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Chasing the dream

An actor despairs in Tinseltown

Seth Burnham languishes on the bottom rung of Hollywood's ladder, watching the days pass, hoping to get his break and spending time at Kaldi.

December 06, 2012|By Kurt Streeter, Los Angeles Times
  • Seth Burnham spends his days at Kaldi in Atwater Village, hanging on to his dream of an acting career.
Seth Burnham spends his days at Kaldi in Atwater Village, hanging on to his… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

Seth Burnham sat in a dim corner of Kaldi Coffee & Tea, clutching a mug as he tried to conjure some confidence.

Being here in L.A., I'm giving it everything, he thought.

But after three years of living in Los Angeles, he hadn't had a single role he could be proud of. In a cable TV comedy, he played Percy the Carjacker, a dimwit blown to shreds by an air hose. For an independent film, he had been the best friend of a beautiful woman — a role the script called Small Gay Man.

FULL COVERAGE: Chasing the dream

Hollywood is one big lottery. You have to play it if you want a career in movies or TV....You have to be here. You have to believe.

Sometimes that was tough. Take STARmeter, the entertainment insider's website that measures the popularity of Hollywood actors.

"I was No. 80,000," Burnham said, "for a while."

Frustrated and fatigued, he would retire to this worn, cave-like cafe in Atwater Village.

PHOTOS: Keeping his acting dream alive

He had found his surrogate Los Angeles family here, a group of a dozen or so who eased his loneliness and shared his Hollywood ambition: Amy, the animator who had worked on "South Park," Nicholas, whose latest film was well received at the Sundance Film Festival, and Amad, a rising African American actor who worried about being typecast in criminal roles.

They stayed for hours, talking, typing, hunched hard over laptops, nursing lattes. They were actors, writers and directors; stragglers, success stories and hard-luck cases like Burnham.

Many days, he sat in a torn leather chair reading through newspapers and memorizing scripts. He seemed swallowed in the furniture — brown-haired, bearded, not much more than 5 feet tall, with worry lines marching from the corners of his eyes.

Time was against him. Asked his age back in February, Burnham paused. "Mid 30s-ish, early 40s-ish," he said.

Outside of the cafe, he had few Los Angeles friends. His wife, a medical student, moved to St. Louis last year for a residency, but he stayed here. They decided that if she was going to devote herself fully to her dream, then he would too.

But how much more rejection could he handle? And was the unrelenting struggle worth more to him than his marriage?


Since his college days in the early 1990s, the acting quest had taken Burnham to several cities. He lived in San Francisco and London, where he trained at a drama school in the classical English style and started a theater company. He lived in Portland, Ore., and Seattle, where he got good reviews for his role in a modern adaptation of Chekhov's "The Seagull."

Everywhere he put down roots he found a place like Kaldi. "The anti-Starbucks," he said. "Just my style."

In Los Angeles, he developed a cafe routine. Each morning, he awoke in his cramped apartment, fed kibbles to his cats, threw on his sneakers and walked across Glendale Boulevard.

He drank two iced coffees a day, no more. He couldn't afford more, not when he didn't have a job — he had to be free for auditions. He relied on credit cards and his wife's salary to pay his bills.

Burnham didn't want fame; he wanted to simply be a journeyman, a working actor, appreciated for his skill, making roughly the same yearly salary as a union electrician.

He sat in the cafe for entire mornings and sometimes entire days. "Wrestling demons," he said.

He worried that he wasn't getting work because he was too intense. Maybe it was his looks. "Hell, I'm tiny," he said.

Several of his front teeth were too small and a few others were spaced too far apart. "In L.A. I'm surrounded by working actors with these great, fake smiles," he said. "It's awful."

There were other internal wars. His parents divorced about the time he got his first role as a child, singing in a play in his New Hampshire hometown. His father long ago told him to grow up and quit pursuing acting as a career. "It's so easy to say that," Burnham said. "Easy to criticize, doubt, say 'give up' and 'I told you so.' ... I've never been one for easy."

The cafe regulars understood. Clay Tarver, who co-directed his first movie with J.J. Abrams, the creator of "Lost," was the most successful; he wrote regularly for major film studios. Others occupied every struggling step of the Hollywood ladder.

"A lot of the people there are on a level I would like to be on," Burnham said. "There is always, always, always some level of jealousy…. I try hard not to let it show."

Instead, he tried to be helpful. Once, he sat at a table outside, helping Amad Jackson work on a British accent for his role in a Kirk Douglas Theater production of "A Raisin in the Sun."

Jackson wanted to return the favor, but Burnham didn't have anything to rehearse.

"Hollywood is no joke," Jackson said. "It'll deal some hard blows.... Almost everyone at Kaldi has been in Seth's shoes at one time or another."

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