It’s a late November Tuesday night, and Nick Conti’s students are making their way through a windy chill and some seriously clogged traffic to his Buckhead acting studio. A two-and-a-half hour class is on tap, tonight focusing on commercial acting.
Most of them are young people, but there are a couple of notable exceptions, one of them being Roy Roberts. He hails from Alpharetta and is retired from the legal profession. A visitor chatting with him remarks on the fluidity of the expressions that flit across his face; by turns amused, thoughtful, even pensive.
“That’s interesting,” he said with a genial grin. “Because starting out I was one of the flattest actors here who ever worked in here. He deadpans: “You’re going to die. That’s too bad. I’ll miss you dear.” That draws an appreciative laugh.
As Georgia has attracted more and more film and television productions, opportunities for local actors, including older actors, have steadily grown. But Atlanta’s acting community — and in particular its senior contingent — has needed a truckload of that thing called fluidity in 2020 along with adaptability, pluck and optimism.
With the pandemic and the shutdown of many productions, a lot less completed work is showing up on screens. That, in turn, has chewed away at box office and advertising revenues. Local communities have suffered because actors and production crews aren’t filling up hotels and spending money in restaurants and stores.
Still, there’s plenty of work around for local actors. And with the growth of the movie industry and internet video and a wealth of cable channels, more actors of every age are needed.
“Seniors want to see people who look like them,” said Jill Jane Clements, a versatile Atlanta-based performer who’s appeared in “The Walking Dead,” “Free State of Jones,” “Bloodline,” and others.
Also for the audience, “the actors have aged and people want to follow them,” she contends, mentioning industry stalwarts like Sam Waterston and Martin Sheen. “I’m sure they’re having so much fun in this part of their lives. They have this wonderful career behind them and they’re still working.”
“Besides,” she snickers. “you can only do so much gardening.”
For some senior actors, who might be considered at higher risk of contracting serious COVID-19 illness, the idea of joining a film production has become the stuff of second and third thoughts. But others here seem to not be obsessing over that. Instead, they trust the systems in place on set will keep them safe.
Be they multi-decade veterans, interested newbies who took up the craft after retiring, series regulars or those who treat acting as a hobby, many seem grateful for what they perceive as the bounty of benefits offered by acting — from keeping faculties sharp to new horizons and friendships to—potentially–some nice extra income.
And they note that at whatever age, keeping focus in an extremely competitive profession can foster goals and a sense of purpose.
“I just want to play the parts, to do the characters,” Roberts said with an air of conviction. At the same time, he seems realistic about his prospects. No leading man, star turns for him.
“I am follicly challenged, only 5’ 7” and considerably overweight,” he says, wryly saying that “bowling ball” would be a perfect role in which to showcase his talents.
It’s been a great three years in training, nothing like he expected, he said, and required hard work. Although Roberts has appeared in a number of freebies to hone his skills, he’s landed just one paying gig so far. He’s auditioned repeatedly in this seemingly suspended-in-amber year of performing but hasn’t had much luck.
Fortune has smiled more generously on Leon Lamar, who has built a solid track record with roles in “The Hunger Games” (in which he played a rebellious elder dispatched to the next life by gun-toting storm troopers), “American Made,” “Tammy” and other roles.
Unlike Roberts, Lamar has been performing for decades. He didn’t go to acting school, instead getting his start after answering a newspaper ad seeking performers. He says he’s worked with Sandra Bullock, Oprah Winfrey, Leslie Uggams, Jennifer Lawrence – a list of big names that falls naturally from his lips with no sense that he’s name dropping.
It’s as if, at the age of 85. he still can’t believe his good fortune.
“It’s been a wonderful adventure and I’ve loved every moment,” Lamar says, a bubble in his voice that not infrequently turns into a chuckle or an outright belly-laugh. “It’s helped me become a success. Right now, I’m working more than just about anybody in the city.”
The self-taught trouper credits his success with being a keen observer of the business and “being myself. Being able to react to certain situations and remembering lines and knowing how to project your lines. Following directions and giving the director what he’s looking for.”
Being at the right place at the rice time has been an additional plus. After years of background work, he found himself on the set of Robocop Three. “The director came up to me and said, ‘I have something for you.’ He was looking for someone to open up a scene and he gave me a line to say. I took that and ran with it.”
That dogged work ethic is something that for Conti, the acting school owner, shows up like a brilliant studio spotlight in the mature adults he’s worked with. A senior himself, he appreciates it. Seasoned actors “keep up with everybody,” he said. “They’re hard workers. I also think the more mature actors tend to be more disciplined.”
Older actors also have a wealth of life experience to bring to their portrayals, he said. And, on a more prosaic level, they usually have more time to spend on set during a typical day than younger actors.
Clements moved to Atlanta in 1980 with a graduate theater degree and the goal of doing stage work. Film and TV opportunities came later as she relates how someone had dropped out of a production so “my first role was a screaming woman in a truck.”
While she notes that a significant group of performers she first apprenticed alongside have kept their careers going into senior-hood, other observers aren’t so sanguine, pointing out the continued predominance of younger players.
At least one observer wonders whether directors looking for senior characters might not be opting for those who are chronologically younger instead, perhaps afraid that the more mature might not be able to carry a role’s physical demands.
Atlantan, retired flight attendant and veteran of many background/extra appearances Debi Kimsey frankly speaks to that, saying, “you can age out of background work because you can’t do 16 hours a day on your feet. And you aspire to something a little higher.”
She says her agent is on board with that, sending her to audition for meatier roles. Unfortunately, both those and jobs have been hard to come by this year-which brings the discussion right back to COVID-19.
“You’re working four or five days and you’re being tested three and four times,” said Lamar, who just wrapped up work on an Aretha Franklin bio pic, playing a cranky old-timer “fussing” about a choir. He says they started work early this year, the production was put on hold for a month or two and then resumed with all the usual precautions in place.
As with any acting cohort, seniors can aim for a considerable variety of possibilities; extras, featured extras, photo doubles, stand-ins and principals. But still other acting roles involve a hot (live) mic rather than a rolling camera.
Though she came to the profession in front of the footlights, Atlanta actress, director and producer Carolyn Cook is appreciative of the many voice acting opportunities she’s been afforded. She’s a veteran of narrating and bringing characters to life in audio books
“I think it’s been a great opportunity,” she said, adding that as a senior “whereas I might age out of stage roles more quickly, in audio I still have a pretty broad range.”
She says her vocal versatility has allowed her to interpret much younger audio characters. Ideally, she says, any voice actor would want to be able to play anything from kids to great-grandparents.
Approaching acting jobs with the right attitude counts for a lot, Atlanta performers say.
“I always see the glass half-full, and that helps keep me positive,” Clements said. “And that helps because you can get your head handed to you plenty of times.”