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Northern Ontario shows its talent

North Bay talent agency helps actors find film work

As the popularity of North Bay as a prime filming location increases, so too do the opportunities for local actors to make their mark.

And that’s where Jim Calarco comes in.

A veteran actor of theatre, film and television, Calarco is the founder and owner of North Star Talent, which is based in North Bay and is the largest talent agency in Northern Ontario.

Calarco started acting in the 1970s, but it wasn’t until he retired from his work as a drama teacher that he got into the industry full time.

He’s now been at it for 18 years, and counts among his television credits a recurring role in Hard Rock Medical, as well as roles in the films High Chicago and Edwin Boyd.

He’s also the writer and producer of the award-winning short films That Was Easy, The House, One Wish and Strangers.

In the late 2000s, after the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund Corp. (NOHFC) introduced financial incentives to lure film companies north, Calarco recognized a need for a made-in-the-North firm that would put the interests of local actors first.

“There weren’t a lot of professional actors, and to get a job in a movie, you had to go to Toronto and audition, and that was kind of a pain in the neck,” Calarco said.

“When they started handing out grants to shoot in Northern Ontario, the companies started to come north, so I decided there was a vacuum there. I started an agency, and it really worked out well for us.”

By 2010, he had launched North Star Talent, with just 10 clients. Today, he represents 90 actors across a range of ages, 70 of whom are members of the Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) union.

As a talent agent, Calarco liaises between his clients and casting directors. Potential clients submit head shots, resumés, and tapes, and Calarco tries to find them work.

“Once they’re in the agency, we send them out for auditions,” Calarco said.

“I’ll get a casting director who will send me a breakdown which has all the roles in it that they want to cast in Northern Ontario, and then I will match up my people with particular roles.”

As actors land more parts, they increase their reputation in the industry and can work toward an ACTRA membership, which guarantees them better pay and safe working conditions, Calarco noted.

Several of Calarco’s clients have been successful in building their resumés in the North, most recently landing roles on the crime drama Cardinal and the recently shot series Carter, featuring American actors Jerry O’Connell and Sidney Poitier.

More opportunities will arise soon, as two Hallmark movies are set to be filmed in North Bay starting this fall. Yet, despite the perceived glamour associated with the industry, finding consistent, lucrative work as a paid actor isn’t easy.

Few can make a living as an actor alone, and most of Calarco’s clients work other jobs as well, often as servers, bartenders, or in construction.

“The most you’re going to make as an actor in the North, in a good year, is $15,000,” Calarco said.

“The majority of people won’t. They do anywhere from $1,000 to $4,000 a year on average, if they’re lucky.”

Despite a clause attached to the NOHFC incentives that require film companies to hire a minimum number of Northern Ontario crew members, no such stipulation exists for actors, Calarco said.

So, most film companies allot only a couple of roles for actors from Northern Ontario. Most of the available roles go to female actors between the ages of 22 and 40, and many are coming right out of Canadore’s acting course.

“The majority, I’d say 90 per cent of them, are getting their union card within a year, which is good, and they’re at the right age demographic,” Calarco said.

“One, you hit 40, the roles for women dry up like crazy — you’re too old — whereas, for a man, you can be 50 or 60.”

Other challenges exist.

There is a persistent concern about “agents” from Toronto who will charge prospective actors up to $1,500 for head shots and the chance to be represented in Toronto.

They’ll then call their clients for roles with only a few hours’ notice, and when the actor can’t make the drive from Northern Ontario, they’ll be dropped — and they’re out $1,500.

Still, Calarco eschews criticism that the Northern Ontario film industry is unsustainable.

It’s estimated that up to $2 million is injected into the economy each time a film project comes north, as production companies avail themselves of local restaurants, hotels, transportation services, and more.

And the North has a unique advantage that Toronto and other southern locations do not: versatility.

“Sudbury, downtown, the old section, could be any city in the United States,” Calarco said.

“In North Bay, you can shoot (downtown) in the morning, and in five minutes you’re in pristine wilderness. In Toronto, it’s a whole day’s move, which is thousands of dollars.”

And, with the new post-production film studio recently built at Canadore College, a film can be entirely post-produced in North Bay, extending the time crews spend in the city.

Calarco said he’s had offers to purchase the agency, but he’s not yet ready to retire.

At 70, he still enjoys the thrill of bringing new characters to life and representing a new generation of young thespians.

“It’s a crazy business,” he laughed. “You have to be a little nuts to be in it.”