How Actors Should Behave On Set to Look Like a Pro, Pt 1

Steve Coulter, acting tips

The following is a guest post from probably one of the most well known, well respected working actors in Atlanta, Steve Coulter.  Steve rarely toots his own horn, so we'll say he's the real deal, with TV credits like In the Heat of the Night, Dawson's Creek, One Tree Hill, Prison Break, Army Wives, and of course The Walking Dead.  Feature films include Madea's Family Reunion, Hunger Games, Anchorman 2, Furious 7, and Birth of a Nation.  How cool is it that Content South readers can get the below personal advice on how to work on a set and not look like an amateur moron in the process.  This is part one of a two-parter.
 
I’ve been an actor going on 35 years now.  Dear god…that sounds frightening writing that down.  And I’ve made a living as an actor for the last twenty-three, or so.   The first twelve years I survived by driving trucks, as a bouncer at a folk club, washing dishes, driving limos, doing carpentry, installing custom window shades, bartending, working in a warehouse…and many other survival jobs that I did while making my way.  My first acting job was as an apprentice at a theater where I worked 7 days a week, getting paid only $15 a week for gas money.  My second job was as an acting intern where I got about $100 a week and – in order to get enough money to live on ­–  I had to sell bootleg sunglasses, that me and a buddy of mine got from a Vietnamese guy in New York City, to tourists on the weekend that came to see the mainstage shows.
 
All that to say – I think I’ve paid my dues.  Man, I sure hope so.  I’ve learned a good bit of humility (and the occasional humiliation).  And a big part of paying your dues is learning professionalism in the theatre and on film and television sets.  So here’s my two cents on how to comport yourself on a set.  Forgive me if I get a little preachy.
 
First…be on time.  And I was trained that being on time means arriving twenty minutes early.  You will have received your callsheet from production the afternoon or evening before the day you’re scheduled to shoot, and it will come with a map to where you’ll go (basecamp).  When you arrive on set, you’ll be met by the basecamp production assistant (PA).  I can’t emphasize enough…BE NICE TO THE PA’s.  They are at work long before you arrive and have to stick around long after you’ve left for the day.  They work their butts off, are underpaid, and deserve your kindness and respect.  And they will answer any question you have, and probably smile while they do it (must be the lack of sleep).  The PA will take you to your dressing room, which (if you’re a day player – meaning, working just 1 or a few days) will be in the honeywagon.  Don’t Google the definition, because it’ll say “a truck for collecting and carrying human excrement”, and that will make you sad.  It’s actually a trailer with several dressing rooms (not much bigger than a Greyhound bus bathroom) in it. 
 
Shortly after you arrive you’ll be taken to hair and makeup.  BE NICE TO THESE PEOPLE, TOO.  They, too, got there long before you that morning.  Sometimes you may pay a visit to the wardrobe trailer, as well.  And BE NICE TO THE–  you know the drill.  So after hair & makeup you’ll go back to your little cubby in the honeywagon (or your cushy trailer if you’ve been doing this stuff for a while)…and you wait.
 
Sometimes the wait isn’t too long, if your scene(s) are first up for the day.  Often, though, you’ll have a while.  Production brings you in a good bit earlier than when they’ll need you on set.  I usually bring a book, or some writing to do. 
 
Eventually the PA will knock on your door (probably startling you badly if you nodded off) and either give you a 10-minutes warning, or they may be coming to take you to set.  Then you’ll either follow the PA to set, or you’ll hop in the van which will drop you off on set, where you’ll be met by a set PA (yep, be nice to them, too).
 
A word about cell phones.  I never bring mine to set (unless I’m expecting a very important call from my daughter in New York).  There’s no rule against bringing it to set (although there is a rule against snapping photos on set – more on that later), but I just don’t for a couple reasons.  One, I find it distracting.  I’m there to do a job, to focus on the work I was hired to do, and I don’t want my focus to be pulled away by email, Facebook, the NY Times newsfeed, or texts.  Second, in the not-too-long-ago days…actors actually talked to each other during breaks between setups.  Good old fashioned human interaction.  You get to know other people from other parts of the country, with different experiences from you.  It’s pretty nifty.  Also, you can use the time waiting to watch setups, and if director & producers don’t mind, you can hang out (discreetly) at video village and watch what they’re shooting – you can learn a lot.  Or…you can bury your nose in your phone and stay in your cozy little Cave of Solitude.  Your decision.