Toddy Goes to Hollywood: How One Twin Cities Man is Pursuing His Dreams in La La Land
By Todd Pernsteiner
Have you wanted to try something new but didn’t know if you could muster up the courage? Do you contemplate “what if” or “if only”? Now may be the time to go for it and see what you can do.
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve continually challenged myself to step outside of my comfort zone. For more than five years I had been contemplating the next big thing I would like to do in my life. I have experienced many highs and lows; the lows, losing people close to me, have made me realize how delicate and short life really is. I constantly remind myself: “Todd, you only get one chance at this life, what are you waiting for?”
Since 1999, I have been a self-employed graphic designer. I have found my passion and truly enjoy what I do, and my work allows me to work from home, essentially anywhere in the world. Anyone who knows me knows I love Minneapolis with all my heart, but I have never lived outside of the Midwest and have felt a calling to try something new.
In the past three years I traveled all over the country exploring places I might like to live, even if just for a brief period of time. I visited New York, Denver, Washington D.C., Orlando, Austin, Seattle — all beautiful places, but one spot seemed to have the most appeal to me, Los Angeles. An interesting choice, I know. It’s a city people either love or hate; there seems to be no in-between. To me it has always felt like a good fit.
“Follow your passions, follow your heart, and the things you need will come.” —Elizabeth Taylor
Why L.A.? For me the answer goes beyond just the obvious appeal of sunny days and miles of beaches; it’s where the magic of Hollywood happens.
My draw to performing goes back to when I was a wee lad. As a child, I loved to write shows and commercials, and I loved to direct and perform. I would cast cousins and neighbors to star in circuses and musicals at my house. In high school, I played in band and acted in a number of productions. During and after college, I took a hiatus from performing to start and grow my design business.
Then, in the early 2000s, after attending a number of Brave New Workshop shows, I got the itch to perform again. I got up the nerve to take an introductory improv class at BNW’s school. I instantly fell in love with it. After five levels of classes, I auditioned and was cast in the BNW’s school show: Six Ring Circus. Years later I joined the Friday Night Stage Match troupe. After that show closed, I got onto a team for a show called Improv Happy Hour at the Phoenix Theater.
Along with performing, I immersed myself in seeing shows at Brave New Workshop and Huge Theater in Minneapolis, as well as Second City in Chicago and Hollywood, and The Groundlings in L.A. I’ve always wondered, “What if I tried going to L.A. to pursue opportunities in the entertainment industry?”
On December 26, 2016, I packed up my clothes, my home office, and some other necessities, and made the trek out to sunny California. The plan: sublease a furnished apartment for three months to pursue classes in sitcom writing, acting, and improvisational comedy. Sounds simple, right? Well, it wasn’t a quick decision by any stretch of the imagination.
My original goal was to be in California by July 2016, but I always seemed to find ways to delay it. Making huge life decisions isn’t always easy. Finally, five months later, I was ready. I signed up for “Writing Your Sitcom Pitch Packet” and “Writing Your Sitcom Spec Script” classes at Second City in Hollywood. After convincing myself that it could be a temporary move, I was excited for my decision. And, who wouldn’t want to be in California during a brutal Minnesota winter? Am I right?
My first writing class began at Second City in mid-January and shortly after I also started an acting class that focused specifically on auditioning for TV sitcoms. I dove in head-first. The sitcom writing class was very collaborative. My instructor, a veteran TV writer has sold 25 sitcom pilots, of which two got produced. The 14 other students in the class had so many great ideas and provided constructive criticism throughout the process.
My sitcom acting instructor was critical but experienced, and offered great critiques and feedback. In each class, we would get a script, review it, record it on camera, and get feedback on how we did. The class was a great way to learn and understand the eight sitcom character types.
In February I had new headshots taken and printed and submitted them to L.A. talent agents and casting directors. I also signed up for four casting services from which I get a flood of daily emails with new acting job postings. I sort through hundreds of TV, film, and commercial roles that best fit my age, characteristics, and strengths. Since I don’t have an agent yet, I submit for jobs on my own, which can be quite time-consuming. I attend or self-tape around three or four auditions per week. It’s actually quite amusing walking into a casting call and seeing 10 to 20 other guys who eerily look a lot like you.
To date, I’ve landed quite a few auditions and call-backs, and I’ve gotten a handful of roles: two on crime reenactment shows (as a police officer and a murderer’s brother) and one in a short film produced by American Film Institute students (as a Jewish son).
