RR Logo Beverly Leech From Dancer to Actress - From Stage to Television to Author

Beverly Leech Photo from Modern Family

In Part I of our two-part interview with acting coach, author, stage and television actress Beverly Leech we introduced you to her career and her book ACTOR MUSCLE A Professional Guide to the Business of Acting. In Part II of our interview with Beverly Leech she talks about her book and particularly the scams that seek to take advantage of young actors and the provisions that have been put in place to protect actors. She also takes us back to her early days in the entertainment industry.

“My goal was to (write a book) about how to go about a career in sequential steps and how to actually do it. There are really good books on how to do an interview, how to do a commercial audition and how to read for TV, but they are separate.  I was teaching all of (those things) and teaching them in a semester long course, as the academies wanted me to cover everything, so I thought this is great, now I can go ahead and make my teaching materials available to fifty or one hundred kids in my class. I wanted to make it available to everyone in the New York, Chicago and Los Angeles markets, because they are also inundated with a lot more shysters.  It is very important for me to take them through each step of the process and teach them how to look at a contract and to know what you are looking at. Most of the kids don’t know anything about contracts when they are starting out. Managers appear to be very similar to agents in their responsibilities and their take of the commission, but they are very, very different and if you don’t pay attention to the fine print, you are going to get hurt.

The city attorney here in Los Angeles is really clear about what an agent can and can’t do in the city of California. The Krekorian Scam Prevention Act prevents agents who still try to sign actors to contracts, which aren’t legal, kosher and moral. There are a lot of protections in place. It doesn’t matter. I can teach this class and do my very level best to help protect actors from people like this and yet no matter how many times I say out loud, never pay an agent to represent you … I can put it in the materials and I can do it in class. I can put it in bold on the blackboard and there will still be one actor who will meet an agent who will say all of the right things. They will flatter them to death, they will be completely enthusiastic and the actor will be over the moon. They will pay this agent $1,200 or $1,800 dollars and six months later I am getting a panic phone call from the actor saying, please help me.  I know you told me not to pay an agent to represent me, but I went ahead and did it, she is not doing anything for my career and she is phoning me, claiming that I owe her money. Help me. At that point, I can’t. They need an attorney. They don’t need me.  I helped them in the beginning by saying, don’t sign that contract.

There are a lot of scams and you have to know what the signs are and how to look for them. Before you give anybody your money, you need to do background checks. The bait and switch and the pay to play are the biggest red flags for the actor to watch out for and there are a variety of ways for that to play out – agency contracts, managerial contracts, seminars and workshops. The biggest offender was the casting workshops and there was a huge cleanup. I really applaud the attorney for this. They would advertise that a big casting director was going to hold a casting workshop and these poor suckers would pay anywhere from $300 to $600 dollars to go to these casting workshops, so they could meet a big casting director and they were nowhere to be found. They would say oh he is really busy casting (she names a well-known program from bygone years) and now he is casting (she names another well-known program) and he couldn’t be here tonight, because he is still in a casting session, but his assistant is here. These poor guys they don’t know what (the director) looks like and they don’t know what his assistants look like. It could have been the assistant, but even if it was the assistant they should not be paid six hundred dollars for people to show up at a casting workshop, not even three hundred dollars.  Nowadays there are acting, casting and agency showcases and if they advertise that a big casting director is going to be there, they will be there. If it is a casting assistant or a receptionist they have to say this is just an associate and you don’t pay the big money. I have noticed a big drop in the fees too.  I don’t see anybody charging more than seventy-five dollars for a night now for a casting director. An associate will charge anything from thirty-five to fifty dollars for one night. That is much more affordable and more legitimate. The other thing with the (former) casting workshops is they implied that you would get discovered and find employment and that has always been against the labor laws in California. You cannot promise employment and you cannot even hint at it.  You can’t advertise it. It has to be a learning situation where the casting director sees what you’ve got, cleans up your technique, gets your picture and your resume and says it is okay, but you could do this. You learn something from this experience. It is against the law to pay a casting director for an audition.

