His Hollywood star was finally rising. Now he cleans apartments

Josh Hooks said his acting dream is to be a television series regular. Photo for The Washington Post by Allison Zaucha

Josh Hooks said his acting dream is to be a television series regular. Photo for The Washington Post by Allison Zaucha

Published Aug 5, 2023


Josh Hooks piled cleaning equipment into his pickup truck. Rubber gloves, bathroom brushes, a vacuum cleaner held together by duct tape, all props for a role he hoped he would never need to play again: An out-of-work actor struggling to pay his bills.

Just a few months ago, the 43-year-old felt closer than ever to his Hollywood dream. He had landed parts in several television shows and a Lifetime movie. He had a supportive agent and a little momentum. Then came the strikes, first by writers and then by actors, which shut down the industry, stalled his career and forced him to pick up odd jobs like tidying apartments for friends.

"We are all just scrambling to keep our heads above water," Hooks said. He is one of many thousands. Despite the sparkle that is synonymous with Tinseltown, most of the actors working in America's dream factory do not earn enough to live. Instead, they take on side gigs, known bleakly as survival jobs, to fund their Hollywood hopes. These dire conditions are at the heart of the historic double strike, a work stoppage the unions hope will usher in new protections for actors and writers during a time of rapid change.

But until they are resolved, the strikes also mean less work for people like Hooks. And there have been ominous signs that they could stretch on for some time. An anonymous studio executive recently told the entertainment news outlet Deadline that "the endgame is to allow things to drag on until union members start losing their apartments and losing their houses."

For Hooks, that threat is not just rhetoric. One of his bank accounts is overdrawn by $320, and his other one has just 35 cents. His credit card debt is mounting, collection agencies call every day, and he is desperately trying to cobble together enough money to pay rent on his studio apartment in West Los Angeles.

This is not the life he imagined when he moved here from a small town in Georgia in 2009, following the path of so many others who have been drawn to the Golden State by promise of celebrity. "The glitz and glamour is what the general public sees," Hooks said. "The reality is anything but."

'Just out there scraping by'

The dual strikes have highlighted a vast and growing inequality in Hollywood. According to the actors union, known as SAG-AFTRA, about 80 percent of members make less than $27,000, while some studio bosses pull in more than $100 million a year.

The dominance of streaming has led to shorter television show seasons and shrinking residual payments. On top of those shifting economics, the emergence of artificial intelligence has threatened to replace human labor altogether, redefining what the Hollywood dream could look like for future generations of aspiring stars.

"It is an existential strike," said Steven J. Ross, a historian at the University of Southern California and an expert on Hollywood labor issues. If artificial intelligence is widely adopted, "those creative workers may never work again in the industry they love. They are striking to save their careers and their ability to make a living."

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, a trade group representing the studios in the negotiations, said the demands from writers and actors are unreasonable, an overreach that will hurt an industry still reeling from the pandemic.

The strikes, which have already taken a toll on the local economy, could cost California billions, a blow that would be particularly painful after the state reported an estimated $32 billion budget deficit. This week, the office of Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) offered to help broker a deal between the studios, the writers and the actors, a sign that state leaders are concerned about the ramifications of a prolonged work stoppage.

Meanwhile, the striking workers are already feeling the effects. The Entertainment Community Fund, an organization founded more than 140 years ago to provide aid to professional artists, has seen a massive increase in people seeking assistance.

In Los Angeles, the number of grants distributed per month tripled in May, when the first strike began. Since then, the fund has given out $2.3 million, or about $1,800 per person, said Keith McNutt, the western region director of the organization.

The timing is especially hard on actors, who may have been out of work for months or years during the pandemic, wiping out their savings, McNutt said. "So many people are middle class, just getting by paycheck to paycheck."

"It is a very uncertain life," he said. "And the sad thing is because the public only knows the famous people, they think everyone who is an actor is doing well. But the vast majority of people are really just out there scraping by one job to the next."

'His back against the wall'

Hooks grew up in rural Southern towns in the 1980s and 1990s. He played college baseball, tended bar and watched his friends take jobs at factories. All along, he wanted to be an actor, but it took him years to admit it and even longer to commit. In 2009, he loaded up his silver stick-shift Mustang and drove across the country, from Georgia to Los Angeles, with all his possessions and about $3,000. "I was totally cool until I got to the L.A. city limits," he said.

That was when reality set in. Times were hard almost immediately. Hooks landed a job at a smoothie bar inside an upscale gym, which came with a free membership, a perk that gave him a place to shower and change when he ran out of money and had to sleep in his car. It took him awhile to find stable housing. He married and divorced, and he drifted from one survival job to the next, working as a caregiver for an Alzheimer's patient and as the part-time manager of a Sunset Boulevard strip club.

