State Press Play: How do ASU student actors navigate a pandemic on set?

Student actors describe how they have overcome obstacles posed by isolation and limited work

COVID-19 heavily impacted many industries, and the film industry is no exception. Some films have moved forward with smaller crews, while others have paused production entirely. Despite this, State Press Reporter Travis Robertson spoke to three actors about how COVID-19 has impacted their lives and found that many have chosen to focus on the positives.  


TRAVIS ROBERTSON: 

The ASU Actor Database is available for actors to enter and make themselves available for casting. ASU filmmakers take advantage of this for their short films and capstones. 

In the new normal of the COVID pandemic, productions have changed with smaller crews, and there is anxiety and fear about exposure to the coronavirus. I spoke with three members of the actor’s database to better understand their experiences dealing with the pandemic and to get a sense of how the industry is affected by this.

The first actor I spoke with was Alex Kennedy. Alex is not an ASU student, but he is a Huntington University (Arizona) film student who made himself available to act for ASU productions. 

ALEX KENNEDY:

I probably decided I wanted to be an actor right around high school. So one of the people I looked up to, just a good friend a couple years ahead of me, suggested, "Hey you should try theater" in high school, and I was like ‘I don’t know.’ I mean everyone else is kind of going into sports and it's not really the most popular thing. So, I decided you know what, screw it, I’m just going to try it so I ended up doing four years of theater in high school and I loved it, but I did want to be on camera instead I wanted to do something with film rather than just on stage.

I feel like on film there’s a lot more genuine minute little expressions that film can capture that theater doesn’t necessarily capture, because in theater you’ve got to be a lot more broad, you’ve got to be bigger with your movements; but on camera you can really get deep down into somebody’s emotions and what somebody’s thinking, and that’s really what captured me and that’s something that I’ve been striving for even in my early college years, just trying to continue to be active within the community when it comes to film. 

TRAVIS ROBERTSON: 

Next, I spoke with Lejend Yazzie, a junior film and media production student entered in the Actor’s database.

LEJEND YAZZIE: 

Acting is meaningful to me in a lot of ways. I guess the biggest way is that I get to provide other people who look like me and who come from the same background as me representation. I am a native actress. I’m also a queer actress, and growing up I would really have appreciated seeing someone who looks like me on screen.

TRAVIS ROBERTSON: 

The last actor I spoke with was Brian Calo, a junior theater student with experience in acting for both film and theater.

BRIAN CALO:

I realized it would be a difficult path for me as a minority and as a person of color, as a member of the LGBT community, I thought that maybe this career path into theater, into acting is not for me because there’s so limited representation. But when I started to think about, well, why don’t I be that person that I hoped that someone was for me back then?

It was probably, I want to say five years ago that I started to think about that, that maybe I should become an actor because it’s fun, and maybe I could be that person to kind of encourage diversity in a field that desperately lacks it, you know?

TRAVIS ROBERTSON: 

Alex might not be an ASU student but he has been helpful within the community by acting in short films while balancing it with his school’s work.

ALEX KENNEDY:

From ASU specifically I’ve had about three to four that have reached out to me personally to see if they can do a film with me, I haven’t gotten back with all of them. Some of them I might have not been able to do but when it comes to Huntington University, the school that I personally go to, I’ve been involved in about five to six different short films that they’ve been producing and I’ve been an actor in all of those films, and some of them have went to film festivals and won a couple of awards as well, so I’m definitely committed with the community. 

I’ve also got a feature film that’s about to come out next week that I’m pretty excited for, it’s called "Mercy" so I’m definitely active in whatever the community has, not just for other schools but also for previous directors that I’ve worked for or previous castmates that I’ve worked with and they ended up becoming directors and directing their own movies and I've ended up acting with them — so yeah, just trying to stay connected with all of these people. 

TRAVIS ROBERTSON: 

The COVID pandemic has impacted work for the three, but in somewhat unique ways.

ALEX KENNEDY:

Initially when COVID hit — at least Arizona and things started to shut down — that was about the end of March beginning of April kind of thing. For the first couple of months everybody didn’t know what to do, the industry kind of shut down, theater shut down, everything shut down. 

