As the Strike Wears On, Actors Return to Restaurants

In January, Francesca Xuereb took the leap many actors in Los Angeles dream of: She quit her waitressing job. After booking a recurring role in HBO Max’s “The Sex Lives of College Girls” and performing another for a forthcoming show on Apple TV+, she was meeting with producers and auditioning five or six times a week.

“I was getting a lot of traction,” she said.

But the concurrent strikes by the Writers Guild of America and Ms. Xuereb’s performers’ union, SAG-AFTRA, put all that on hold. She is now back at her serving job, working four shifts a week at Akasha, a neighborhood farm-to-table restaurant in Culver City.

“It definitely felt like slowing down, and that doesn’t necessarily feel good,” she said. “I don’t mind working in the restaurant. My picture of what being an actress would look like is working as a server until I was able to not go back.”

The strikes have brought the entertainment business to a standstill. The Writer’s Guild strike, which began in May, ended on Sept. 27, but the SAG-AFTRA strike, which started in July, continues. Writers, actors, set decorators and production coordinators have all slid back into the industry that serves as Hollywood’s shadow partner: restaurants.

In Los Angeles it’s a cliché that the ranks of hosts, waiters and bartenders are filled with aspiring comedians, actors and writers. And while the rise of gig work like driving for ride-share companies means that food service is not necessarily the default job for newly arrived dreamers, the strike has supercharged demand for restaurant jobs.

Erika Rotolo, the director of human resources for the local breakfast-taco chain HomeState, said that while hiring for two new locations this summer, the company was flooded with applications from not only actors and writers, but also art directors, seamstresses and makeup artists. Open calls were packed, and a job posting for a dishwasher, which the restaurant would normally struggle to fill, had to be taken down after drawing 70 applications in 12 hours.

Ms. Rotolo said that while she loves working alongside creative people in restaurants, she had mixed emotions. “We were excited to have so many applicants,” she said. “Another part of me felt badly because people were putting some of their creative and personal dreams on hold due to what’s going on.”

Chelsea Rendon, a SAG-AFTRA strike captain at Warner Brothers, has performed in both film and television since she was 5 years old, and was a series regular on Showtime’s “Vida,” which ended in 2020. She said a combination of shrinking residuals, Covid slowdowns and a lack of opportunities for Latinos left her financially drained even before the strike.

In May, when the Writers Guild walked out, she took her first-ever restaurant job at Roadside Taco in Studio City, where she’d been a regular diner.

“Normally, you have a day job as a server, and once you get a good booking you quit,” she said. “I feel like I’ve had a successful career and had been able to provide for myself, and all of a sudden I can’t.”

Still, she finds the job’s routine a surprising balm. “It felt amazing to have somewhere to go and have a purpose.,” she said. “So much of life as actors is waiting for auditions, waiting for callbacks.”

John Dellaporta had never been able to fully leave his restaurant job, but the strike shifted him from picking up occasional shifts — “spackle,” as he put it — to working regular nights at Miceli’s, the oldest Italian restaurant in Hollywood. Before the strike, he’d booked his first recurring role, on HBO’s “Winning Time,” which has since been canceled.

At Miceli’s, the servers take turns singing for the guests, which he said he enjoys because it gives him a chance to perform even as Hollywood is shut down. “I go back to my tables and make the joke, ‘I’m not just a singer, I’m also your waiter,’” he said. “It gets more laughs than it deserves.”

Writers are rarer than actors in the restaurant ranks, in part because climbing the writing career ladder can involve a decade of office-based assistant work.

Hillary Handelsman was working in her first staff writing job in the summer of 2022, on the Netflix comedy “Survival of the Thickest.” The show didn’t air for a year, leaving Ms. Handelsman in financial limbo before the strike even began. Finding part-time work was a struggle until she was put in touch with Cookie Good, a cookie business started by a screenwriter during the 2007 strike.

At one point she was doing a delivery in her Cookie Good outfit and saw a colleague from an agency where she had worked 10 years earlier. “Oh, God, what if they see me and I have to explain?” Handelsman remembered thinking. “As time has gone on, I’m so much less sensitive about it. I’m supporting myself and there’s nothing to be embarrassed about.”

For nine years, the actor and comic Elyssa Phillips has been a server at Osteria Mozza, the high-end Italian restaurant run by Nancy Silverton. Since coming to Los Angeles, Ms. Phillips has nabbed a number of co-starring roles in TV, and was the artistic director of the Pack Theater in Hollywood. But the one time she tried cutting back her hours at Mozza, she couldn’t afford the parking meters near work. She credits the job with giving her the flexibility to serve as a strike captain of the picket line outside Disney studios.

Ms. Phillips has always tried to keep her life in entertainment separate from her work in the restaurant, an effort that grew more complicated during the strike. “There are studio executives I’ve taken care of for nine years. I know when their anniversaries are, I know if they like a black or white napkin, I know how they like a martini. I try to never ever talk about entertainment,” she said.

If a regular finds out she’s a strike captain, she changes the subject: “Let me get you a martini. Let me do what I’m here to do.”

Ms. Phillips called working at Mozza “the best restaurant job in Los Angeles,” but she said she hopes the strike will allow more working actors to leave their day jobs. “Being a member of this union, we have a certain level of responsibility, and that responsibility is keeping acting as a career and not as freelance work,” she said.

Ms. Xuereb, who began her career in 2020, is newer to the industry but understands that conditions are not what they once were. “When I talk to mentors, it sounds like the way I was working, with a few guest stars every few months — people used to raise a family on that,” she said.

Talks between the performers’ union and the studios were recently suspended, but even when the strike eventually ends, it will likely be months before production ramps up again, especially with the holidays approaching. Every actor and writer will be out auditioning and pitching at once, too.

Ms. Rotolo said HomeState recently lost an employee who was called back to her job as a showrunner, but otherwise the restaurant is fully staffed.

Ms. Xuereb said she expects to keep her restaurant job for the time being. “It’s not the dream,” Ms. Xuereb said. But, she added, “This is part of it, working to be able to do the thing that you love.”

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