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Even the most successful actors you know understand that failure is an integral part of the journey. What separates the wheat from the chaff is how they handle that failure and use it as a stepping stone to success. In this exciting episode, Zander talks with Joe Reitman, actor, director, and producer about his 30+ year acting career in Hollywood. It is a far-reaching conversation that explores the many sides of being an actor. Joe breaks down how he has made a living and had an EPIC career and life. Tune in and learn powerful lessons from one of Hollywood’s EPIC actors who have brought happiness to our lives for decades.

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EPIC Actors: The Ups And Downs Of An Acting Career With Joseph Reitman

In this episode, I am very honored to have my friend from many years, Joe Reitman, who is a known actor on TV and in the movies. We’re going to talk to Joe about his epic career and what it’s like being a working actor in Hollywood. Joe, welcome.

Thank you, Zander. How are you?

I’m doing well.

Good.

I wanted to set a little background. I’ve known Joe since we both went to Pitzer College in Claremont, California last century.

EPIC Begins With 1 Step Forward | Joe Reitman | Acting Career

That’s true.

It’s been exciting to watch Joe’s career build. If you go to IMDB, you’ll see that Joe has been a very busy man. In a pre-conversation I had with Joe, one of the things he said to me was, “People might not necessarily recognize my name all the time, but when they see me, they’re like, I’ve seen you.” Joe, how did you get started in acting?

Joe’s Early Love Affair With Acting

That goes back to before I met you. When I was a kid, I used to watch a tremendous amount of TV. I love TV. My parents, at one point, my mom said to me, she goes, “What are you going to do with your life? You watch TV six hours a day?” I looked at the TV and I go, “I think I’m going to do that.” She’s like, “I’m serious.” I went, “Me too.” That did not go over well with anybody in my family because they thought I was absolutely being a wise ass. I then took some acting classes in high school.

The side note of that is I had a fake ID when I was in high school. I would go out and it wasn’t my name. I used to go to clubs and pretend I was somebody else all night long because it wasn’t my name. I would go to a club and pretend I’d be like, “How you doing? My name’s Tony” because that was my ID name. I was like, “I’m here. I’m doing a movie in town and I look younger than I am. That’s why I look so young.”

I would tell that story. I’d pretend I was a Marine, and I would go out and pretend that I was from the South and go around and be like, “I’ve never been to Boston before.” I would do that at the club all night long and get girls’ numbers and never call them because it wasn’t me. It was a weird thing. I wrote a paper about it in high school and my teacher was like, “What an interesting concept.” She didn’t put together that I was doing that.

“Nice piece of fiction.” You’re like, “Nonfiction.”

That’s right. It was like this weird thing where I’m like, “I do these characters.” I was taking acting class. At the time, there was no internet because we’re that old. There was a board and I saw on the board that there was an audition for a theater company that was going to London. I had never auditioned for a play before. I went in and I auditioned. I came home that day and I went, “Mom, I have good news and  bad news. The good news is I’m going to London to do a play. The bad news is we have to find a way to get me a ticket to get me there.”

My mom was like, “What you talking about?” I’m like, “I got into this theater company, but we have to pay our way there. Everything’s paid for once we get there.” We raised the money. I shoveled driveways and did whatever. I took off and I did this play in London. The first show we did was at an all-girls school because we traveled all over London during the show. After the show, there were 30 girls waiting outside to talk to me. I said, “Maybe I should do this more. This is good.” That was the start. I was like, “People are responding positively. I’m already doing this. This is weird.” I started taking it seriously. It wasn’t until college that I understood more about acting.

Interestingly, Joe and I are both from the Boston area. I believe, you grew up in Brookline.

Yeah.

I grew up in Shervin, which is a little more in the country. Lots of things that Joe and I have in common. There you are at Pitzer. Are you going on auditions while you’re at Pitzer or are you concentrating on college?

I was over my head from day one. My parents didn’t want me auditioning for a theater company. They didn’t want me to go to college and study theater. They were against it. Matter of fact, it’s debatable whether or not they purposely had me miss a few opportunities to audition for theater companies at colleges because you have to audition for them. I was not privy to some of that information, even though we had a private guidance counselor. There was a lot of stuff going on. I was getting blocked at every opportunity. Pitzer was the closest place to Hollywood that I applied to. I was like, “They had designated tanning areas, this is fascinating.”

