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To striking actors, ad pay's the thing

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Shawn Woodyard isn't a movie star. Not yet, anyway.

He does look like one. More specifically, he looks like Denzel Washington, and that fluke of genetics once boosted his career to lucrative heights.

But these are not-so-lucrative days for Woodyard and many other not-yet-celebrity actors across the country. Since May, about 135,000 of them have been involved in a little-noticed strike against the advertising industry.

It's a New Economy battle. The actors want their piece of Internet and cable TV profits. The advertisers that hire actors for TV commercials want to pay them less. The actors are refusing to work for certain advertising and production agencies. So the agencies are taking their business overseas.

That deadlock has led to picketing outside General Motors plants - including Baltimore's Broening Highway plant earlier this month - because GM is one of the world's biggest advertisers. To head off threats of boycotts against Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble, negotiators began meeting again in New York on Sept. 13.

For Woodyard, 37, the strike has meant sporadic work and a tiny paycheck. Like every strike-afflicted actor, he has weathered plenty of rough spots before. But this time, the stakes are much higher.

There's the mortgage on his Silver Spring home. There's the rent on the Manhattan apartment he took on last year, with plans to seek more jobs in the profitable New York market. And, mainly, there's Mackenzy, his 8-month-old daughter. Woodyard is beginning to wonder whether it's time for a career change.

"I've heard a lot of actors are having to consider other things," he said. "If you have another skill, you're boning up on that skill."

Woodyard's backup skill is computer technology. When he began his acting career in New York in 1986, he worked part time as a computer technician to pay bills. Since summer, he has been taking computer classes for certification as a Microsoft technician. Last week, he passed his final exam.

It was a bittersweet success because he doesn't want to give up his life as an actor, a life that began on the stage of York High School in Pennsylvania. But the question dogs him: "Am I going to stop being a professional actor?"

Woodyard grew up in York, son of a metallurgist and a seamstress, the fifth of six kids. He first acted at the city's performing arts high school, then studied theater and business at Cornell University and Penn State before moving to New York.

His mother wept when he disclosed his plans to be an actor. And she wept when she saw his apartment in the Spanish Harlem section of Manhattan.

Most nights, Woodyard dined on the $2.99 chicken wings and rice special from a nearby Chinese restaurant. Some days, he had only enough spare change for a one-way subway trip downtown. He'd walk home after a day of auditions.

After making peanuts and working temporary computer jobs at night, Woodyard was hired in 1988 to appear in a Coors Light commercial that aired on national television. He worked 2 1/2 days, but the ad ran nearly three years, making him about $30,000 in residuals.

"That's what made me say: 'I can stay here. I can do this,'" he said.

That one commercial launched his career, and Woodyard began getting hired for prominent, high-paying commercials for such products as Folgers coffee and Sports Illustrated. He said goodbye to the computer jobs.

Then, in 1991, his work on commercials opened doors in Hollywood. He was hired as a stunt double for Denzel Washington in "Malcolm X." That led to a job as Washington's stand-in and body double in "Philadelphia." He and Washington became friends, and Washington asked him to be his double in his next few movies, "The Pelican Brief," "Devil in a Blue Dress" and "Crimson Tide."

Woodyard was suddenly earning six figures. He bought a Mercedes. His mother no longer cried.

But there was a problem. The bulk of his income was coming from the body-double jobs. It'd be his hand on the screen or him running through flames, but never his face. Being Denzel Washington's double was becoming a full-time job, and he was getting away from commercials. His agent told him one day what he already knew: "Great, you're making all this money. But are you acting?"

Woodyard realized it was time to get back to being himself, to being an actor. When he told Washington, the movie star wished him luck but warned him of the rough roads ahead. "It was a very tough call," Woodyard said.

In 1995, he settled in Silver Spring with his girlfriend. For the next two years, he was back to making about $20,000. But slowly, he crawled out of Denzel Washington's shadow. He got a spot on the soap opera "Guiding Light." In 1997, he landed a Scope mouthwash ad that, because of repeated airings on national TV, brought in more than $50,000 in residuals. That led to spots for Heineken and the U.S. Postal Service, then episodes of "Homicide" and "America's Most Wanted."

"I didn't reach star level, but I'd gotten over the hump," he said.

Although he was no longer working on big-budget films or flying first class, last year was shaping up to be his best. He was appearing in national commercials, getting hired to model in magazine ads and landing small TV roles. He made plans to direct his own short film. He hired a voice coach, with plans to hone his delivery and improve his acting. And he began renting an apartment in New York because he was working there so often.

Then, soon after Mackenzy was born in January, rumors of a strike began to roil and jobs started to disappear. "By March, even though the strike didn't start until May, it was already slow," Woodyard said. "Then it ground to a halt."

The paychecks didn't stop immediately because, for the first half of this year, residuals continued to roll in from commercials Woodyard shot last year.

Residuals are a commercial actor's bread and butter. Actors typically receive $500 each day they work on a commercial but can earn up to $50 each time the ad runs on TV. In some cases, they can earn money for years off one commercial, which helps carry them during slow periods.

And it's the residuals - known as "pay for play," and similar to a book author's royalties - that are at the core of the actors' strike.

The advertising industry wants to replace residuals with one-time, up-front payments, similar to the payment method for commercials that appear only on cable TV. But the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and American Federation of Television and Radio Actors (AFTRA) - which together represent 135,000 actors - want residuals extended to include cable commercials. And they want to be paid when a company uses an actor's image or voice on the Internet.

"It's all about the Internet," said Patricia O'Donnell, head of the Washington/Baltimore branches of both SAG and AFTRA, while picketing recently outside GM's Broening Highway plant. "Because in a few years, everything is going to be on the Internet."

O'Donnell's office represents nearly 5,000 actors, many of whom - like Woodyard - are scrambling to find temporary jobs.

But as it approaches half a year, the strike is hurting the entire production industry, which includes camera operators, producers, hair and makeup artists, wardrobe stylists and even musicians. A generally accepted formula holds that for every commercial actor, there are 20 behind-the-scenes production workers, many of whom work on a free-lance basis and receive no pay during such lulls.

"It's certainly been a long and painful and damaging strike," said Jack Heyrman, owner of Clean Cuts Music in Baltimore, which composes and records music for commercials. "It's driving work out of the country like crazy."

Many commercials now airing have been filmed in Canada, South Africa, Europe and South America, where production companies are using nonunion actors and amateurs. Nonunion actors are also being used in commercials shot in the United States, which has riled the actors' unions.

Some observers predict that such conflict between production companies and the unions could spill over into television and film production next year, when Hollywood studios' contracts expire with the two actors' unions and with the Writers Guild of America.

For Woodyard, that means his slow rise toward stardom has been interrupted. He fired his voice coach and put his film on hold. By midsummer, with no end to the strike in sight, he began taking computer classes. "I can't just weather it out," he said.

Most days, Woodyard feels confident that the interruption to his acting career is temporary. In recent weeks, work has picked up.

He tells himself the Microsoft certification is just good business sense. With that certification, he could quickly find a job paying $60,000 or more. He sees it as a safety net, not a surrender. It's what's best for Mackenzy.

But as the strike goes on and on, he's also never sure whether the next TV job will be his last. The cellular phone he carries everywhere could stop ringing tomorrow. And he dreads such deafening silence.

"After 14 years, I had worked hard and gotten on a roll and established a track record and a skill level as an actor. But now I'm wondering, did I waste my time?" Woodyard said. "I don't really feel like I wasted my time. I've had a lot of fun. But there's a part of me now that says, it could be over."

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