Tag Archives: Ask an Expert

A how-to of staying in shape on set

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Andrey Ivchenko, photo by John Hong

As the brilliant Toni Sorenson once said, “If it was easy, the reward at the end would mean nothing.” This statement comes from a woman, mother, and author, who grew up in an orphanage and on the streets and chose a path to victory.

In the entertainment business, victory means booking a new role in a television series, feature film, producing a project you’re passionate about, selling a script you wrote or getting it optioned and made. Most people don’t realize though how big of a part fitness plays into those, especially with actors.

Hollywood, the entertainment capital of the world, has people from all over the world, near and far, looking to pursue their dreams and to make those dreams turn into a reality. Staying in shape while in pursuit of those dreams is not only important for one’s physical health, but their mental health as well. With rejection being one of the biggest struggles someone just moving to Hollywood will have to deal with, it’s very important to always have a healthy outlet for the ups and downs you will face on your journey.

Being an actor in Hollywood isn’t for people with thin skin. It tends to focus so heavily on what its idea of the “perfect image” is as we see daily from network TV shows, to commercials, to magazines, to models on billboards, you get the idea and know what I’m talking about. This business in particular holds people’s image to a much higher standard than one would face living anywhere else in the world. With that being said, the pressures that come with that responsibility are extremely high especially for an actor that will be seen on the silver or big screen.

The reason I mentioned the above is because throughout my experience of being in Hollywood, being a big guy, everyone is constantly judging. When I began this journey, I got into stunts since it seemed like a natural fit – I’m a big guy, 6 foot 3, built, with an accent, and told I could play bad guys all day because I guess that’s the “tough guy” image I give off. Given that that’s the direction I decided to pursue, I had to make sure that my image lived up to the hype. I was in the gym for several hours a day, 6 days a week, eating 7-8 meals throughout the day that consisted of consuming approximately 5,000 calories a day. Believe it or not, eating that much every day and working out that much isn’t easy, even for the big guys that make it appear that way.

As I transitioned into the acting side of the business, I was often told I was “too big.” Too big? I was just told for years I need to be bigger and tougher looking to be the bad guy and now I needed to become less bulk and leaner because now I would be playing more leading man roles, not just henchman types, and needed to be able to be diversified that way if casting or producers saw fit. So, the process began again and now instead of going to the gym six days a week, I was going four days a week and cutting my calories to 3,000 a day. Having been an athlete my entire life since I was a child, serving in the military, and also having a master’s degree in Kinesiology, made finding the discipline to re-write my fitness programs and stick to them pretty easy for me, but they require a lot of discipline! I’d say having discipline when it comes to fitness is one of the biggest skills one can achieve. Setting goals, making plans, and sticking to them. No one ever said looking “Hollywood” good was going to be easy! However, at the end of the day making all of those challenges and sacrifices can be very rewarding mentally as well as physically.

The entertainment business as a whole has put an emphasis on fitness since it was established. From physical comedy actors like Charlie Chaplin, to Steve McQueen, Ronald, Reagan, to action heroes like Sylvester Stallone, Clint Eastwood, and Dwayne Johnson. In addition, there are also actors who perform their own stunts like Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible, and Jackie Chan. Staying in shape for these guys is essential to their careers. For example, most people don’t realize what Hugh Jackman went through to achieve his transformation to become Wolverine. His training consisted of two or more hours in the gym six days a week and consuming 5,000-6,000 calories a day to gain all that muscle and then had to transition into a much lower calorie diet to lose all the water weight and increase his cardio, so he could get shredded for the role.

Working on Television shows like Nikita,XIII: The Series, and Warehouse 13, I was grateful that I was introduced to martial arts and gun skills at a young age because it really made it an authentic look for the characters I played on those shows. As well as feature films I’ve worked on like Freezerand Way of The Westthat were both very physical and challenging as well but required a lot of those trained skills that I already had.

In regards to stunt work, it’s not just about looking the part, but being able to execute the part. Doing stunts is tiresome work and requires extremely long hours and repeated choreography and actual physical fighting to get it right. Sometimes they change the whole thing altogether and you have to relearn from scratch all over again but staying focused mentally and physically is the key. You have to be really physically and mentally ready to keep up, stay alert, and be on point for every take and also take direction correctly from the stunt coordinator and the director. There are a lot of moving parts while shooting an action scene so it’s very important that it always be executed properly every time. I have worked through injury, blood, sweat, tears, and I can honestly say it was all worth the challenge in the end. Good work is applauded and recognized in the entertainment business and word of mouth about people can spread very quickly and, in some cases, can even lead you to your next job if you remain humble, keep the right mindset, and positive attitude which is the key to success in this business.

