Being a Hollywood Assistant

Hollywood Boulevard street sign
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Being an assistant is one of the best jobs to land in the entertainment industry when you’re first getting started. Working as an assistant gives you access to Hollywood’s elite executives and an inside look at how everything works. Assistants are essentially executives and producers in training. 

Getting Ground-Level Insight as an Assistant

One of the assistant’s most important duties is to roll calls, which involves patching your boss through to someone and then staying on the call to put together a rough transcription of the conversation that highlights the important details. 

In the process, assistants get a ground-eye view of the inner workings of Hollywood, how situations are handled, and deals get made—invaluable insight that can’t be otherwise gained. Because of the access they’re granted and the sensitive information they’re privy to, assistants are typically asked to sign extensive non-disclosure agreements.

The All-Consuming Aspects of Being an Assistant

The other parts of the job can be demanding and highly stressful. In addition to performing typical administration duties like making copies, maintaining schedules, and answering phones, assistants also often serve as personal concierges, responsible for fetching coffee, ordering lunch, making dinner reservations, picking up drying cleaning, washing the boss’s car, walking their dog, shuttling them back and forth to meetings and catering to whatever other whims they might have. 

In New York magazine article published in 2014, a former personal assistant anonymously related some of her experiences and shared some of the outrageous things she was asked to do, including breaking up with her boss’s boyfriend on her behalf after only being on the job for two weeks to being called away from a family function to take her boss to an appointment with her therapist. The appointment turned out to be with a psychic. 

The Abusive Aspects of the Job 

In addition to being unreasonably demanding, many Hollywood celebrities and executives are notorious when it comes to the treatment of assistants. Most Hollywood executives and producers know that the job of being the lowly assistant is a high demand job that they can easily find a replacement for if the person sitting in the assistant chair can’t hack it, and so they take advantage of it. 

Fictional accounts in films like 1994’s “Swimming with Sharks,” which depicts a tyrannical boss played by Kevin Spacey, don't seem far off from the real-life experiences drawn from in books like "The Hollywood Assistants Handbook: 86 Rules for Aspiring Power Players.” Penned by two former assistants and promoted as a survival guide, the book the 2008 book gives aspiring assistants and idea of what to expect. 

In a section titled “Rule #17: Thicken Up That Skin,” the authors offer up an amusing taxonomy of bad bosses and note that being berated is just part of the job. “Are your feelings hurt? Well, too bad. Because the sooner you stop crying that river, the sooner you’ll grow the thick skin you’re going to need to survive.” 

The Slow Turning of the Tides

These days that advice may be as dated as some of the cultural references (catching up TiVo?). While in the past working in that type of work environment was commonplace, the paradigm seems to be shifting.

Whereas assistants generally just took the abuse, more and more have started standing up for themselves. In 1998, an assistant named Suzanne Clark sued her former employer, a producer named Peter Cuber, seeking damages for the harassment she endured. 

“He's hysterical,” wrote Clark in her suit, according to an article at the time in the Washington Post. “He's a maniac. He'd scream and yell like a 4-year-old. He'd rant and rave and make everybody crazed. For 12 hours a day, he'd basically scream, ‘You know that thing between your ears? Why don't you use it? I don't pay you to think!’”

A more recent example of an assistant pushing back is Rosette Laursen. In March 2017,  Laursen shared the abusive behavior of her boss on social media, which resulted in her boss closing up shop within a week of her accusations becoming public. After being erroneously copied on a sexist, obscenity-laced message sent by her boss Michael Einfeld intended for her male co-workers in response to an email she sent requesting time off, Laursen received an even more offensive text from her boss filled with homophobic and anti-Semitic language. 

In response, Laursen quit her job and hired a lawyer to seek compensation, attempting to settle the matter privately. Although her boss made a public apology but subsequently rebuffed her attorney’s efforts to reach out. Realizing that if she went through with the lawsuit that the emails and text would become public, she shared them on her Facebook page in August 2017. 

Acknowledging how grueling it can be working as an assistant, she noted how some behavior is beyond the pale and should be called out rather than being considered to be just part of the job. 

