The series, currently streaming on Amazon, was created by a Baltimore-based actor and comedian with his own experience in the vagaries of the entertainment industry.
FREDERICK, Md. (AP) — Sasha Carrera can at least appreciate the irony of playing Petra Antonelli on “Thespian,” a Baltimore-based web series currently streaming on Amazon.
On the show, her character is an alcoholic former actor, so desperate for cash that she has to live in her adult daughter’s spare bedroom. She’s been divorced three times. She makes a living as an acting coach and casting agent on the Baltimore theater scene, but she’s bitter that her own career never reached its seemingly full potential in New York City.
In real life, Carrera isn’t bitter. But she can understand the resentment and disappointment that fuels some of her character’s decisions. As a child, Carrera’s first love was ballet. By 13, her instructors were telling her she had to make a choice — college, or seriously pursuing a career as a dancer. She chose dance, and set lofty goals for herself: apprentice at a company by 16; become a full-time member by 18. But when she missed those strict deadlines, “that’s when the drama would start,” she said. “It was like, ‘Oh, I’m never going to be a dancer.'”
Her father, a Harvard graduate, wanted her to go to college, and eventually Carrera did, at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. There, she majored in theater, which became the new focus of her creative passion. She missed classes for auditions and practices — accepting several incompletes — and moved to New York City after graduation for training at the New Actors Workshop.
She spent time in Los Angeles, where she starred in some small student-directed projects and produced her own short film. But in 2014, she found herself back in Frederick to care for her mother — quickly declining from Alzheimer’s — and her father, who was hospitalized with heart issues soon after she arrived home. She was back to being, in her words, “a small fish in a small pond,” before she ever got the chance to become a bigger fish in a much bigger pond.
“So, it isn’t hard to tap into what my character is feeling,” Carrera said. “It’s hitting the balance between what I think is a real love for her craft, combined with this sense that, ‘Well, my life totally sucks.'”
It’s a feeling to which almost every actor in “Thespian” can relate. The series was created by Marc Unger, a Baltimore-based actor and comedian with his own experience in the vagaries of the entertainment industry. In the show, he stars as Adam Kelner, a stand-up comic who — after assessing the failures of his own career — decides to leave comedy and pursue dramatic acting.
The role is semi-autobiographical. Unger is a comedian who moved back to Baltimore from Los Angeles after becoming thoroughly disillusioned with the industry there. A low point, he said, was booking a role on “Friends” — still one of the most successful television shows of all time.
“But I was miserable,” Unger said. “I didn’t like the show. I didn’t think it was funny.”
He was cast as a robber on a season four episode, “The One With the Cat,” which featured him locking the character Joey (played by Matt LeBlanc) into an entertainment console. The entire role, to Unger, was emblematic of the city’s tendency to typecast.
“Because I’m a comedian, it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re the dumb guy,'” he said.
Plus, the audition process was tough. Unger signed with an agency as soon as he moved to the city, but actually booking roles could be brutal.
“You’re hot for, like, two seconds in this industry,” Unger said. “And when you get cold, it’s very difficult to come back from that.”
On “Thespian,” Adam and Petra share professional frustrations even as they snipe and bicker with each other. It turns out that Adam, who signs up for one of Petra’s acting classes, conveniently forgot that he slept with and robbed her on a night 25 years earlier. Petra isn’t one to forgive and forget, so she makes it her mission to thwart Adam’s acting ambitions at every opportunity. It’s a meaty role that only gets beefier with the introduction of Petra’s daughter, who’s thoroughly resentful of her mother after years of being largely ignored by her.
Unger gathered the threads of “Thespian” from an earlier web series called “The Brothers Nobody,” a dramedy about two brothers running a comedy club in Baltimore. But the show felt incomplete, somehow, and Unger eventually incorporated aspects of the original series into a more ambitious project than he first visualized in late 2016.
“There was just this line that popped into my head — ‘This is the face of a man named Adam on his 50th birthday,'” Unger said. “I wrote the first two episodes and started casting just a few months later.”
He and his wife, Maria, worked as co-producers on the series, launching an Indiegogo campaign that raised nearly $10,000 for production. He wrote the character of Petra specifically for Carrera, and tapped other local talent to help out with the show. Chris Mariles, a Frederick-based filmmaker, shot episode three in the rehearsal space for The Fredericktowne Players. Matthew Bowerman, a New Market resident, appeared in four episodes as Greg Mullins, Adam’s close friend. Unger also wrote a special part for Greg Crowe, a former Frederick resident who most recently starred as Principal McDaniel in the indie film “Eighth Grade.”
Crowe stars in a single episode as “Tom the Jogger,” an eccentric stranger who gives Adam some very bad advice on how to resolve his feud with Petra. Unger largely abbreviated the part to fit in with Crowe’s filming schedule, but the actor has also found a niche in small, breakout roles. Like many of the actors in “Thespian,” he played a small part on the HBO show “Veep,” which filmed in Baltimore for four years. More recently, he’s played bit parts on shows like “Gotham” and “New Amsterdam,” and still drives to New York City at least once a week for auditions.
Crowe also lives with his sister in Cumberland to save money, and sometimes has to take odd handyman jobs to pay the bills. The real experience of working as a real late-in-life actor enables him to singularly appreciate Adam’s role on the show.
“Things may be going well for an actor, but that doesn’t mean they get paid,” Crowe said. “Unless you reach a certain level, it’s always a struggle.”