Beverly Leech Photo Part II Photo OneReally the only way to get a good audition with a good casting agent is to have a good agent.  That is the agent’s job, it really is. If you haven’t got an agent, go to a legitimate casting workshop that will only charge you forty to seventy bucks and call it a day. That’s affordable. They were overcharging and strangers were showing up and (people) were getting snookered right and left. It was the biggest scam in town.

Beverly Leech’s book ACTOR MUSCLE A Professional Guide to the Business of Acting is much more than a book that helps guide you through the scams and legal pitfalls, it is a book that offers tips about how to become a better actor, based on the author’s extensive career.

“Actors tend to memorize and there is a way of learning new material so you get as close to it as you possibly can in the time you are given.  It is imperative especially if you have done a lot of work on the character in the piece to not let us see your work.  Once it is in you, it is in you and the actor has a spiritual journey of trusting that it is in them. You must throw the work away and let it breathe and let it live. At the time this remarkable ride happens and the actor discovers that he doesn’t have to be in control.  As long as he or she has done the work and it is really in them, they can throw the work away and just live. They can hear the other person speaking to them as though they are hearing it for the first time. It is important, very important and that is why the biggest stars are the biggest stars, because they really understand that.

Building a past with the character is imperative no matter what the size of the role is and it can lend a complexity (as well as) surprise and spontaneity. Stella (Adler) always said to serve the playwright. A lot of the young actors trying to control their impact, will make up some arbitrary biography or they will make up something according to what they would do or what happened to them in their past. The script always has something in it that tells you what the character has lived through, whether in just the last couple of hours or the last several years and if you look at the script with a hungry eye instead of interpreting too fast, you will find the clues. The clues are always there and it is in the writing.  For television and film it is usually in the stage directions, which actors neglect, because they go straight to the dialogue and they memorize and they paint an emotional wash over that.  You are living in the present, but the audience sees a continuation of the plot, which implies past. The moment before the scene begins will center the actor for a very strong beginning for television and film. The first couple of seconds are so important in terms of grounding the actor and not making him (or her) think about the words as much. It also establishes chemistry, like an electrical shock.  If the actor is grounded in a believable past and in the script that the writer has given them then they are not going to be so tempted to impose their own past on the script.  I have been through a divorce, but I have never been given a script that mirrored my divorce (she laughs). Usually the divorcee (in the script) is a woman who has been jilted by her husband through murder or circumstance or they were fooling around with another woman and that was not my divorce. My marriage failed for a completely different reason and so it would be awful to impose that on this character’s divorce.  I have to look at this marriage in such a way and relive the milestones. Let’s say he was fooling around on her, when did she first know, how did she find out? What did he smell like? How long has she been living with this? Is this the first time that she is talking about it? The past is in every single person and if what we are after is a truthful life experience then everybody holds within them some kernel or seed of the past. If I ignore that I am going to give a flat performance. If I ignore that you are going to see an actor who knows the words, but doesn’t understand the script.  Not every script in television or film is deep enough, but most have enough in them that you can glean something that would be interesting to watch. I believe Stella said it is one of the most important things that a new actor can put into their performance and to bring part of that into the room with them,” she says.

So how did Beverly Leech a highly regarded acting coach, who has appeared on Broadway and numerous popular television shows become an authority on both the creative and business side of the acting profession? Is it the story of a little girl growing up in Texas and fantasizing about being one of her favorite screen stars someday?

