“Within two or three days, all of a sudden, every job I had lined up was gone,” Kara Connolly says
Hollywood actors, just like most everyone in just about every industry, have been hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic. And many who can’t count on residuals from $1 billion blockbusters or live in mansions off Sunset Blvd. were stranded and left to wonder how to pay the bills — pretty much overnight.
In interviews with more than a half dozen up-and-coming actors and performers in Los Angeles and New York, a picture emerged of a young creative class that has been stopped in its tracks — with industry careers screeching to a halt and no income coming in from backup jobs in fitness, food service and marketing that have also been decimated by the pandemic.
“Literally within two or three days, all of a sudden, every single job I had lined up was just gone,” Kara Connolly, an actress in the independent film space and SAG-AFTRA member, told TheWrap.
Connolly, who was a double for Emma Stone in “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” said all her acting callbacks were canceled because productions had shut down, and her studio sessions for her career as a singer/songwriter were also put on hold because of social distancing policies. Her side gig, working as a contractor for a social media, branding and marketing firm, also dried up due to layoffs.
She noted that freelancers in the entertainment industry are accustomed to “being with other people and going to auditions — and now where you are at home all the time, it totally changes and disrupts everything.” The pain is also felt by aspiring creatives who pay the rent working in non-entertainment industries like restaurants or hotels that have also been impacted by the pandemic.
Actor Harley Harrison Yanoff saw his side business running a staffing and catering company, which supplied New York actors with a side hustle as servers while they pursued acting, virtually disappear overnight as events went from 100 a month to virtually zero.
“I was devastated,” Yanoff said. “I thought, here I am with my company frozen, no acting work, Broadway has shut down, film and TV has shut down. There is no way to make money in the world.”
Rhoemi Smith, whose credits include Apple TV’s “Helpsters” and Patrik-Ian Polk’s indie “The Skinny,” as well as a recent skit with RuPaul on “Saturday Night Live,” said he felt the same sense of unease. “In a matter of days, I went from auditioning for Broadway plays to reconciling how my life and those of my fellow actors would be impacted from a lack of work,” he said. “Once I was let go from my day-to-day job as a retail salesperson, I was very concerned about how I would support myself and what other opportunities were even out there.”
Smith explained that the timing of the shutdown was particular unfortunate since many TV actors were shooting their season finales while others were shooting pilots that have now been interrupted. Still, he credited the guilds for its efforts on behalf of actors like him. “I have to say that SAG-AFTRA and the Actors Fund really stepped up to offer resources for guidance and financial assistance for out-of-work actors and staying afloat in this uncertain time,” he said.
Shu Q, who has been pursuing the performing arts for eight years now, said most of his friends are out of work now and struggling. “There are no tables to serve, no bars to tend, no productions to assist,” he said. “With bill-paying jobs put on hold, artistic gigs are most definitely put to the wayside.”
Laid off from his day job as a receptionist at a corporate law firm, he’s wondering what his next move will be — especially as a Chinese-Canadian immigrant with a work visa who doesn’t qualify for unemployment or the U.S. federal relief fund. Still, he knows he’s not alone in his struggle. “Some are racking up credit card debt, many are running their savings to the ground trying to stay in the city, others have fled home,” he said.
Connolly said “almost every single one” of her friends working in the entertainment industry is out of work, with many texting her about the unease of not knowing how to proceed. “I have a friend who has five kids to feed, and she texted me saying, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to feed them.'”
Natalee Linez, an actress whose credits include Freeform’s “Siren” and “Hawaii Five-0,” said she’s in limbo on a project she had just started when the lockdown hit. She had booked a new Starz straight-to-series show on February 14 and flew to New York to film episode 1. She was supposed to fly back March 20 to film episode 3 but soon learned production had pushed. “There is that scary thought — are they going to continue with the show?” Linez said. “I haven’t auditioned for anything, and I keep getting told, ‘You are on hold for this…’ Thank the Heavenly Father I had shot episode 1 so I got paid for that and that will hold me over.”
Between film and TV bookings, Linez had worked on national commercials, but she worries that spots she’s shot for brands like Old Navy are unlikely to air now given the shutdown’s effect on retailers — and so she may not see residuals for that work anytime soon. Worse, there are no commercial bookings in sight because there are no auditions.
“Bills don’t stop,” she added. “If I had no money saved, I would be screwed.”
Jared Isaac, who has worked on shorts like “Love,” “Trending” and “Dreamer,” as well as the feature film “Homecoming Revenge,” said his acting work has dried up completely, and that he is “certainly anxious about financial security.”
He has supported himself between acting gigs with dog-walking and remote data work: “The dog walking has ended too,” he said, noting that home-bound clients are tending to their pets themselves. But, he said, “I’m doubling down on remote work, and I’m creating with my fellow roommates, writing and making an album. We’ve already got two jams and an interlude. The world ain’t ready.”
Brady Lernihan, a Montana native who graduated from East 15 Acting School in London, had just moved to Los Angeles this winter when the pandemic upended the industry.
“Since I only recently started going on auditions in L.A., the impact has been more on financial stability as well as sending in more self-tape auditions. I’ve been using WeAudition, which has been amazing, and they are very organized. Everyone seems to enjoy using their platform,” he explained. But like many others in this industry, he was laid off from his day job as a sales associate for Orangetheory Fitness — and decided to pull out of L.A., at least for the time being.
“I’ve had to come back home to Montana to try and find a day job and save money,” Lernihan said. “But I’m one of the lucky ones to have this opportunity and a supportive family.”
