COVID-19 Threatens Hollywood Dream of Struggling Canadians in the United States

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For Harrison Houde, his Hollywood dream is not over, far from it.

But with casting calls canceled and studios closed, his celebrity hopes are now on hold as he makes a strategic retreat from insurmountable odds.

“No part-time work, no auditions, there is nothing,” said Houde. “I didn’t think it was going to reach the level it is now. “

A 24-year-old actor from Vancouver Island, Houde has appeared in shows for children and teens like Find stuff and Assembly required. Two years ago, he moved to Los Angeles, hoping for a big break.

Houde admits that it was difficult – like many of those trying to make their mark in Hollywood, he was counting on part-time work to make ends meet. But the coronavirus has struck. A few days before his first shift at a neighborhood restaurant, the governor of California issued a home stay order.

“I texted my new boss and he said, ‘Yeah, we’re closed. “So I say to myself, yeah, it’s not good. I need to understand something, “said Houde.

WATCH | Harrison Houde’s YouTube compilation of what he did in 2019

Since California made the order on March 17, thousands of Canadian artists living in the Los Angeles area have found themselves in the same boat – the one that ran aground.

Those who cannot rely on royalties or residue from past work to push them away during closure find it difficult to do without many safety nets that protect other Canadian workers.

With few prospects and no income, Houde says he can no longer pay his rent in Los Angeles. This week, he gathered dozens of study boxes and a roll of tape.

“I’m going back to Vancouver because … there is no work,” says Houde. “I might as well back off and try to save money if I can. “

“I am Canadian in America”

Many Canadian artists in the United States are now caught between and between: ineligible for many US unemployment benefits because they are not American citizens, but also ineligible for many Canadian benefits because they live abroad .

Singer Sarah Daye fears that losing concerts will only mean losing income – that her work visa to the United States is also in danger. (Sarah Daye)

The Canadian Emergency Response Allowance (CERB), for example, is only available to citizens residing in Canada. And the government says it has no income support programs for Canadians living abroad.

“I am not American. I’m Canadian in America, ”says R&B singer Sarah Daye. “I don’t have a green card and I have a visa, so I’m not eligible. “

The Toronto native was nominated for a Grammy, with the Kevin Eubanks Band (formerly the house group on The Tonight Show) and open for Lenny Kravitz. But now her shows are canceled and she is forced to sue people for the checks owed to her.

“So I’m sort of at the point where I have to be very creative about how I’m going to make money,” said Daye.

This includes trying to find “where they really pay you” platforms to play, and even reaching out to fans for donations.

“You have to humble yourself a little and put yourself out there and ask for support.” “

“Hope and pray”

As if worrying about food and rent was not enough, many Canadians working in the United States in the entertainment industry share another pressing concern: their immigration status.

Many, like Daye, are allowed to work in the United States on a O-1 non-immigrant visa, which is reserved for those who have demonstrated “extraordinary ability or achievement” in the arts.

However, to maintain their visa status, they must prove that they are working continuously. In February, the Trump administration tightened immigration rules to further restrict entry to those deemed likely to be on social assistance.

Daye says she already has a visa extension and is afraid that she will not be able to renew it.

“I really keep the faith that everything will work,” said Daye. “And I hope and pray for support, you know? “

Canadian immigration lawyer in Los Angeles says Canadian artists in the United States may be eligible for more support than they think.

Zoe Kevork, managing director of Kevork Law and president of Canadians Abroad in Southern California, says there is a lot of confusion as to how the closure will affect the visa status of Canadians working in the United States. (Zoé Kevork)

Zoe Kevork, Managing Director of Kevork Law and President of Canadians Abroad in Southern California, says she is bombarded with questions from Canadian customers concerned about how to renew or extend their visa if the projects they are working on are closed .

The answer is not simple. “There are differing opinions about when you are considered out of status or when your visa is no longer valid,” says Kevork, particularly for workers who have been on leave.