When I booked the feature film Freezer, I was eating about 3,000-4,000 calories a day to get bigger because the director wanted me to look big and intimidating in comparison to Dylan McDermott. And when I booked xXx: The Return of Xander Cage, Vin Diesel and the director, DJ Caruso, also wanted my character ‘Red Erik’ to appear really big and tough, but in some of these scenes my character was going up and down flights of stairs, so I made sure to really increase my cardio training, so I wouldn’t fatigue while shooting those scenes over and over. In addition, it required me to learn motorcycle stunt training which I hadn’t done since I was about sixteen years old. But I’d say because of my fitness level and ability it allowed me to re-learn quickly and efficiently. At the end of the day the stunts they decided to go with were so extreme they hired a stunt double for those that you see in the film, but I was still required to go through the training as if I were the one doing the stunts myself as well. Had I not been fit enough to be up to the task of creating the character vision they had and physically doing the stunts they wanted in those scenes, I don’t know if I would have booked the role at the end of the day.

Fitness, especially today, is a constantly growing trillion-dollar business that’s probably more trendy and popular now than it’s ever been before. With social media and all the pressures of having to post images and videos of your personal and professional life constantly, you frequently feel vulnerable to the pressures that Hollywood gives to always look your best. Regardless though of what the trends are, one thing always remains true which is that being healthy is essential so implement it into your everyday life regardless of your schedule or profession, and also make sure you get enough hours of sleep a night which is a key element that’s more important than most people realize. Resting the body keeps a healthy mind and allows the body to recover. Set your goals, make time for yourself and watch how many doors achieving those goals will provide in your life, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Again, as Toni Sorenson once said, “If was easy, the reward at the end would mean nothing.”

 

Written by Andrey Ivchenko

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Conducting a Reality Competition Interview for TV, a how-to by Supervising Producer Emma Greenhalgh

Being a reality producer certainly comes with a lot of preconceptions, but the reality of producing, in my experience, is actually a very warm and rewarding career.

My name is Emma Greenhalgh, and I’ve spent fifteen years producing on reality competition shows for TV. It’s fair to say I’ve produced and directed hundreds of people’s life stories along the way, whether it be with the Got Talent franchise, Dancing with the Stars, and more. It’s been my job to bring people’s personal stories, experiences and emotions to the nations TV screens as part of a carefully crafted TV show. The core of sharing these stories is an on-camera interview, the moment where our subject gets to share a piece of themselves with the show and in turn the nation. It’s an opportunity to open up, to explain the road that lead them to appearing on that show and essentially garner the sympathy or empathy of the viewer at home, and it’s my job to help them do this in the most effective way.

Interviewing for reality TV is something one learns over time. I think the biggest misconception is that contestants are told what to say by a team of producers no one ever gets to see, and whilst yes, we are working hard to bring your favorite shows to your TV screen, we are not telling contestants what to say…we are helping them structure their truth in a concise way to have maximum impact. The key to conducting this kind of interview is to take a story, a personal experience, and present that to an audience in not only the most relatable way possible, but also in a very short amount of time.

The foundation of this kind of interview really is listening. Sounds obvious, right? I have met many producers over the years who have gone in to their interview armed with a list of great questions and a plan of how they want the interview to go, but then forgetting that they have to listen and respond. Sure, ask your first question, make small talk to create a bond and put the person you’re interviewing at ease (they’ll likely be nervous) but from that point on you should be listening and responding. Hear the story you’re being told, enter the world of the person you’re interviewing, imagine how it might feel to have their life, to feel their feelings, to have seen what they’ve seen and feel what they feel. It’s surprising how often even the most hardened of interviewees can be telling you a story but the second you ask them how it feels, it leads them to emotionally connect with the experience again and the regaling of the story changes, now you have the connection and the true feelings.

Ensuring you understand how a person feels is the core of any successful interview and if I could only give one piece of advice that would be it. That said there are a number of ways you can ensure your interview for TV is as thorough and successful as it can be.

So, as you head in to a reality interview think about the following list:

Research your subject

  • Always go in to an interview knowing your interviewee’s background. Who they are, what their life has been like. Know their story in advance and how you want to tell it and have a clear idea of the structure.
  • Ideally talk to your subject in advance for a pre-interview conversation. If that’s not possible, then do your research and know as much as you can about them before you sit down.
  • Write your interview structure/questions in advance. This gives you a guideline to ensure that a) you hit all the beats and don’t miss anything and b) stops you veering off track. Of course, things may change in the interview, but that list of questions acts as your guide and will keep you from losing your way.

