Sights & Sounds

John Paul Marston sits at a piano surrounded by lights, cameras, microphones and about a dozen or more production crewmembers. Nervous and anxious of performing, he touches the piano’s keys. A voice yells out, “Don’t touch the keys! Just pretend to play!” Marston is relieved. Another direction comes, “Remember, you’re under a spell so ignore everything.” It goes against the most basic skill of any professional actor—reaction.

“Action!” yells the director. The scene begins. It’s Marston’s big moment. He mimes the notes of the song playing aloud on the recording. The scene’s female actors approach him; each takes a body limb and bites. He never reacts. The scene ends. The cast and crew of The CW’s hit drama The Vampire Diaries mill around before setting up the next take. Despite having no lines, Marston will get co-starring credit in the episode and consider it the best day not only in his acting career, but of his life.

Marston shoots a scene with actress Cassidy Freeman on the set of The Vampire Diaries.

The sultry supernatural hit drama, which shoots in Covington, Georgia, a small town southeast of Atlanta, is just one of the hundreds of television shows and motion pictures filmed each year in the state—many of which are shot in or around Atlanta. The city has become a hotbed for big shows, big films and big stars earning it the nickname as the “Hollywood of the South.”

Walking around the city, one could run into Harrison Ford, Margaret Cho or Jason Bateman, all currently filming around town. A month ago, the same was said about Clint Eastwood, Queen Latifah, Denzel Washington and Kate Hudson. Next month, a new batch of A-list Hollywood actors will take the streets of Atlanta.

Although the on-screen talent still primarily comes from Hollywood, Atlanta actors have more opportunities now than ever before making many like Marston very happy. The roles won’t make them rich or famous, but more opportunities to audition mean more potential booked jobs. For Marston, the opportunities keep coming.

A great week may bring upwards of six or seven auditions while a bad week brings none. The average week brings two auditions, often with only a 24-hour notification, which is the standard practice in the industry. The short notice gives him less than a day to memorize the “sides”—his part in the script. He’s not complaining though.

In just three months, Marston auditioned for ten major film roles—more than the previous two years combined. He has yet to book a film role, but it took him years to book one on the small screen and now he has three television credits under his belt. Soon he’ll have another, this one being his biggest role yet as Professor Derek Ross, an expert in art history who testifies in court on the tenth episode of the Lifetime legal drama Drop Dead Diva.

The influx of Hollywood productions did not occur over night despite seeming that way. Due to its mild climate, location diversity, high quality of life and the location of the world’s busiest airport, Georgia has long been a strong regional player in film location.

Its film history dates back to the early 1950s with the production of I’d Climb the Highest Mountain, but it wasn’t until the success of 1972’s Deliverance when the peach state caught the attention of Hollywood. A year later, then Governor Jimmy Carter established the Georgia Film Commission, now known as the Georgia Film, Music and Digital Entertainment Office, to market the state as a shooting location for future projects.

Box Office draws (Smokey and the Bandit), TV staples (Dukes of Hazzard, In the Heat of the Night) and critical darlings (Driving Miss Daisy, Fried Green Tomatoes) kept Georgia—and Atlanta—at the forefront of regional production locations for the next two decades. However, it wasn’t enough to compete with Canadian cities like Toronto, which offered tax breaks to production companies in the mid-nineties. Those companies migrated north and Georgia felt the slump.

Around that time, a business venture brought Marston to Atlanta where he eventually caught the acting bug, albeit at a later age than other aspiring actors. While many in the acting world grow up under theater lights, Marston was in his early thirties before he ever stepped foot on stage. In high school, he turned down an opportunity to perform in the senior play, because, well theater was stupid and he wasn’t a theater geek.

Instead, Marston thought with the left side of his brain—math, science and computers were his fortè. He received a Bachelor of Science in computer science; then a few years later earned a Master of Business Administration degree. He was a corporate man living the corporate life. Then he did the unthinkable.

The man who once called theater “stupid” left the comforts and stability of the corporate world to pursue acting full time, a career where employment is literally a day-to-day process. Fear set in—fear of trying something different, fear of the unknown, but the uncertainty outweighed the misery he experienced in the corporate world.

Initially working in voice-over roles, Marston quickly discovered that good voice-over work required good overall acting skills like physical movement and stage presence. Years of acting classes and auditions followed. By 2005, Marston was co-running the theatre company, RedruM Mystery Theater and loving it.

