Destination: Hollywood – Part 1

For any aspiring actor, the road to success in Hollywood is paved with competition and uncertainty. Even the most dedicated actors have to overcome incredible odds to make it big…or make it at all. But for actors who come from abroad, the challenge

For actors who come from abroad, the challenge is magnified by paperwork, cultural transitions and unique financial limitations

is magnified by paperwork, cultural transitions and unique financial limitations. Is the risk worth the reward?

The Dream, The Move and The Paperwork

Thor Knai, 29, began his acting career with a couple of small roles in Norway. As a teen, Knai briefly appeared in the Norwegian soap miniseries, Ansur, and later the reality show, Moviestar. After serving in Afghanistan with the Norwegian Army, Knai made the move to Hollywood in 2005 to seriously pursue his craft.

Though Knai had relatively limited acting experience prior to the move, he viewed Hollywood as the natural place to pursue an acting career.  “I live only once, I’m going to go for it full on right off the bat,” he explains. Knai enrolled in the New York Academy of the Arts at Universal Studios, Hollywood, which allowed him to study in the United States with a student visa from 2005 to 2006.

After this program, however, Knai was unable to immediately secure a work visa, known as the O-1. This delayed his permanent move to the United States until years later.

According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, in order to qualify for an O-1 visa in the entertainment industry, “the beneficiary must demonstrate extraordinary achievement evidenced by a degree of skill and recognition significantly above that ordinarily encountered to the extent the person is recognized as outstanding, notable or leading in the motion picture and/or television field.”

The O-1 Visa, which allows “Aliens of Extraordinary Ability” to work in the United States for up to three years, requires actors to prove said extraordinary ability through awards, press acknowledgement, notable past and future work, salary history and critical recognition for their relevant work. In order to receive the visa, an employer or agent must petition for it as well. If there is a specific project, the studio in charge of production may petition, but in all other cases, a manager or agent will petition and sponsor.

Although a manager signed Knai after seeing him perform in a New York Academy of the Arts showcase, he still needed a deeper body of work to secure the visa.  “I thought some of the stuff I did in Norway might help, and it did, but it wasn’t enough,” Knai explains. “I ended up going back to study in Norway for a little bit, trying to build a career. It turned out to be more of a modeling thing.”

Knai’s modeling career took him to London, which allowed him to simultaneously pursue acting in the largest English-speaking film market in Europe. While modeling by profession, Knai continued to hone his language skills and accent. His travels later took him to Hong Kong and Beijing, where he built up a portfolio of modeling work for such companies as Adidas and Disney.

It was modeling for these international clients that ultimately brought Knai back to the United States in 2008.  After completing successful brand campaigns in both Europe and Asia, and expressing to his modeling agents the desire to move back to Hollywood, Knai’s agents were able to book him modeling work in Hollywood.  Although the O-1 visa that his agents sponsored was for modeling, not acting, he was able to find exceptions that enabled him to secure onscreen work on film and television 

“I could parlay [the work] with the explanation that I got this acting job because I was a model, and I’m onscreen because I’m good looking,” he explains.  Through this justification and auditions set up by his manager, Knai was cast for guest appearances on FOX’s Bones and ABC Family’s Greek, and background work on the 20th Century Fox feature film Water for Elephants.

The temporary O-1 visa, however, comes with a financial conundrum that visa holders are only legally allowed to work within the professional parameters on which they applied. “Even when you’ve managed to get your O-1 visa, you’re going to starve to death because you’re not working enough as a model or actor,” says Knai. “You can’t [work under the table] with acting because it’s too high profile. There’s very real recorded official proof because you’re onscreen. On your way up, you’re going to get kicked out of the country for working illegally, and then you can never come back.”

This challenge, along with the limited roles open to Knai with a modeling-specific O-1 visa led him to pursue full time residency.  Beyond proving that he worked for well known brand clients, Knai needed press clippings to support his case for a permanent residency green card. “The one [immigration officers] buy the most is press clips because they’re aware you can’t just fake it,” he says.

After completing 40 days of background work on Water for Elephants, that press started flowing in. “Norway is tiny, so if anyone goes to Hollywood and does anything, you immediately get some media coverage,” he says. “Because I was on set with Reese Witherspoon and Christoph Waltz and Robert Pattinson, [the Norwegian media] would write an article about me in these huge gossip magazines or local newspapers, or even real tabloids. There’s nothing else to talk about because it’s Norway and there are like 4 million people. 

The press clippings and Knai’s growing body of work allowed him to secure a green card in 2011. “When it finally happened, I was such a weight off of my shoulders,” he says.

 Taking A Career Global

Unlike Knai, British-born actor Steve West did not move to Hollywood to launch his acting career, but rather to take the acting career that he established in London to the next level. West trained at Arts Educational in London, and had established an acting career in both theater – boasting lead credits in London’s West End – along with film. West secured roles in Hollywood productions that filmed in the UK, specifically Seed of Chucky and DeLovely. His 2008 move was not to begin his acting career or education, but rather to expand it internationally.

“There are really only three places that I can work and have a proper career, in my opinion: London, New York and Hollywood,” says West. “I wanted more media, more TV and more film. I was drawn to the larger size of the industry in Hollywood.”

Applying for a visa and a more permanent move to Hollywood was predicated by a scouting visit to Los Angeles, during which West secured an agent to petition on his behalf. With this final piece of the puzzle in place, West worked with a lawyer to apply for his visa, ticking requirement boxes with his varied acting experience.

“I’ve been on the West End, so that’s a big thing. Even funny things like performing in Buckingham Palace for the Queen seemed to hold some sway,” he says.

“I have to say, for me, it didn’t feel massively difficult putting it together,” West adds. “That’s where having a background in the UK helped. I didn’t just decide to come here and become an actor. I already was an actor for years.”

West was granted his visa request, which he renewed once while still building up a body of work that would better qualify him for a green card. West was given green card status for permanent residency in 2011.

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