So everything was on pause especially when it comes to acting. There’s no way for people to get to gyms or anything or produce anything because everyone was scared to.

But, throughout that, we found different ways to start producing films again especially as the new semester began when it comes to school. We found ways to still make films you know by just maintaining the social distancing protocols, masks for all of the crew, and then during scenes of course the actors would not wear masks. 

LEJEND YAZZIE: 

As an actor it’s affected me by making me concerned about how the students and how the filmmakers are going to approach COVID safety, and I’m also worried about how many actors are going to be in the film, if we’re going to be in close proximity, if it’s a physical relationship, how many people are going to be on set, how many people will be on set, if they've gotten tested and if they have negative results.

BRIAN CALO:

I had to cancel two short films and then one is being rescheduled until further notice. I have yet to receive an email on updates for that. It’s been like, we were supposed to shoot I believe last year in December and then we pushed it back because of COVID, and by pushing it back, we were hoping that it would die down but it actually had done the opposite and then we pushed it up again, and then, you know, it’s this constant uncertainty of whether we should even be creating something altogether. 

TRAVIS ROBERTSON: 

Despite the many obstacles posed by the pandemic, each actor said they have been able to find silver linings.

ALEX KENNEDY:

What’s happened, what i've at least noticed, is that the set might be smaller but the stories are still told, and you might have less crew members but they’re still being told the stories, and that’s what’s most important and that’s what I really enjoy.

So people are still trying to create content out there, it’s just on a smaller budget, on a smaller scale but they’re still trying to push stuff out there and I’ve still been involved in all of that and even making my own content because as I mentioned I go to film school so I’m not just acting, I’m also producing my own films that I’ve been able to do while COVID is still going on. 

For an actor there’s always a fear because as actors, it’s really what’s the next job, what's the next job? It’s not like we get continuous employment. So there’s always a fear of like, OK, now there’s much less roles to pursue, but I think that for an actor the biggest key difference and how you can survive this pandemic and really anything you do is really the continuous strive that you have, the determination. 

Like I mentioned, there’s still films being put out there. You might have to accept a smaller pay because now maybe you’re accepting an independent filmmaker's movie rather than the big time budget stuff, but if you’re continuously grinding throughout this entire season then that’s going to really show especially to the big players and eventually you’re going to make it. 

I think that there’s too much fear put out there especially in the actor’s world: "Oh there's too much competition, there's too much this and this." But like I mentioned, when we’re going to have a lot of independent filmmakers come out, especially when Netflix platforms, Hulu, all of that stuff, they’re still rising in terms of their film quality that’s coming out too. There’s going to be a lot of chances for actors to really thrive in this market.

LEJEND YAZZIE: 

A silver lining with the COVID pandemic and acting is that there’s more contemplation about the characters that are presented on screen, because you are putting a lot of people’s lives at risk in order to make this art, so you really, as a filmmaker, as a screenwriter or director, you have to be really positive that this is what you want to put out there, and that you want to bring all these people in, and are you sure that this is a story that’s worth telling.

And then also as an actor, is this really what you want to put your life out on risk for? So I think that’s a silver lining, is that there’s more thought that goes into it and more commitment, because it’s a really big thing. Otherwise, without the pandemic, I feel like there’s a lot of unique stories that come out just because they can make it.

BRIAN CALO:

If you told me there would be any silver linings at the very beginning of this pandemic, I would be really doubtful, I’d probably laugh at your face, but as the pandemic ensued and me hoping that, oh this is going to end next month, or oh probably the next month, oh maybe a couple of months more, and it’s going to be done. 

For me I feel like the silver lining is that you are stuck at home, but at the same time it’s very convenient because your classes are online so you don’t have to travel. But the most prominent silver lining I would say is that I feel like now is the best time, the optimum time for you, for anyone in general, whether you’re a creative or not to do some self-inventory work. You know, to journal, to learn more about yourself by writing down your thoughts, by writing them down and what you’re feeling and what’s going in in your life, because I feel like by doing so, you become more self-aware into how you make decisions, better decisions, and how you interact with others, and how you overcome the challenges that are thrown upon you especially this pandemic, how you will continue to be successful and thrive despite what’s happening. 

