Christopher Allen is a United States Military Veteran. He served four years in the U.S. Air Force. His military training and career began at Lackland AFB and continued on at Keesler AFB where he earned his Airway Science degree and became an Air Traffic Controller. Christopher is proud to have served in the U.S. Air Force and is excited to continue to provide a different kind of service by entertaining the masses. One of his first television appearances was on ABC’s hit show Scandal, and he has performed on stage stateside and across Europe. Christopher continues his training at The Groundlings Advanced Improve class.
Find interviews like this one on the Military Veterans in Creative Careers podcast.
Justin Sloan: Thank you for agreeing to share your experience with us. To get us started, why did you join the military and what were some major takeaways form your time in the service?
Christopher Allen: Well that’s a loaded question (no pun intended). I had been in college for one year and it just wasn’t working out. Honestly I wasn’t focused and spent more time out of class than in. I had a good friend in college who joined the Air Force without telling anyone. Next thing I knew he was stationed in England and by this time I had dropped out of college. One day I called him and said “how do you like it” he replied “I love it” and that’s was all I needed to hear. The next day I went right to the recruiters’ office and joined the United States Air Force. I wish I had a more valiant story but that was it. It turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made. Let’s just say I found my focus quickly. I learned the value of dedication, maturity, service, and hard work. Those values are not only essential in life but are a must to have true success in the entertainment industry as will, in my opinion.
JS: When you were still in, did you have any idea you would be pursuing a career in acting?
CA: None at all. I went to a performing arts high school in Nashville, TN, but I did not have a true desire to be an actor at all. I received a form in the mail after middle school that said select a few schools you’d like to go to, and that was one of the schools I checked off. During the last year of my active enlistment, I overheard one of the civilians I worked with talking about a play his wife was involved with and that the theatre was looking for actors. I thought to myself I could either do air traffic control all my life, which would’ve been fine with me, or I could actually give this acting thing a shot and leave any regret behind. I got a part in that play which was Damn Yankees and I went on to play a lead in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at another theatre in town. Those two experiences pretty much solidified my decision to make the move to LA. I got out of the Air Force and two days and a cross country trip later I was in California.
JS: What did you do to make your transition smooth? At what point did you start pursuing your acting career, and what did you do to get started?
CA: My transition wasn’t exactly smooth but it’s typical, and anyone should prepare well before moving their life to LA. I didn’t prepare, so the first two years were literally spent trying to find odd jobs and a decent place to live. It is VERY expensive in LA and there are thousands and thousands of people that scramble to LA every day to be in the industry. I had to use google, craigslist, and word of mouth to find acting classes and places to live and work. I didn’t know anyone who was established in LA. Using the GI bill helped out as well in terms of providing some extra income. Soon after I arrived in LA, I found an acting class or two to take, eventually a job, and then I enrolled in a theatre conservatory program at a local community college (Los Angeles City Community College). After about two years of training, I started auditioning for plays and student and independent film projects. I eventually found out about VFT about two years ago and it has been a great resource!
JS: How did you find the opportunities you have been involved with so far, and what can you advise other military men and women do to land roles?
CA: In the beginning I used websites such as LACasting.com and ActorsAccess.com to see what roles were available, and as I gained confidence as an actor I’d submit myself more and more. They are websites that actors use to submit themselves for the chance to audition for a TV show, film, play, commercial, etc. It’s basically like monster.com or the classifieds for actors. Once I had enough material on tape or recorded material of acting jobs I worked, I was able to get a manager and commercial agent. I still use those sites, but my agents and manager also try and help me get more substantial opportunities or bigger roles. To land a role isn’t really up to the actor. It’s out of the actor’s control. The best and only thing an actor can do is the same as any other professional. Know yourself, your strengths and weaknesses, and be honest about your skill level. If you wanted to be a doctor would you expect to skip medical school and go straight to the operating table or would you want someone to operate on you who says “I don’t need training, just give me those shiny sharp things and let me operate.” Casting directors want to see you at your best. Take the time to get good training, and no matter your age, gender etc., don’t rush to get a role. Once you start to get good training and feel ready to put yourself out then look for roles that you fit for your “type,” you’ll find that out once you start training. Your local community theatre is a GREAT place to start—I highly recommend getting involved in your local theatre.
JS: You have now been on some high profile shows like Scandal and General Hospital. Were those experiences different from your other acting experiences? If so, how?
CA: Yes those experiences are very different from plays, independent, or student films that I’ve been a part of. Naturally they are much bigger and expensive productions. So on a smaller project you may have to stand around in a parking lot freezing while the camera crew tries to sneak around the corner before a security guard catches them filming on someone’s private property. Or perhaps they promise to pay you IOU’s until they actual have money to fund their project. On a network show like Scandal or Greys, you’ll typically have a dressing room, the show will be shot on a huge sound stage, and you have to be ready to go at the drop of dime because these shows cost a lot of money to make and you don’t want to be the one to hold up production. Network shows or projects with bigger budgets are ran efficiently and professionally. It’s like the difference between your first day of basic training where people are running scared and clueless versus that last parade you’re in at the completion of basic training.
