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This role would test anyone

First the writers strike. Now the stalled SAG talks. Austin Highsmith just wants to act.

May 16, 2008|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

In the summer of 2003, Austin Highsmith, a young actress from North Carolina, packed a suitcase and drove cross-country in pursuit of the Hollywood dream.

Years followed, as they do, of waiting tables and auditions, until February when the 27-year-old finally landed her first big break as a guest star on CBS' "Ghost Whisperer." But as luck had it, her episode aired the same week the writers strike began. Hardly any Hollywood honchos saw it.

"Four years of work came to a screeching halt," said the actress, who has appeared in numerous smaller television and movie roles.

Highsmith is one of thousands of actors still recovering from this winter's strike but nevertheless clinging to their ambitions despite sputtering television and film production schedules that make their normally slim-to-none odds that much smaller. With talks stalled between the studios and the Screen Actors Guild, whose contract expires June 30, the prospect of another crippling labor action has Highsmith and all of Hollywood on edge.

"I'm impatient, driven," said Highsmith. "I've been working for the past five years to get something. I don't want to stop the momentum. It's so hard to get started in the first place."

If there's a strike, she added, "It'll be 'The Ghost Whisperer' all over again."

Like an estimated 80% of SAG's 120,000 members, Highsmith is not currently working as an actor. But she still shapes her days around finding work. Drama. Comedy. Commercials. Almost anything to work. It's a dizzying carousel of networking, auditions, rejection and resilience. Just spend a few days with her and it's easy to see what another strike could mean for those under the Hollywood radar.

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At 5 feet 7 inches, Highsmith has sleek, dark hair framing soft brown eyes. On a recent morning, supersized hoop earrings and giant sunglasses crowned her outfit of sandals, leggings and a cotton sundress that helped hide the fact that she's not, as she put it, "drug-addict thin." She moved and spoke quickly, as if seconds counted.

On that Tuesday, she arose at 6:30 a.m. to drive a sick friend to the doctor. By 10 a.m, she was finishing up dishes in her two-bedroom apartment near the Beverly Center -- a prize because of its location and the $1,450 rent -- that she shares with her former yoga teacher. She checked her computer for messages, dropped her cellphone into a purse and hustled out the door to pick up head shots and take them to her agent.

As she motored past the Grove shopping center, strange human noises came from her purse signaling a call from her boyfriend, Maury Sterling -- one of the town's established actors ("Smokin' Aces") who is also looking for work. "He's leaving an audition," Highsmith said. He eventually landed a part on Joss Whedon's upcoming “Dollhouse." The phone rang again with her own voice saying, "Ooh, I have a message!"

Highsmith picked up the head shots from Jeff Ikemihya's photo imaging shop ("I love him," she said) and headed for North Hollywood, where her agent, Patty Vittoritto, and Vittoritto's husband, Ron, ("I love them") work out of their home.

Vittoritto has been in the business only three years, but Highsmith trusts her to know where the actress fits into the industry. The agent understands that there are certain words her churchgoing client won't say on-screen, and that she'd rather keep a healthy figure as a role model for younger girls -- all of which limit what will stick when Highsmith is throwing everything she has onto the wall.

Last year was her best, with two of three pilot auditions making it to the studio level, where someone else was ultimately chosen for the role. Before that, she had landed small parts in high-profile shows including "Boston Legal" and "CSI: New York," and acted in two low-budget films, "Fractalus" and "Breathing Room," which are still in production. She also worked as associate producer on a third movie.

She's heard for months that an actors strike is likely. Some shows are already planning to shut down in July as a precautionary measure, she said. She follows the contract talks through union e-mails and knows the issues, such as residuals, are similar to those confronted by the writers. She sympathized with the writers, but her work search took precedent and she did not walk the picket lines.

If the actors strike, her work as a waitress will help her survive, said Highsmith, who's been on her own financially since graduating from the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Even during the three-month writers' strike, the restaurant didn't slow down, she said. Last year, she proudly reported, she earned $34,000 at the restaurant and $17,000 acting -- $4,000 more than required to obtain SAG health insurance, which put her ahead of most SAG members. With the next residual check, she'll be out of debt.

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