The morning spun forward and Laura Brunkala – actor, director, producer, singer, kick-boxer and intermediate yogi – checked the rear-view and changed lanes. Country music played. A cellphone buzzed. The light turned green and the hour was cool and fresh with possibility.
She slid on sunglasses as a helicopter flashed across the windshield and disappeared over the Hollywood Hills. "You have to have this ability to hang in there," she said. "There's a million ways to make it. If you're not creating content, you're not getting yourself out there."
But she admitted to a gap in her repertoire: "I'm not a good tweeter," she said. "It's an area of weakness for me."
A daughter from Cleveland who started playing flute at 8, Brunkala, like thousands of aspiring actors, is a master shape-shifter with voracious ambition. She is one in a legion that navigates the entertainment industry's lower rungs, racing to auditions, writing scripts, nursing rejections, compiling demo reels, uploading editing software and knowing that a non-union commercial will pay extras about $150 a day but a union shoot will command $366 and up to $732 on weekends. They star in each other's movies in a loose network of bartered skills that has arisen in the age of multiple platforms and digital filmmaking.
Brunkala was a face in the crowd on a shoot with Clint Eastwood and Leonardo DiCaprio in "J. Edgar." She was a cameo cocktail waitress with Al Pacino and Annette Bening in "Danny Collins," which, she said, "was the day I learned the most about acting. They'd cut but they still kept their banter going back and forth." She has other favorites. Kevin Spacey is a master. Liev Schreiber "blows my mind."
Brunkala lives in North Hollywood with a husky-chow mix named J.T. and her fiancé, Chris Bound, an actor "who's really good looking but for some reason has been typecast as a jerk." She was handcuffed to a bed in a small movie ("'Room' meets 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre'") about human trafficking. Her directing projects include a projected $3-million independent feature, "Desiree," about cutting, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress, and a proposed television pilot "Dumb Law Cops," a satire on state laws such as Arizona's limit on the number of sex toys in a home.
One senses Brunkala could produce a movie on one phone while directing a car chase on another. Her texts spray like buckshot. Slender and swift, she has fair skin, an upturned nose and a voice that can veer high or rasp mischief. Her smile is disarming. But in profile, with her dark hair tight in a ponytail, she can glide on high heels – as she did in one scene – with the severity of an ice queen who could pierce you with a phrase.
"I don't want to sound pretentious, but I'm good at directing," she said, while gauging the long odds of breaking out as an actor. "There's literally a million actors my age. Twenties, brunet, Caucasian. Directing this film 'Desiree' is huge for me. Hopefully, it will mean better and bigger jobs. I'm learning from assistant directors and directors of photography."
She spoke of such ambition as her black Corolla pulled up to a Hollywood apartment, where Katina Nikou, Tamara Davis and Elyssa Phillips, collectively known as 3 Girls Sketch Network, conspired beneath a ceiling fan and a bookcase fronting the titles "How to Get the Part" and "The Power of the Actor." The all-women troupe is a testament to an entertainment industry that has not been fair to women and minorities.
"When you're a young female in Hollywood you feel limited," said Nikou.
"Behind every funny woman," said Phillips, a New York transplant with sharp stand-up timing, "is a … guy in a suit."
Laptops unfolded. The TV came to life. Davis and Phillips, dressed like cops, pulled up to a suburban house, where a burglar rushed out wielding a light saber next to a wife in a housecoat and a bemused husband holding a knife. Inquiries ensued. The burglar was released after a search found that the home contained a few too many pleasure toys. The husband and wife were arrested. Hilarity all around.
"I love that we have three angles and we shot it that fast," said Brunkala, 29, who was also editing the clip, which would be part a 22-minute pilot for "Dumb Law Cops" shopped to Comedy Central and other networks. "We can fix it later in postproduction."
Brunkala's mother works on ingredients at Nestlé and her father is a landscaper and a snow plower who does other people's taxes. She played guitar and sang Stone Temple Pilots covers in garage bands during high school. She majored in zoology at Miami University in Ohio, but after appearing in a student film, she moved to Los Angeles in 2008.
