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On the Road with Bernadette

Photo by Shari Abercrombie

Bernadette Sullivan doesn’t do Republicans. I mention this because it stunned me at first to hear that a working actor would turn down jobs in a market where work is evaporating and competition is fierce. But I also offer it as an antidote to widely held negative opinions, especially among so-called liberals, about the people who make their livings as the voices of brands and products. Sullivan is one of those people. She has, over the last couple of decades, informed us that Lee is the brand that fits, told us that with Key Bank you can achieve anything and reminded us that Title IX, the initiative that promised funding for girls’ sports in public schools, is worth defending. She has also helped found a couple of highly respected theater companies, including the Frank Theater in Minneapolis and Zoo District in Los Angeles; performed in professional regional theater; and lent her dulcet tones to the late Senator Paul Wellstone’s Minnesota campaigns and Ralph Nader’s bid for president. But she has never done a Republican candidate’s spot, and she never will.

She was, however, recently asked by her voice-over agent whether she’d consider doing a spot for Playboy. “Sure,” she said. “Unless it’s XXX raunchy, that’s fine.”

To which her friend Maile Flanagan, one of the funniest people in show business, cracked, “So you don’t turn down porn. Just Republicans.”

“That’s right,” Sullivan said. “Just Republicans.”

It’s around 11 a.m. just outside the offices of Cunningham Escott Slevin & Doherty (CESD), the Westside agency where Sullivan goes almost every morning to audition for voice-over spots. A wholesome-looking woman with cascades of brunette curls and a light, even sprinkling of freckles, Sullivan has marketable looks: She’s never lost that girl-next-door quality, even into her 40s. But it’s her resonant alto speaking voice — a sound of both authority and sensuality — that pays her bills. It’s already shaping up to be a busy morning: The drive from her house in Hollywood took an hour, and she has been given five scripts to read, including a Honey-Baked Ham commercial; a GLAAD Media Awards “voice of god” presenter; and a video-game character with a French-Cajun accent. (“Oooh, that’s hard,” I hear her say as she marks up the script with a yellow highlighter.) In the agent’s office, actors enter and exit, talk about buying houses and paying taxes, sit with their faces in scripts whispering to themselves. In the corner, Jim Connor, a very funny actor, sits muttering sly jokes.

“You want some dirt on Bernadette?” he asks me. “Here’s something: She grabs my butt. Even rubs it sometimes.”

Sullivan laughs. “Only when you’re least expecting it, Jim,” she says.

“Hungry for more?” says a woman sitting a few feet from me in a perky sotto voce: “Try a side of sizzling Bacon!” (That’s “Bacon” as in Kevin — the script is a promo spot for a television network.)

“Actors endure long periods of unemployment, intense competition for roles, and frequent rejections in auditions,” says the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an observation so familiar it scarcely bears repeating. Most people outside the business separate actors into two neat camps: the ones who earn enough in films, television and Broadway theater to own million-dollar homes in Malibu and the ones who hold down part-time jobs as waiters while they wait for the big break that may never come. But in between labor the tens of thousands of middle-class actors who live in modest homes and put their kids in public school, who always work enough hours to qualify for union health insurance through SAG or AFTRA but never become household names. Between auditions for commercials and day jobs in film and television and low-paying or pro bono theater projects, union actors like Sullivan commonly work 10- to 14-hour days, for which, if she’s lucky, her gross income might occasionally nudge into the six figures (the Department of Labor puts the actor’s median income at around $11.50 an hour, but admits work is too sporadic to arrive at a yearly figure). Out of that come dues to three unions and expenses for demos and their distribution and ongoing acting classes (until recently, Sullivan studied with the esteemed Larry Moss). And if you resent the $20,000 she might make on one commercial and its residuals, consider the four months of auditions invested in that one lucky job, and the nine months of theater that she did for almost nothing, even though one of her three unions, Actors’ Equity, ?approved of it.

Consider also that the commercial industry never quite recovered from the six-month SAG strike of 2000. If both sides emerged from that battle hobbled and weary, it’s the actors who have seen their health premiums rise and their benefits decline. Sullivan is single without children. “But I think about people who have all these kids who are getting glasses and braces and falling out of trees,” she says. In the wake of the strike, commercial actors have also seen their jobs replaced by an obsession with “real” (that is, nonunion) people, even as other steady jobs have been taken over by celebrities. “There have been changes like that, changes that were made that had something to do with the strike,” Sullivan says. “A lot of them will never change back.”

