Every year, Canuck actors congregate in L.A. to chase the Hollywood dream
-- Shanda Deziel

A party is raging in Room 221 of the Highland Gardens Hotel in Hollywood, Calif. Eighties music is blasting, and all the food has been cleared from the fridge, replaced with four shelves' worth of Red Stripe beer. Girls who barely eat are drinking too much, and guys with perfect teeth and just the right amount of facial hair talk about how they really want to write, direct or produce. A balding magician in a tux and an overweight comedian in a suit stand awkwardly in the corner, while the party's requisite aspiring rock stars -- three underage Strokes-looking boys -- are passed out together on a loveseat. It's an average night at the Gardens. Something the couple in Room 121, directly below, didn't know when they checked in with their baby earlier that week. The next morning, hotel co-owner Jack Baklayan shrugs off the noise complaints. "We don't care about the party," he says. "I've even gone up there for drinks sometimes. It's not like they do it every night -- just every other night."

He's referring to the stream of young Canadian actors who come to Hollywood from January to April each year to audition for TV pilot season, and who have developed a community at this hotel -- a 1950s, dusty rose-coloured, two-level, apartment-style complex with a sordid history. "You walk into this wonderful lobby with this beautifully landscaped outdoor garden and nicely lit pool," says Toronto actress Liane Balaban, 24. "It has a '70s, Hollywood golden era charm, a real atmosphere. But the rooms are not as splendid. My first impression was that the rooms are the type of place where the police put you when you're in the witness protection program."

Well, it's certainly possible -- everything else seems to happen here. The band Earth, Wind and Fire is said to have recorded an album at the hotel, and Brad Pitt is rumoured to have lived there, while the late Jeff Buckley may have worked the front desk. A number of porn shoots have taken place at the Highland Gardens, prostitutes sometimes use the premises, and the place has seen some heavy drug use. In fact, Janis Joplin overdosed and died in Room 105, on Oct. 4, 1970. Fans often make a pilgrimage to the hotel, and some hold seances in Joplin's old room.

For the Canadian actors, the reality of the place is usually more prosaic -- and unsavoury. Two-season Highland Gardens vet Jonas Chernick says his room smells like urine. Balaban avoids touching the dirty string that pulls the curtains, former resident Polly Shannon (who played Maggie in CBC's Trudeau) complains about the puke-pink carpeting, and the party-throwers, David Julian Hirsh and Stephen Markle, have an oven that oozes black sludge. Meanwhile, some residents complain the owners have no fixed rates and continually quote one price and then insist on a higher one (a charge the management denies). But you can't beat the location, minutes away from the showbiz nexus of Hollywood and Vine, or the summer camp-like atmosphere. Besides the parties, there are BBQs by the pool, Ping-Pong matches, hikes in the canyon behind the hotel and late-night game sessions. "Instead of Canadian actors doing coke," says Brooke Nevin, the Toronto actress in Room 120, "they're playing Boggle."

For years, word has circulated in Canada that if you're going for pilot season you should stay at the Gardens. Maury Chaykin and Saul Rubinek were some of the earliest Canadian residents about 30 years ago, and Jeremy Ratchford lived in Room 128 for seven years during the '90s, before landing a lead role on the hit CBS show Cold Case. These days, a new wave of young talent takes up about a third of the 71 rooms during pilot season. They run lines together, give advice on how to nail a scene, lend each other clothes for auditions and, most important, offer shoulders to cry on when yet another role passes them by. "For a first-timer in Los Angeles," says Balaban, "I think it's the best atmosphere to be in. You will meet more Canadian actors in three months than you do in a year in Toronto or Vancouver."

You'll also meet a few characters. The other two-thirds of the hotel is made up of old-school actors -- who've gone from roles in films like Scarface to guest spots on shows like The Practice and Hack -- and some sad cases. Since his wife fell sick, Harold, a former clarinetist, has taken up heavy drinking at the hotel. Celebrated mystery writer Gary Indiana is spending a long, reclusive holiday in Room 214. And his next-door neighbour Kevin will tell anyone who'll listen that he's been struck by lightning three times and was kidnapped in the Philippines for dating one of the Marcos's granddaughters.

