The posting from an online casting site announced an audition at a local theater for a production of Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians.” Each role specified the age, gender, and race, and I matched one of them. I was 62, female, white, and a few years into retirement from my 37-year career as a probation officer for Los Angeles County. For the last two years, I had been taking an acting class for seniors in Los Angeles, but I had not tried to get paid work out of it until now.
I’d read in one of my acting books to dress as the character you’re auditioning for, so I ran around my house pulling out clothing that was the opposite of my usual wardrobe to create an English spinster outfit: an A-shape, mid-calf, tweed skirt; plain, long-sleeve blouse buttoning to the neck; horn-rimmed glasses; flat shoes with laces; hairpins to flatten my hair; and no makeup. I was tall and slender, and I knew I was attractive enough with my medium-length blond hair at the time. When I was done with my transition, I looked and felt drab, dowdy, and old.
I had decided to attend the audition after networking with other retirement-age students in my classes who were not only going to auditions, but booking parts. The idea intrigued me. Most people think of actors as being in their 20s or 30s, with Botox-free and bikini-ready bodies. Few outside of the casting world think of the myriad roles available to those of us at or past retirement age.
It’s a subsection of actors who have little trouble finding gigs, and the idea of becoming an actor after retirement is popular since many senior centers offer classes in acting. Last year, nearly 200 seniors signed up for a seminar, “Showbiz After 60,” on how to break into the business. About 14 percent of my agent’s clients are over age 50, though he represents more senior actors than most agencies do and estimates that about five percent of paid actors in Hollywood are seniors.
When I entered the audition room that first time, I immediately wanted to bolt. It was filled with actors, some in their 20s, some elderly and beautiful, some homely, slender, portly, gruff, sophisticated. All of them, including those there to audition for the same role as I, were dressed in jeans and T-shirts.
I had a schizophrenic internal dialogue going:
I want to leave.
No, you’re staying and going through with this.
But I look like a jerk.
It doesn’t matter, you’re doing it.
I asked someone what I was supposed to do.
“Put your name on the list, get the sides, and wait until your name is called,” he responded without looking up from what he was reading.
“What are sides?”
“A part of the script for you to read,” he answered, again without averting his gaze.
I wrote my name on the sign-in sheet and picked up my sides from a pile. When I was called, I walked into a bare room and was met by five people, near-clones of each other, sitting at a long table.
“She’ll be your reader,” one said, nodding to a young, attractive woman standing in a corner. “Start when you’re ready.”
I didn’t know what a reader was, and I was too embarrassed to ask, so I began to read my opening line. The woman read the other character’s line in a bored monotone.
Oh, so that’s a reader.
I survived the audition and made my getaway.
I didn’t get the part, but I did get a little bump in my self-confidence. Over the next 10 years, I continued auditioning. Now 72, I have appeared in dozens of commercials as well as roles in television, film, video, and theater, typically playing grandmothers, society women, and even sexy seniors.
The union for movie and television actors has a diversity-in-casting incentive program, and seniors are one of the targeted groups. I once got an audition and then booked a day-player role on General Hospital as a result of this program. I’ve also landed roles like “Queen of the Gym” in a mock news segment, and another as a Granny rapper.
The funny thing is, I had long suffered from stage fright when speaking in front of large groups. As a probation officer, I spent my days writing criminal sentencing reports for judges and supervising those convicted of crimes. I had never wanted to be an actress.
I grew up in a middle-class family in Los Angeles, went to UCLA, got married and had two children, and eventually three grandchildren. After retiring at age 60, I found a class in the online catalog of Emeritus College in Santa Monica, which offers courses for seniors. It was called “Scene Study” and was listed in the Theater Arts section.
It didn’t compute in my mind that class members actually acted. Had I known, I would never have taken the class. Instead, I pictured students sitting in their seats with each one reading a line or two from a play before the class analyzed it. I’d always enjoyed plays and figured I could handle that, so I enrolled.
I walked into the classroom on the first day. People of all descriptions in the baby boomer and senior age ranges were making their way to their seats. The teacher was a petite, energetic woman. Most of the students seemed to know each other; they had been taking the class for a while. I was the newbie and felt intimidated.
Right after I sat down, an elderly, stooped, gray-haired man approached. “You want to read this with me?” he said, holding out a few sheets of paper — the opening scene from Death of a Salesman.
“Okay,” I responded.
He walked up to the front of the room and turned to see if I was following him.
“Come on,” he said with a spark of irritation in his voice, because I hadn’t moved from my chair.
Oh my God, I thought, we’re supposed to read standing in front of everybody?
I could hear my heartbeat banging against my eardrums. Slowly, dragging it out as long as I could, I walked up to the head of the class and began to read my lines in a shaky voice.
Suddenly, a strange thing happened. I became so engrossed in the role that I completely forgot a roomful of strangers was watching and judging me. When we were finished, everyone dutifully clapped, snapping me out of my trance.