 

Years ago, when I was a theater critic in Minneapolis, Sullivan was the woman to watch in local theater, and one of the few homegrown talents — she was raised in a small Wisconsin town near the Minnesota border — to have scored roles at the Guthrie, Minneapolis’ acclaimed professional regional theater. In 1995, after we’d both relocated to Los Angeles, we ran into each other on the street the night police were apprehending a serial killer around the corner, and realized we were neighbors. One afternoon, after a few months of greeting each other over the fence, I invited her over for a barbecue, and asked her to read Hermione’s speech from The Winter’s Tale (“Sir, spare your threats . . .”),just because I wanted to hear it. Unflaggingly gracious, she obliged. It was magnificent.

In another country — England, for instance — where the arts still enjoy the benefits of public funding, Sullivan’s training at New York’s prestigious Circle in the Square and her subsequent track record might have guaranteed her a decent living; in the United States, however, where theater remains subject to the whims of the market, the commercial industry is a necessary source of income. She does not sneer at the work. “I love it,” she says. “I look at it as storytelling. I’ve met such amazing people — my fellow actors who do this work, amazing actors.”

But I can’t help thinking it’s mostly a way to pay the bills that live theater can’t. Most recently, Sullivan played Gertrude in the Independent Shakespeare Company’s production of Hamlet, a paying, union job. Before that, she finished a run in Fighting Words, a three-woman play by Sunil Kuruvilla about a Welsh boxer named Johnny Owen, directed by Tim Byron Owen at the Celtic Arts Center. She played a woman in a frustrated marriage who longs to become a radio announcer (“a simmering Modigliani about to burst off the canvas” is how the Los Angeles Times described her performance). Later in the afternoon, her phone rings, and she looks at the incoming number. “Oh, this might be good news,” she says excitedly. I think maybe she’s landed a commercial spot from one of her auditions earlier in the morning. Instead, she’s waiting to hear whether Fighting Words will be going to the Cardiff festival in Wales in July.

As for the morning’s voice-over auditions, she’s not waiting on any outcome. “We do so many of them that it really is about showing up, doing your best audition and moving on to the next one. So I let them go,” she says. “They’re absolutely gone. Sometimes I’ll get a call about something later, and I’ll think, ‘Did I audition for that?’ ”

At 1 p.m., we head to a Starbucks in the mall on Overland and Venice for a meeting with a potential manager, Andrew Stawiarski of ADS Management. “I’ve never done television work,” Sullivan explains, “and I think it’s time to consider the possibilities. I need a manager to do that.” She’d also like some help lining up auditions for regional theater. “This is an introductory meeting,” she says, “mostly for me to hear how he works.” The meeting lasts an hour, and seems to go well, although I duck out for most of it. “He looked at my head shots,” Sullivan tells me later. “We talked about the theater that I’ve done, and what kinds of connections he has to television casting directors and theater casting directors.” They’ve agreed to meet again sometime in the next few weeks.

At 2 p.m., she heads to her afternoon job — as a tutor in the afterschool program at Bancroft Middle School on Las Palmas Avenue in Hollywood, where she works from 3 until 6 every afternoon. As Sullivan pores over the kids’ grammar and vocabulary exercises, I talk to a 13-year-old girl who makes me a paper crane, and tells me her plans for Sullivan’s sister, who recently left where she was living in Arizona to return to her native Wisconsin after being diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. “I’m making her a thousand cranes,” the girl says, absent-mindedly drawing anime characters and Japanese characters in her notebook. “White ones.” The girl is not Japanese herself, just obsessed with the culture. At the end of the day, she’s the last to leave, and follows Sullivan down the stairs and out the door.

 

On the way out, the phone rings again. It’s still not the call she’s waiting for. Another whole day will pass before she finds out whether Fighting Words has a chance of playing Cardiff in July, and, maybe, even New York next fall. It will pay a stipend — just enough to survive. But it is, clearly, the news most worth reporting.


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