the captain takes manhattan

Tom White [Int. Faculty 2002-2009], a veteran of the Intermediate Program, where he spent the majority of his Explo career as the Assistant Dean for day students, is pursuing his dream of acting professionally. After graduating from Case Western Reserve University with his MFA in performance, Tom moved to New York City and has been balancing life as a bartender and a working actor ever since. Tom maintains a very busy schedule, one that is typical of actors finding their way in New York, of a full-time job and a full slate of auditions covering the range of acting opportunities—television shows, commercials, movies, and the stage. When Tom and I first began our conversation, it was squarely within this spirit of multitasking. He chatted with me—quite eloquently across the board—about Explo, acting, struggling, succeeding, finding balance, and preserving optimism. Impressively, Tom conducted his interview for this piece while en route to an audition—one of the three or four he has on average weekly. As Tom maneuvered city streets and headed to the subway, he provided a picture of what it’s like to be an aspiring actor in the Big Apple.

[The Schedule]

Tom auditions anywhere from one to six times per week. More time consuming than the auditions themselves, however, is the preparation. Much of his week is spent reading scripts, memorizing lines, and just getting a handle on the material he is asked to present. In between auditions and the associated prep, Tom works more than 30 hours a week as a bartender, including 12-hour shifts on Mondays and Wednesdays. Those are especially long days if Tom has to audition on a Tuesday or a Thursday. His shift ends at 10 o'clock, and by the time he gets home, Tom can be working on material well into the wee hours. Still, it is all part of the business, and Tom does the best he can to juggle his obligations and carve out some time for himself each week. He tries to make it to the occasional yoga or jiu jitsu class and strives to have one weekend day entirely “off,” not worrying about anything acting- or restaurant-related, and takes the opportunity to explore his new city.

Luckily, Tom has some help setting up his audition schedule each week. Though he is reluctant to mention it for fear of sounding boastful, Tom is one of the very few actors just starting out in New York to have agency representation. Tom works with two agents—one for commercials, one for “everything else”—and a management company to find and book auditions. Tom earned this representation through his performance in an acting showcase—the culminating event of his graduate program.

The showcase featured Tom and his seven classmates and was attended by agency representatives and scouts. Tom and his fellow actors each had about three minutes to impress. Describing the experience as “a meat market for agents and managers,” Tom feels very fortunate to have fared so well. “They basically look at you and your acting and ask, ‘can I make money off of you? Are you someone worth investing in?’ Because ultimately, if you don’t get paid, they don’t get paid.” Tom received more responses than anyone in the history of his graduate program—there were about ten agents and managers interested in meeting with him. He says the whole occurrence is “not typical. Typically, you come here and you have to really work hard to get to know these people, get in the door, and have meetings with them…but I was fortunate enough to find a group of people I felt comfortable with and I thought could do something for me, and that I could trust. I’m just absolutely grateful because I skipped three to five years of the grind here in New York.”

[The Payoff]

After several months of his bartender/actor multitasking routine, Tom got his first break when he landed a small role on an episode of CBS’s hit drama The Good Wife, starring Julianna Marguiles. On the episode “Nine Hours,” Tom plays Cowan, a young attorney up against top trial lawyer Will Gardner (played by Josh Charles), in a pivotal courtroom scene. Although Tom’s appearance on the episode is brief, it has high impact and is instrumental in moving the plot forward. The episode was filmed late in the fall of 2010 and aired in December. Tom describes it as “a very cool experience.” When asked if this was his biggest “win” so far, Tom says that not counting all of the intermediate steps—getting a callback, being among the final two or three prospects for a project—the role of Cowan has been his only win, other than his graduate showcase.

“It was the only acting I have been paid for. But, you know, you hear this number—that it’s a great ratio if out of every 50 auditions you can book one. [The Good Wife] was about 35 or 40 auditions in and then I reset the counter. I’m hoping it happens again before I get to 50. Some people come here, book the first thing they audition for and keep moving forward. For others it’s a much longer road. A good friend of mine, Rich Sommer, had booked a handful of things but was thinking about leaving New York because he didn’t feel like this was a good town for him. And then out of nowhere, he was on vacation in Minnesota, and he sent in an audition tape that he filmed on his roof. It was snowing outside, and he was like, ‘eh, I don’t even care,’ and he ended up booking The Devil Wears Prada from that tape! And from that he got a leading spot on Mad Men, and he’s never looked back. And he was maybe a week away from going home. So you never know how this all works out.”

Tom himself is still very much “in it” in New York. He remains optimistic at this initial stage in his career. “Today I am,” he laughs. “It’s still early in the day. I go through a host of feelings. It’s not easy to hear ‘no’ 25 times in a row. But if you can get past that, the optimism comes back.”

Last we heard from Tom he had a couple of auditions for series regulars on Showtime’s Boardwalk Empire as well as two auditions for NBC’s 30 Rock. He also recently started studying with The Upright Citizens Brigade, a widely respected improv and sketch comedy school with locations in New York and Los Angeles.

Published May 18, 2011