"I never thought it would be something that just works out," Hooks said about his acting career. "I always knew it would be hard. But nothing is going to make me stop. That was my mind-set. I have always had that optimistic mind-set." Slowly, he built his résumé.

He was an uncredited baseball player in "Moneyball" and played minor roles in shows for FX and NBC. He moved out to Atlanta during the pandemic, worked as a nanny and started a business taping auditions for actors. Still, he could not afford to forgo a survival job. In 2022, he began working as an escort, going on a few dates for about $500 each. It was not steady work, he said, but it allowed him to spend more time focused on acting.

Hooks returned to Los Angeles this year, hoping to replicate the success of his self-tape studio and land enough clients to avoid picking up another side gig. Two friends loaned him $25,000 to convert the living room of his lofted apartment into an audition taping studio with professional lighting and sound equipment.

And his acting career picked up. He scored a recurring role on the ABC show "Will Trent," playing a mustachioed Atlanta police detective who dished out misogynistic one-liners in a two-part finale of the crime procedural. In one scene, he dismisses a hunch by a female officer in an authentic Georgia accent: "You're out of your league, rookie," he says.

Hooks also landed a role on the Apple TV Plus show "Swagger" and was nearly cast in a commercial that could have paid more than he has ever made. More confident than ever, Hooks was dismayed when he heard SAG might strike. He abstained from the vote and hoped it would not happen. Now, aside from a small budget indie short, work has slowed to a halt, for him and his studio, A Place to Tape.

Friends like Jim Amerman have tried to talk Hooks into a career change, offering to connect him to a sales job that pays a six-figure salary. "I mentioned that to him a few days ago and I did not even see his eyes light up," said Amerman, a financial planner who has helped Hooks file his taxes. "He just wants to do what he is passionate about. Even with his back against the wall."

'How much should he suffer?'

Most people never make it a dozen years in Hollywood. After all that time, Hooks is still genteel. His beard is now flecked with gray, and he works out rigorously to maintain the lean, muscular frame required by the characters, like police officers and suave villains, he often portrays. Sticking it out has taken devotion and immense faith that a big break is just around the corner.

But his ambitions are modest: Hooks would like to be a television series regular. No more side projects, no more survival jobs. A dream career, he said, would be like that of Barry Pepper, a respected and versatile character actor whose long track record includes roles in "Saving Private Ryan" and "True Grit."

Hooks practices relentless positivity, but not everyone around him is convinced. Erik Cardona, a screenwriter and author, said the optimism is a defense mechanism, a way to carry on after sacrificing so much time and energy. "He is convincing himself to get out of bed every day, because he has to, because he made a deal with himself," Cardona said. "He will never quit."

The two are around the same age, and they have been hustling to make it in Hollywood for years. Cardona, who has a book deal and commercial writing jobs, is in a better place financially. But he remains skeptical of an industry that has worn down so many in his social circle. He believes Hooks has enough talent and drive, but he knows the odds are against him.

"Hollywood loves to tell a story about how anybody can make it," Cardona said. "It is Hollywood propaganda." The story goes like this: A kid from nowhere goes to California with a dollar and a dream, and takes a few lumps before eventually clawing his way to stardom, a la "La La Land."

But it is almost never like the movies. More often, the dreamer struggles, like Hooks. "The guy is going to go out on his shield," Cardona said. "He is just going to suffer until he makes it. But when? There is no promise of that. And how much should he suffer for doing something he loves?"

This week, Hooks attended his first picket, outside Sony Studios in Culver City. He threw on a black shirt that read "SAG-AFTRA Strong," picked up a sign and joined the line. He walked for about two hours under the morning sun before he had to leave: Hooks had agreed to clean Cardona's apartment in nearby Venice that afternoon.

He hauled a bag of equipment through the back door, trailed by his aging French bulldog Dixie, and found an envelope with his name on it. Cardona left him $50 and a joint as payment. Not enough to live on, Hooks said, but it would put gas in his truck.

It was a few days until rent was due, and a few weeks until he would start a bartending job, so he needed all he could get. After an hour of scrubbing and mopping, Hooks had sweated through his shirt. An hour later, folding his friend's laundry, he said he still had faith that a big break would come.

"That is an audition that could roll into my email from my agent any day," Hooks said. "I could audition for it and get that thing. One job like that can change your whole financial life, and it can come around when you least expect it."