Start Light

  • This may seem obvious, but when you have a lot to cover in an interview and perhaps a short amount of time to get it all done, it can be tempting to get in to the heavy or core of a story straight away. This is not a good idea. Let’s face it an interview is a pretty unnatural situation. I always find it’s a good idea to have a chat off camera first, kind of outline what’s going to happen but generally just put them at ease, so they feel comfortable talking to you.
  • Once you begin the interview, always start with the light topics, who they are, where they’re from, their background, growing up etc. No one tells a story by going straight to the middle of the book, you need an introduction to ease in.

Sentence Structure

  • Always get the person to answer your question in a full sentence. The interviewers voice is rarely used. If you asked where a person grew up, if they simply answer ‘Denver Colorado’ there is no context for that answer or what you were asking. The person being interviewed needs to incorporate what was being asked in their response e.g. I grew up in Denver Colorado.

Stay Silent

  • A little less natural, but as you listen to what the person you’re interviewing says it’s important for you to remain silent. You need the audio of the interview to be clean. Thankfully, you can convey a whole range of emotions through your face without making a sound. Using your eyes and facial expressions you can easily nod, shake your head, be sympathetic, be surprised, laugh, but all without sound to encourage the person you are interviewing but not messing up your audio recording.

Be reactive and flexible

  • Often even with all the research and pre-chat before the interview starts, sometimes they just don’t go the way you expect them to. Maybe the timeline is different than you thought, maybe the person doesn’t feel the way you expected, maybe the person doesn’t want to talk about something you were hoping would be the heart of the interview, it happens. The key here is being reactive, being able to work around the hurdles, find a different story or change the direction of what you hoped to get and adapt to the new facts.

Engage and be empathetic

  • An interview shouldn’t just be a list of questions. It’s essentially a conversation. Don’t ask a question to hear an answer and then simply ask the next question on your list. React to the response, maybe it sparks another question, maybe it brings up something you never thought of, ‘hear’ what the person being interviewed says and respond to it, offer empathy, offer sympathy, ask more questions that feel natural. It’s important to remain human and imagine how it must feel for the person you’re talking to, give them space to feel and show that emotion within the interview

Respect

  • Respect the story, it’s someone’s life. Whether you are shocked, saddened, or find it funny, it’s important to respect the story and allow the person being interviewed to tell it their way in their words.

Pacing and Space

  • Don’t rush! This is both for the success of the interview and for post. Always allow room and space at the end of each response for the person to complete what they’re saying or feeling and for your editor to have a clean end before your voice starts again.
  • It’s also very important to allow the person you’re interviewing to talk at their own pace. If they clearly think something is funny, let them laugh, if they are super sad and start to cry, give them room to cry. You can of course be empathetic and sympathetic, but this is where you have to go against natural instincts a little. It may feel uncomfortable but it’s real and it allows the viewer at home to connect with the person.

Obviously there a so many variables when conducting an interview and no two interviews are the same, but ultimately an interview is a carefully crafted conversation where the interviewer is in control but the person being interviewed is still being given the opportunity to speak freely and honestly.

The best way to get better at TV reality interviews? Work in the field but ALWAYS work in the edit too. This way you can see precisely the mechanics and process of how the interview becomes the one-minute piece on TV. The best producers are those that work in both field and post, no question. Oh, and practice, practice, practice; like with anything, the more you do it, the better you will be.

Overcoming diversity barriers in the industry

My name is Xiao Sun. I was born and raised in China before coming to Canada nine years ago. The performing arts has always been my passion and I have been getting up on a stage to express myself since I was only five years old. I have had the opportunity to work alongside some of Hollywood’s elite, like Oscar winners Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Charlize Theron, and most recently Seth Rogan, to name a few.

Like many in this industry, my path towards becoming an actress has been unique. I originally started off as a dancer, training for ten years in Chinese traditional dance. I travelled around China with my team, competing and learning along the way. My dance background taught me how to express myself through performing arts from a young age, and I was later hired as a dancer in Cirque du Soleil’s touring show Amalunain Montreal, Canada.

After moving to Montreal with my parents in 2009, I also began modeling. I joined Miss Universe Canada and was one of the top 10 national finalists and was awarded the Best Runway Model award. At the time, I was the first Asian contestant to ever receive this prestigious award. That was when I realized, maybe for the first time in a professional sense, that I had the power to overcome diversity barriers and become a role model for other Asians looking to make their way in North America’s fashion and entertainment industries.

