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How to Become a Midwest Movie Actor: Four Actors Share Their Secrets

How to become a Midwest movie actor
Though you may not making a full-time living , there's plenty
of opportunity to act in the Midwest.
With big blockbusters setting up shop throughout the Movie Belt and generous tax incentives helping smaller films get made, there’s never been a better time to be a film actor in the Midwest. Though it’s still a challenge to make a full-time wage in the profession while living in Cleveland, Pittsburgh or Detroit, there’s plenty of opportunity to get hands-on experience.

We recently sat down with four Cleveland-area actors (hey, we’re in the Cleve – it was the easiest this time around – not that we didn’t search for some Pittsburgh and Detroit thespians) to get their take on working in front of the camera.

Melanie Hauer grew up in the Cleveland area and is active in local theater. More often than not, you can catch her on-screen acting through the 48 Hour Film Project. She’s also appeared in a number of short films, as well. Her turn as Ms. Pop in Super to the Heroes took her to the 2012 San Diego Comic Con, where the film competed in the world renowned event’s international film festival.

Skip Corris is a true hyphenate, an actor-director-writer-narrator. Very active in local theater, Corris has directed for the Clague Playhouse and recently portrayed Gary Gauger in a Cuyahoga Community College production of The Exonerated. He has either written, acted or directed for the Oberlin Summer Theater Festival, Ensemble Theatre of Coventry, Project One-Voice, Ohio Dance Theatre, Carousel Dinner Theatre, Karamu Theatre, Clague Playhouse, Olde Town Hall Theatre, Greenbrier Theatre, Apple Corps Theatre Company, Cleveland Music Consort, True North Holiday Concert and more.

We recently interviewed Deanna Sherman during our Halloween series of Horrific Questions. In her relatively short time as a actor, Sherman has appeared more than 28 films, including bit parts in Alex Cross, Fun Size, Draft Day and the still filming Jenny’s Wedding. She’s also produced a handful of films, including Undead Fred, which recently scored 10 nominations in the 48 Hour Horror Film Project and won second place overall and the Audience Choice award.

Kurt Yue’s experience includes short films and at least one feature, as well as a ton of behind-the-scenes work and corporate video. He had the chance to work with Maggie Gyllenhaal in Won’t Back Down when that film shot in Pittsburgh.

Midwest Movie Maker: Give us a taste of your filmography. What roles have you had? What types of films have you been in?

Deanna Sherman (DS): I have been in a little bit of everything, but I guess horror would be the majority since it seems those are the most popular around Cleveland. I've had a couple lead roles, but I mostly get strong supporting roles around here, which kind of works out because whenever I am gone, my husband needs to watch the kids. He doesn't care as much if I'm getting paid, but those projects are few and far between.

Kurt Yue
Kurt Yue
Skip Corris (SC): I've played some very different characters in short films and trailers, usually authority figures or working class dads, and I've played some small roles in feature films. I've also had a couple of eccentric roles, which are always fun. In the spring, I'm going to come full-circle to play a military officer – different branch.

Melanie Hauer (MH): I like doing the 48 Hour Film Project - so fun waiting to find out what your team's genre is and what the required elements are. I've appeared in comedies mostly including a sitcom pilot (Julio). Film character range is mostly professionals and mom types.

Kurt Yue (KY): I've done a lot more commercial work than film. My filmography is pretty short. I've acted in a handful of Sage O'Bryant's projects, and I think my character has been killed or mutilated in all but one.  On the big screen, I had a small role in the 2012 movie Won't Back Down in which I had a short scene with Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Midwest Movie Maker: How do you build an acting career in the Midwest? What advice would you give someone who wants to get started?

DS: I started as an extra in Fun Size, then Alex Cross and Parker the summer of 2011. It was just background work, but I met so many people and formed many connections that it made it really easy to take it to the next level and audition for roles where I would actually get to act.

