From the U.P. to the Screen Actors Guild? It’s kind of a funny story...

One of the lesser-known perks of membership in showbiz’s top unions comes around Christmas/Hanukkah/Boxing Day, when moviegoers are standing in freezing theater lines to see the sudden bounty of quality movies. Packages start to arrive at your house, containing DVDs of many of those movies, “screeners” provided to industry insiders who will soon vote on these films for the Oscars, Golden Globes and other awards. As a member of the Screen Actors Guild, I’m one of those lucky union members.

So how did a kid from Negaunee – that’s in the Upper Peninsula, for all you foreigners – come to be passing official judgment on the work of Meryl Streep and Martin Scorsese? Because I know how to juggle.

Let me explain.

One summer I moved to Los Angeles, like many with crazy Hollywood dreams. On arrival, I of course needed work, but I’d just moved from a state with the highest unemployment in the country (Michigan) to a state with the second-highest unemployment in the country (California). It’s like being in the Arabian Desert and feeling thirsty, so you move to the Sahara.

I was couch-surfing at my friend Jenna Banko’s house in North Hollywood. She’d starred in a play of mine I’d written at Central Michigan University called “Coffeehouse Philosophy and the Pain It Causes,” about a person who goes into a coffee shop and kills everyone in it. She’d moved on from that world-famous play to working as a background actor for a small movie franchise you’ve probably never heard of, called “Pirates of the Caribbean.” With tales of extravagant costumes, incredible craft services (what civilians know as food), and the thrill of being on the same set as Johnny Depp, she convinced me to throw in an application to Central Casting. I did.

Long story short, Warner Brothers chose me from the pile to be a featured extra for an ABC show called “Pushing Daisies.” The booker asked me if I could juggle. I said yes. I added that I could juggle anything. They hired me.

After the call, I had the revelation that I’d said “anything.” And anything covers a lot. Including pins, chainsaws, bottles of acid, and wrapped up balls of barbed wire.

I had some preparation to do.

Luckily, I’d heard a recent Forest Whitaker interview where he spoke about getting his role in “The Color of Money.” They’d asked him if he had experience playing billiards and he said he did. Of course he didn’t. So he started playing billiards 14 hours a day, until he got pretty good. What stuck in my mind from that interview was that to be an actor, even a background actor, you have to be able to learn, fast.

I started juggling 12 hours a day. I treated it as a job. Because it was a job. And I got good, fast.

So good that I went from being just OK with three balls to being able to actually juggle three rings. I could throw one up high into the air, have it land on the tent they were using for filming, spin down and grab it before it landed while continuing to juggle. On a scale of one to 10, I’d give that a nine.

And that’s what got me my SAG card, Screen Actors Guild membership.

The theater major actors I knew from CMU didn’t even have that. And I got it within weeks of my arrival, because of dumb luck and the advice of Forest Whitaker.

And now, every winter, I have the pleasure of getting the best films of the year delivered to my house, where I get to analyze which actor put in the best work to earn my vote.

It’s fun. I love it. God bless SAG/AFTRA. It’s a perfect blend of Christmas, the arts, and democracy.

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