It came down between Syracuse and Pitzer. I went to Pitzer, but I didn’t know what I was doing. I had no idea. I got into some classes and I started going down this path of taking a lot of theater, dance, and film. I think it was my sophomore year. There was a bulletin board at the school and in the theater department. There were people who were looking for some actors for an AFI movie. They were looking for someone to play a high school football player. I played football at the Claremont Colleges for a couple of years. I was like, “I could probably play this guy.” I got Greg Silver, who you might remember.

I do.

Greg, he’s the only person I knew who had a car. I was like, “Can you drive me to AFI in Hollywood?” He did. I auditioned. Before I left the room, they hired me. That was the first audition I ever had. That was it. I booked this AFI thesis film playing this high school football player. For me, that was super exciting. That was the start. I didn’t audition for anything else outside of the Claremont Colleges until after I left and moved to Hollywood, but I did that. I created a class at the Claremont Colleges, an independent study where my senior year, I had to act in student films. I created my own class. It’s like an independent study.

It made complete sense because I went in front of a board and I’m like, “I need to learn how to act on film. This is what I’m going to do. I’m not going to go do Shakespeare in the park. That’s not happening.” I go, “You guys teach nothing here and I need to learn.” They got me a guidance counselor and I created in Penn study, and I had to act in six movies my senior year. That was my real training grounds for moving to Hollywood. That was it.

The Highs And Lows Of Being An Actor

One of the things I talk about in my book epic begins with one step forward is this idea that when we’re on our epic journeys, failure is part of the it’s part of the journey. We’re not going to be 100% successful.

You can only be 100% successful if you don’t open the door.

 

EPIC Begins With 1 Step Forward | Angelina Anderson | Top Female Goalie

 

Exactly. Being an actor where in failure being, again, you go in and you get rejected because you are not right. You’re too tall. You are too short. You are not what we’re looking for. Needless to say, I don’t know personally, but you can confirm this. Failure is a big part of being an actor.

Failure is a big part of being an actor. A rejection rate of 95% is normal for a successful actor.

I’ve never been rejected. As a successful actor, 95% rejection rate is normal as a successful actor. Somebody who is moving the needle at all, if you’re lucky, you’re 1 in 20. That’s the math. You have to immediately develop a thick skin and be like, “I’m going to get rejected for a billion reasons. It hurts more when you get close, but you never know.

My success rate’s a little bit higher than that. I’m very lucky to have a higher success rate. I also have a very specific look. I get less auditions than some of my friends who get the 1 out of 20, but I get more like 1 out of 10 because I’m also auditioning against a smaller pool. When they want me, I’ve created a a look that is very specific. Even though I get to play outside of it, I’m lucky enough to play outside of it because people know me and they know that I can create something that fits whatever I’m doing. There’s a trust in that piece of overtime. Yes, rejection is super high.

Also, I’ve got to believe that there might be a project or two that you’ve worked on, and then it never goes anywhere. They make it, but they can’t sell it.

I did a pilot for a network and it never made it through editing. It was so bad that they just decided to throw it in the trash before it even finished editing. That of course happens. There are moments in your career where you’re like, “This is the thing,” and then it’s not. There are also other moments where you’re like, “This is stupid,” and then it hits. It’s hard to tell.

Do you find that sometimes the things you think might catch on don’t, and then the thing that you think, “I was happy to have the work and the experience, but I’m not sure?”

Obviously, your book and your thought process is all about everything that you have to not only deal with the loss of a rejection, but often by moving forward, new paths open themselves up. I’m sure you discussed that in your book.

 

Just by moving forward, new paths open themselves up.

 

I do.

I’m sure you do.

I was going to talk about that next.

You never know. Based on what you’re saying, I’ll give you an example. I auditioned in 1996 or 1997. I tested for two TV shows. When you test, for those of you who don’t know, you go through an audition process and you get to network. When you get to network, you have to sign a contract for what you agree to. After, if they hire you, you have to agree to the deal before you audition. They do that so that you have no leverage. It’s a smart move.