Lately I’ve been going on a lot of auditions for nerd roles, which I’m hoping is foreshadowing and not typecasting or stereotyping. I like to joke that this may be my way of landing a role on Big Bang Theory (BBT casting directors: if you’re reading this, I’m totally available).
I have made some great connections here in my classes and in the acting gigs I’ve done. I can’t go anywhere in this town without meeting someone who is “in the industry.” There’s great collaboration here between writers and actors. Many of the people I’ve talked to have all said the best way to be successful is to create your own content so you get full control of the production and can write yourself into roles you want to play. I am in the process of writing outlines for a couple of sitcom ideas I have, as well as a feature film. I am also looking into stand up comedy classes.
I have to say, this is quite exciting. Three months turned into four, then five, and I’m now on month six of splitting my time between L.A. and Minneapolis. I have also found a good balance with my business. I continue to run it full-time from both L.A. and Minneapolis, and the transition has been exceptionally smooth.
Get Your Game On
Oh, I almost forgot, it wouldn’t be Hollywood without game shows, right? As a kid I used to pretend to be sick so I could watch shows like The Price is Right, 100,000 Dollar Pyramid, and Press Your Luck. Since I’m in game show central, it seems appropriate for me to try to get on some. I was on Let’s Make a Deal in April of 2016 (winning a large gas grill), and since have applied or auditioned for Wheel of Fortune, The Wall, Hollywood Game Night, Pyramid, and most recently, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? A guy can dream of winning millions, can’t he? I would even settle for a BRAND NEW CAR!
A Place Where Anything Can Happen
I love hearing the fairytale Hollywood success stories. They prove that anything can happen, at any time, if you’re willing to take risks.
I’m in awe as to how James Michael Tyler landed his supporting role as coffee shop manager Gunther on the show Friends. Tyler was a real-life barista at a small Hollywood coffee shop when one of his director friends called him to say, “Hey, do you want to come on and be in the background in a coffee shop? I would love you to just stand by the espresso machine and pretend like you’re actually really working it, just so it would look authentic.” Eventually the show’s co-creator, Marta Kauffman, approached Tyler to say she created a character around him and that’s how he landed a key role on the show for 10 seasons.
Even the A-list celebrities all had to start somewhere, from small guest roles and failed TV pilots, to zapping zits in Clearasil commercials. Kerry Washington got her Screen Actors Guild (SAG) card after appearing in an ABC Afterschool Special. Chris Pratt was 19 years old and living in a van in Maui, Hawaii, and waiting tables at Bubba Gump Shrimp Company when actress Rae Dawn Cong came to the restaurant to eat. She ended up casting Pratt in a never-released horror comedy she was directing and from there he landed a role on the teen drama Everwood.
My friends in L.A. give me a hard time for getting giddy whenever I spot a celebrity, but I’m not ashamed to admit it’s still a thrill for me. I was recently driving down Hollywood Boulevard next to talk show host Jimmy Kimmel in his convertible VW Thing. It was just hours after he taped his show where he talked about his newborn son’s heart defect and the importance of health care.
Another time I was walking with a friend and his dog when Wilson Cruz came up to pet the pooch and chat us up. Cruz is best known for his role as Rickie Vasquez on My So-Called Life. Admittedly, I didn’t know who he was but my friend told me after the fact.
Once, when on a tour of Paramount Studios, I told Lily Tomlin that I loved her (as one would do, right?). We were exiting the sound stage where her show Grace & Frankie is filmed as she pulled up in a golf cart. She was very sweet and said she loved me back (and I really think she meant it).
I went to an amateur comedy night at a bar in March and the host announced they had a special guest comedian, none other than Ms. Wanda Sykes. She was great and I got to meet her. I’ve also seen a variety of stars out and about at various L.A. hangouts: the handsome Mark Valley (The Millionaires and Boston Legal), fellow nerdy-looking actor, James Bucatinsky (Scandal), Jai Rodriguez (Queer Eye for the Straight Guy), and popular club DJ, Cazwell.
My first star-sighting will be forever ingrained in my mind as it was a doozy. I pulled up to a stoplight in West Hollywood and looked to the right only to spot adult film star, Ron Jeremy. Let me tell you, there’s no mistaking the five-foot-six man even though I’ve never seen one of his movies (honest!). (Writer’s note: if you don’t know who he is, DO NOT look him up — and if you do, don’t say I didn’t warn you.)