JS: Great comparison! What more can you tell us about your experience on set? Do you feel the same about television and film now that you have seen how the sausage is made?
CA: The experience on set is great. You get to see how shows are actually made. You get to see how you can be standing in someone’s living room and walk four feet away and all of a sudden you’re on an airplane. It’s amazing how TV and film set are made. That’s another great living by the way for people who want to be on the production side of things behind the camera. I don’t feel the same about TV and film anymore. I mean, if the show is good then I’ll get lost in it and really enjoy it as a viewer. But I spend more time watching TV to do research versus to be entertained. It’s to know the differences between the type of acting you’ll see on a comedy versus a drama, etc.
JS: You mentioned that you studied acting. Can you tell us more about that?
CA: I studied at a scene study class (you perform scenes from TV shows etc., and a teacher critiques you) at Anthony Meindl’s Actor Workshop, Los Angeles City College Theatre Conservatory, and I’m currently studying Improv acting at The Groundlings Theatre and School. It’s important that you find the right place to train. Most independent acting studios in town will let you sit in on a class for free to see how you like. Some cost maybe 20 or 30 bucks to sit in on a class. You have to be comfortable where you train to make the most out of it.
JS: What other resources are out there for aspiring actors? Do you have any favorite websites, blogs, or books on the topic?
CA: I do. Backstage.com is great for aspiring actors to simply read articles on training, search for advice, or find general information about acting. Deadline.com is a great industry insider website to learn about what’s going on from a business standpoint, such as which network or studios are creating new TV shows and films etc. As far as books, there are a million, but An Actor Prepares by Constantin Stanislavski is a good one. All that info can be overwhelming at times so if nothing else just go to the local library or find sites online to read scripts of plays or films. http://www.imsdb.com/ is a site that allows you to read transcripts of actual films that have been made. If I hear about interesting opportunities, I’ll post them as well as share my own experiences on social media links as well.
JS: Do you feel your time in the military has helped you with your acting, even for any non-military roles you may have? How so?
CA: Definitely, you know you get rejected almost daily here in Los Angeles. You have to be thick skinned to make it here in LA to be honest with you. They say it takes at least 7 years to get to the point where you even begin to start working consistently as an actor. I’m finding that to be true and seven years is a relatively short time in comparison to most of the Actors who are still “trying to make it.” The military taught me diligence, patience, and perseverance. You gotta have that. With all that said if you were able make it in the service no matter what your job or rank was, you have what it takes to persevere in Hollywood. Just know that this is a real business and it’s not all glitz and glamour. There are a LOT of great actors here with the same goals in mind as you. You need to be realistic and prepared for the journey ahead.
JS: What about the network? Do you find that having this cadre of fellow military men and women available has helped, or is there not a sense of people helping each other? If there is, how should a military veteran aspiring actor reach out and conduct themselves?
CA: Oh man it’s priceless. I wish I had something like VFT when I first moved here. If you are a service member who is or aspires to be in the industry all you have to do is go to VFTLA.org sign up and you’ll become a part of a network of veterans who are either just starting out or have been in the industry for years. I have built relationships with veterans who have helped give me guidance, get jobs, and inspired me to give back to other vets as well. Again, if you’re serious about making this transition, there are people who are ready and willing to connect with you. Just remember that the order, respect, and dedication that we all learned in the service applies in the industry as well. A lot of people who are established in the industry volunteer their time and efforts to help us newcomers so it’s important that we value and respect each other’s time with serious and thought out inquires.
JS: Have you interacted with other military (current or former) men and women in the entertainment industry aside from actors? Do you have any advice for people aspiring to those positions?
CA: Of course. I am constantly around other veterans who have no desire to be actors at all. That’s great, less competition! But seriously, in VFT alone there are writers, directors, producers, designer, audio engineers, voice over artists, cartoonists, animation artists, lighting, documentary makers, and the list goes on. Much like the military, it takes several men and women to deliver that finished product. All my advice would be the same. Get involved in local theatre, they need assistants, set designers, painters, audio people, lighting people, and people to help design programs, etc. Volunteer. Read those same websites to see what’s going on in the industry. You can find links to many different areas.
JS: Thank you so much for your wonderful advice. Before we sign off, do you have one piece of advice you would like to leave our readers with? This can be something that I forgot to ask about, or a summary of your points above.
CA: Remember to know yourself, what you believe in, and that you have already achieved great things by serving this country. And if you haven’t served, remember that the success is in pursuing your dream or goal, not the outcome. Hollywood doesn’t need another Brad Pitt, Will Smith, or Steven Spielberg, you can only be you and THAT is what they are looking for. That’s all I have to say. Thanks you for listen to my two cents and people can interact with me on Twitter @teamchrisallen if they want to connect with me or ask for advice. See you all on set!
These interviews will appear in an upcoming book on military members and veterans in the world of entertainment. As you wait, please read my book Creative Writing Career, on Amazon.
To follow Justin Sloan: http://eepurl.com/bbpNjv