I feel like that’s the silver lining, is that you’re alone with your thoughts, which, I know it could be scary, but I feel like if you really think about, you know, maybe the present and reflect on the past and plan for the future, then I think there’s nothing to worry about.

TRAVIS ROBERTSON: 

Lejend says the adaptability of the film industry is key for actors thriving in the future.

LEJEND YAZZIE: 

I think that Hollywood and the film industry is very adaptable. I think that whatever comes our way, I mean, to put it very bluntly, Hollywood is very money based, so they’re going to find a way to make things work for them. At Indie sets I people are more driven to be safe and care about one another, so I don’t think it’ll affect it too heavily negatively in the future, but I think there will have to be more COVID safety managers on set now.

TRAVIS ROBERTSON: 

Alex says despite the demand for actors’ performances, they will still face issues regarding set procedures and training.

ALEX KENNEDY:

It’s like, it's a double edged sword because at the same time you know, we’re going to need more actors because there’s more content being put out online, but at the same time we’re trying to reduce cast sizes and trying to reduce how many people are on set in the first place so it’s a benefit and it’s a loss at the same time. 

The only bad part that I would really say during this COVID is that acting is a skill set right? And any skill set requires training, and what I've noticed. at least when COVID hit, is that I had to stop taking one of my acting classes and we had to go digital or online via Zoom chat.

It’s very hard to do that, that’s the thing, it’s very hard to take Zoom calls as an actor because acting is something physical, you have to be there, you have to be present, you have to really live off people’s emotions in the present, and because of COVID, that canceled. So even though at the end of the day we might be getting more jobs, when it comes to training, that’s going to be really hard; we can’t always get the training that we want to. I think that’s super important, actors should not only be accepting roles, but consistently getting training through everything, through any sources possible, just to make sure that they’re still keeping up and they're getting better and better as actors. That’s our job. 

TRAVIS ROBERTSON: 

Brian and Alex both spoke on how actors and everyone in general can overcome these obstacles and still work on their craft.

BRIAN CALO:

I feel like after the pandemic is done then those who have worked their butts off, their consistency throughout this pandemic, I feel like those are the actors or the creatives that will thrive after this whole thing is done. Because right now it's kind of like, I know that the pandemic is like, it feels like it's restraining people from unleashing their potentials,i which is obviously accounted for. But I feel like you can also continue to grow and continue to thrive even if you’re stuck at home, you know? You don’t necessarily have to consistently collaborate with other artists, but if you consistently hone your craft in any way possible, then I think there'd be a space for you after this pandemic.

ALEX KENNEDY:

I say don’t stress. Definitely don’t stress, because this is just a season. It’s going to pass, and it’s not going to be a season that’s going to last forever obviously. 

At the end of the day I think a lot of people, especially young actors, they’re worried because, "Hey, you know, I’ve only got a couple more years of my youth and then I’m going to hit 30," or something and it’s all going to go away; but no, in reality there’s been several big time Hollywood actors that haven’t even hit their peak until 50s, 60s, so there’s a lot of opportunity, and I think the people that are going to come out of this surviving are the people that adapt and innovate and make something of themselves out of this situation. 

It’s the people that are going to take this bad situation, this season, and they’re going to do something creative with it and overcome it. Rather than the people that succumb to it and they just, you know, they stay in their rooms, they say, "You know what, it’s not even worth it.” Those are the people that, honestly, they're not going to make it, it’s just the harsh reality. But the people that really have the passion for it and they’re going to drive and they’re going to keep working towards it, they’re going to thrive. It’s just going to happen. So it just, it all comes from your heart. Anything you do, if this is something, really a passion that you’re pursuing, then it’s going to come from the heart, and you’re going to get it.

TRAVIS ROBERTSON: 

For the State Press, I'm Travis Robertson.


Reach the reporter at tprober6@asu.edu and follow @tprobermedia on Twitter.

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