There were 2 TV shows at 2 different networks that I went to at the the same day that I had to go test for. You have to negotiate the deal. It’s very stressful. You’re like, “Am I going to make this much money for the next six years? Is this possible?” You don’t know what’s going to happen. I also had an audition for three lines for another show the same day. I went to two network tests and I didn’t get either one of them. I then went and auditioned for the three lines on this TV show called Townies. I booked it and it was three lines on a show, and it was what’s called a co-star, one scene. I go to set and I’m working and I’m bummed. We get three days in. Townies was about a bunch of people in a fishing town in Boston.

I did watch it.

I appreciate you being the person to watch.

When your friends are on TV or in a movie, you’re like, “I got to watch it.”

I think half the audience are my friends. I did these 3 lines and we get 4 days in the rehearsal project process, and the director says the network wants everyone to do Boston accents. Everyone in the cast went, “What?” We had a cast of a bunch of very talented actors. They were like, “We can’t do that in three days.” She goes, “Can anybody do the Boston Accent in three days?” I looked around and I raised my hand and she goes, “You?” I go, “But I need to change all the lines because they’re not written Austin.”

You didn’t pack your camera, have it yet because there ain’t no packing in that have it yet there, but if you go down the star market, Kate McCarthy, star recipe of the week, I’m telling you there, Joe.

Know the words. Sit there, and have a conversation over there by the pier. Sure.

Go down to Kelly.

Get Wicked. It was wicked.

It was.

Literally, I raised my hand and I changed the line. She goes, “Network run-throughs at 3:00.” I show up at 3:00. The first line, Muller Ringold walks over and she’s like, “How’s the party last night?” My line was, “It was great.” Instead, I went, “It was wicked piss.” All the producers froze. They’re looking at their script, “That’s not what it says.” She said something else. I go, “We drank a bunch of Budweiser. I get freaking Hammond.” It was awesome. I improv like three lines as heavy as I could go. They yelled commercial. They went, “Cut.” The producer came over and he said, “Whose idea was that?” I said, “It’s mine.” I had a contract by the end of the day.

That’s awesome.

The two other shows that I tested for didn’t go to series. Townies did go to series.

Yeah.

It shows you like, I was so depressed about these two other shows that I thought were going to be my future and this job happened instead and gave me an entire year on TV.

You’ve had many memorable roles, but the one that maybe my audience would know you best for recently would be as Very Bad Santa in Happy.

Yes. Maybe.

I don’t know.

I don’t know what your audience watches. The most fascinating thing about people is that you don’t know what people watch. When people come up and say stuff to me, I can usually guess by their demographic, like what they’ve seen. A 40-year-old women have seen me on Supernatural and Charmed. A 60-year-old women have seen me on House Hunters. If you deal with a 30-something stoner kid, he’s totally seen Happy.

In general, happy was a very successful show. People were talking about it. There was press about it and stuff. These days, there are so many shows that can be challenging because everyone’s got 300 choices.

When we did Townies, our Nielsen rating numbers were 5.5 which doesn’t even exist anymore because there are so many eyeballs. They canceled us because we only had a 5.5. Now, if you had 5.5, you’d be making a million dollars a week. They’d be so thrilled, but it’s the way it works. What do you want to know about Happy?

For an epic role for you, how did you land that? Was it more because of all your work?

Any Big Break Is Never One Thing

It’s a combination of stuff. Nothing is one thing. Any big break is never just one thing usually. I’m sure something else that you discuss all the time, I’m assuming, is the idea of, “Success is a combination of preparation and luck.” There’s a lot of that involved in it. Happy for me, the director of Happy was this guy and co-creator along with Grant Morrison who created the comic. Grant Morrison created the comic. I knew the comic because I’m a comic guy, as you probably would know.

 

Success is a combination of preparation and luck. 

I do.