Deanna Sherman
Deanna Sherman
For someone who is starting out, I would strongly suggest they be an extra in some films. They require no prior experience (or even acting talent), but you get to network with people in this industry. You'll meet a ton of people and learn where to search for auditions and upcoming projects in the area.

Take some acting classes around here to help with audition techniques and acting in general. Join film groups on Facebook and LIKE pages like The Greater Cleveland Film Commission that post about upcoming auditions and go to film mixers. Also, sign up for the neOHIOpal. It can be a lot to go through, but you will find film auditions on there sometimes, along with other things going on in the arts community.

SC: I work mainly in theatre, so I'm only now getting better acquainted with film. As a stage actor and director, I attend every play I can and absorb whatever I can from performances good and not-so-good. I audition for as many plays as I can, and I've had very good fortune this past year especially, working constantly – mostly on stage – since I retired from my prison teaching job in January. In recent years, I've done several short films and met knowledgeable and talented people who've helped me and even recommended me for other projects. I've also attended workshops to keep up my instrument and to explore the differences in working in theatre and working in film.

KY: As Skip and Deanna have already pointed out, get involved! You'd be surprised how many active projects are going on in the smaller markets. Network, network, network. Take acting classes. Study your craft. If you are trying to get into commercials, get an agent that books commercial talent.

Midwest Movie Maker: What was your first role? How did that impact your acting career? What did you learn from it?

SC: Since I consider myself only an "occasional" film actor, I'll try to cover both theatre (which I'm much more familiar with) as well as film. My first role in theatre was in Eugene Ionesco's theatre of the absurd play Rhinoceros. (That play, by the way, was made into a film with Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder). My first film role was a WW II Army general as a favor to a friend here in Cleveland. In the meantime, there were several gigs in commercials and soap operas (remember them?) back in New York City, across the Hudson from where I grew up. I learned that I liked the work of exploring different forms and expressions of characters.

Melanie Hauer
Melanie Hauer
MH: I was in a series of song and dance numbers and skits for my elementary school choir performance in fifth grade. The collection was titled "Wheels." In sixth grade we performed an edited version of The Wizard of Oz and I was Dorothy. This is a big reason I get frustrated when I see performance space in schools used as storage space (as is the case at my daughter's school). A stage is NOT a closet!

KY: I actually have zero experience acting prior to 2008 so I don't have any stories of high school plays or anything like that. The first professional acting role I ever booked was actually for Hyland Software. It was a web commercial for a product and I was the spokesperson.

The biggest thing I learned from that experience was about the audition process. I thought I had bombed that audition because I screwed up one of the lines. When I got on set, the director said he didn't even notice it. From that point forward, I understood that nailing the lines in an audition was secondary to nailing the behavior.

Midwest Movie Maker: How did you get your start acting? When did the acting bug bite?

DS: I wanted to act ever since I was a little girl. I always told my parents I wanted to be an actress. I had my first "starring" role in a school play when I was six as Little Pine in the Little Pine Tree and I was hooked. I went on to do more theater throughout elementary school and high school, but really always wanted to do film. I don't think the film scene was as huge around here as it was when I was younger. I did the realistic thing, went to college and got a degree. I didn't pursue film until after I had kids and became a stay-at-home mom.

SC: I sort of fell into acting in college to impress a female classmate who invited me to audition with her for a Eugene Ionesco play. I had more luck with the play than with the young lady, but I was hooked on acting. I took so many theatre courses that by the time I graduated, I'd acquired a second major in Speech/Theatre/ Media. I've passed the bug onto my children, two of whom are professionals.

Midwest Movie Maker: How has the increase in film production in Northeast Ohio and the region changed your acting career?

DS: The increase in film production definitely keeps the acting community keep alive here. I think the more Hollywood comes to town, the more indie filmmakers want to produce quality films and put themselves on the map. There seems to be a lot going on in film the past couple of years, and I love it!
Skip Corris
Skip Corris

SC: I raised my kids here in the Midwest and call it home. I think the advances in technology have contributed to making film production more affordable and given the means of expression to many more filmmakers.