“Is this a significant change in your status, where you now have to plan another visa?” There is no orientation. It’s not clear. “

Little support for artists in the United States

Kevork claims that Canadian artists with an O-1 visa for extraordinary capacity are entitled to a 60-day grace period without work. But if they believe they will be out of work longer, “people should definitely consult their immigration lawyers.”

But there is good news. Kevork says Canadian artists in the United States need not worry that the demand for unemployment insurance will affect their immigration status. What about those $ 1,200 Trump checks for coronavirus relief?

“If you paid your taxes, you are entitled to it,” she says.

There are few Canadian programs for artists living south of the border.

Rodney Murphy, who manages all of SOCAN’s activities in the United States, believes that those who “have the talent to succeed will find a way to exceed this level.” (Jeff Knights / SOCAN)

The Society of Composers, Authors and Music Publishers of Canada (SOCAN), for example, says it helps its approximately 800 members who live in the Los Angeles area.

“I have been in touch with many of them,” said Rodney Murphy, who manages SOCAN operations in the United States. “There is certainly a loss of income there. “

To help offset these losses, SOCAN has created a Cdn $ 2 million royalty advance program for its members. “So if someone asks for an advance today [the money] is in their bank in a week, “says Murphy.

David Hope, Executive Director of the Actors Fund Canada, said that the objective of their programs is to help Canadians in Canada, and that the Actors Fund, based in the United States, could be better placed to help Canadians in the United States. (When asked for comments, the Actors’ Fund did not respond.)

The Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA) does not offer any special relief to members based in the United States. In an email, the organization says it “shares information with our 27,000 or more members” and points to its website, which lists a list of financial benefits like CERB, most of which are only available to Canadian residents.

The comic Renée Percy, seen in Las Vegas in November 2019, insists that if you can’t find ways to laugh during the current closure, then “you’re just going to cry all the time.” (Photography Tina Compise / Quickstyle)

“There is no union for us,” said actress Renée Percy. “It’s a solo thing from start to finish, for better or for worse. “

Adapt to the situation

Percy, originally from Toronto, moved to Los Angeles 10 years ago. She says before the current shutdown, she was doing six to eight shows a week. Now, she says, life is like a day off – but it’s the same day over and over again.

“Normally, I’m on stage every night and now I’m on my couch every night,” says Percy. “I had to tour Europe next month and be in Barcelona and Luxembourg and all of these incredible places. And now I’m just taking a tour of my house: from the bathroom to the kitchen, the bedroom and the back. ”

Some Canadian artists can make a living during the closure by adapting and improvising, something that comes naturally to Percy. She continues to teach improvisation, but now her class is online rather than in person.

“People don’t have to worry about traffic or parking … or even pants, because they’re usually seated,” says Percy. “It doesn’t even have to be people in L.A. Now, I have someone in South Africa who can join my class. “

Percy says that she is trying not to think about the gravity of her situation or that she will “panic”, focusing instead on finding material in the midst of madness.

Renée Percy, top right, takes a photo of the improv class she started teaching online. (Renée Percy)

“If you can’t laugh, then yes, you’re just going to cry all the time,” says Percy. “There is humor and comedy there and there will always be. And I think the darker the situation, the more we need it. “

Be creative “to exceed this level”

Despite the challenges facing the Canadian artists he represents, Murphy believes that those who “have the talent to succeed will find a way to go beyond that level.”

“This experience will help them create great work and great art, and rewire the creative brain to do new things and better things,” said Murphy.

Even though he’s planning to move to Vancouver next week, Harrison Houde still finds time to collaborate online with his writing partner Dakota Daulby on their first film.

If there is any good news hidden in the midst of the chaos in Houde’s apartment in Los Angeles, it is that his writing, he says, has never been better.

“It was a little therapeutic to some degree,” says Houde. “Maybe our writing has improved because we have been locked inside and we just have a lot of time to think. “

Houde hopes the worst of the pandemic will be over by the end of the summer. Then, he says, he would like to come back, move to another Los Angeles apartment and pick up where he left off.

It is versatile, open to everything. But there is a project which he says he does not want to participate in.

“I’m sure there will be 10 Hollywood movies called” Quarantine “like next year, all set in one room, and I fear that. “

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