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“Overnight success stories abound, yet at any given time 97 percent or the 120,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild are unemployed,” beings Mellini Kantayya in her debut essay collection Actor. Writer. Whatever. (essays on my rise to the top of the bottom of the entertainment industry). And with that the reader begins a whirlwind tour of the underbelly of the New York City fame machine with a guide who isn’t afraid to rigorously dissect how those three percent made it and how the other 97 percent survive it. As Kantayya bounces from one end of the employment spectrum to the other—finding work on a popular soap opera, producing a show “way off Broadway”, and scrambling from gig to gig in between—she soon discovers it’s as much about luck as it is about hard work. Blending humor, criticism, and memoir, Kantayya explores wide-ranging themes from racism in the entertainment industry to the sacrifices an artist makes for her craft to the challenges of balancing motherhood and actor, writer, whateverhood. Refreshingly honest self-examination—who doesn’t spend some of their time combating jealousy, even when things are going well?—make for a trustworthy narrator who isn’t afraid to bare all to the reader. Whether surviving one hair-raising audition after another, booking her first spot as a backup dancer in a music video, or commiserating over cocktails after a rough gig, Actor. Writer. Whatever. and its narrator expose the beautiful and the ugly, giving the reader an insider’s roadmap through the peaks and pitfalls of the entertainment world. In the tradition of fellow essayists Rachel Shukert and Megan Daum, Kantayya articulates and makes sense of the ambition and slight insanity it takes to throw one’s self into the world in which she lives. “This business will break your heart…. What we Actor, Writers, Whatevers have is dependency—the business treats us badly, but we get just enough reward to stay hooked and keep chasing the dragon,” she says near the end of her journey. Witty and heartfelt, Kantayya’s voice attacks each page with courage, offering a bold, exciting experience that both inspires and humanizes.

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