Her income is stitched together from sporadic stints: $200 a day for directing "Dumb Law Cops"; more than $300 as a stand-in on a film set, meaning posing for lighting and other technical adjustments while the star (Megan Fox or Michelle Monaghan) goes off-set for hair and makeup; $3,000 for an advertising photo shoot with her boyfriend and dog for a pet vaccine. She once won $18,000 as a contestant on "Wheel of Fortune."
"Every day is a lottery," she said. "When I don't have work I go on unemployment. Every actor does."
But she often finds parts, even one in a small corner house in Burbank, where Rob Thorpe, an Afghanistan war veteran and graduate of the New York Film Academy, talked about how "demons and fetishes can ruin lives." That theme was part of his comic-book-inspired film "The Weary Traveler Inn" – sort of "The Shining" meets "The Twilight Zone" -- about a woman (Jessica), played by Brunkala, who was sexually abused as a child.
"How's this?" said Brunkala, pointing to her makeup.
"A little darker under the eyes," said Thorpe. "Lack of sleep kind of stuff."
Thorpe met Brunkala when casting her in an earlier movie, "The Birthing Fields," a tale of human trafficking shot in the high desert. "Laura comes in and wants to make something that matters," said Thorpe, who reads Edgar Allan Poe and has a Minion on his nightstand. "There's so much life in her." With her eyes more haunted, Brunkala, dressed in a flannel shirt, her long hair hanging drab, walked up stairs to the bedroom, where she became Jessica, her voice cracked, bereft. A lightly bearded man scurried behind her with a boom mike.
"Really be angry," said Thorpe.
"I wasn't sure if it should be anger or sadness," said Brunkala.
They took a break. Brunkala filled a plate with strawberries. "Rob writes deep, detailed back stories. Most of his work ends with the main character dying. Me, on the other hand, I like the journey. I like a happy ending," she said. "Did you know the new thing in film is who can get the longest tracking shot? Have you seen 'Daredevil' on Netflix? The director of photography on that is amazing."
She checked her phone. She had been trying to book a venue for her band, Broken Arrows. She had to fly back to Cleveland for her wedding shower (she marries in August) and, as if contemplating a shifting mosaic, said, "You never know what comes out of what jobs you take. The director of a low-budget student film could one day be directing a feature for Paramount."
Do it yourself
That chance led her on an early Sunday morning to the California State University, Northridge, campus, where Cade King, director of the fourth episode of "Film Femmes," a series about feminism that will be pitched to a funded YouTube channel and Netflix, blocked out shots in lecture hall 192.
Brunkala had been called in as a producer and to play a sharp-tongued professor. The show's creator, Jessica Kwazz, said the 10-episode series offers "micro-metaphors to depict what's going on in Hollywood. There's a huge conversation about lack of roles for women in front of and behind the camera. I wanted to do something about it."
Brunkala slipped into high heels as Mackenzie Ogden hurried through the door. Wearing rings on most fingers, Ogden played Kayla, a character who is "kind of like Reese Witherspoon in 'Election' mixed with 'Legally Blonde' mixed with Khlo Kardashian." As she prepared for her scene, Ogden, 23, complained about casting calls that advertise for "girls with bikini bods" or "perfect skin and D-cup."
The camera was set up amid makeup kits, small bags of Doritos and throw-away plates. Action. Actors playing students derisive of a women-inspired film club delivered lines; the scene shifted to Brunkala, who walked toward the camera. Cut. She motioned to King, whispering that one of the actors needed to punch up the sarcasm.
"It's all about slight tone adjustments," said Brunkala, sipping tea.
The crew took five. Actors meandered through the hall toward vending machines. Brunkala sat on a bench, checking her phone and talking about marriage, acting and getting better at Twitter. She pulled out her laptop and scrolled through a clip she was editing. It needed to be tighter so that the seams didn't show and the purity of fiction became as real as life.