Chasing a dream in La La Land

Craig Anderson, Penelope Mitchell, Michael Clarke-Tokely, Luke Pegler, Alycia Debnam-Carey and HaiHa Le are looking to land their big-screen break in the ABC's <i>Next Stop Hollywood</i>.
Craig Anderson, Penelope Mitchell, Michael Clarke-Tokely, Luke Pegler, Alycia Debnam-Carey and HaiHa Le are looking to land their big-screen break in the ABC's Next Stop Hollywood.

RIGHT now, the names of Craig Anderson, Michael Clarke-Tokely, Alycia Debnam-Carey, HaiHa Le, Penelope Mitchell and Luke Pegler don't appear on billboards for the latest film or hot TV show.

But one day, they could.

They are but six of the scores of actors from Down Under who recently made the annual pilgrimage to Los Angeles for ''pilot season'', when the studios cast their new programs in the hope of getting full-season commissions from the TV networks.

The six-part observational documentary Next Stop Hollywood tracks their fates as they try to get a foothold in the world's entertainment capital.

But there's a still-larger question hovering over this universal portrait of self-transformation, of people reconciling their dreams and hopes, struggles and disappointments. What is the measure of success in this most glamorous, feted, yet brutal of vocations, and why would someone of sound mind willingly submit to this kind of rite of passage in the first place?

Those questions certainly loomed large in the minds of Anderson and Le, who at 35 and 30 and with runs on the board - Anderson is creator and star of the offbeat ABC comedy Double the Fist, while Vietnam-born Le has had roles in Bed of Roses, Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries and Neighbours - are ready to move to the next stages of their careers.

Anderson agreed to the project when its director, Gary Doust, suggested it would be an opportunity to see how Hollywood works.

''I assumed I would be fine, but when I got there I realised how hard it was,'' Anderson says.

His arrival in LA without having shored up an agent or manager isn't an experience Anderson is comfortable revisiting. Ditto his encounter with an A-list actor on the red carpet who abjectly reminded him of his place in the pecking order. ''I feel sick now talking about it,'' he says. ''It was a horrible experience trying to get [an agent], they were like gatekeepers treating me like an idiot. It was humiliating.''

Le, by her own admission a shy person, admits it took some convincing on the part of executive producer Tony Ayres (The Slap) to have cameras following her on this important journey.

While she hoped it would open doors and opportunities in Los Angeles, she says she ''mostly did it for personal reasons. I was at a stage of my career where I wanted a challenge. As actors, you're always drawing on your life experience, and I knew this process would force me to be brutally honest with myself and the type of work I want to do. On a personal level, it allowed me to grow and be brutally honest with myself.''

For Le, who has travelled to pilot season before, the campaign to break into the industry in America is a ''slow-burner''.

Both actors, however, are in no doubt about where their futures lie.

''When I got back [from filming Next Stop Hollywood] I had been to every network in this country pitching ideas,'' Anderson says. ''They like what I do, but they say it's too narrow for our audience. Everything I watch is from America, apart from what Trent O'Donnell (A Moody Christmas) does. My humour has a fan base there. I developed two projects for ABC2 that got to the final hurdle, but they're too weird for here, the audience too small. Overseas is the answer. American TV can sell this stuff to their own audience and a global audience.''

Actors from multicultural backgrounds are also more likely to find rewarding roles in the US, Le believes.

Courtesy of quotas and a vast domestic and global audience, culturally diverse characters tend to be more seamlessly woven into American shows than is the case in Australia, Le says.

''A character might be Asian in appearance but the storyline won't be Asian, it won't draw attention to ethnicity. A Latino character won't speak in accent, he or she will just look different.'' The role that Le auditioned for in Neighbours was as neighbour-from-hell Michelle McKenzie. When Le was cast in the 12-episode role, the character name was changed to Michelle Tran ''to suit my appearance''.

Doust, whose earlier documentary Making Venus also delved into the pratfalls of filmmaking, had heard the hard-luck stories of actors trying to break into Hollywood.

''All too often people assume you go over there and become an overnight success,'' Doust says. ''People don't realise that Naomi Watts spent 10 years in LA before she had a break. We were interested in getting into that, the challenges of being an actor and trying to crack it over there.''

When an earlier attempt to make Next Stop Hollywood with an overseas broadcaster fell over, Doust approached Ayres and his Matchbox Pictures partner Michael McMahon about a reincarnated version that would be more observational in style.

Casting agent Kirsty McGregor found five of the six actors who appear in Next Stop Hollywood. ''We were looking at a certain level of actors,'' says Doust, who maintains that none of the cast regarded the documentary as a calling-card or, worse, a talent-themed reality show. ''I don't think any of these actors wanted to be seen as a Kardashian. They are quite serious about their craft and it was probably more a case, when we knew which actors we wanted, of us reassuring them that it's not a reality show. I still think the risk for them in terms of putting themselves out there was [higher] than becoming famous.''

While it's smartly constructed as a what-happens-next guessing game, underpinning Next Stop Hollywood is a cautious and salutary story about ''making it''.

''I don't want to call it luck or timing,'' Doust says, ''but I wanted to show how certain things need to line up for you as an actor. Some of our big actors may not have made it had they not been in the right place at the right time.

''It's a bit scary to think that you may or may not make it just by meeting the right person or being in LA at the right time. Of course acting ability is important, but it's not everything.''

Doust was surprised at the various outcomes. ''Before we started this, I wouldn't have picked the ones that scored roles.''

It may seem ironic given the apparent out-there-ness of the Hollywood machine that the secrecy of the big-talent agencies posed the biggest challenges Doust faced making the documentary.

As we see, cameras were not allowed anywhere near their premises and the actors fortunate enough to land a meeting were not allowed to reveal what was discussed. ''I was banging my head in the beginning because of access,'' Doust says. ''It's just easier for people to not appear on camera and talk. They assume the worst; that you're Michael Moore or it's a Borat sketch.

''They just say no. It really is the safest thing to do.''

At one stage, Doust thought it should be called ''The Doors, because that's all we were seeing''.

''Almost every actor we spoke to said, 'I'd like to watch that', but far fewer were willing to be involved and open themselves up,'' he says. ''I think it's a brave thing that our six actors did.''

Next Stop Hollywood premieres on Tuesday, January 8, at 9.30pm on ABC1.

This story Chasing a dream in La La Land first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.