In the summer of 2003, Austin Highsmith, a young actress from North Carolina, packed a suitcase and drove cross-country in pursuit of the Hollywood dream.
Years followed, as they do, of waiting tables and auditions, until February when the 27-year-old finally landed her first big break as a guest star on CBS' "Ghost Whisperer." But as luck had it, her episode aired the same week the writers strike began. Hardly any Hollywood honchos saw it.
"Four years of work came to a screeching halt," said the actress, who has appeared in numerous smaller television and movie roles.
Highsmith is one of thousands of actors still recovering from this winter's strike but nevertheless clinging to their ambitions despite sputtering television and film production schedules that make their normally slim-to-none odds that much smaller. With talks stalled between the studios and the Screen Actors Guild, whose contract expires June 30, the prospect of another crippling labor action has Highsmith and all of Hollywood on edge.
"I'm impatient, driven," said Highsmith. "I've been working for the past five years to get something. I don't want to stop the momentum. It's so hard to get started in the first place."
If there's a strike, she added, "It'll be 'The Ghost Whisperer' all over again."
Like an estimated 80% of SAG's 120,000 members, Highsmith is not currently working as an actor. But she still shapes her days around finding work. Drama. Comedy. Commercials. Almost anything to work. It's a dizzying carousel of networking, auditions, rejection and resilience. Just spend a few days with her and it's easy to see what another strike could mean for those under the Hollywood radar.
At 5 feet 7 inches, Highsmith has sleek, dark hair framing soft brown eyes. On a recent morning, supersized hoop earrings and giant sunglasses crowned her outfit of sandals, leggings and a cotton sundress that helped hide the fact that she's not, as she put it, "drug-addict thin." She moved and spoke quickly, as if seconds counted.
On that Tuesday, she arose at 6:30 a.m. to drive a sick friend to the doctor. By 10 a.m, she was finishing up dishes in her two-bedroom apartment near the Beverly Center -- a prize because of its location and the $1,450 rent -- that she shares with her former yoga teacher. She checked her computer for messages, dropped her cellphone into a purse and hustled out the door to pick up head shots and take them to her agent.
As she motored past the Grove shopping center, strange human noises came from her purse signaling a call from her boyfriend, Maury Sterling -- one of the town's established actors ("Smokin' Aces") who is also looking for work. "He's leaving an audition," Highsmith said. He eventually landed a part on Joss Whedon's upcoming “Dollhouse." The phone rang again with her own voice saying, "Ooh, I have a message!"
Highsmith picked up the head shots from Jeff Ikemihya's photo imaging shop ("I love him," she said) and headed for North Hollywood, where her agent, Patty Vittoritto, and Vittoritto's husband, Ron, ("I love them") work out of their home.
Vittoritto has been in the business only three years, but Highsmith trusts her to know where the actress fits into the industry. The agent understands that there are certain words her churchgoing client won't say on-screen, and that she'd rather keep a healthy figure as a role model for younger girls -- all of which limit what will stick when Highsmith is throwing everything she has onto the wall.
Last year was her best, with two of three pilot auditions making it to the studio level, where someone else was ultimately chosen for the role. Before that, she had landed small parts in high-profile shows including "Boston Legal" and "CSI: New York," and acted in two low-budget films, "Fractalus" and "Breathing Room," which are still in production. She also worked as associate producer on a third movie.
She's heard for months that an actors strike is likely. Some shows are already planning to shut down in July as a precautionary measure, she said. She follows the contract talks through union e-mails and knows the issues, such as residuals, are similar to those confronted by the writers. She sympathized with the writers, but her work search took precedent and she did not walk the picket lines.
If the actors strike, her work as a waitress will help her survive, said Highsmith, who's been on her own financially since graduating from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Even during the three-month writers' strike, the restaurant didn't slow down, she said. Last year, she proudly reported, she earned $34,000 at the restaurant and $17,000 acting -- $4,000 more than required to obtain SAG health insurance, which put her ahead of most SAG members. With the next residual check, she'll be out of debt.
On the kitchen table in Vittoritto's small, dark home, Highsmith spread out the portraits. Hair up, hair down. Pretty girl smiling in a shirt, tough girl glaring in a tank top. "You do well as the girl next door," Vittoritto said, "but I don't think we should overlook troubled. This one," she pointed to one with a knowing look, "is more single than momish. We definitely need mom for commercials." A cat jumped on the table and settled in.
