Even while growing up in Northern California’s Bay Area, David Zimmerman knew his sights were set on a career in Hollywood. In first grade he directed, produced and starred in a production of Hansel and Gretel. Years later, he majored in drama at San Francisco State University, and went on to study at the prestigious American Conservatory Theatre. He’s appeared in commercials for Round Table Pizza, Subway and Greyhound, and in such film and TV projects as Meet the Fockers, Unknown and Nip/Tuck.
Today Zimmerman heads up Meet the Biz, a monthly series of workshops designed to help others achieve industry success. He spoke with ABILITY’s Pamela K. Johnson to discuss the impact of his work.
Pamela K. Johnson: What motivated you to start your company?
David Zimmerman: I’d grown up admiring certain actors and producers, and I wanted to work with them. So when I moved to Southern California, I was determined not to take a job at, say, Starbucks—even though I hear they have medical insurance. (laughter) Instead, I wanted to bring together professionals to talk to people like me, who wanted to be in the business. That’s why I started offering workshops.
Today, people who take my classes have gotten to work with the late director Corey Allen, and with actors like Bruce Davidson, Lainie Kazan and Geri Jewell. Geri has cerebral palsy and was the first person with a disability to really get out there on television with The Facts of Life and, more recently, with Deadwood.
Meet the Biz recently hosted a session with Howard Fine, who runs a top-acting workshop in Los Angeles. We staged 10 scenes and showcased 20 students in a class that ran for over an hour. Some participants had a disability and some didn’t. Howard made sure everyone got time to perform.
All of our instructors bring in material they’d like to teach, lead different exercises, and tell amazing personal stories. They really go deep into the process. That’s important because we’re all in the same bag: looking for jobs and seeking connections. Why not to work together? You never know where that might lead.
Johnson: How did you break into the business?
Zimmerman: As a kid, I always had a picture of the Hollywood sign above my bedroom door, and I always knew that some day I would end up here. After graduating from college—where I won the Faculty Drama Award—I continued to seek out theatrical work and roles in short films.
I moved down to Los Angeles when I was about 30, and found a place to live, got a job, enrolled in acting classes, landed a commercial agent, and then a theatrical agent. I was able to get into the Screen Actors Guild, mostly by doing national and regional commercials.
After I joined the union, I continued to accept work on student projects at the American Film Institute and the University of Southern California, because I reasoned that film students go on to become working directors. My gamble paid off, as I’ve gotten jobs from some of those same people who not only went on to become directors, but also casting agents. I even called one of them to come and work with me on a project.
Johnson: So how do you ‘meet the biz,’ when the line is so long?
Zimmerman: One of the best methods of breaking into film and TV is Backstage/West, which is an online database where you can post your pictures and resumé. It also offers information about casting notices, auditions, talent competitions and workshops.
Still, it’s very hard to make a living as an actor, so you have to do a lot of different things. Some people think that being a waiter/actor is diversifying. But if you’re going to do two jobs, the second one might as well be casting, producing or singing. I resolved to take other jobs within the industry rather than work outside of it. So instead of being solely a waiter, I was a singing character waiter at Bobby McGee’s in Brea, CA. (It has since closed.)
I took time off from everything, though, when my dad was dying. He had cancer and other health problems over a nine-year period. I’d go back and forth between LA and home, so I could spend time with him. That experience changed something in me. I did love acting, and still wanted to go for it, but family comes first.
Towards the end of his life, I was home full-time. It was good for me, and it was good for my mom. I was there with him ’til the end, through the morphine and all.
Johnson: How did you make the shift into casting?
Zimmerman: I got a call from someone who asked me to help cast a film. After I did that, somebody else called me up a month later. He had a casting job that he couldn’t take and said, “Why don’t you do it?” That film happened to be a pilot for Showtime. After that, I got an opportunity to work on Penn & Teller’s Bullshit!
Johnson: When you cast a project, do you audition actors of varying abilities?
Zimmerman: Yes. In one of the pilots that I cast, we were looking for a surfer type. One of the actors I brought in was Toby Forrest, who is a C-5 quadriplegic. He is an amazing talent who looks like he could have been a surfer. I told the producer and director it would be great to have Toby as the best friend of the lead surfer, as the series moved forward. But unfortunately it didn’t get picked up.
While I was casting the movie Modus Operandi, I was searching for someone to play the role of a seductive woman with a lot of problems. I brought in Lexi Marman, who is an incredible actress and is hard of hearing. She booked the role even though it wasn’t written anywhere in the script that her character had hearing loss.
Johnson: Glee has a character in a wheelchair. Marlee Matlin, who is deaf, was on Celebrity Apprentice last season. How do people or characters with disabilities affect not only public awareness, but also casting directors’ willingness to tap these performers for auditions?
Zimmerman: I think those actors and characters can have a significant impact, and I think those opportunities are definitely opening up. As a casting person, you think, Oh yeah! This person—who happens to have a disability—would be great in this role. A short-statured person can play a husband or father. When people are open-minded, it takes the focus away from the disability, and makes the role more about the person.
Johnson: I know the industry is tough for everybody, but how might people with disabilities strategize for successful Hollywood careers?
Zimmerman: As I said, if you’re an actor, it helps if you’re able to do more than one thing. Aside from acting, Toby Forrest is the lead singer of the band Cityzen and has a radio talk show.
You’ve got to wake up in the morning, go online and submit yourself for jobs. Know what you want, and where you can fit in as you try to break through barriers.
Johnson: You work closely with the Media Access Office. How does that organization help with up-andcoming performers?
Zimmerman: The office’s goal is to promote employment and accurate portrayals of people with disabilities in media and entertainment. Plus, it has over 900 members with a wide range of disabilities. Media Access can serve as a portal through which casting agents, producers, directors and others can walk to find diversity.
Johnson: What influence do you think such an organization can have on the industry?
Zimmerman: Media Access brings visibility to our diverse acting community, which is important. Ultimately it would be nice not to need these events and organizations because everyone is included and represented. But we’re not there yet.