Leech recalls “I never for a million years had acting on my radar. I always wanted to be the next Gwen Verdon (four-time Tony Award winner for Best Actress in, Anna Christie, Damn Yankees, New Girl In Town, Redhead) or Chita Rivera (nine Tony Awards nominations for Best Actress, winner on two occasions) on Broadway.  I wanted to go to New York and I wanted to be a New York dancer. I wanted to do Broadway and things like that as a dancer. The transition started to happen when I graduated from college and I began to get work as a dancer in these little theater productions. It is very difficult to make a living as a classical dancer and you would certainly starve to death as a modern dancer. It is very artsy fartsy. In order to pay the rent I did a lot of musical theater. They eventually began pulling me out of the chorus to do small parts with speaking. One season they gave me a series of supporting roles. Then something happened and I started doing big shows. I went to New York, I went to Japan and I travelled the world with these really big shows.  I started seeing dancers who were one hundred times better than me. They were exquisite. They were dangerous in their technique and their presence on stage and they weren’t getting cast, because they were thirty.  That is a sad comment. I saw their hearts getting broken. They were ten times, a hundred times better than I was and I was a good dancer. I was very powerful. I saw their hearts getting broken.  They were unable to pay their bills and their rent. I really looked at that. I was twenty-four at the time and I thought I had better transition (to acting) if I was going to stay on stage.  I better transition to something that will accept me as a twenty-five and twenty-six year old (she laughs lightly).  The minute you hit twenty-six your career is over (she says facetiously), so I began to get the training that I needed to segue into acting.  I always continued to dance and to train, but now my goals shifted to be more of a triple threat on Broadway than to be just a dancer. I wanted to be able to act and sing and dance. I took some singing lessons. My mother was a musician and my grandfather was a musician. I came from a very musical family, so I had a good ear and I had a good voice. I didn’t have any training and I would need to compete so I began to train to segue out of dancing. I couldn’t stand to watch the heartbreak of my friends.”

Acknowledging that a lot of entertainment icons down through the years have been triple threats Beverly Leech says, “It ensures there longevity. I wanted to segue in such a way that I could stay on stage.  I really am a lifer and I was born to do something like this.  Their longevity was ensured, because they had a whole bag of skills instead of just one major skill. The other reason why I started studying with Stella Adler I was also looking at the longevity of leading ladies. Back in the day I was quite the looker, pretty stunning I might add. I caused a couple of car accidents. I grew up kind of an ugly duckling. I really was not mentionable at all (she laughs). I was forgettable. I was short, fat, hairy, toothy and oh my God I had so many teeth in my head. I was really kind of a train wreck. I was an ugly duckling growing up and a tomboy, a tremendous tomboy. I played with my brothers and I played a lot of sports. I didn’t really look at myself in a girly, self-centered way. I transformed when I was about nineteen or twenty, something happened and I blossomed, but I was still used to thinking of myself as a smart, tough gal. I was a tomboy, one of the boys. I never took beauty very seriously, especially after I noticed what my transformation did to the other people around me. They started to treat me differently and I didn’t like it. I didn’t like how they treated me differently. People who used to make fun of me were suddenly my best friends. Now it was okay to be seen with me (she bursts out laughing).  Because I am smart and sensitive and quiet, I noticed that and I (thought) is beauty a burden or is beauty a tool? I began to look at it as good to have, but it cannot define me. My passion and my intellectual capabilities needed to continue to define me.  

I am very organized and I am very practical. I began to study with Stella Adler, because I saw the leading ladies in Hollywood and in New York also suffering. Once they hit forty they were put out to pasture. They weren’t called to be in leading roles anymore. The people who worked the longest are character actors. Those are the people that have the longevity. It is a tough transition for (actors) if they haven’t got any character skills and that was the reason that I studied with Stella. She was all about character development and I knew that one day my neck would turkey up and my ass would drop around my ankles and I had better have something to bring to the table. I was very serious about that.  (Your writer responds “That is quite the picture that you drew.”) (She is laughing). It does happen. Not everybody ages gracefully.  I wasn’t quite sure what I would look like when I turned fifty.

I have been foolish in many ways and I survived myself, but I was also practical in many ways, like what are some steps that I can take to ensure my longevity, so I don’t shoot myself in the foot. One of them is to get the right kind of training, so I can age gracefully and continue to work as an actress. It was important for me to develop new skills and new facets of myself.

My first paying job (as a stage actress) was Theater Under The Stars in Houston (she was a dancer in the chorus line) and I did a lot of regional theater for them and I did a lot of theater in Dallas and Fort Worth. My first acting role was as Lily St Regis in Annie. She was the bimbo with Rooster the con man. That was one of my first breakouts. There was another role in Showboat and I played the ingénue. That was really, really fun, because of the dance roles. I played Ado Annie in Oklahoma and she was terrific to play. She was me (the character). She was a tough cookie who couldn’t say no. She was goofy and tomboyish and a big dancer. She was a funny sidekick and that is a role I adore playing, because as a leading lady they expect you to be pretty and composed all of the time, but if you are the funny sidekick you can get away with pratfalls. It had all of the sexual innuendos without being dirty.  I’m just a girl who can’t say no. I’m in a terrible fix (she laughs). I just don’t know what to do. It was really, really fun to play those roles.  Casa Mañana in Fort Worth was one of my first summer stock contracts where they were the people who actually gave me my break on stage and let me do those first roles that eventually led to me doing things at other theaters like in Houston, Dallas, Florida and Georgia. I kicked around a lot from state to state. I was a gypsy. I really was. I lived out of a trunk for a long time.”