The chosen photos will be sent to a website that matches actors with casting directors. The new dominance of electronic weeding, although enabling casting directors to view more actors for available parts, has also increased the competition. About 450 actors vied for Highsmith's "Ghost Whisperer" role, said Gary Marsh, president of Breakdown Services, an Internet matching service. An audition for a minor part on a big TV show such as "Lost" will attract as many as 1,500 applicants.
On Wednesday, a day off for Highsmith, Sterling and Mikey Myers, a friend and managing director of Ruskin Group Theatre Co., stopped in for lunch at Back on Broadway, a Santa Monica cafe owned by Fred Deni, a friend, sometime actor and board member of the theater group. It's the type of place where most servers are actors and customers can be seen using two cellphones at once. More friends, including Sterling's manager, Devon Jackson, wandered in, prompting hugs and kisses all around.
That morning, Highsmith had driven to downtown Los Angeles to visit a friend's son being held, unfairly she said, in the Los Angeles County jail. Then she drove back to meet the others and shop for acting class supplies and bikes. After a stop at Costco, they wound up at Helen's Cycles, a bicycle shop where the salesman had just shot a Discovery Channel program in which an obese woman was taught how to ride a bike.
Highsmith and Sterling met on the callback for "Fractalus," a love story in space, in which they were cast as the two leads. Since neither is big on clubbing (Highsmith would rather knit and doesn't drink), they tend to spend their evenings watching movies on TV. Sterling, 35, lives in a studio apartment and despite steady work, has hit the wall -- the point when frustration over job-to-job existence forces an actor to ask himself: should he stay or should he go?
He was actually considering a job about 18 months ago at his favorite Montana dude ranch but ultimately realized his creative heart was elsewhere. Tapping his chest he said "something in here" told him to return to town.
There are reasons actors take jobs in restaurants. It leaves them relatively free for auditions, which arise on short notice; and if she lands a part, fellow servers can cover for them. They can also network with customers.
Friday evening, Highsmith was serving martinis and explaining the risotto to customers at the Brentwood Restaurant and Lounge, a dark, white-tablecloth place that draws celebrities because they can come and go in their luxury cars without much exposure. The restaurant has no windows.
Highsmith, dressed in black, used her "restaurant Spanish" to chat with kitchen staff, and her sharp memory to remember customers' orders. The hardest part of the job, she said, is the awkward moment when she must take orders from people with whom she's worked on sets.
In times of less labor strife, said Jackson, Sterling's manager, someone with Highsmith's talents probably would have landed a pilot by now. But "in a year like this, anything goes," he said.
Jackson said he sensed from his clients "a feeling of impending doom. Each and everyone feels like his individual career has slowed down."
In the last 10 years, he's seen their salaries decline across the board.
"You can work all the time and still live in a studio apartment," he said. "You can be recognized walking down the street, but somehow you can't afford to buy a home. That's not right in every possible way."
Highsmith spent Sunday in Santa Monica working on one of the "Cafe Plays" put on by Ruskin Group Theatre as an exercise for writers, directors and actors. The troupe creates and produces four scenes, from writing, to rehearsing, directing and performing, in a single day.
That evening, Highsmith played an emotionally distraught woman trying to leave a man who taunted her and tempted her to return. The man stood by as she sat at a cafe table, trembling, head in hands, kneading a magazine, pleading with him to leave her alone.
Afterward she and her colleagues held hands and took a bow to the applause from the 55-seat audience.
She approached John Ruskin, acting teacher and the theater's artistic director, asking how she might have made it better. She wondered whether the audience understood that she was supposed to be a love addict, that the pair's conversation was imaginary, she told him.
Then they quickly moved on to the next day's plans -- morning rehearsals for a two-person play, "Unbeatable Harold," in which she and Sterling will appear in June as Southerners in an unrequited lowbrow love affair.
"Could we make it at 2:30?" she asked. "I'm exhausted. I'd like to, you know, sleep."
Highsmith is well aware that if her union votes to strike, the actors would be walking out for something that could ultimately benefit her. She would probably join them on the picket lines, she said. But picketing takes up time. And even in the event of a strike, she could still act at the theater and take classes at the Ruskin School of Acting, all of which feeds her creative soul.
"I'm not one to say, 'Hey, let's not stand up for our rights,' " she said. "I just want to act more than anything."