Hooray for Hollywood, the land of dreams where any office boy or young mechanic can be an actor. While this romantic notion is more than a little archaic, as a culture, we still idolize movie stars. We assume their lives come ready-made with riches and acclaim, as if seeing their names in lights is still a fail-safe investment in their own fiscal security. This is a myth.
While waiting to interview Looper director Rian Johnson during Fantastic Fest, a chance encounter challenged even my notions of what it meant to be a movie star. Sitting there, in the garish luxury of the Four Seasons hotel lobby, I met a rather lost-looking young man with whom I struck up a conversation. He was passionate and sharp, and it took a good five minutes before I recognized him as Noah Segan, the actor who played Kid Blue in Looper. I assumed he too had been sent by the studio to promote the movie, but in fact he had come of his own volition, on his own dime, and was being soundly ignored by the publicists.
Talking with Noah, it became clear that, though he had appeared in several theatrical films, he was far from living the life of privilege and extreme comfort we tend to associate with movie stars. Noah’s experience echoes those of many with occupations in the creative field; the epitome of the blue-collar artist.
This interview was completely unexpected, and we didn’t end up talking much about the movie, but if you’re struggling with the financial logistics of doing what you love professionally, you too will probably find a kindred spirit in Kid Blue.
Brian Salisbury: So, you said that you were basically here at this press conference because you were crashing it? Just to, kind of, support the movie?
Noah Segan: I'm totally crashing this press conference. This is my family. I work in the movie business because I love movies. I love reading about movies and I love watching movies and I love hanging out with people who feel the exact same way about movies. I'm lucky in that I get to be in a lot of movies that go to a lot of film festivals, so these kinds of environments, and people like you, are people that I get along with. I want to be around them. And, let's be frank, this is not a selfless act. This is not just because I want to support the movie; this is also because I want to support myself. I'm ambitious, dude! I want to work more. I want to talk to people like you so you can talk to other people and say that I'm good and go get me a fuckin' job.
Salisbury: Right. The whole goal, as you were saying, is to pay the rent.
Segan: I'm 28 years old and I'm still trying to pay my rent. Yes, I have an awesome job that is super fun, and I want to keep it. I don't know if it's a sign of the times or, much like you, much like a lot of people who work on the creative side of things in a creative business, there are a huge number of people who are trying to do it and there aren't a lot of slots to fill. But I can, at the very least, feel a little bit of comfort in knowing that it's not all ego related. Dude, if I made double the money that I made last year, I still wouldn't have enough money. And I'm a single guy who lives in a one-bedroom apartment and drives an old car.
Salisbury: Out of curiosity, do you currently have health insurance?
Segan: I do not currently have health insurance, no. The way that my union works, recently in the last decade or so, my union dues do not guarantee that I get covered by health insurance. I pay union dues and I'm not really sure what I get as a result of that. I'm a big lover of unions; I'm a big believer in labor unions. I guess that they collect my royalties for me, for the price of my dues. But completely separate from the union that stipulates a scale wage, a set wage, which is, at times, about minimum wage, I often work for the equivalent, before taxes, of about $9 an hour. A lot of people don't realize that there are very common, heavily used SAG contracts called the Ultra-low Budget Filmage, which is movies under $200,000. A lot of the Fantastic Fest movies are made under that contract. That allows me to work for $100 a day, and usually I'm working for 12 hours. The average day in a movie starts at about 12 hours. So usually I'm working 12 to 18 hours a day.
Salisbury: You're working so much longer than the average workday, for close to minimum wage. That's another misconception. You hear about "SAG Minimums," but if you think about it in terms of something like professional sports, the "minimum" is still hundreds of thousands of dollars. For film actors, it's just not that way, you're saying.
Segan: No. The minimum for an Ultra-low Budget Filmage, which is these days a lot of indies, now that technology has gotten to the point where we can do so much, you can make a movie for a hundred grand and you can pay your actors $100 a day. And that day is a very long day. And unlike a lot of people who work in a corporate environment for minimum wage or close to minimum wage, whether it's a bookstore or a coffee shop or an electronics store, that doesn't guarantee me health insurance. So I end up in a position where I may make a bunch of these movies, but if I don't make $35,000 or $40,000 a year, I don't qualify for the right to buy it at a discounted rate. (To a passing, mischievous figure) Screw you, man!
Salisbury: Rian Johnson just flipped us off.
Segan: This is what I have to deal with! Every day he makes me cry.
