by Virginia Van Zandt
Hollywood may be the world’s slipperiest corporate ladder, with people above you trying to step on your hands, and people below you trying to pull you off, says veteran Hollywood actor and talent manager Chi Muoi Lo.
Now he’s launched an online course to help actors and other entertainers save their careers from office politics, fast-talking vendors and worthless training courses.
Even elite acting programs, like the $230,000 masters program at the University of Southern California, will teach the practical elements of acting, but fail on the business side, says Lo.
“You graduate, knowing nothing about the business, or how to break into the business. How can you learn from teachers who failed at becoming actors themselves? Experience is the best teacher. You cannot teach something you don’t know,” said Lo.
Chi Muoi Lo’s life began in the poor seaside Vietnamese city of Phan Rang. As an infant, his mother carried him in a small open boat in 1978 to escape the communist invasion from the north.
After a stint on the pirate-plagued waters of the South China Sea, he ended up in a U.S. refugee camp. Once the Jewish League of America agreed to sponsor the Lo family, they made their way to Philadelphia, where Lo was raised alongside 9 brothers and sisters. He wasn’t rich, but he began looking for a way to rise in America.
During an 8th grade production of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm,” Lo discovered acting and the remedy for his boyhood shyness. Next, Lo won a place at the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, and went on to attend the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco on a full scholarship. By graduation, he had his bags packed for Los Angeles. But the struggle was just beginning.
Lo spent his first few years in Los Angeles writing “Catfish in Black Bean Sauce,” a story about two Vietnamese siblings raised in an African American household. The film was successful at its 2000 debut, but Lo felt he spent years distracted from acting, his chosen craft.
It was harder for Lo to land roles after so much time away. So he bought his own management company, Allen Edelman Management, to regain traction in the industry. He worked directly with dozens of actors, providing audition coaching, meeting with agents, and negotiating film and TV deals.
Soon he was back in front of the camera, but with a diverse wealth of industry knowledge. Lo emphasizes that the people who claim your fame is in their hands are not your friends.
Vulnerable actors often fall prey to the “fake audition” scam. Overworked agents with too many clients will plan an audition, complete with a script and a fake casting director, to keep up the facade that their clients are getting work. The agent will tell their client they didn’t get the part, and the actor will never realize the audition was fake.
Then there are managers who charge actors hundreds of dollars to perform in front of “talent scouts.” But the talent scouts are fake, and the actors go nowhere.
Since the industry is constantly cycling through up-and-comers, there is never a shortage of aspiring actors to trick. “Hollywood is an illusion, and people don’t know any better. There are 180,000 people a year who come to L.A. to become actors,” said Lo.
“I was with one commercial agent that didn’t want me to join the union,” said Jocylen Wen, a student of Lo who appeared in “Entourage.” “There are a lot of non-union commercials, and they’re easier [for agents] to book. It was in his best interest.”
“Chi [Lo] said you have to do what’s best for your career overall,” said Wen. “And ultimately, if you are trying to be a professional actor, you have to join the professionals, which is the union.”
Some independent acting teachers take advantage of their influence over young actors for emotional or financial gain.
“In one particular acting class, I could just feel this teacher trying to get people to have a super emotional breakdown in the class. He was digging for trauma.” said Rob Watkins, a student of Lo who later appeared in “Lethal Weapon.”
“He actually convinced this couple [in the class] to start an open relationship, even though that wasn’t on their mind initially. And then they ended up in this huge dramatic breakup,” said Watkins. “This class was at least $300 a month. I’m paying for an acting class, not for therapy.”
“This is a business, but I had an experience with an acting teacher who cared more about the money than the actors,” said Richard Witen, who appeared in “The Island” and “Rules of Engagement.”
“The clock started when she started talking. And when the time was up, if you wanted more time, that would have been an extra 50 bucks for the next 20 minutes,” said Witen. “I realized that this woman was all about getting paid.”
The average actor spends $6,000 on acting courses. It is key to be responsible with savings, financial planning, and investments, said Lo.
“No one should move to Los Angeles with anything less than $5,000 or $10,000 in the bank to start… Investment is so important, because when you start making money, you should think of it as a person. It should work for you,” said Lo.
Although Lo has enjoyed a vibrant career with credits like Spike Lee’s “Sucker Free City,” “Indecent Proposal,” and “In the Heat of the Night,” he feels that his 2021 course, Mastering the Business of Acting, is his legacy. The program promises to fill gaps in the business knowledge of aspiring actors.
“We cover personal finance, auditions, casting, agents, managers, marketing, self tapes, pictures, resumes, pitching, networking, studio testing. It’s all about the business, I don’t cover the craft. Because I know that people are teaching that already,” said Lo.
The course will be taught at Howard University’s theater department this spring. Lo hopes the program will be picked up by other universities in the future..
“We’re going to change the industry. Power is information, and the industry does not want to tell people the truth. Because the truth will make them look bad.”