It was after this experience when I began pursuing my truest passion: acting. Not too long afterwards, I booked my first ever film, Fatal (Universal Pictures), and my career kicked off. However, as the years went by, the only roles that I was getting were those that were specifically looking for Chinese actresses to play “hot girl” or “girlfriend” or “receptionist” or “best friend”. I was and still am very grateful for these roles and how they helped develop my career, but I was beginning to want more. Very few casting calls were looking for Chinese or Asian actors for leading roles, and none of the roles had any real substance.

Recently, the trends in the industry are changing. The success of Black Panther was just one of many awakenings for Hollywood, showing production companies that films not only starring minorities, but also celebrating them, can become massive successes both critically and at the box office.

Television is undergoing a similar paradigm shift. Just last month, Glamour published an article titled “Now Trending on TV: The Sexy Asian Hunk” highlighting the many hit shows that feature Asian actors in the starring roles, playing roles that go beyond the typical stereotype often associated with Asian characters. This is exactly what I, like many Asians in the industry, love to see. However, even with all the progress that has been made in the last two years, dynamic female Asian leads are still very underrepresented.

For the first few years of my acting career, I was building quite the resume, but was still finding myself playing secondary characters that showcased Asian women in a way I found stereotypical; I was either hot, or nerdy, or a funny best friend, or a combination of the three. I wanted to be able to develop a role, get into the substance of the character, and really show a wide range of emotions while reminding myself why I got into acting.

I decided to slightly change the roles I was going for. I started going to less auditions, as I started picking roles that I felt were more suited to what I felt I wanted, and what I thought would be more interesting roles for an Asian woman. This included my 2016 appearance on Syfy’s Incorporated. The story took place in a future where the United States was no more, and China had taken over as the global superpower. I played a public influencer that encouraged and inspired people to save the kids suffering in areas affected by natural disasters caused by climate change. In Mother,opposite Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem, my character was a huge fan of poetry. I travelled days to see a famous poet (played by Bardem) to tell him how much I liked his work, and my character was just a normal human being on this planet. These roles did not require a specific ethnicity. These types of roles are the type we should all strive for.

My most recent role, in Seth Rogan and Charlize Theron’s film Flarsky, I once again had the opportunity to play a character that was proudly Chinese. Initially, the role did not specifically call for an Asian actress, as the film was still being written. After getting the role, the finer details were ironed out, and I was written as a powerful Chinese executive passionate about rescuing animals. This character is passionate and complicated, and the kind of character I always dreamed of playing when I first set out to become an actress.

For too long, Asians have lived on the edge of screens. Jackie Chan and Lucy Liu were pioneers in overcoming such barriers, and in recent years, minorities are having more and more opportunities to take on roles that highlight their culture but are not limited to that audience. Asian actors still have a long way to go, but I would encourage all looking to break out in the industry to keep trying. Go for roles that you are passionate about, write the character you want to play in the story you think is important to be told, be proud of your accent, and sooner or later, audiences will have their own Asian “Black Panther” to look up to.

 

Written by Xiao Sun

Tips from the experts: Supervising Producer Jonathon Ridgard

My name is Jonathon Ridgard, and for over ten years, I have been working as a successful television producer all around the world, predominantly on prime-time entertainment shows such as The X Factor, American Idol, Got Talent franchises, Undercover Boss and Dancing with the Stars. As a Supervising Producer, I am responsible for leading teams of producers, associate producers and production assistants to create great television shows. I have worked on many leading entertainment formats around the world, in the US, UK and Australia, for networks such as NBC, ABC, FOX, BBC, ITV, Network Ten, and more.

No two jobs are the same; no two days are ever the same. To thrive in this industry and have a successful career, you will need perseverance, commitment, and to be prepared to put in a lot of hard work. It certainly isn’t an industry that nurtures the bewildered – you’ll want confidence to work on your skills, experience and contacts and not be afraid to work from the bottom up – with no ego.

Here are my tips, insight, and advice on what it takes to get into television and become a successful producer:

STARTING OUT – PRODUCTION ASSISTANT

My biggest advice to those starting a career in television is to start at the bottom. Irrespective of whatever degree you got in university – leave the ego at the door and learn your craft from the ground up. As a production assistant, you will get to work in every department on a show, work with equipment, and get a real insight into what life is like as a producer. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or ask for advice. Showing a keen interest and being pro-active with your role will only make you stand out to a producer. But remember, choose the right time to ask those questions! Approach every single task, however big or small, with enthusiasm as if your life depended on it. Do the coffee run, make perfect notes, anticipate the needs of your producer and you will be off to a good start.