I knew Grant Morrison. I knew the comic. Brian Taylor, who worked with him to bring it to the screen, he co-created it. He directed Happy. He was attached to it. I knew he was. I had written him a note and said, “Congratulations.” Brian had worked second unit camera on a movie I did years ago called The Real Deal. He directed Crank and Crank 2, which I’m in too. He directed Gamer, which I also was in. Brian and I have a history of me acting to his projects. He knew me and always throwing me a bone. He’s like a board op number two. You never know what you’re going to be.

I wrote to him when he sold Happy and I said, “Congratulations on the sale. If you need somebody to work craft service, let me know.” I made a joke about being on set. I was doing a play during the LA Fringe Festival, and it was a play. They did this girl. It was a one act. It got extended. It went over very well. We got into the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland with this play. It was a one act that we were then asked to write a second act too, so that it’d be long enough to perform on Theater Row in Hollywood at this theater called the Hudson Theater.

They offered us a run. We wrote a second half of the show together, me and this girl. The second half, I would argue, would complement the first half. She taped it, sent it to Scotland, we got into the thing, and then we had a fundraising night to raise money to go to Scotland because we had a fair way to Scotland, but you get to perform whatever. It’s an honor.

It’s a theme there, but I’m going to say you, theater, and somewhere in the British Isles, you have to do a fundraising.

Yeah, basically, but the short version of it is that we had this fundraiser. I invited Brian. He came with his girlfriend, but he came to the theater. I did the show. After the show, he came over and he goes, “That was great. I have an idea.” I went, “Okay.” He’s like, “Give me a sec.” I’m like, “Okay.” He left. I was driving to Vegas a week later. The phone rang and Brian said, “I’m directing the Happy thing, and I think that you’d be great as the Very Bad Santa,” which I knew the role. I was like, “Are you kidding me? Yeah.” He goes, “What do you think?” I said, “Totally.” He’s like, “I have to talk to the network.” I was sure the network was going to shoot me down. They’re not going to agree to this. Brian called me and said, “You’re doing the pilot.”

The crazy part of the story is that the pilot in Happy, Santa has no lines. He doesn’t speak in the pilot. Brian’s super smart. He knew that the role was super important for the series. In your pilot, it’s just an extra. No name is going to take this role as an extra. In a pilot, that might not go because there’s no meat there. The network said to him, “Why don’t we hire a big wrestler or somebody? Why don’t hire a big body? He doesn’t have many lines.”

Brian’s like, “He needs to be an actor. He needs to be good. He needs to be able to transcend the pilot.” He fought for me. I love him for fighting for me. They finally said, “Fine.” They let me do it. I worked on the movement of Santa. I worked on the voice of Santa. I created a bunch of stuff for Santa. As we went into the show, they heard me doing something like these songs that I was doing and singing to myself and giggling. They then incorporated all of it into the pilot. My giggling, a couple of lines that I had talking to myself.

Very creepy, I have to say.

Right, because I made him three-dimensional. I didn’t just sit there in silence, which is what said on the page, I wouldn’t do it. I created this essence of this internal struggle that this guy was having. It went over well. When they showed it to the network, the network wanted to replace me with somebody famous.

You are famous.

No, thank you. They wanted a big name and Brian basically said, “Joe did the pilot. He created what you now love. We’ll stick with Joe.” He fought for me again and I got to do the show.

Did you have fun doing it?

It was my favorite job I ever had. Not even close. It’s my favorite job I’ve ever had. They let me do whatever I wanted. I had so much time to prep. I begged for money on the streets of New York for a couple of days. I pulled my hair in my face, greased myself up, and got disgusting, got ignored by people. I got to do a bunch of weird character stuff developing stuff that I would tell my students to do. I committed to it. I’m proud of that job. It’s my favorite job I ever had.

I enjoyed watching you. It scared me a little. That was probably the point. For my audience who are tuning in who don’t know Joe. Joe is amazing. He is a working actor, truly. He’s got an impressive resume. He is what I believe we would call a character act. As you said, you have a specific look. You get cast for a very specific genre.

Often.

Not always. What would that be, Joe?

The genre?

Yeah, or the character.

Life As A Journeyman Actor

Here’s the thing. A character actor is a good description. I’m also considered a journeyman actor. Journeyman actor is somebody who basically is known for going from show to show. The most common journeyman actor that you know is the guy who’s the villain on shows. I play a lot of guys who die.