Back in the day before audition notices were at your fingertips and appeared on a computer monitor, Beverly Leech would check out the newspapers for audition notices. When she was in Houston she would call the Alley Theater’s administration office and ask about auditions and she would do the same in Dallas. There were also trade papers such as Backstage.

“You took a Greyhound bus which I did a number of times or you took your dilapidated jalopy (she bursts out laughing) and you traveled across the state. You would sleep in the bus station, your car or on a friend’s couch. You would audition for these people and then go back home to your day job.  I did that quite a bit for a number of years. That whole story in the introduction (to the book) is a true story. I was finishing up my summer stock contract at Casa Mañana and a talent scout came into town for a general (audition). I literally drove into Dallas and did two monologues, I went home and I forgot about it. I was intending to go to New York. I ended up getting a job that lasted for six months out here in Los Angeles. I continue to audition and to do plays around here. Eventually, I auditioned for some Broadway musicals out here. The East Coast very frequently comes out to the West Coast.  There are a lot of ex-pats out here and they want to make sure that they are seeing all the talent that is available. I began to get regular requests to come in and read for big Broadway shows. I somehow made it into the go to list. After about two or three years I got the call to do City of Angels.  I was slated to do the Los Angeles production, but they were having some problems closing that deal I guess. It kept getting pushed and the rehearsals kept getting pushed. In the meantime the (actress) was stepping out of City Of Angels to do The Will Rogers Follies and they asked me to fill in for her.  They were casting a brand new cast in New York and I was asked to do that show. It was an amazing experience,” she says.

While still in Los Angeles, Beverly Leech began receiving offers from agents and soon she was seeing casting directors. She began auditioning for television and film.

“I didn’t work right away, I just booked little jobs here and there, mainly because people didn’t know me and it takes consistency for a casting office to have confidence in a new actor’s work.  I was thrown into the television and film market and I really meant it in the book, I really felt screwed.  I didn’t have any camera experience. I learned on my feet how to work the camera and how to find it like a heat seeking missile in a crowded scene, how to speak up and be heard and how to finesse. You don’t have to play everything so hard. You have to soften everything without suffocating the performance.  You need to relax and let it radiate from the inside out instead of playing it from the outside in.

As for television roles she really enjoyed she says that Mathnet (she was Kate Monday), “…was a real labor of love.  Mathnet was a spoof on Dragnet. It was for the PBS Children’s Television Workshop and it was part of a larger show. I absolutely adored the writing on that show.  A lot of big famous actors went on to do cameos and guest stars (William Windom, McLean Stevenson, Jayne Meadows, Betty Buckley, and musician and singer Weird Al Yankovic) just because the writing was good and they had a good time on the show.  I loved doing that one and it has become a bit of an underground cult show. There is still a big following and a fan base for that. It is amazing. I didn’t know it at the time (she laughs), but I am a cult icon for eight year olds and they are now all in their twenties and thirties.

Another show I loved doing was Quantum Leap. I loved working with James Garner and Peter Falk. I have a lot of fond memories of the backstage antics (she is laughing) on the set of a film called Sunset that Blake Edwards directed. I loved doing Quantum Leap.  I loved doing Criminal Minds (television).

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Top Photo: A scene from the television show Modern Family Beverly Leech on the left

Interviewed by Joe Montague April 2013, All photos courtesy of Beverly Leech, protected by copyright ©, All Rights Reserved

This interview is protected by copyright © and may not be reproduced in print or on the internet or through any other means without the written permission of Riveting Riffs Magazine, All Rights Reserved