Salisbury: There's something to be said for the fact that uncertainty, as horrifying as it is, prevents you from resting on your laurels and prevents you from becoming stagnant and always keeps you trying to improve yourself.
Segan: Yeah, but that's more of a result of where you're at in the stage of a career than in fact what you are doing for a living. In other words, you would hope that anybody with a sense of diligence and stick-to-itiveness and ambition, who's in their late 20s, who's not independently wealthy, is gonna try, in the middle of the Great Fu**ing Recession, to keep their job. And to do better at their job. And to have a healthy sense of competition. It's like, "Do you want to get married and have kids?" And, you probably want to do that in the next five or 10 years. You have to have a career that's going to allow for that.
Salisbury: That's the thing. I am married, but we have not had kids yet because of the whole financial situation.
Segan: That's what I'm saying! There's no real difference. The only big difference is that we happen to work in a microcosm. We work in an arena that's smaller than if we were salespeople; than if we worked in the auto industry. Film criticism and film acting are very small industries, relatively. But, frankly, I think that people that find great success, especially in a creative industry, without the normal struggle that people should go through when trying to build a career, find themselves completely disconnected from reality. Part of the reason that we find somebody like Joe Gordon-Levitt so fascinating is that he has been a working actor since he was five years old, and is the most idealistic, kind, level-headed person I know. That is the major exception to the rule.
Salisbury: Because there's that whole perception that, if you are an actor and are in films, that's not a normal job; that's somehow on another level. It's the perception of celebrity. But you're right; in your case, what you're doing is a job -- a nine-to-five grind.
Segan: Well, I don't know that it's a nine-to-five grind, because frankly I do spend a lot of time not working. And when I do work, I end up doing 16 or 17 or 18 hours a day. So the schedule is off, just like you. You may end up doing your best work at three a.m. on a Tuesday.
Segan: And turn it in the next morning at eight a.m. It doesn't detract from the quality of your work. But something that is lost is a very direct financial connection. This idea that what you and I probably make is very similar to anyone else who is our age and who has worked a job diligently during our adult years, during a time when there is not a lot of money to go around. If you and I had been working at the same restaurant or the same retail shop or the same corporate office, and didn't magically get profit sharing, didn't magically get a stock option, didn't hit the lottery, we'd probably be making the same amount of money. The area I think people get confused is, in an artistic sense, in a creative sense, whether it's journalism or show business, the effect that your success will have on your ego, as opposed to the reality of it, which is, "I've got to make a living."
Salisbury: Absolutely. I'm struggling to make as much as I made as a call-center rep. It's a livable wage, but just livable.
Segan: That's a great equalizer. People talk about success equaling freedom, but I actually think that this dynamic equals freedom. This dynamic means that I have something in common with everyone else my age, everyone else who I can share something with, as opposed to feeling like a young person who's struggling like everybody else and feeling completely disconnected because I happen to do something that involves a certain amount of glamor or a certain amount of fun. My job is very fun. A lot of people don't get to say that. We do get something special out of that, but there is a certain amount of freedom in that I get to say that I have the same obligations and the same struggles that other people do. I'm making movies for people who are like me. That’s the other angle of things is that, whether it's the celebrity or the recognition, the obligation has always been very natural to me because the people who like the movies are the people who are like me. That part is self-serving, but that's something that anybody can do.
Salisbury: And that's the kind of self-serving thing in my job, too. I'm doing this because I love seeing these movies and talking about movies.
Segan: Yeah. You don't hate the people you work with; you don't hate the people that you write about. You don’t hate the movies you write about. Well, you're a critic, so, presumably sometimes you hate the movies.
Segan: But that's part of your job, so it's OK.
Salisbury: It's my job to be honest about the quality of the work on-screen. It's your job to be honest with your characters and in your performance.
Segan: That's another angle, too. It's my job to do what the script and the director tell me to do. Which is something that I feel is sort of a response to not being a movie star; to being a supporting actor; to being a character actor; to being a broke actor, who doesn't have the freedom to do whatever I want and turn down jobs. I have to be a cog in the works. I have to be an employee.
Salsibury: You're also a supporting actor in the sense that you're trying to support yourself in this.
Segan: Right. Not only do I have to do a good job, but I also have to keep everybody happy. I'm not the dude in the position of power. I'm not the guy who's helping direct. My name isn't above the credits. Which is fine! That is being an employee. Part of it is saying, "OK, this is the script and that guy's my boss and that's somebody I have to work with, whether I like them or not." And that's a great equalizer.