I looked up and realized where I was, and that I was not the wife in the play. What a rush — I was hooked and wanted more. That started me on a weekly journey of attending class, rehearsing, learning about the world of acting and enrolling in another acting-for-commercials class for seniors in Hollywood.
In that class, the teacher distributed commercial scripts to the students and gave us time to study them before filming each student performing the simple dialogue. At the end, we viewed ourselves as the teacher replayed the video and added comments.
I hated seeing myself on film; I seemed so amateurish. But over the months, I learned how to deliver the copy, always giving a little extra punch to the name of the product I was hawking.
The teacher lectured about getting professional headshots, creating a résumé, attending auditions and finding an agent. I started reading books about acting. I found myself analyzing the performances of actors I saw in movies and on television, often thinking I would have delivered that line differently than a Hollywood great.
My classmates were from different backgrounds: teachers, a doctor, a few lawyers, some housewives, a flower shop owner. Some students were taking the class just as a pastime. But others were partly supplementing their living from it. A former salesman had been in several major commercials on television, including one for a clothing warehouse. My peers gave me referrals for photographers, casting sources, and agents.
I’d always suffered from insecurity and worried about what others were thinking of me. That probably came from growing up with a domineering father who had to be the center of attention with my mother, sister, and me in the background.
I was frightened to be in the spotlight. I might have failed in public for everyone to see. The thought of becoming an actress pushed those buttons. Yet I couldn’t resist it.
I had my headshots done by a 30-something, low-cost photographer who led me into the dark, depressing living room of his apartment which he had turned into a studio. I would have left if my classmate hadn’t assured me that he was legitimate.
The photographer proved to be a pleasant guy, and two weeks later the headshots were ready. I studied the proof sheet carefully as tiny images of myself with a variety of facial expressions stared back. Every photo seemed mediocre, and I hated them all. I had thought I’d play characters in their 50s, but the photos told me that was unrealistic, and that my dyed-blond, short, blow-dried hair was way past its due date.
What did I think I was doing?
A few weeks later, an agent visited the acting-for-commercials class and advised the seniors to let their hair grow out, get rid of the fake colors, and audition for older roles. “You’ll book more work.”
I had been dying my hair blond since I was in my 20s. I didn’t even know what my natural color was. Slowly, my hair grew out to a snow-white hue. I kept it at chin length and let its natural curls have their way.
The agent was right. With my new hairdo, I got more attention. In fact, there seemed to be a lot more work for older actors. Soon, I booked my first paid acting job. It was a commercial in which I held the sign of a legal services company while roller skating down the sidewalk.
Somehow I managed to stay upright on the skates, but I couldn’t stop myself and had to roll into the arms of a “catcher” who was standing off-camera. I earned 400 dollars. I couldn’t believe it. Didn’t they know I would have done it for free?
Some months later, an agent, Daniel Hoff, came to the acting class looking for seniors to add to his client roster. He filmed us as we each read the script he had brought. Within a few weeks, his office called and offered me representation. Now that I had an agent, the auditions and jobs were rolling in.
I started to feel like a real actress as my résumé began filling up.
I once rode a mechanical horse for a commercial. Another time I was a grandmother riding in a Subaru on the moon with my family, all of us dressed in space suits.
I have played a homeless woman sitting on a bus bench in L.A.’s Skid Row at 3 o’clock in the morning for a music video. I was a trash-talking gangster granny holding a machine gun on Comedy Central’s The Ben Show.
I was in a video clip on The Doctors wearing a rubber suit that added 200 pounds to my frame. I work several times a year at UCLA Medical School portraying patients for student training. I also played the older, rich wife in a music video by country singer Trace Adkins called “Marry for Money.” I was one of six supporting exercisers in the Jane Fonda Prime Time: Firm & Burn workout DVD.
I am now a member of SAG-AFTRA, the actors’ union. Acting hasn’t made me rich, but it supplements my pension and savings. Acting also offers me exciting challenges, fun, and a sense of accomplishment.
Most recently, I appeared in a video comedy skit on the 2014 Film Independent Spirit Awards, playing the smothering mother of the show’s host, Patton Oswalt. In the audience were many Hollywood celebrities, including Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
The résumés of some of my fellow classmates have grown alongside mine. One was a regular in the “Off Their Rockers” TV series. Still others have had roles in plays and movies. We always compare notes when we encounter each other at auditions or acting class reunions.
I could have run out that first day in the senior community acting class 12 years ago or at the first audition where I felt so out of place, but I didn’t. Now, I have discovered my own second act.
Lee Gale Gruen is an actress and author of the memoir “Adventures with Dad: A Father and Daughter’s Journey Through a Senior Acting Class” (available on Amazon.com). She writes a blog, Reinventing Myself in My Retirement.
This essay originally appeared on Narrative.ly.
More stories from Narrative.ly:
- How I Used My Hijab to Hide — and Why I Don’t Anymore
- These Gender-Nonconforming People Are Building a Safe Haven on an Appalachian Farm
- Pilgrimage to the Site of My Mother’s Suicide