Posted September 19, 2007
ActorsLife.com Interviews President Mark Zimmerman
Reprinted by permission
AEA President Mark Zimmerman
Mark Zimmerman is the President of the Actors' Equity Association. A member of Equity since 1976, Zimmerman joined the Equity Council in 1989, serving until his election to the First Vice President position in 2000. During his term of office, he was the Chair of two Production Contract negotiations, achieving the creation of the 401(k) Plan, improved safety requirements and the Experimental Touring Program. Zimmerman served on several additional negotiating teams, including Off Broadway, as well as numerous committees. He is a member of the Actors' Equity Foundation, chair of the President's Planning Committee and a Vice President of the Equity Holding Corporation. As a Trustee, he serves on the Equity-League Pension, Health Trust Funds and the Equity Staff Pension Plan and is the Chair of the Equity 401(k) Fund.
Mr. Zimmerman has appeared in numerous Broadway and National Touring Productions, including MAMMA MIA, ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, THE RAINMAKER, KISS OF THE SPIDER WOMAN, FACE VALUE and BRIGADOON. His most recent stage appearances were in the Cape Playhouse productions of MOONLIGHT AND MAGNOLIAS and GUYS AND DOLLS. He has appeared on stages across the country and Off Broadway. His film and television credits include THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, A PRICE ABOVE RUBIES, FOR LOVE OR MONEY and BONFIRES OF THE VANITIES as well as "Murphy Brown," "Dash and Lilly," "30 Rock", "Damages", and in a recurring role as a judge on "Law and Order."
Sep 5, 2007
Interviewed by Joanna Parson
You've had a long career as a consummate New York actor. At what age did you know this was what you wanted to do with your life?
I'm not sure I ever had a "moment" when I knew this was what I had to do. Life experiences just kind of brought me to it.
What were the early years in show business like for you? When you packed your bags, and came to New York, did you start working right away?
Ah, yes, "The early years": I did a lot of non-union work, both as an actor and a stage manager. It took me two years to get my Equity card. And a year later I got my first Broadway show, Shenandoah.
How did you get your first agent?
I did Fiorella at the Equity Library Theatre and met my first agent from that.
You mentioned your first Broadway show, Shenandoah, in 1977. What did it mean to you, to work on Broadway for the first time?
Of course it was the goal all of us aspired to. That was the summer of the blackout in New York. It was a wonderful time to be on the Great White Way.
I just saw you play a divorce lawyer on NBC's 30 Rock-- you have numerous film and TV credits. Did you ever consider yourself primarily a stage actor? Did you have to navigate a transition between stage work and on-camera jobs?
I've always considered myself an "actor" and therefore didn't consider any limitation to what I thought I could do. Unfortunately, not everyone else thought the same thing.
One story that I like to tell is about a film audition I had for Sidney Lumet in the mid '80s. He looked at my resume and said, "So, you're a singer." When I left that audition I called my agent and said, "That's it. No more musicals for me." His response was that I wouldn't work for a couple of years until I changed casting directors' perspective of me. That was fine with me, because I was just then concentrating on getting my commercial career off the ground.
And that's what happened. I didn't do a musical for three years – that was when I had an opportunity to work with George Abbott (he was 102 years old at the time). But I've always believed that I was able to make a difference in where my career was going by that decision.
By the way, a few years ago I had the chance to audition for Sidney Lumet for 100 Centre Street. I told him the story. He was chagrined that he said what he did, but I thanked him for it, because that moment had a profound effect on my and my career.
You've also had a pretty major commercial career. Tell us about that—did you do anything at any point that helped you get your foot in the door and focus on booking commercials?
I would say that an actor who wants to do commercials MUST commit to staying in town until he establishes himself. Agents HATE it when a client is constantly going away.
When did you first decide to get involved with Actors' Equity Association? What did you do?
Nineteen-eighty-nine. I was at a point where I felt that if I didn't like some of the things my union was doing, then I needed to get involved.