That same year, the Georgia legislature passed its first film tax credit in response to the post-2000 incentive-driven film industry. Each year that followed saw a steady growth in statewide film production until late 2008 when business exploded. As Marston first felt the allure of film acting, appearing as an extra in the Tyler Perry film The Family that Preys, former Governor Sonny Perdue signed into law the 2008 Georgia Entertainment Investment Act.

The act, which is a revision of the 2005 bill and is still in effect today, grants a 20 percent flat tax credit to production companies filming in the state and an additional 10 percent credit to those adding the Georgia logo to a film’s end credits or embedding it into the film itself.

While the tax incentives increase film production, the production increase brings substantial growth to the state’s crew base, production resources and infrastructure, including two newly established film studios EUE/Screen Gems and Atlanta Film Studios. These benefits enable Georgia to handle more productions and larger-budget films and television shows. It’s a cycle that feeds itself.

As a result, Georgia is now one of the top five production destinations in the nation. During the 2011 fiscal year, 336 productions were shot in the state. To help counties accommodate the increasing number of productions, Georgia launched the Camera-Ready program in 2010, which now includes 135 of the state’s 159 counties.

And Atlanta, where the majority of state production resources and production crews are located, is king of them all. Currently six television shows, two feature-length films and one made-for-television movie are simultaneously shooting in the Atlanta area alone. An additional 26 productions recently wrapped and two more are slated to begin filming soon, including the inevitable blockbuster second installment of The Hunger Games trilogy.

It’s not just outside companies coming in either. Atlanta also houses its own independent production companies and television superstations including Ted Turner’s trifecta of cable networks: Turner Broadcasting Station, Turner Network Television and the Cartoon Network which produces original, ground-breaking animation as seen on Adult Swim. Each year the city hosts four renowned film festivals as well including the second-largest Jewish film festival in the nation.

Atlanta’s acting community is small and tight. It’s also competitive and individualistic since actors are typecast and often compete against the same set of actors for particular roles. For an actor to succeed as a “big fish in a small pond,” it’s necessary to get an agent. Without an agent, life as an Atlanta actor means an endless array of cattle calls, extras castings and an unhealthy attachment to “the boards,” which advertise regular casting calls. Some actors come by agents easily. Some don’t.

Marston went through three agencies before settling down with Atlanta Models and Talent in 2011, an offer which came from—as luck (or irony) would have it—a part-time computer IT job. When the talent agency called a year ago requesting a new network system, he went. Two months later, he had new representation and no audition was necessary.

With a focus on film and television roles rather than voice-overs, the agency helped land Marston his first television booking in July 2011, a role on the USA Network program, Necessary Roughness, an experience he calls an “emotional roller-coaster ride.” Relaxing on the beach in Hilton Head, South Carolina, his summer vacation was cut short by a phone call from his agent informing him of the next-day audition. After a four-hour drive back to Atlanta, Marston auditioned and returned to the beach.

A still from Necessary Roughness

This time, when his agent called, she brought good news. Marston booked the job, but his elation was short-lived. For three nights, Marston received revised episode scripts, each with more cuts than the first. In the third revision, his character was gone. Two days later, Marston received an email from the show’s wardrobe department requesting a fitting. Neither he nor his agent received word the role was written back in; he filmed the scene two days later.

It may have been a roller coaster of emotions, but it was part of the chaotic, maddening process of the film and television world. And without the messy experiences to ground an actor, it’s much more difficult to appreciate those rare experiences that truly stand out, like Marston’s time on The Vampire Diaries.

A relative latecomer to the acting scene, Marston is still waiting on that coveted film role, but has no intention of ever moving to Los Angeles. There’s no need. A couple of fellow Atlanta actors returned home after an unsuccessful two year stint in the City of Angels claiming more opportunities exist in Atlanta. They’re not alone. Many LA residents in all areas of film production, not just acting, have moved to Atlanta simply because the work is there.

“I’m looking forward to the day when Atlanta isn’t called the ‘Hollywood of the South,’ but Hollywood is called the “Atlanta of the West,” predicts Marston. Who knows, maybe that day isn’t too far away.

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Photos: provided by John Paul Marston - promotional photos (fair use).
Chelsey Willis

Chelsey Willis

Chelsey Willis is an aspiring arts and culture journalist with a Master of Arts degree in Journalism and Mass Communication from the University of Georgia. Chelsey is a longtime passionate supporter of the arts with particular interest and experience in theater and the performing arts. She currently contributes to ArtsATL.com and resides in Athens, GA.