give them, so you’ll only look like a jerk if you said things that could be somehow made to look “jerk-like,” but even so, editing is a crafty little thing. You have no way of knowing how you’re going to look, no matter how safe you play it during the shoot. Kristen cautions, “Your words and actions can be taken out of context for the sake of the story. They call them Frankenbites. For instance, if you are having dinner and you take a sip of wine, an editor can cut to you taking that sip over and over again, giving the appearance that you have a problem.” Remember, you’re not a character, you’re YOU, but you’re also YOU-as-edited by the producers and their agenda for the show. Viewers feel that they know you intimately and will absolutely interact with you as though they have every right to do so (and that feels very different than having a fan react strongly to a series of characters you’ve played).
  • No support. The therapists and producers that were right there with you, helping you during the run of the show, all disappear the instant they’re on to the next big thing. Actors are used to this sort of “hot and cold” interaction. If you’ve not prepped yourself for this on a reality show, you can begin to feel very alone and very USED. Even when you are on the show and speaking with a therapist, you have to remember that this person has been paid by the producers and could be filtering story points back to them, exploiting your weaknesses. Check that contract. Yep. You signed away that right too!
  • How do you go back to “real life” after all of this? Some find it very difficult and end up staying on contract, doing many, many reality shows, clip shows, and “best of” shows (no closer to earning union wages at any point).

“Reality television is like reality the same way that professional wrestling is like wrestling. It’s not quite the real thing, but it really draws a crowd.” — Matthew Felling, Center for Media and Public Affairs (as featured on VH-1’s Reality Secrets Revealed)

Reality of Reality TV

If you’re still considering going out for a reality show at this point, make sure you do your research! Know the types of shows (dating shows, social experiments, documentary, makeovers, hidden camera/prank shows, and contests) and know which type is the best fit for your overall goals. A note about contests: Most don’t actually deliver the full extent of what is promised to the winner. We all know the scandal behind the first season of America’s Next Top Model and Adrianne Curry’s fight to get the Revlon contract that was promised (and the omission of her image from any opening footage of future seasons of ANTM after she began to fight Tyra Banks for her due). What about winners of the show Fight for Fame or The Starlet and how those who won endorsement deals never got those big national campaigns? Or worse, how about those who signed on the dotted line of that big juicy agency contract and then never got a return phone call? Shelving hurts for any actor at any agency. When you’ve been promised a happy agency relationship on national television and then you’re shelved, that’s publicly harsh.

When you attend an open call in an attempt to get cast, remember that the cast is often pre-selected and that the recruiting tours in cities other than Los Angeles and New York are typically promotional in nature. Think about it! Casting calls are cheaper than as many days of constant advertising would be. During the casting calls, they get locals excited about the show and there will be tons of free coverage in the local news media. Sure, if a hometown favorite does make it past the initial open call, that’s a bonus (with a built-in audience). But truly, finding a cast is secondary to generating interest, in most “worldwide searches” for these shows. Also, they’re looking for gag-reel footage, which is abundant in these smaller markets. William Hung, anyone?

Risk management is a funny part of the whole reality show culture. Risk management experts know your background and all of your secrets before you’re on the air and only act like the info is “news to them” when it breaks. Of course, it only breaks after they’ve leaked it, usually in conjunction with the need for a hook for viewers. Believe me, I know how much of a background search goes on in reality TV casting. A candidate won’t “fail” the background check due to “issues,” but the producers sure as heck will know when and how to leak those “issues,” should the press threaten to expose them. It’s risk management, not risk elimination.

Most actors end up removing their reality show experience from their resumés and IMDB entries as soon as they can. Most casting directors are great with faces, though. So, even though we may be meeting an actor for the first time as an actor (and she no longer has Big Brother or The IT Factor on her resumé), you can bet we recognize her from the reality show she did. Heck, I love spotting actors on Blind Date (a show I did back when I was an actor) and even on shows like Judge Joe Brown. Really! And, being a fan of reality shows, I’m always open to bringing a former reality star in for a shot at a role. I’ve auditioned Jerri Manthey from Survivor, Brittany Petros from Big Brother, Trevor Penick from Making the Band, and Bolo Dar’tainain from The Amazing Race just to name a few. They’ve each been invited in at least a second time, indicating that they have the chops to back up the hype.

Certainly, CDs may want to see what you can do and whether you have any craft to go with the personality that got exposure on the reality show. But if you’re not ready to bring it, you’re not going to get a second shot. Just ask Survivor‘s Colleen Haskell. She was considered the “chosen one” for a major Hollywood career in 2000. “If you are looking for instant stardom, you may need to think again,” Grace told me. “You may get lucky and get exposure from the high ratings, but if you don’t have a commodity that provides financial longevity (à la Kelly Clarkson), you may find yourself yesterday’s news when the next show rolls around. It’s all about the mighty dollar and, in this field, you are only as popular as you are making someone bank!”


Bonnie Gillespie is living her dreams by helping others figure out how to live theirs. Wanna work with Bon? Start here. Thanks!


Originally published by Actors Access at http://more.showfax.com/columns/avoice/archives/000391.html. Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.

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