NPR 89.3 KPCC Story "Military veterans join forces to take on Hollywood."
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Military veterans join forces to take on Hollywood
It's another night in Hollywood. Another networking event. But this is not your typical club.
Framed photos of military veterans line walls draped with patriotic bunting.
This is the basement of American Legion Post 43, just several blocks away from the Hollywood Walk of Fame. And it's here where casting agents and studio executives mingle with more than 100 veterans looking for their big break.
"This is a roomful of shakers and movers," said Skye Marshall, a former Air Force medic who moved to Los Angeles to act. "I'm here to shake hands and kiss babies."
The group Veterans in Film and Television has been holding these meetings at the American Legion for the last year to help veterans network.
In Hollywood, it's all about who you know but military veterans typically have few - if any - showbiz connections. They're also getting a later start to their careers than other performers.
Searching for support
Co-founders Kyle Hausmann-Stokes and Mike Dowling are themselves Iraq War vets who were looking for a support system as they pursued entertainment careers.
"It's tough to transition back to the civilian sector," said Hausmann-Stokes, who led military convoys in Iraq as an Army staff sergeant.
Hausmann-Stokes said he returned from Iraq in 2008 with severe post-traumatic stress disorder. He couldn't shake memories of roadside bomb blasts and enemy fire.
"I was trying to make it in film school at USC," Hausmann-Stokes said. "It was hard. It was really hard. I didn't have anybody to collaborate with or even commiserate with."
Dowling, who worked as a military dog handler in the Marines and wrote a book about the experience, felt similarly as he went on acting auditions.
"I would always meet the same guys because we go out for the same roles," said Dowling, who is 33 and a former seargent. "And a lot of them were former military just like I was. And we would all agree that we should meet up more often and help out each other because this industry can be really tough, obviously.
The two became friends after meeting at a party, and soon got to work setting up a Web presence for veterans in entertainment. On the group's Facebook page, veterans post industry tips and audition dates for one another - magnanimity that members say is rare in Hollywood.
The group's networking meetings started to draw Hollywood bigwigs who wanted to show their appreciation to the troops. Past guests have included Tom DeSanto, producer of the Transformers movies and Kurt Wimmer, the screenwriter behind action hits like Salt, starring Angelina Jolie.
"Time is required in the trenches"
Another speaker is one of the best-known vets in Hollywood -- comedic actor Rob Riggle, who's fans know from The Hangover, and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.
Riggle was in the Marines for 23 years, serving in Kosovo and Afghanistan. On the side, he chased a second career in comedy.
"And just kept at it for many, many, many years," Riggle said. "I think that's what a lot of young people don't realize is how much time is required in the trenches.... Pardon the pun."
He didn't know any veterans to help him up the Hollywood ladder. Mentoring other vets wasn't top of mind either. Then he met Dowling on the set of a commercial for the game Call of Duty.
"He was very persistent in talking to me which can be annoying but for whatever reason he was a Marine and he didn't annoy me," Riggle said. "'And he told me about this organization. I liked the fact that veterans in Hollywood get together, and we help each other. Because that's what it takes sometimes."
More than just stunt coordinators
Riggle is the rare veteran-turned-actor who gets recognized on the street. But it wasn't always this way. Last century, military service was more common and during certain wars, compulsory.
And veterans were some of Hollywood's biggest stars. Elvis Presley. Steve McQueen. Mel Brooks.
Jimmy Stewart actually took a break from acting in World War II to fly Army planes. He went onto earn the Distinguished Flying Cross twice.
But these days, with 1 percent of the US population in the military, veterans are less visible in Hollywood. Veterans are more likely to work as technical consultants and fight coordinators than to be plastered across a movie billboard.
Veterans doing it for themselves
Hausmann-Stokes said one of the missions of Veterans in Film and Television is to recast the industry's image of veterans.
"People in the industry don't necessarily think of miltary veterans as being artists, thespians, directors and producers," Hausmann-Stokes said. "They think of us as clean-cut action people and they don't know all the incredible stories we have to tell."
Hausmann-Stokes went ahead and founded his own production company Blue Three Productions - named after his call sign in Iraq - and directs public service announcements geared at veterans for the federal government like this.
Skye Marshall just joined Veterans in Film and Television. She wants to keep her career momentum going. After three years in LA, she recently guest-starred on her first network show, The Mentalist on CBS, as a woman whose van was involved in a kidnapping.
"The cops show up and she gives them a really hard time," Marshall said. "I already have a kind of sassiness about me."
For Marshall, the best part of networking with veterans is knowing they have her back the way they would on the battlefront.
As for the casting director from the show Glee, standing a few feet away from Marshall - that's just a bonus.
This is part I in a series on military veterans in Hollywood. Click here to listen to part II.