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COVID-19 threatens Hollywood dream for struggling Canadians in U.S.

As Harrison Houde sees it, his Hollywood dream isn’t over, far from it.

But with casting calls cancelled and studios shuttered, his hopes of stardom are now on hold, as he makes a strategic retreat in the face of insurmountable odds.

“No part-time job, no auditions, there’s nothing,” Houde said. “I didn’t think it was gonna get to the level that it is now.”

A 24-year-old actor from Vancouver Island, Houde has starred in shows for kids and teens like Finding Stuff Out and Some Assembly Required. Two years ago he moved to Los Angeles, hoping for his big break.

Houde admits it’s been difficult — like many who are trying to find their feet in Hollywood, he was counting on a part-time job to make ends meet. But then the coronavirus hit. Days before his first shift at a neighbourhood restaurant, California’s governor issued a stay-at-home order.

“I texted my new boss and he’s like, ‘Yeah, we’re closed.’ So I’m like, yikes, this is not good. I need to figure something out,” Houde said.

Since California issued the order on March 17, thousands of Canadian entertainers who live in the Los Angeles area find themselves in the same boat — one that has now run aground.

Those who can’t rely on royalties or residuals from past work to tide them over during the shutdown are struggling without many of the safety nets that protect other Canadian workers.

With few prospects and no income, Houde says he can no longer afford his rent in Los Angeles. So this week he gathered dozens of study boxes and a roll of tape.

“I’m making the move back to Vancouver because … there’s no work,” Houde says. “I might as well move back and try to save some money if I can.”

‘I’m a Canadian in America’

Many Canadian entertainers in the U.S. are now caught betwixt and between: ineligible for many U.S. unemployment benefits because they’re not American citizens, but also ineligible for many Canadian benefits because they’re living abroad.

Singer Sarah Daye worries that the loss of gigs might mean more than the loss of revenue – namely, that her working visa in the U.S. might be in jeopardy, too. (Sarah Daye)

The Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), for instance, is only available for citizens who reside in Canada. And the government says it offers no income support program for Canadians who reside abroad.

“I’m not American. I’m a Canadian in America,” says R&B singer Sarah Daye. “I don’t have a green card and I’m on a visa, so I’m not eligible.”

The Toronto native has been nominated for a Grammy, fronted the Kevin Eubanks Band (formerly the house band on The Tonight Show) and opened for Lenny Kravitz. But now, her shows are cancelled and she’s forced to chase people down for cheques she’s owed.

“So I’m kind of at the point where I’m having to be very creative about how am I going to make money,” Daye says.

That includes trying to find platforms “where they actually pay you” for performing, and even reaching out to fans for donations.

“You’ve got to kind of humble yourself and put yourself out there and ask for the support.”

‘Hoping and praying’

As if worrying about food and rent weren’t enough, many Canadians working stateside in the entertainment industry share another pressing concern: their immigration status.

Many, like Daye, are allowed to work in the U.S. thanks to an O-1 non-immigrant visa, which is reserved for those who have demonstrated an “extraordinary ability or achievement” in the arts.

However, to maintain their visa status, they have to prove they’re working continuously. In February, the Trump administration tightened immigration rules to further restrict entry to those deemed likely of needing social assistance.

Daye says she’s already on a visa extension and is scared she might not be able to renew it.

“I’m just really keeping the faith that it’s all going to work out,” Daye says. “And I’m hoping and praying that there is some support, you know?”

According to one Canadian immigration lawyer in Los Angeles, Canadian artists in the U.S. may be eligible for more support than they realize.

Zoe Kevork, managing attorney at Kevork Law and president of Canadians Abroad in Southern California, says there’s a lot of confusion about how the shutdown will affect the visa status of Canadians working in the U.S. (Zoe Kevork)

Zoe Kevork, managing attorney at Kevork Law and president of Canadians Abroad in Southern California, says she is being bombarded with questions from Canadian clients worried about how they can renew or extend their visas if the projects they’re working on are shut down.

The answer isn’t simple. “There are varying opinions on at what point are you considered to be out of status or that your visa is no longer valid,” Kevork says, especially for workers who have been furloughed.

“Is that a material change to your status where now you need to plan for another visa? There is no guidance. It’s unclear.”

Few supports for artists in U.S.

