I’m sure most actors like to think they’re savvy, that they know the ins and outs of the business of acting. You have to be confident in the audition room, you have to have it all together, you have to be ready and hungry to work when opportunities arise. Right?
But what you may not be so aware of is how you need to protect yourself as an actor. How often do we make ourselves vulnerable for near- or complete strangers? How much trust goes into showing up at auditions and shoots, some late at night or in rural locations, often alone? How much personal information do we give out about ourselves, through photos and social media and the forms we fill out at auditions and go-sees and for projects? In short, we leave ourselves open to risk – a LOT of risk. And not just the risk of rejection, but of something much worse… leaving the door open for the unethical, amoral and downright criminal people masquerading as industry folk to prey on us.
Let me tell you what happened to me recently, and then I want to share some tips on avoiding these creeps so you can better recognize some of the pitfalls before you get sucked in.
So, a month or so ago, I went to the Second City building (Edit by author: He was just booking space there for the day, and they were equally unaware of his reputation. The Second City folks have been receptive toward prohibiting him from using their space again) hear about for an audition, for what I was told was a music video for an artist named ‘Head Redme’. I get there and I’m the first to audition. I was asked what my rates were, which I wrote down, and was given some forms to fill out, which I was rushed through by the man auditioning me, who was named James. Stupidly, I provided both my full address and SIN number, not really paying attention. Whatever, I did the audition (a monologue about a time you felt inferior, mixed with some freeform dance) – and the whole time, the guy was beeping buttons on the camera (which was a tiny little handheld camera, btw) and then tells me after that he’s doing a “musical story”, not a music video and we chat a bit about the project before the next person comes in to audition. He tells me about the budget he has, which seemed rather pie in the sky, to say the least… but anything is plausible, right? I tend to be a patient and giving person, and often give people the benefit of the doubt. To be honest, I didn’t think much more of my encounter with James, other than he was weird and kind of unprofessional and unorganized, and I continued on with my day and didn’t dwell on the audition. After all, there’s lots of amateur film projects, right?
I hear back from James a few days later, saying he’d like to cast me in his project and could we set up a meeting to go over a contract? I was a little surprised, as I didn’t think my audition experience was all that stellar, and I wasn’t 100% sold on the project, but I agreed to meet with him anyway, on the following Tuesday.
That day, I go in and meet James in the early afternoon at the location he gives me. The first thing that strikes me about his office is the lack of personal belongings or even a computer – which I later learn is because he’s renting the place just for the day. The ‘contract’ he gives me to sign is unlike any contract I’ve ever seen before. It says nothing about what days I’d be working, what I’m getting paid, etc. Rather, it’s all about how I can’t talk about the project to anyone, and if I do, I would need to pay for ‘damages’ should anything happen. Oh, and the paperwork he had me rush through at the audition was now signed by him and notarized. This is the first big red flag in my mind, and I got out of signing anything further by saying I needed my agent to look over it first.
The second big ol’ red flag for me is that he won’t tell me much about my character/shooting days/the script, etc. I was expected to show up for “rehearsal” (which for some reason would be filmed), and he said that he would be calling me once the address and location were confirmed. He also asked what I had in terms of wardrobe, and asked me to bring in some options including a nice dress, business wear, and “sexy wear”. When I pushed for further details, he said that the basic plot of the film was that “my man was not satisfying me, so I was exploring other options.” At that point in time, I was pretty sure this was going to be some wannabe porno shoot in someone’s basement, and very pointedly told him that I under no circumstances would do nudity during rehearsals. His story suddenly changed, and apparently I would be screentesting for the role and was “up against some competition.” Apparently, whatever actress “was most willing to do the best job” would get the role. Oh, AND. They were still working on casting the male lead, apparently, who would be opposite me, so he’d be filling in at rehearsal/screentest/whatever the fuck it was for the time being.
I escaped that day with the excuse of “I need to talk to my agent”, and thought that would be the end of it. Boy, was I wrong. I did a little digging on Google, and found out a few interesting things about Head Redme. First off, there was a video on his Facebook fan page which confirmed my suspicions about production values and sketchiness of the project. Also, his “music video” was shot at a club where people were invited to come out and be dancers. Nobody professional had ever been attached to any of his projects, and probably more importantly, none of them had ever gotten paid.