Lauren Elyse Buckley, who starred in AwesomenessTV’s “Foursome” and has a movie titled “Blame” due out this fall, said her financial position changed very quickly when two short films and a music video were rapidly scrapped in the midst of the virus. She was also being eyed for two roles in projects that are both now in limbo, she added.
“Every artist I know has been completely thrown by this,” she said. “Friends making passion projects on smaller scales that they were going to fund themselves are no longer able to because they’ve been fired from their survival job that was going to pay for the small production. Friends who were working with investors and bigger companies now are unsure the state of those agreements because they don’t know about the financial security of those partners anymore.”
She has been under financial stress as lucrative gigs have suddenly fallen through. “I had these few projects coming up which would have paid a bit, a freelance gig on the books that is most likely canceled and that would have taken care of a full month and a half in rent,” she said. Worse, she said she was laid off from her survival job as a restaurant server. “They can’t afford to have more than just a manager at the restaurant to do takeouts,” she said. “And with the strain this has put on the restaurant, I’m not sure I’ll have a job to go back to when it’s all over.”
Lee Doud had just worked on a Netflix show when the pandemic hit, causing “a lack of in-person auditions and television productions being on total freeze.”
And working in event management, his day-to-day job has also seen a hit.
“I work as an event producer in my day-to-day, so that job has certainly been affected during all of this,” he told TheWrap. “Many events have been postponed until the fall or canceled entirely – something that I’ve not seen happen before. This also, subsequently, affects the people who work in jobs like brand promotion, spokesmodeling, and catering – all jobs that working actors and artists have typically relied on in between opportunities in film and television. I think it will take a little bit of time for people to feel comfortable gathering in large groups again, so we’ve been forced to get creative by hosting virtual events and live streams in the meantime.”
Albina Katsman, who recently released her own short-form YouTube comedy series “So Foreign,” with Mariana Brassaroto, and who just starred in “Alone” for Amazon Prime Video, was ready to go into production on two projects with her production company when California’s “stay at home” order hit — and everything quickly changed.
“At first when this whole thing started, I thought there was no way this would all get shut down, it was really surreal,” Katsman said. Auditions were still going on in the early days, she explained, but then her survival job as a fitness instructor disappeared when The Studio (MDR) shut its doors.
But she quickly found a way to use the situation to her advantage. “As soon as I realized people are working from home and would need to work out somehow, I wrote a routine and started filming my workout videos,” she said.
She’s been taking donations on her workout videos on Instagram Live, which she posts every day, and has pivoted to helping her dad in his real estate business, while also home-schooling her brother (for which she doesn’t get paid). “It’s about being frugal and counting every penny,” she added. “But what happens when people can’t donate $15 a class, what happens when my parents have two other kids, what if they can’t help me — what am I going to do? Are there going to be auditions when this is over? Is there going to be artistry that people are going to pay money for?”
For many actors, days are spent adjusting to the new norm. Connolly has been taking meetings on Zoom and working on her songs on Audiomovers, a software that lets you edit and watch other people edit over the computer. She has also been hosting meditation sessions and concerts for free on Facebook.
“I’ve still been been able to produce out the songs, but ultimately, to finish them, I need the quarantine to end,” she said. “Because I have to record vocals. I don’t have the technology to do that at home. Across the board, everything kind of shifted.”
She noted that many are getting creative by using their skills, holding livestream concerts, setting up tutoring sessions for kids who are out of school, holding private meditation or exercise sessions. “So many of my singer/songwriter friends have been placing their PayPal addresses on Facebook when they do their videos, telling viewers to feel free to donate or tip,” she said.
Lernihan has been polishing up on monologues and learning more about camera technique through Masterclass and the YouTube channel Indy Mogul. “As most people say, Be the most prepared person in the room.” He noted one positive thing about how the virus has shifted things: “What I’m seeing now is casting directors and other filmmakers trying to find new talent and rediscover others and it’s actually been great to be a part of.”
Harley Harrison Yanoff, the actor-turned-caterer, said he had an “epiphany” thinking about all the kids now stuck at home, away from their friends, as well as fellow actors now looking for work. Before his move to New York, Yanoff had started a summer theater camp that he helped run for 13 straight summers. He decided to pivot his summer camp to online sessions he dubbed Broadway From Home.
“We are working with other kids in a classroom setting where we are working on scenes and performing for each other,” he explained. “It ended up selling out within two hours… I started calling up actor friends of mine and it started snowballing — here is an opportunity to employ other actors as teachers in online settings. I took the camp model and I put it online. It’s exploding to the point where it started as once a week but now it’s five days a week. I’m getting emails from current Broadway actors to be involved.”
Yanoff charges $39 per class, with a two-day workshop costing $75. He has a core team of 10 employees, with plans to employ more due to the increase in programming. Thirty people attend these session, with three to six people in the smaller scene sections.
“There is this light in this small corner of the world, but it is revolutionizing the way we are able to work with students and keep people employed,” he explained, adding that some portion of the proceeds will go to charity.
Yanoff hopes to continue the online theater camp even after the pandemic subsides. “This has given me purpose,” he said. “This was a company borne out of our situation, but this is a lasting thing.”
Shu Q had one message for his fellow actors: “To my fellow artists, it is most important to keep our heads up. This too shall pass. Weather the storm and keep making art. Read a play, sing a song, take a selfie. Share your gifts, spread love and kindness.”
For the record: This story has been updated to include more voices.