Salisbury: But ultimately what it boils down to is that it's still work, it's still a job. We talk about the glamor and the fringe benefits, but that's really more a function of the job than it is a perk. You being able to travel like this: this is the equivalent of somebody updating their resume and sending it around.
Segan: I often buy my own tickets, I have some very generous friends pull some strings to help me out once I got here, but I often pay my own way. And we're sitting 10 feet away from three publicists, but have any of them said, "Hey do you want to talk to this guy?” No. But that's just them trying to keep their jobs. This is more of an example of how the rest of the world has caught up to our business and the competitiveness of trying to be a creative person than it is the opposite way. The thing is, people read whatever you're going to write about this, and they're going to identify with it because their lives have gotten as difficult as the lives of anybody who's trying to do something as luxurious as being an artist for a living.
Salisbury: I think it's luxurious in spirit, but...
Segan: It's not luxurious in lifestyle, but it is luxurious in spirit. Which, of course, is the important luxury; it's the luxury that matters. It's also putting things in perspective. Neither one of us is sitting here hungry. I may be crashing on someone's couch while I'm staying in Austin, but I have a couch to crash on. It's all relative. But I've been doing this for about 10 years. It's where I should be. I'm happy. Why not? I've earned a couch. Maybe I haven't earned the Four Seasons, but I'm here at the Four Seasons trying to earn the Four Seasons, so maybe I will.
Salisbury: It all comes back to that very basic American Dream: when you work hard at something, you should be able to do what fulfills you. But it's gotten to the point where that is the exception and not the rule.
Segan: Are we in Texas and going to talk politics?
Salisbury: No. That’s an easy conversation killer, let’s sidestep it.
Segan: People complain and complain and complain about a sense of entitlement, and I actually feel like we do have an entire generation of people who feel entitled. This is a generation of people who are the sons and daughters of baby boomers, who benefited from a lot of hard work from their parents, our grandparents and great-grandparents, and the result has been kids that don't know how to work. But it's still two-thousand fucking twelve, and our society should be in a place where people have food and roofs and where, if they break their leg, they don't go broke. Those should be basic. Those are not entitlements. It's 2012. Have we not evolved enough, have we not crawled from the muck enough to get to a point where we can be human beings to one another? Where there can be a basic human interaction? I really don't think that that's going to stop ambition. I really don't think that we would feel differently about that, at least creatively, from a creative standpoint.
Salisbury: Well, ambition is vital. Here's an example of how things are parallel here: I'm sitting here with you; I didn't know you were going to be here; nobody told me, none of the publicists told me; even if you had told them...
Segan: Oh, I did!
Salisbury: OK, but still, do I rank high enough, or do I write for the right outlet that they're going to afford me the opportunity, or am I going to have to seize it myself?
Segan: There's the rub right there. At what point do you make the distinction between job security, bureaucracy, rule following and going the extra mile and thinking outside the box and thinking creatively and working creatively. I think part of the reason why people who want to be creative get frustrated is because they constantly run into that. I kind of hope that, at the end of the Great Recession, that's one of the things our generation walks away with: a sense of humanity, a sense of cut the shit. A common sense approach that says, “I get it now. You're hungry? Here's an apple. You need a place to stay? Don't worry. I'm not gonna send you to the Ritz, but we'll get you a roof, bro.” Let's just be human beings; be fucking kind to one another.
Salisbury: “Be excellent to each other,” as Rufus would say.
Segan: Ha. As much as I love George Carlin, I think maybe “be a mensch” from The Apartment would be the more appropriate movie mantra for it. Common sense does not have to be creative. I think that we will discover that self-preservation works best when we work for each other, rather than just ourselves. I feel safer now talking to you than I did a half hour ago walking in and going, "OK, how am I gonna get mine?" I actually feel better now having a collaborative conversation with somebody. This is a perfect example. This actually could potentially be an opportunity to say, "Here's this kid, he's a movie actor." I won’t say star, I think I'm fourth billed or fifth billed. But I'm here and I can do something. I feel like everybody can do something. I'll do the equivalent of shoveling shit. I'm not beyond that.
Salisbury: Movies need ditch diggers, too.
Segan: That's what I'm saying! I'm not above it. And being not above it is as ambitious as showing up to do it to begin with. You're putting it all on the line. I wouldn't go so far as to say, "Woe is me." I get to do something awesome for a living, but I guess my point is that none of this puts me under a different circumstance than anybody else who's my age; than anybody else who's struggling to make ends meet. In fact, it's still a more positive situation, because, like you, I still get to do something awesome and I still get to do something that I love, and get paid for it.