As President of Equity, what do you find most fulfilling about your work with the union?
I think the thing that most surprises and delights me is how many of our members say "Thank you" for being their President.
You served in various positions at Equity for years before the death of Patrick Quinn, your predecessor and good friend. You stepped into his role at a time of need. Were you surprised to find yourself the President of the union? Do you think you would have aspired to the position under different circumstances?
Patrick died three days before he was to officially assume the duties of Executive Director of AEA. It was pretty much assumed that I would fill the position of President until the following spring, when the nominating committee would then choose someone to run to complete the two years remaining on the term.
I'm not sure I would have placed myself in a position to be nominated, except that when my close friend, John Connolly, became Executive Director, he asked me to run. And so I did and am now President through June of 2009.
Many of our readers would be surprised to learn that the President of Actors' Equity receives no salary or benefits—can you explain the reasoning behind that?
This dates back to an era when Presidents were mostly celebrities. They weren't required to be very active in the functions of the association. That changed when Pat Quinn became President. I have carried on in the same tradition.
Sometimes I'm not sure how I am able to maintain a career and be President. But thus far I've been able to do so. I will state that when I step down as President, I will recommend to the Council that future Presidents receive compensation.
What are your daily and long term responsibilities as President?
I have daily consultations with John Connolly, our Executive Director. When I'm in New York, I am at the office several hours a day. There are several committees of which I'm a member, and whose meetings I try to attend. I also serve on the Boards of the Actors' Fund and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
Long term responsibilities include participation in preparation for the upcoming LORT and Production Contract negotiations. And we will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of Equity in five years, so that is something we're beginning to plan for.
But you're still a working actor, most recently playing Daddy Warbucks in Annie at Sacramento Music Circus this summer. Have you had to turn down any roles because of your position with the union? How do you make decisions now about what jobs you will accept?
One bit of advice Patrick gave me was to never turn down work because of the union. That's not to say sometimes I find I can't go to an audition because of an important meeting. But I've also found that most casting directors understand my responsibilities and are willing to accommodate conflicts when they arise.
When you give talks to young actors who have just become members of the union, you often focus on how actors can be smart about finances. Can you give us any tips about navigating the financial ups and downs of an actor's life?
My advice is to participate in the 401(K) plan if it's offered in the contract they're working under. And try to put money into an IRA.
I know how hard the life of an actor is when you're first starting out, but remember to take care of you first. Try to put 10 percent of everything you make into some kind of saving/retirement fund. It requires discipline, but it can be done, and, believe me, you'll thank yourself for it later.
And for those of you lucky enough to get a Broadway show when you first get to New York, if you can put $10,000 into the 401(K) plan at the age of 20, and that money doubles in value every 7 ˝ years, that $10,000 will be worth $500,000 by the time you're 65. Ah, the beauty of compound interest.
Actorslife.com has some readers who are interested in the actors unions, but may not be sure whether union membership is right for them. What can you tell actors who are looking at Actors' Equity from the outside and thinking, "If I should have the opportunity to become a member of the union, why is it the right thing to do?"
The motto of Equity is, "All for one and one for all." It's through numbers and solidarity that we are able to demand fair wages, good benefits, safe and sanitary working conditions, and most importantly, get the respect we deserve as actors and human beings.
What do you think union actors can do to keep Actors' Equity Association a strong advocate for their rights?
Participate. Equity is a union run by its committees. These committees are made up of working actors. They understand the percent contract that committee represents. If concessions are made by the committee members, it is after much debate and thought. It's a slow and sometimes maddening process, but I can't think of a better way to do it. So if an actor is unhappy with her union, then she should get involved and try to effect the changes she wants to happen.
If you could wave a magic wand and change one thing about the lives of professional actors in America, what would it be?
I would wish that every actor be given the chance to realize his or her dream. For most of us, that would be defined as being a "working actor." I have been very fortunate and blessed in my life up to this point, because I consider myself to be such an actor.