This means there is a lot of inventive and good work being done (and, of course, a lot that's not-so-good). I recently reactivated my SAG/AFTRA membership, which I'd joined when I used to do commercials, so I'm hoping for more SAG work in the area, and I think SAG continually tries to accommodate filmmakers so that SAG members can participate. So, I'm looking forward to creating more characters in film here in Ohio, Michigan, and nearby states.

MH: Not one bit given the limited time I have available for participation in projects.

Midwest Movie Maker: Share some pros and cons of being an actor in the Midwest.

DS: Pros: Meeting great people that become your best or close friends, having fun doing what you love, you're able to be involved in a lot of projects versus people out in L.A. who rarely work because the competition is so fierce out there.

In Ohio you may be up against 20 to 200 people for a role, but in L.A. it's 1,000 or more going for the same role. Because of the better chances you have, you'll be able to put together a reel better than anyone who moves out to L.A. right off the bat (that is, if the film gets finished).
Cons: There aren't a lot of paid work opportunities for film. The money around here primarily comes from commercials, print and industrial videos. Getting paid is very nice, but it's a bonus since acting is my passion.

SC: The film and theatre communities are supportive. Ask a question and someone – or more likely several people – will have a good answer. Also, NeoPAL, a free listserve set up by Fred Sternfeld and administered by Fred and Noah Budin, is as far as I know unique in the country: a clearinghouse for auditions, performances, workshops, and information about theatre, dance and film. The cons, of course, are that you can't make a living here just doing film or theatre, and speaking now as a SAG member, the roles are more limited for union members. I see very talented non-union friends doing some great projects, and while I'm glad they're getting a chance to strut their stuff, I must confess I'm a bit envious!

MH: Regarding stage, we are fortunate in Cleveland to have the largest theatre district in the country outside of New York City. There are also quality community theaters all over Northeast Ohio. Cons: For both union stage and film projects, it's common for outside talent to be sought. So frustrating when big projects are here in town but local talent is underutilized. The talent pool here should be auditioned before hiring outside of the city.

Midwest Movie Maker: What was your first film role? How was that experience different from other acting experiences?

DS: The first film stuff I did was background, but I don't consider that a real role. My first actual role was one of the leads in a horror movie called Maintenance Man two years ago. Like a lot of projects around here, it's not getting finished. The experience was different because I had no idea what to expect on set since it was my first independent film.

However, I've learned that a lot of indies are quite different with how organized and professional they are. I'm sure everyone has had some bad experiences with organization and people not really knowing what they are doing, but we all start somewhere. The majority of sets I have been on have been very pleasant and everyone has a great time. I really love the people I meet in the film community.

SC: The first film role I remember doing was in a noir WW II piece called The Black Valise, here in Cleveland. I got it because a friend called and asked me to play a scene as a general. It was sometime in the late 80s or early 90s.

MH: I did a cameo-type role for Ardent Productions in Attrition - all B-role and super easy. I'm primarily a stage actor (musical comedy mostly), so the wait from shooting day to viewing the finished project was torture! There is nothing like the energy of a live audience and receiving immediate feedback on your performance.

Midwest Movie Maker: Do you see a time when acting is all you'll do? If so, do you hope to stay in the Midwest

DS: Other than being a stay-at-home mom, acting is what I do in my free time. I love it and would like to make it even more frequent as the years go on. I will always stay in the Midwest. My family is here and Ohio is my home.

SC: Actually, I'm doing that right now, though I don't make enough to live on just acting and directing. I retired from the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction in January, and have worked acting and directing constantly every month with as much as three projects in a typical month. These have been onstage, but now that I have more time, I'm hoping to work in more film as well as theatre. I love the spontaneity and immediacy of film acting, and there is a lot of good work being done here in the Midwest. And though I know that this article is oriented more toward film, I don't think I could ever stop working onstage.

MH: Acting is one of my many hobbies. I don't want to pursue it as a career. With money out of the picture it's purely a creative outlet for me.
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