Vic Perillo: how to succeed in show business by really trying

by Emily Woods / Beacon Correspondent • February 14, 2013

Make it in the business
Make it in the business

It can be terrifying enough for any recent college graduate to find a job that pays the bills. But for newly trained actors trying to break into the cutthroat industries of film, television, and theater, former Screen Actors Guild agent Vic Perillo thinks terror is justified. 

“It’s become a business built entirely on luck,” he said. “When it comes down to it, it’s based on what you look like and what you’ve done lately.” 

 Perillo, 70, a veteran performer, writer, and director, has been visiting schools with prominent acting programs for the past 40 years. At a lecture he gave on Tuesday in the Career Services Center, Perillo spoke about the trials and tribulations that follow the pursuit of a career in the arts. 

A handful of performing arts students gathered to listen to the agent, who began by passing out prints of the three wise monkeys, who embody the Japanese proverb, “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.”

 “The craft of acting has been taken over by businessmen, and nobody has said a word,” said Perillo after everyone in the room had received a copy of the iconic image. “This picture has an awful lot to do with what goes on behind closed doors.” 

Perillo’s knowledge of the ins and outs of the acting industry comes directly from personal experience. An actor since the age of seven, he said that he had never done anything else. Perillo has worked in theaters and on sets in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. He gained media attention as the agent of child actor Gary Coleman from the show Diff’rent Strokes and he also represented more than 12 unknown actors who received spots on prominent soap operas. 

 However, despite the litany of accomplishments he holds in his field, Perillo does not present himself as such. He speaks candidly — without notes or visual aids — and  invites discussion after he is done; openly smiling and chatting with several Emerson students, Perillo encourages them to email him with any questions they may have about acting. 

 In his address, Perillo was quick to mention his understanding of acting as a craft, rather than a competitive industry. He noted how agencies, acting coaches, and audition workshops jeopardize the integrity of the craft by providing a shortcut to theatrical success.

“They are teaching stardom, rather than the craft,” said Perillo. “Acting is not a contest.” 

Perillo further asserted that he is not trying to change today’s “system,” but rather he is looking to change the way the system looks at actors.  As Perillo sees it, actors in today’s entertainment industry are treated as second class citizens — seen devoid of their talent, and instead looked at as nothing more than pieces of paper. 

“Pictures and résumés are not your talent,” he said.  “Pictures and résumés can’t act.”  

At this remark, several students, many of whom had been taking notes throughout the lecture, nodded fervently.

One of these students is freshman performing arts major Rachel Brunner, who chose to attend the lecture because she hoped Perillo’s advice might prove valuable in her search for a summer internship in the acting industry. Since coming to Emerson, Brunner has been active in both the Emerson Shakespeare Society and Mercutio Troupe and said that she finds all performance opportunities valuable. 

After the talk, she thanked Perillo and expressed her satisfaction with his lecture. 

“I especially loved when he said acting isn’t a competition because I was always taught to support your fellow actors,” said Brunner. “That’s what creating art is — a collaborative process in which a group of people give themselves to an audience and the audience gives back.”