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Becoming an on-set tutor in Hollywood

Career advice from a teacher who made it in Tinseltown
Mark Scherzer and Keith Fenimore, authors of "Hire Me Hollywood"

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Ah, Hollywood. To many people, working in the entertainment capital of the world may seem unattainable, and they may think that only the rich and famous, or those with serious connections, have a chance of making it there. Sure, money and connections can't hurt, but if you have the passion and the patience, and you are willing to work hard for it, a career in Hollywood doesn't have to be just a pipe dream. Take it from the people featured in "Hire Me Hollywood: Your Behind-the-Scenes Guide to the Most Exciting -- and Unexpected -- Jobs in Show Business," like Cecilia Cardwell, a dancer turned teacher turned on-set tutor.

Below is an excerpt from the book, written by Mark Scherzer and Keith Fenimore, featuring an interview with Cardwell about her personal journey to Hollywood. It has been slightly modified for space reasons.

Let's learn about your career path. You started in theater and dance, then you became a teacher, then an on-set tutor. Can you connect the dots for us?

I was 25 years old, living in California, waiting tables and trying to get my dancing career off the ground. One day, I decided that life as a struggling performer was not for me and was definitely not a viable way to support myself, so I switched a gear. My mom had been a teacher, and I knew that teaching was a fairly solid profession with a good schedule, so I went back to school and got my teaching credentials.

After I graduated, I tried to get a full-time teaching job, but in the early '90s the job market was much like it is today, recessionary. I was only able to find substitute teaching jobs where I taught all levels for different districts in my area. The teaching jobs were so infrequent that I had to waitress on the side. Things just weren't working out as I expected.

At this point you knew what wasn't for you, so how did you find your calling?

I was invited by a friend to work for the day as a production assistant on a TV set and realized how much I had missed the artistic environment. While I was on set, I met the unit production manager (UPM). In conversation, I told him I was a teacher. When he saw how much I loved being around production he suggested that I look into becoming a studio teacher and a light bulb went off. It sounded like the perfect job for me because I was always a little bit concerned about being stuck in a classroom and I loved to travel. I immediately signed up for a one-year program to get my on-set tutor teaching credential.

By this point you've experienced that a degree and credentials do not always equal work and getting hired, so how did you get your first job in Hollywood?

The UPM I met on the commercial gave me the name of a studio teacher's agency that he used to hire teachers, so I listed with that agency. Not many people who listed with the agency were fluent in French, but I was, and that really made me stand out when UPMs needed to hire tutors to teach French. I also had the good fortune of meeting the California labor commissioner, who introduced me to Betty King, who is now 90 years old, bless her heart. Betty was, and still is, my mentor. As a studio teacher she was president of the union back in the '60s, and she tutored Jodie Foster, Ron Howard and Michael Jackson.

Wow, she must have had some great advice for you.

She was really instrumental in guiding me. She taught me to be professional, enforce the child labor laws, and the general basics of the job. Then, through a little persistence and a little luck, I was hired on the movie "Titanic."

Oh, the movie about the iceberg?

Yes, the small art house film; you've heard of it? I have to say I was terrified. I was calling Betty every day because that job was very chaotic at first. We were shooting in Mexico and there were a lot of variables, a lot of things that people didn't think about regarding the kids prior to beginning principal photography. I taught six background kids every day for six months, and I had a handful of the speaking-role kids who were thankfully not there the entire time.

So your career kicks off with a mammoth Academy Award winner. Where did you go from there?

My next feature was a film directed by Wes Anderson, called "Rushmore." I started off tutoring Jason Schwartzman, whose mom is the lovely Talia Shire and whose Uncle Frank is Francis Ford Coppola. Jason was 17 years old when he shot that movie, so I was his first and last studio teacher. The sole reason I got that job was because Jason had French as one of his subjects.

Talk about the additional credentials and certifications needed to protect a child's welfare as an on-set tutor.

You need to get certified by the state you work in. First, a person would need two teaching credentials. Next, you need to become certified by the state labor commission by taking an extensive test where you memorize the state child labor laws. If you pass, you get a studio teacher state welfare worker card from the labor commission. The certification must be renewed every three years.

What are some perks of the job?

At times very cool and unexpected things happen. On the movie "No Reservations," I met Catherine Zeta Jones and I ended up getting invited to Europe with her; her husband, Michael Douglas; and their 5-year-old son to tutor him over the summer. I was in Minorca, Spain, and London for three months. I have to say it was surreal to be sitting across the table from Michael and Catherine at breakfast every morning in their villa.

What is an on-set tutor's salary range? Are you paid better than a regular schoolteacher?

There are ranges you make based on your experience and based on the project and whether it is a big studio film or an independent project. A low-budget $500K film pays around $150 to $300 per day. Some producers will try to hire people for less, but again it depends on experience and credits. A high-end rate is in the area of $450 to $500 per day. You do realize you are going to flood the on-set tutor market with this chapter, don't you? (Laughs.)



Last Updated: 01/11/2011 - 4:25 PM


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