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In Praise of Hollywood's Working Actresses

by Molly Cheek and Debbie Zipp
November 21, 2013 11:30 AM
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Molly Cheek with Eugene Levy in 'American Pie'
Molly Cheek with Eugene Levy in 'American Pie'

For years, when anyone asked what advice we had for aspiring actors, our knee-jerk response was, "Don't do it!" But now, as we look back on careers that add up to almost four decades, we have gained a much more positive attitude toward our line of work. Despite the dismal statistic that a mere 1-2% of SAG/AFTRA members support themselves solely by acting, that 2% represents thousands of women like us, who have managed to live nice, middle-class existences doing work they love. What's not to recommend about that?

The abundance of tabloid attention to celebrities obscures the fact that there is, in fact, a wide expanse between "starving artist" and Angelina Jolie among the ranks of union actresses. Featured players and second bananas are the backbone of the guild. We know their faces, but often not their names, and they remain largely outside the purview of the general public. But they continue to sustain careers, own their homes, send their children to college, and finance their retirement. And they do work that provokes, enlivens, compels, enriches and delights us.

Not that there aren't significant obstacles. Even the one Emmy category designed to acknowledge the guest star has been co-opted by celebrity cameos. And, of course, these worker bees of the acting world -- especially the women -- are the hardest hit when ageism takes its toll. Of the roles available to women, 63% go to 20-30 year-olds. Suddenly, at forty, you're too old to play Mom on TV, and due to the disappearance of film roles in that age range, movie stars inhabit the few parts you used to book. Also, let's not forget the imbalance in the ratio of female-to-male roles in the majority of action-adventure/political thriller/superhero blockbusters -- or as we like to call them, "dick flicks." It's a tough business, but we imagine air-traffic control or waitressing at Denny's are too.

The point is that there is a narrative other than the "rags or riches" fable in Hollywood that should be acknowledged. Show business supports a large, mid-tier class of performers and craftspeople here in Los Angeles and is subject to the same marketplace whims most industries face. We used to discourage people from an acting career, admonishing wannabes about the likely necessity of holding down a second job and the difficulties of managing a freelance lifestyle. But in today's economy, almost everyone in every field has to confront those issues at some point. There really is no lifelong position with a gold watch finale any more. 

So maybe those of us women who embarked on acting careers are actually better prepared for the instability of the current workplace than those who took what looked like a safer path. There are many, many working rank-and-filers and talented union actresses who can attest to the fact that it is possible to have a full career and life without landing the cover of Vogue.    


Molly Cheek starred as Jim's mom in the American Pie movies and was featured in the Showtime series It's Garry Shandling's Show and the syndicated sitcom Harry and the Hendersons. Best-known for her recurring role as Donna in Murder She Wrote, Debbie Zipp has also starred in the series Small and Frye and shot over 300 national commercials. Molly and Debbie co-wrote the recently released e-book The Aspiring Actor's Handbook: What Seasoned Actors Wish They Had Known.  

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  • Maureen Tunney | November 22, 2013 3:50 PMReply

    Molly Cheek and Debbie Zipp know what they are talking about. Their book is informative, well written and easy to understand. Every actor should own this book.

  • Cynthi Stefenoni | November 22, 2013 2:53 AMReply

    I have worked professionally with both Molly Cheek and Debbie Zipp (both in Los Angeles and on location) in my career as an assistant director, and I applaud them for taking on this absolutely neglected corner of the acting universe. While most of the world knows the names of some three dozen actresses who are the magazine cover girls du jour, there are hundreds (if not thousands) of other, lesser known women who ply their craft daily in support of their passion and their livelihood. These are the ones who are doing the work, filling out the casts, powering the engines of television and films; the actresses who HAVE carved jobs out of a shrinking field of offerings. These are the women who get call times changes late, show up on time, know their lines and have made MY professional life easier because they are pros. And they are the ones that anyone who truly wants to live the actor's life should emulate. Thankfully, they are finally being given voice. I will be advising every young actress I know to read this book and use it as a handbook and a guide. Bravo to the authors for their well constructed and wise counsel!

  • Susan Mullen | November 21, 2013 2:15 PMReply

    Great article about the 'blue collar' actresses who carved out successful and fulfilling careers in the entertainment industry for decades, many times being the breadwinners at home.

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