“This might have happened to me on ‘A Day Without A Woman’ but I think many assistants suffer hostile work environments. Both men and women experience verbal abuse but are afraid to stand up for themselves. 
They don’t want to have to be the one to take action. They are willing to put up with things that are absolutely crossing a line because the job will look good on a resume for the next step in their careers, or hope the connections made through the job might be beneficial. 
I have struggled a lot with sharing this because I’m afraid it will work against me and my career. That is scary to me and sad that this might be the reality we live in. But it’s worth it to me to say something regardless of the outcome. I’ll be disappointed at myself if I don’t.
Many Hollywood assistants are underpaid and overworked, yet we are more than willing to do everything it takes to pay our dues to reach our goals and dreams. But in return, there needs to be a basic level of respect from our bosses. Nothing fancy, just human decency.”

Things ended up working out for Laursen. In April 2018, rather than being ostracized by the industry, she landed a job working for Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions as an office coordinator/assistant to the director for the docuseries “Lorena,” about Lorena Bobbit, who infamously dismembered a piece of her spouse’s anatomy. As she pointed out to The Hollywood Reporter, the new position puts her closer to realizing her goal of becoming a fulltime TV writer. 

Gaining Perspective

Although there are signs that the climate within the industry indeed seems to be changing, there are still some tyrants taking great pains to make the lives of their assistants miserable. At the same time, there are just as many good bosses who push and stretch their assistants past their breaking points to help them become the best executives possible. 

Many of them were assistants once themselves, and they know that being an assistant is often a gateway job to greener pastures. Whatever the case, here are some practical tips on surviving such a challenging work environment. Being an assistant in Hollywood is no easy task, but in the end, the road can lead to fun, lucrative positions in a wide variety of avenues. Learn all you can, and you might just find yourself in a position with your own assistant one day.

Make Your Boss Look Good

Your job is simple – make the boss look good. If you make your boss look good, you will be rewarded with a boss who respects you and is willing to help you out in your career efforts.

Never Bad Mouth Your Boss

It’s all too tempting to bad mouth a bad boss. But unless it’s only to a few close friends who will never say a word about it, just don’t do it. It will not only make you look petty and weak, but it might also find its way back to your boss. You never know where other people’s loyalties lie, especially in Hollywood!

Don’t Expect Praise

Unfortunately, most Hollywood bosses won’t say anything until you do something wrong. Until that occurs, they literally expect perfection on everything from rolling calls to typing up a memo. Everything you do reflects on them so really, you’re nothing more than an extension of your boss–so why would they praise a part of themselves? Don’t expect to ever be praised for your job and if you do happen to receive it, you’ll appreciate it that much more.

Don’t Give In

Remember this if nothing else—at the end of the day, it’s just a job. The worst thing that can happen to you is to get fired. Assistants who manage to stay the course for 2-3 years are often richly rewarded with a lucrative career in management, development, producing, and many other venues. 

Truth vs. Lies

In the movie “Glen Gary Glen Ross,” there is the line: “tell the truth—it’s the easiest thing to remember.” When working with a high-level boss, lying about a problem might get you into bigger trouble then you might already be. Take your licks and stay truthful and you’ll never have to worry about which lies you need to cover.

Pick Your Battles

There will come a time when you have been legitimately wronged. That could be the boss taking credit for your work or some other atrocity. Depending on the nature and most importantly, the severity of the situation, determine whether or not it’s something deserving of your full attention. If it’s not something you feel you can live with then start by confronting your boss. If you can’t work it out with them, then move up the ladder until the issue is resolved. Understand, however, that the higher and more public you make the issue, the more likely it might negatively affect you as well.

Remember That You’re the Gatekeeper

One thing to always remember with this position is that you are your boss’s gatekeeper. No one can speak with your boss until you put the call through. Most Hollywood executives know this and will be nice to you to make sure their calls get returned. Don’t take this position lightly. Be diligent in protecting your boss against callers whom they don’t want to speak with. Watch and listen to those callers that your boss deems a priority and those people he prefers to avoid.

Learn All You Can

Remember why you’re there. It’s not because you really enjoy getting the boss’s coffee or walking his dog, you’re there to learn. So learn everything you can about what your boss does. What do the other people in the department do? What will your boss be willing to teach you? Learn the names of everyone your boss is calling and who’s calling him. Find out what their titles are and what they do. That information might just come in handy for your own efforts someday.