Sitting down with local actor turned Hollywood superstar is a little intimidating, luckily Sean Cameron Michel is fun, and about as chatty as I am, so a 15 minute interview quickly turned in to a 2 hour interview. I had actually just had a car accident on my way to the interview, so was slightly frazzled when I arrived, but Sean put me at ease right away.
I was intrigued to meet up with Sean, as it is not often that a local “Saffer” makes it good overseas, and on the scale that Sean has too. Breaking in to Hollywood is quite difficult, and getting it right takes time, patience and good old connections.
Finding out more…
Sean started acting at a young age and started his career in musical theatre. He grew up in Goodwood in Cape Town, his mother, who was a dancer, was a single mom raising three kids, and his dad a well known singer – so to say that he has the genes would be pretty apt.
His mother was not able to afford to send them university, and so as soon as he matriculated, young Sean got himself in to the TV and movie industry – doing commercial work, eventually getting small roles in local movies and a part on local series, Egoli before getting a role in ‘Woman of a Desire’ with Bo Derick and Robert Mitchum.
For fifteen years Sean worked on a variety of mostly international productions shot in South Africa. “The internationals love South Africa – it is a wonderful place to shoot for them, not only is the scenery beautiful, but the costs of crew, actors and equipment is lower than in many other places in the world, and its a great tax incentive.’ says Sean.
There is much more money in TV than in movies and Sean notched up a lot of credits playing small roles in movies.
“The problem is that movies can be a few days or weeks of work only, where as a role on a TV show can span 5 or 6 years, and you are constantly earning residuals, which is great!” he adds.
Sean worked on Black Sails for two years, and in 2010 Sean met Chris de Santos who was up in Joburg shooting a psy-fi tribute to blade runner, and the two struck up a work friendship. It was Chris that got Sean in to the mind frame of moving to the USA.
Black Sails was a huge opportunity for him, but once you have had a series regular part, where do you go from there? “As you get older you reach a ceiling, SA actors get a day rate, but there is a ceiling to that – you will never earn as much as the internationals on the same project, and breaking that ceiling is impossible. You must just accept that.”
Moving to the U.S.A…
After Black Sails, Sean saw his opportunity to leverage on his past roles, and applied for his green card, which can take up to a year in paperwork, and costs the princely sum of R 110 k. During this time Sean got himself an agent in Hollywood and had some money in the bank to support himself as he pounded the streets to get to auditions. al
The film industry in the USA is a strange beast. They have a proverbial ladder to success if you will and a an extremely well defined star system. Sean was used to working all the time – as a South African actor, you take any part that you can get, big or small, commercials, voice overs whatever you need to do to pay the bills.
Now here he was going through the “cattle calls” of auditions. “In South Africa you are maybe up against 10 oother actors in your age range – the chance that you will get the role is a good one. In America you are sitting in a room with hundreds and hundreds of others – waiting for your 1 minute in front of the casting directors.”
He found that the great roles he had had in South African and also in international productions didn’t mean a thing in Hollywood. “It’s all about the industry there, no one will hire you, or even audition you if they have never met you before. You literally need someone to speak to someone else – it’s all on referrals. Think of it as asking someone you know in your circle for a recommendation for a dentist or a lawyer.”
In America you need to be a member of SAG (Screen Actors Guild), without that accreditation you cannot work unless. But you need to be an American to belong to SAG. Sean called up the board of SAG and said that he was part of the cast of Black Sail – which was up for a SAG award. The board said they would consider it.
“In the interim I booked my first role in Criminal Minds with Gary Sinisi and I called SAG again to tell them and say, please consider me – this is vital to my career. Its a big industry, but its a closed too.”
Suffice to say, Sean has finally been added to the SAG list, and in 2014 Sean finally received his US green card.
What are you currently working on?
“I have just signed a contract to work on a series of three (or possibly more in future) called AST – shooting all over the world. Each movie is called AST – but it could mean something different, so for example – A Sexual Thriller, Always Shoot Twice etc.” says Sean.
“I am currently working on an action movie, featuring a femme fatale called Alexa who is seeking revenge, and I play Gideon her boss. The movie has an international flavour with lots of different accents and it’s rather tricky role, and rather challenging, as Gideon can speak 5 different languages!” he laughs.
So of course I had to find out how on earth Sean learnt to speak 5 languages! ” I listened to a tape and then read through the screen play, shot a few scenes, and sent it through.They just loved the tape, and they made me an offer!” says Sean with a huge grin.
The AST series will be show in exotic locations with an R 18 million budget – action films are expensive Sean tells me. They have been location scouting for the last year or so and majority of films are not shot in Hollywood, its very expensive. So they use other locations like South Africa, as he explained earlier in our chat.
The first one will likely shoot in Toronto and Fort Lauderdale and or London, and then once those are secured then the movie can start filming, which will be late this year or early in 2018.
Do you think that South Africans prefer international to local movies?
Well, I think that we tend to be patriotic to sports and soapie stars – but when it comes to South African movies, music and theatre, we tend to not be too supportive. It’s very weird. It’s almost like we think that international is better. Afrikaans is a huge market, and by that token, specifically comedy.” Sean looks thoughtful.
The industry as a whole…
“One must have a passion and work incredibly hard to survive in this industry to survive.The reality is that many are battling out there. It takes a lot of money, time and work, to get it right – this is a hard business. Although the older one gets, a lot of your competition are dead” Sean proceeds to chuckle at this for a good 10 seconds.
In America actors earn residuals on films – so every time that film gets show, they earn. Sean had a small role as an archiologist in the Mummy, but that pays him on a regular basis. “That’s how we survive”.
Advice for aspiring actors?
If its your passion – just do it. Start off doing AmDram – its fun and do extra and featured work and commercials. To survive you have to be open to everything. Do whatever it takes, do not be too proud.
“It honestly depends what your goal is. Try different things – be an auto cue operator, script writer, you may actually surprise yourself – there are so many avenues within the film industry too, other than acting. I also suggest always have another job that brings in an income, no matter what is is, a flexi or contract job even, but it makes life so much less stressful than trying to earn your bread and butter just off acting – especially in the beginning!” says Sean.
“In the States most actors are Uber drivers. There are good times and of course there are bad times. I once didnt work for two years. It’s such a gamble – it may pay off it may not.”
“Celebrate your uniqueness – this is who I am, these are the choices I have made, we are all special and unique in our own way. I only want to work with people that want to work with me – you can’t get everything. Its got nothing to do with your ability – its got to do with the fit and chemistry for that project. Its not your talent or your looks – and that is important! As long as you are getting auditions and a call back here and there – you are on the right path, you are heading in the right direction.” says Sean with passion in his voice.
Get yourself an agent and a show reel is important. Get feedback if you can about why you did not get the part. Always bee passionate about the craft. Look at the audition as an opportunity to act – show people where you are at, use every opportunity to act!”
“Whether you get the role or not, you have no control over that. It;s not your job to worry about that, and as soon as you understand that – the rest will fall in to place.”
“The South African film industry has looked after me for 30 years, I will always come back and support the local industry. This is my home!”
And as passionately as he had shared his story with me, he was dashing off to his next meeting, leaving me with 2 hours worth of audio to listen to and this awesome interview to transcribe.