Being Alone is One Way to Find Yourself
Being an adult in a new place isn’t always easy; it’s hard to make new friends in your 40s. I miss my Twin Cities friends and family terribly but they’ve been very supportive during this new endeavor and thankfully I get to see them often. Plus, thanks to the magic of Facebook and texting I have been able to stay connected more now than I would’ve ever before.
I am alone a lot, working and writing and studying scripts, but oddly I am not lonely. Interestingly enough, I have found my independence here. I came to L.A. to push myself and discover what I can do, and so far I haven’t been disappointed. I can’t wait to write the script for the next chapter in my life.
ENDNOTE: A Midwesterner’s Guide to Visiting L.A.
Looking to visit Los Angeles? Here are some suggestions of how to make your trip complete.
Take a Hike:
Hit one of the area’s many hiking trails. Probably the most popular path is at Runyon Canyon, a 130-acre park two blocks from Hollywood Boulevard. The site offers amazing views of the Hollywood sign, downtown L.A., and, on a clear day, the ocean. If you were a fan of the show M*A*S*H*, head to Malibu Creek State Park where you can see where episodes were filmed, complete with some leftover prop vehicles and the famous wooden directional sign.
Dine & Drink:
If you’re a fan of reality TV, Lisa Vanderpump’s PUMP and SUR restaurants should be on your list. You might bump into big-name celebrities at both, but you’re guaranteed to see the realty stars of Vanderpump Rules at SUR. Another place where you should try to get reservations is CATCH in West Hollywood. The stars flock to this new L.A. hot spot to be seen. On any given night you’ll find a gaggle of paparazzi perched outside waiting to capture the next high-profile diner. For amazing night time views of the Hollywood Hills (aka homes none of us could ever afford), head to the rooftop bars at EP/LP or the The Roof on Wilshire.
Don’t be afraid of traffic and driving in L.A. There are a lot of ways to avoid the freeways. If you want to explore the coast and wine country, head up the Pacific Coast Highway through Malibu where you can watch surfers catching waves; you may even spot a celebrity surfing or shopping at one of the town’s little corner stores. I spotted Hillary Swank and her pooch outside a store at a Malibu strip mall. Then travel further north to the central coast wine country to do wine tastings in beautiful Santa Barbara and the charming Danish village of Solvang, complete with windmills and eclectic little shops.
Start in Venice Beach which is home to an eclectic group of people, artisans, and the world-famous Muscle Beach. Try your hand at outdoor weightlifting, gymnastic apparatuses, or sand volleyball…or enjoy watching others do it. Rent a bike or take a walk up the beach to Santa Monica Pier and 3rd Street Promenade to enjoy restaurants, shops, and fun people-watching. And, if you want breath-taking views of the ocean, head south along the coast to Laguna Beach.
Take in Events:
If you can make it happen, I highly recommend taking in the Rose Bowl Parade on New Years Day. It’s great to see on TV and even more amazing to see in person; I had goosebumps. All summer and fall there’s always a show at the Hollywood Bowl. Lastly, Google “Hollywood movie premiers” and you may be able to catch the stars arriving for the next big blockbuster on Hollywood Boulevard.
L..A hotels can be pretty pricey; in West Hollywood, Hollywood, or downtown L.A., plan to spend at least $400 per night on a room. The alternative is to find a nice Airbnb or VRBO space. If you’re looking for a fun nightlife scene, settle into West Hollywood. There’s a bar along Santa Monica Boulevard for everyone’s taste. What’s nice about West Hollywood is it’s very walkable or a cheap Uber ride to great bars and restaurants on both Santa Monica and Sunset Boulevards. Or, if you’re more inclined to stay by the beach, check out Santa Monica or Venice, both have their own appeal.
You’re likely to spot celebs literally anywhere in L.A.. I’ve run into them at the airport, at movie studios, walking down the sidewalk, driving next to me, and at comedy clubs. You just have to keep your eyes peeled because you never know where they might pop up.
For more ideas, visit www.discoverlosangeles.com.
Todd Pernsteiner grew up in north-central Wisconsin and after living the past 19 years in the Twin Cities, now splits his time between Los Angeles and Minneapolis. You can follow Todd’s adventures on Instagram: @toddpern or at www.MostlyFunnyTodd.com.