Don’t make it past page 20.

Not the red shirt guy in Star Trek die. I’m the guy who, I tell people, I said, “Somebody has to be Drago to Rocky. You have to create a mountain for the hero to climb.” I create the mountain for the hero to climb a lot of the time. That’s what I do.

One of the things that I also talk about are when we’re on these journeys. Whatever it is that our epic is. For you, it’s acting. For me, it’s podcasting and speaking, but there are detours along the way. Things that even if you try and think through the whole thing, you couldn’t anticipate. One of the big detours we all faced was the pandemic. All of a sudden, what are we going to do? For me, I had finished up my hours for my license for professional clinical counseling.

I was all ready and like, “I’m going to go take the exam.” I couldn’t even leave my apartment. I had to shift on what I thought I was doing and when I was doing it. Not just the pandemic, but for you in your career, what have been some of the big detours for you? If you look back and go, “Even though I had to change course, I had to detour, it turned out better than I could have anticipated.”

Better is relative. Hard to define, but there are things that are super interesting. I was married for a while, as I’m sure you know. When I got divorced, I started dating this professional poker player named Annie Duke. She was amazing as a person. I started learning how to play poker and through a weird order of events, I played in some tournaments and I won a bunch of money. I played professional poker for about 4 or 5 years. I call it semi-pro. I wasn’t full-time, but I was doing my time between acting and Hollywood and I’d spend half my year in Vegas. I can’t say that I wouldn’t have been wealthy if it was my only source of income, but I could’ve lived in Vegas in a crappy condo apartment and been okay if I was a degenerate, but I’m not.

I would split my time between the money that I would make. I played in the World Series for two months every year. I play in tournaments online all the time. That was a fascinating time period because obviously in Hollywood, I don’t have the same conversations that I have with poker players about game theory or dealing with math. I’m a big math junkie, so it was a lot of fun to do that for a number of years. I loved that detour, but when the poker world collapsed, all my friends who were poker players were like, “We’re moving to Ireland. We’re moving to Mexico. We’re moving to Dominican Republic. Come with us.” I said, “I can’t. This isn’t my passion. It was a nice side road.”

Definitely.

I then went back to Hollywood. I’d rather be writing scripts than sitting on an island playing poker. I went back to Hollywood. That was probably the biggest one. The other big thing that happened was when the pandemic hit. I was never able to leave Hollywood my entire career. Living in LA or New York, you had to be there all the time because if you missed an audition, the fear of missing the big break was always weighing on me.

Sure.

Always terrified missing family events and not wanting to travel. The pandemic hit. I teach acting class too. All my classes moved online. My student coaching, every actor I knew had to build a home studio to put themselves on tape for auditions because you couldn’t go into the offices anymore. Everybody had their own equipment. When I coach actors, now I do it over Zoom while they’re taping themselves. Everything moved to this place. I haven’t been in a room to audition in front of people now for four years because everybody, the producers now are like, “Why do we go into a room? Zoom is so much easier. We can be anywhere. Actors make self-tapes at home and submit them instead.”

That allows producers to watch those auditions at home. They don’t have to go to an office and listen to actors go, “Sorry I’m late. My cat threw up a hairball and the traffic was crazy at 405.” They don’t have to hear these stories. They don’t have to watch it. They can watch ten seconds of an audition instead of 5 minutes if they don’t like somebody, just go click. I told everybody, the moment that happened, we were done going into rooms in Hollywood. It was done. They’re starting to have some in-person auditions again, but it’s not the same. Not as often. You don’t have to. Once that happened, I was like, “I’m free to leave Los Angeles.” I don’t think anybody should live in one place their entire life either. Even I grew up in Boston, moved to LA, I’ve filmed in a bunch of cities.

I don’t think one should live in Boston because the weather stinks and it’s either arctic vortex or hot and humid and mosquitoes.

It’s a great town.

It’s a great place to visit at the right time of year. That 2 or 3 weeks where the weather’s nice. It’s why I live in California because the weather stinks back there.

Going to Fenway in April or May is always great.