A few days later, I get another call from James, asking if I’d talked to my agent and when we could get started with rehearsals because he was on a short timeline for shooting. I told him that I would need to see a full script for the project and would need a cast list to confirm who else was attached to it before I would be able to attend a rehearsal. He tried talking circles around me, to pressure me into attending anyway or to at least meet him in person to “go over the storyboards, because there is no real script and things change right up to the day of shooting.” I said I would need a script before proceeding, and got off the phone with him.
THEN, James starts calling my agent. I go in for a meeting with my agent to talk more about this festering problem, who agrees that this guy is NOT legit (as in, the lawyer ran Head Redme’s record company “John Lennon Records” and found nothing) and to let the police and major credit bureaus know that this creep has my SIN number. That same day, I call James back to tell him to leave me alone and that I have no further interest in working with him, and he says he will not – and that he will be sending me an invoice to bill me for violating my contract. Yeah, right.
So, today, I get an email from him saying that I owe him a ridiculous amount of money, which was followed with another email with increased costs after I informed him that if he contacted me again I would press harassment charges. He’s picked the wrong actor to tangle with this time, I’ll say that much.
James’ ‘real’ name, by the way, is James Donman. And I’m not the only one by far that he’s tried to harass/sue/fleece/get naked/etc. He apparently also goes by James Lennon, James H Lennon, John H (or Headley) Lennon, Head Redme, John Blackcloud, James Blackcloud, and a bunch of other variations on that. He also has a “music company” that produces his own work. I’m sure I’m not the first or the last person he’s going to try and scam and harass, but I’m at least going to take a stand against him and ask YOU to please help spread the word about him, so that this menace can be stopped. So that hopefully no other actors, dancers, artists… good, creative, loving, supportive people will be caught in his web of lies.
I encourage you to Google his name(s) to get more of the story. This is what he looks like, by the way:
Enough about that for now. I wanted to go over some tips on how to avoid becoming prey to people like James Donman.
First off, don’t give out your SIN/SSID number. EVER. Not until you’re officially on the payroll for whatever project you’re auditioning for. This was one that I wasn’t aware of (or had forgotten about), so don’t feel too badly if you weren’t aware of this either. People are entirely too trusting sometimes.
Secondly, if it seems too good to be true or kind of fishy, it probably is. I quoted high rates when initially asked for this project, which is why I was I surprised to get a call back about the job. I’m not saying I’m not worth that much money, it’s just that if people are too ready to bend over backwards for you or are too charming to try and sway you… it’s probably a scam. Same with anything you’re asked to pay for, including training, headshots, classes, etc. Assess fees before paying them.
Take at least 24 hours to consider any offers – don’t go signing for anything in the same day it’s offered. There’s a bunch of reasons for this.
Always get a second opinion from someone knowledgeable, and don’t be afraid to ask for clarification if you don’t understand something that’s being said. If you don’t know what you’re signing up for, don’t do it.
Google is your friend. In this day and age, you can research almost anyone and anything. Using quotes ” … ” will help you narrow your search parameters. Look up directors/musical acts/other actors attached to projects/film companies/etc before going to an audition, to confirm their credibility as much as get a sense of what they’re about. Sometimes there will be very little data online about someone, especially artists just starting out, but better safe than sorry.
ALWAYS trust your instincts. It’s great to be a nice person and respect everyone and try to be cooperative and helpful, but if you feel like you might be being taken for a ride, then be hesitant about who you’re dealing with. Especially if they’re someone you don’t know, and they’re someone nobody else you know knows, either. (Sometimes it’s better to be a tough sell rather than too eager, anyway.)
And along those lines, if you’re really not sure about someone… bring a personal assistant/escort to set with you. As long as you can show up and be professional, and as can they, it’s much better to have them there and be safe than to be alone with someone who turns out to be a creep.
With the more professional sets and projects you work on, the more you’ll get to see how professional projects are run. You should be able to tell the difference between people who are trying to be as professional as possible but may not know all the ins and outs of how film works, vs someone who is pretending to be someone other than who they are and trying to somehow exploit you.
Like they used to say on Reading Rainbow, “the more you know.” Be safe, and be smart… I will see about doing a follow-up post to this one soon, with more business tips for actors. Right now, though, I had a fabulous night last night at Nuit Blanche here in Toronto, and wanted to do a separate post about some of my favourite installations and pieces.