HOLLYWOOD, Calif. — It’s Thursday night and Joe Thompson is in his Hollywood apartment, staring at a pretty blonde actress and trying to think of what to say next.
Thompson is an actor, and tonight he is practicing with his five-person improv team. To warm up, the group performs a “mind meld,” a common improv exercise where two actors face each other and simultaneously say, “1-2-3 … [WORD].” Using previous words as cues, the process is repeated until both actors say the same thing.
Thompson and the actress, Stacey Kaney, are struggling. They’ve been facing each other for several minutes and can’t land on the same word, but that’s about to change. In the previous round, Thompson said “salsa” and Kaney said “cha-cha.” On the next try, it’s obvious to everyone in the room that the ensuing word should be “dance.” Well, obvious to everyone except for …
“1-2-3 … CHIPS!” Thompson says proudly. His face falls as Kaney says, “DANCE!” The other group members give Thompson the appropriate amount of shit as he shakes his head sheepishly. “Aw, dammit,” he says with a smile on his face.
It’s been more than three years since Thompson, 29, moved out to Los Angeles to chase his dream of becoming an actor. It was an unexpected career choice for a guy who grew up in a tight-knit community in Tennessee, came from a family of nine, played basketball his entire life and never acted in a high school play.
“For me, the life path was always to graduate from college, come home, find a job, get benefits, find a wife and live happily ever after,” Thompson said. “But I quickly found out, that wasn’t the life for me.”
It was May 2008…
…and Thompson just graduated from Rhodes College in Memphis, where he played point guard on the Lynx basketball team. He moved back to his hometown of Nashville that summer and found a job selling advertising for community magazines, which took him to glorious locales like Rock Springs, Wyo., and Vicksburg, Miss. He left a few months later after the economy crashed and he eventually found work “making pennies” with an IT staffing company in Nashville.
“I hated every minute of it,” Thompson said.
It wasn’t just the jobs he found unsatisfying. In his personal life, Thompson was hanging out with the same people he did in high school and college, going to the same bars and doing the same things.
“I love my friends, but nobody was really doing anything or pushing any boundaries,” he said. “It was completely monotonous and I felt like I was stuck in neutral. I needed more.”
It was October 2009…
…and a friend of Thompson’s from Rhodes suggested heading to Dallas. Wanting to break out of his hometown rut, Thompson made the move, found temporary housing with his friend’s parents in the Dallas suburbs and caught on with another IT staffing company.
Thompson again didn’t love the job but he found the different pace he was seeking in his social life. Flag football, golf, happy hours, road trips to Austin and San Antonio—all with new friends and new faces. Thompson only lived in Dallas for 10 months but it was exactly what he needed, right when he needed it.
Texas is also where Thompson got his first taste of show business. A buddy had been an extra on the TV show “Friday Night Lights” and Thompson got on a casting distribution list. An email went out, with the show looking to cast extras for the season finale of Season 4. Thompson headed to Austin.
“There were like 150 extras there and after 30 minutes, a production assistant came up, asked me how tall I was and then said, ‘Come with me,’” Thompson said. “He took me to meet with a producer, who looked me up and down and then said, ‘You’re going to be a stand-in for the head coach. Go get in wardrobe.’”
For the next 10 hours, Thompson played the part of Coach Wade Aikman, standing in for the actor Drew Waters during all the football scenes.
“I had a blast,” Thompson said. “The pay wasn’t anything but I remember thinking, ‘People do this for a living?’”
A girl Thompson met on the “Friday Night Lights” set got him in touch with a casting director. That led to a part as an extra in the HBO series “Entourage.” Thompson was hooked.
“From there,” Thompson said, “I knew somehow, someway, I had to get to L.A.”
It was December 2010…
…and Thompson was ready to move to Los Angeles. He had spent the previous five months in Eugene, Ore., helping his dad’s lumber company open a branch there. He did a little acting, too, in various Christian instructional videos—“Thirty Days To Taming Your Tongue: How To Talk To Your Husband. What, you haven’t heard of it?” Thompson says—and saved enough money to head to Hollywood.
Thompson didn’t waste any time. He immediately enrolled in an improv class at the Upright Citizens Brigade and also took traditional acting classes from a few individual coaches. To pay the bills, he took another 9-to-5 job in IT staffing.
“I wasn’t classically trained, or anything trained, so I knew I needed to pay for acting training,” Thompson said. “I wasn’t going to do the starving artist route. That wasn’t for me.”
As Thompson made inroads in acting—going on various auditions, performing with improv groups and networking at every opportunity—he also was becoming really good at his day job. He worked his way into becoming one of the company’s top 10 salespeople, but he had a sinking feeling.
“There were days where I asked myself, ‘What did you move out here for? What is your end goal? You could have stayed home and did this,’” Thompson said. “I had to make a choice.”
It was May 2013…
…and Thompson turned in his notice with the IT company to concentrate all his efforts on acting. “I’ve been on the grind ever since,” he says.
With more time, Thompson pored himself into preparing for an audition for a lead role in “Talents,” a dramatic comedy web series. Thompson beat out more than a few dozen actors to earn the part, which gave him a much-needed confidence boost.
“Every actor has their doubts about what they’re doing because this is not an easy route by any means,” Thompson said. “I look at my friends and everybody is in the midst of starting their families, making good money. [“Talents”] came at the right time because it gave me validation for the choices that I made.”
Talents, which was partially funded through Kickstarter, recently wrapped filming and will be released online this summer. In addition to performing around L.A. with his improv group, Thompson is getting ready for his next project and first movie—he will play a Southern misogynistic cop in the independent film, “The Little Hustle.” It begins filming in Las Vegas in May.
It is March 2014…
…and Thompson is running down his list of goals. They are lofty and include having 35 IMDB credits by the time he’s 35 years old and being able to support himself full-time as an actor. He recently began part-time work from home for a software company, to help keep the financial well from running dry, but has no intentions of throwing in the towel.
“It’s that athletic mentality: I don’t want to stop just because it gets hard,” Thompson said. “I want to see this all the way through, instead of just giving it a shot and hoping a pipe dream happens. You have to put in your time. I know at some point it will happen.”
He has support from friends and family, including his parents and siblings (Thompson is the second youngest of seven). They also keep him in line, as Thompson said he gets more than his fair share of ribbing, not unlike the scene that unfolded in his apartment with his improv group.
“When I first decided to tell people I was an actor, it was somewhat traumatic. The south is not an area where this is a respected profession,” Thompson said. “But my family has been supportive and my friends have all said they are just glad I had the balls to do it.”