Former or soon-to-be-former service members used to navigating the military's advancement system may find the path to a career in the entertainment industry daunting. They often are older than counterparts seeking entry-level work, they may face employers with limited experience working with veterans, and they may lack networking resources.
As Army veteran Karen Kraft put it, "Turning jobs – individual gigs – into a career is an art form here."
That's one reason why Kraft, a writer/producer/director whose work has appeared on the Discovery Channel and other outlets, became a board member of Veterans in Film and Television, a group founded in 2012 to help service members from all branches and generations do the grunt work needed to realize their on- or off-camera dreams.
The group has about 3,000 members, director of programs Jack Kennedy said, with regular meetings as well as special events hosted by high-profile talent, open-mike nights and workshops, even movie premieres. It also offers an online member directory for employers to peruse, as well as a portal where those employers can post job opportunities and casting-call notices.
There is a New York chapter along with the L.A. group, though Los Angeles-based veterans often benefit from nearby star power.
"Joe Mantegna was a keynote speaker at a VFT meeting in 2015," said Michael Broderick, a Marine veteran who has appeared in "NCIS" and "The People vs. O.J. Simpson." "He told the actors in the group that, unless you’re working constantly, you need to be training. That stayed with me. I felt I’d been stuck in co-star roles for too long and knew I had to do something in order to start getting guest star opportunities, so I went back into training."
Work ethic hasn't been a concern for service members who reach out to the nonprofit VFT, Kraft and Kennedy said, but there are other issues faced by veterans when they try to take on the entertainment world:
- Egos take a hit when "you have this experience, this maturity, this worldview that people don’t have in Hollywood, yet you still have to go through the same steps when you’re 28 years old that the 21-year-old coming out of college is doing," said Kennedy, an actor/writer and West Point graduate.
- Stereotypes can influence employers who may have read one too many reports about post-traumatic stress, or those who may not believe creativity can co-exist within military life. "You have no idea how creative my privates could be hiding something," joked Kraft, a former Army Reserve officer.
- Expectations can overwhelm Hollywood reality, where aspiring writers may be fetching coffee and actors may lose out on parts not for lack of preparation, but because of the whims of casting agents or producers. "We want to educate as many people as possible," Kraft said, "versus having people land out here and being disappointed and frustrated."
CONNECT AND SERVE
"I became aware of VFT and my life literally changed overnight," said Jennifer Marshall, who decided to pursue an acting/hosting career after serving in the Navy, including time on the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt. "I was elated to know there were other military vets-turned-artsy weirdos."
Marshall went on to serve as the group's general manager, stepping aside in 2016. She's appeared in the USA Network series "Colony" and in "Imperium," a 2016 crime drama starring Daniel Radcliffe. Having spent her early adulthood in uniform, she's making up for lost time.
"Those of us who have served are coming into Hollywood behind schedule and have to work 10 times as hard to catch up," she said via email. "Don’t see it as intimidating, see it as a challenge. Veterans are some of the most resilient people I’ve met. If anyone can do it, we can."
Unlike Marshall, Air Force Lt. Col. Lynelle White's career has overlapped with her service: She's a reservist who splits time between Hollywood and Illinois, after service on active duty as a senior pilot that included time at the controls of the KC-135 Stratotanker and the C-21A, the military version of the Learjet 35A.
Her writing credits include time on the staffs of "Army Wives" and "Z Nation," and her involvement with the group has allowed her to tap fellow service members to take part in her other productions, as well as connect her with "other organizations in Hollywood that are focused on telling the stories of veterans and hiring veterans," she said in an email.
White's advice to aspiring entertainment-industry types was similar to tips offered by Marshall and Broderick: Put in the work.
"If you want to make it as a writer in Hollywood it is essential that you write on a consistent basis," she said. "One script is not enough. You need to create a body of work that reflects your voice. ... My advice to service members considering this industry is to understand that being a veteran may get you in the door at first but only talent or a solid project will enable you to have a career."
Marshall advised those in service that "if you are going to come out here, be prepared to outwork everyone else or don’t bother packing your bags. It’s that simple."
"If you are not willing to study, hustle every day and put yourself out there for strangers to judge you on a daily basis, this isn’t for you," she said. "The work ethic I learned in the military helped me immensely, but I still work more hours now than I did then."
Broderick was blunt: "If there’s anything else you would be happy doing, go do that," the VFT board member emeritus said in an email, advising actors-to-be. "On the other hand, if you are absolutely committed to getting into this industry, then train. Train some more. And (even after you start working) keep training."
"And please," White added, "don’t use acronyms when talking to Hollywood types."