Kevork says Canadian artists on an O-1 visa for extraordinary ability are allowed a 60-day grace period without work. But if they believe they’ll be out of work for longer, “definitely people should be consulting with their immigration lawyers.”

But there is some good news. Kevork says Canadian artists in the U.S. need not fear that applying for unemployment insurance will impact their immigration status. And those $1,200 stimulus cheques from the Trump administration for coronavirus relief?

“If you’ve paid your taxes, then you are eligible for it,” she says.

There are few Canadian-based programs for artists living south of the border.

Rodney Murphy, who manages all of SOCAN’s U.S. activities, believes those who ‘have the talent to succeed will find a way to rise above this.’ (Jeff Knights/SOCAN)

The Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada (SOCAN), for example, says it’s helping its 800 or so members who live in the L.A. area.

“I’ve been in contact with quite a few of them,” says Rodney Murphy, who manages SOCAN’s U.S. activities. “There definitely is a loss of revenue there.”

To help offset those losses, SOCAN created a $2-million Cdn royalty advance program for its members. “So if someone applies for an advance today [the money] is in their bank within a week,” Murphy says.

David Hope, the executive director of the Actors Fund Canada, says the focus of their programs is helping Canadians in Canada, and that the U.S.-based Actors Fund might be in a better position to help Canadians stateside. (When asked for comment, the Actors Fund did not reply.)

The Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) isn’t offering any specific relief for U.S.-based members. In an email, the organization says it’s “been sharing information with our 27,000-plus members,” and points to its website, which catalogues a list of financial benefits like CERB, most of which are only available to Canadian residents.

Comic Renée Percy, seen performing in Las Vegas in November 2019, insists that if you can’t find ways to laugh during the current shutdown, then ‘you’re just going to cry all the time.’ (Tina Compise/Quickstyle Photography)

“There’s no union for us,” says comedian Renée Percy. “It’s a solo thing from beginning to end, for better or for worse.”

Adapting to the situation

Percy, who is from Toronto, settled in Los Angeles 10 years ago. She says before the current shutdown, she was doing six to eight shows a week. Now, she says, life is like a day off — but it’s the same day, over and over again.

“Normally, I’m on stage every night and now I’m on my couch every night,” Percy says. “I was supposed to be doing a tour of Europe next month and being in Barcelona and Luxembourg and all these amazing places. And now I’m just doing a tour of my house: from the bathroom to the kitchen to the bedroom and back.”

Some Canadian entertainers are able to eke out a living during the shutdown by adapting and improvising, something that comes naturally to Percy. She continues to teach improv, but now her class is online instead of in person.

“People don’t have to worry about traffic or parking … or pants even, because they’re mostly sitting down,” Percy says. “It doesn’t even have to be people in L.A. Now I have somebody in South Africa who might be joining my class.”

Percy says she tries not to think about how dire her situation is or she’ll “freak out,” concentrating instead on finding material amid the madness.

Renée Percy, top right, takes a picture of the improv class she has begun teaching online. (Renee Percy)

“If you can’t laugh, then yeah, you’re just going to cry all the time,” Percy says. “There is humour and comedy out there and there always will be. And I think the darker the situation, the more we need it.”

Getting creative ‘to rise above this’

Despite the challenges facing the Canadian artists he represents, Murphy believes those who “have the talent to succeed will find a way to rise above this.”

“This experience will help them create great work and great art, and re-wire the creative brain to do new and better things,” Murphy says.

Even though he’s in the middle of packing for his move to Vancouver next week, Harrison Houde still finds time to collaborate online with his writing partner Dakota Daulby on their first film.

If there is any good news hidden amid the chaos in Houde’s Los Angeles apartment, it’s that his writing, he says, has never been better.

“It’s been kind of therapeutic to some degree,” Houde says. “Maybe our writing has improved because we’ve been locked inside and we just have a lot of time to just think.”

Houde is hoping the worst of the pandemic is over by the end of the summer. Then, he says, he’d like to come back, get another apartment in L.A. and pick up where he left off.

He’s versatile, open to anything. But there’s one project he says he wants no part of.

“I’m certain there’s gonna be like 10 Hollywood films next year called ‘Quarantine’ that all take place in one room, and I’m dreading that.”

CBC

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