Yeah, exactly. Could be a little cold in April.

I’ll take it. It’s okay, but I do feel like that’s the thing. That opportunity and I left. I’ve been living in Atlanta for the last couple of years. I probably am going to move back to California at some point or New York, but seeing a different lifestyle and reassessing, I was able to do a bunch of things that needed to be done with my family. It’s been a blessing. That’s the silver lining of the pandemic for me. Something interesting happened.

I want to finish up with this question, Joe, which is I talk a lot about our epic journeys. That could be whatever. For some people, it could be writing a book or running a marathon or starting a new job or traveling somewhere. Any journey, we have what we think the destination is. The question that I like to ask all of my guests is, as an actor, when do you feel you’ve gotten to whatever the destination you put, and then what do you do? You say, “This is my big break.” You said that a couple of times. I totally get that.

It’s a big question.

It is a huge question.

When I booked my TV series, Townies, I thought that’s all I ever wanted was a sitcom on television. If I had that, I’d be happy. The truth is, it did not make me happy. It brought me joy, but it doesn’t fix your pain and suffering. If I had this thing, I’d be fine. I had a show and my producer saw me get depressed. I killed a scene where the audience was cracking up. The producer goes, “What’s wrong?” I go, “I thought this would happen and the clouds would part and angels would sing and everything would be fine. None of that happened.” He goes, “Congratulations. You learned the biggest lesson you could have learned to in this show.”

I had to reassess my whole life. I also realized the show can’t even run forever. This is borrowed time. How long can a show stay on the air? Not very long and you’re like, “Now what?” You realize the journey of the actor’s journey is part of it, but it’s not going to bring you happiness even if you have great success. I have friends who are very successful much, more successful than I am, famous. You see their unhappiness all the time. Part of it is realizing that there isn’t a holy grail at the end of the journey. That the journey is the holy grail. That’s what I tell people all the time, especially with 95% rejection rate.

I’ll finish up with this because I think you might appreciate this analogy which is, when we were young, we used to think the age we are now was old, but now that we are, you’re like, “That’s not really old. Really old i always somehow 20 years further down the road, but you never get to really old.”

I hope there’s another 20. I will say this, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve also realized how precious time is. That’s another thing that you start to recognize as, “How long have I been doing this thing?” You look back and I don’t see the journey the same way everyone else does. People look and you say, “Look at the resume.” You’re like, “I know, but I’m not where I thought I’d be either. I’m not Matt Damon. I’m not doing Dunkin’s commercials during the Super Bowl. I don’t know what to tell you. It’s like I’m doing what I can.”

I get that.

I’m just saying. It’s difficult, but everybody has success on a different level. Everybody has somebody who’s a rung ahead of them in this industry. Very few people can greenlight projects. The journey of this is one thing, but I have goals. I’ve written a script that I hope to make in the next year or two. I have a TV show that I’ve been pitching around town, but there will be no big role. There’s just steps forward one step at a time.

Definitely.

For me, that’s it. It’s just enjoying the journey, trying to travel and see more places realizing that my time is precious and bringing joy to as many people as I can. At the end of the day, that’s the gift that I can give people. I entertain, so that’s great.

 

EPIC Begins With 1 Step Forward | Joe Reitman | Acting Career

 

You definitely do, and I look forward to seeing what the future holds for you. Sometimes getting surprised as I’m watching a show and go, “There’s Joe. That’s cool.”

It’s one of my favorite things is me ruining my friend’s escapism. It’s one of my favorite things to do.

I’m not going to tell him that I got this role and that’ll surprise him.

Yeah.

Joe, thank you so very much for taking the time to talk with me.

Sure.

I want to remind everyone, Joe is such a great example of epic choices lead to the epic life that we all want.

Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.

Not a problem. All right, everyone. Have an epic day out there and I’ll talk to you again soon.

About Joseph D. Reitman

EPIC Begins With 1 Step Forward | Joe Reitman | Acting CareerJoseph D. Reitman was born on May 25, 1968 in Boston, Massachusetts, USA. He is an actor and producer, known for Happy! (2017), Money Monster (2016) and The Perfect Storm (2000).

 

 

 

 

 

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