WATCH TV / HAVE IDEAS

One of the things that I am always surprised at when speaking to people starting out in television is the amount of time they spend watching TV – or lack of. It is so important to watch TV, films, commercials, music videos, short films – anything that might give you inspiration. Mark Twain once said, “There is no such thing as a new idea”, but what a successful producer can do is look at and take inspiration from what they see around them. I have drawn so much inspiration from the stuff that I have watched, adapted it and created something myself.

Constantly make a list of your ideas, whether it’s for a new type of show, a segment of a particular type of show, an interesting game or a particular shot that you liked. You will never know when that might work.

BE SOCIAL

I can’t stress how important it is to get to know as many people as you can, especially in the first few years of your career. Making connections is the key to success in the television industry. Jobs are rarely, if ever advertised. Most people get jobs through word of mouth, reputation and recommendation. So being a strong, creative worker with a good network is definitely an advantage. I haven’t had a ‘job interview’ in seven years and I have worked consistently. All of my work is through recommendations and network executives or executive producers reaching out and wanting me.

And finally…

ENJOY YOURSELF AND BE NICE

Working in television should be a fun, creative experience – remember that, even when things get stressful. This career has given me the opportunity to work and travel the world, meet some of the most interesting people and have the most amazing, life changing experiences – take a moment to take them in.

Remember, always be nice. It’s very easy to develop an ego in this industry, but the one thing I always remember is while it’s nice to be important, it’s important to be nice.

 

Jonathon Ridgard is currently working on the newest season of American Idol, premiering March 11th on ABC.

Ask an Expert: Executive Producer Ed Egan provides insight and advice

I’m Executive Producer Ed Egan, and for over 15 years I have worked in the television industry, becoming recognized as one of the leading game show producers in the world. As Executive Producer, I am responsible for leading teams who produce great television shows, but I am also tasked with developing new ideas to create formats which have the potential to sell all around the world. I have worked on many leading gameshow formats around the world, in the US, UK and Australia, for networks such as NBC, ABC, BBC, ITV, Network Ten among others.

Gameshow formats are notoriously difficult to crack and small, seemingly insignificant tweaks can have profound repercussions if they are not discovered through intensive gameplay testing. The last thing you want is to discover a flaw whilst filming a show, as there can be millions of dollars at stake. This is why an experienced Executive Producer, who can put together a strong team, is vital in the production of any new format. I have become well known for working on pilots and first seasons for my ability to tweak gameplay and iron out any potential problems that could arise.

I believe the most important role of an Executive Producer is to lead a team in a way that ensures every member provides their best possible work on a production and feels valued in what they are making.

Here are my quick tips to leading a production team to produce the best shows possible:

Choose the right team

It all comes from having a great team. Not only does it make your life as an Exec easier, it also makes the best product. Meet lots of people and spend time interviewing them. Some people give great interviews, and some don’t, but it’s important to make a distinction between those that can talk well and those that can actually do the job! Make sure to always check as many references as possible. Personality is also important though, as the people you are employing are going to be a team and will need to work well together. Finding a good, balanced mix with strong abilities is the key.

Stay in contact with people you’ve worked with.

It’s important to know what the availability is of people you like that you’ve worked with previously so that you can plan for when productions begin. Sometimes it can take weeks to get a full team on board and the more aware you are of who is and isn’t available at all times, the better prepared you will be.

Note down ideas

Keep notes in your phone when you see something you like or that inspires you. A film, another television show or even the design of a restaurant you happen to be in – if there’s something visual you like it may be useful in a show at some point. Commercials are often very useful starting points when trying to explain your vision of a project to people for the first time. Also, keep notes on possible talent that you see, whether this be TV, film or theatre, as you might want to use them in the future.

Enjoy it

We’re very fortunate to work in a creative industry that often affords us the chance to go to exciting places, meet interesting people and we get to be creative. Enjoy it, encourage it in others and aim to inspire those who you are working with. They will be running teams in the not so distant future, so try to set a good example.

Believe in yourself

Like so many other Execs, we question ourselves and our abilities all the time and that’s not a bad thing. But, you are at the level you’re at for a reason, so make those decisions and stick to them. It’s important to remember that at times, especially when the going gets tough.

And finally…

Work hard and be nice to people!