Fascinated by this mix, Highland Gardens roommates Markle, 33, and Hirsh, 32, have filmed pilot season at this surreal oasis for a documentary they call Camp Hollywood (which airs on Star! Nov. 19 and early next year on Bravo). While it shows beautiful people living, swimming and partying together, the film does a good job of debunking the Hollywood dream. Here's a group of Canadian actors, successful back home, choosing to live in a sleazy place where cockroaches have been known to visit, praying that they'll land something bigger. All they have is each other in what Hirsh refers to as a "city of illusion." "It's also a city of bullshit," says Markle. "When I came to L.A., I was expecting to hear 'No' a lot. But everyone says 'Yes,' because you never know who's going to be the Next Big Thing. I've had people look me in the eyes after a show and say, 'I've never been so blown away in my life. From here, you and I are going to be best friends.' And then never hear from that person again."

Markle, an aspiring stand-up comic, quit his 9-to-5 job directing promos for Alliance Atlantis Communications, bought a big white Lincoln, and came to L.A., planning on living at the Gardens for two months. But his stay kept getting extended as he landed a top agent at William Morris, moved his act from coffee houses to the legendary Hollywood Improv and even won a lead role in an Ashton Kutcher-produced pilot for MTV. (He was later replaced.) "I'm many thousands of dollars in debt," says Markle, who is using credit cards to keep him at the hotel. "The kind of debt you'd have if you were to go to law school. That's the way I'm looking at it -- like I've gone to showbiz school. But unlike law school, there's no guarantee that you are going to see that money back." Hirsh breaks in: "Here's a question, have you not had the best time of your life?" "Yes," says Markle, "I've never been poorer and never been happier."

Optimism is a little easier for Hirsh, though. The handsome Montrealer is considered a veteran at the Gardens, one of the more successful residents. He's even the star of the series Naked Josh, which just finished its first season on Oxygen in the U.S. and Showcase in Canada. But he could also use a big network show, and each year he comes really close to grabbing one. This time it was Eyes (a mid-season replacement for ABC, about a high-tech private investigation firm). "I locked myself inside for two weeks prior to the network screen test," says Hirsh who, had he landed the show, would have made US$80,000 for the pilot and US$35,000 each episode. "When I got there, it was down to me and two other guys. They were both older and much different. I had a good audition. I came home, ate a quart of ice cream and lay on the ground with the phone in my hand, waiting. I usually don't do that -- you don't want to be that actor guy."

The very same day, Nevin lost a role she screen-tested for -- in Fox TV's North Shore. "I was going to go to Hawaii for three weeks to shoot a pilot," sighs the 21-year-old blond, before explaining what went wrong. "Between my last audition and the network screen test, the casting people said, 'Brooke, we love your read, you're great, but you need to show more belly. Wear something tight, low-riding and high-riding.' That's all code for we'd like to see your boobs." Nevin, who admits she's not "fantastically endowed," went on a shopping spree, picking up a padded bra at Frederick's of Hollywood. But it wasn't enough. "Now I have to return the things I couldn't afford. I thought, 'If I got the show, I'd keep all these clothes.'"

But Hirsh and Nevin put on a happy face and went out to celebrate the engagement of their close friend and neighbour, Chernick, who had just proposed to his visiting girlfriend -- in between auditions. Chernick's one of the busiest actors at the Gardens, with a stack of scripts on his kitchen table. But he's not getting as many callbacks as he'd like. Meanwhile, he's got an enviable career writing, producing and/or starring in Canadian independent films. So why go through this yearly heartbreak? "I don't have an answer," says the 31-year-old Winnipeg native. "It's almost a magnetic force that L.A. has on actors." This past year, he persuaded Balaban, his co-star in the Canadian film Seven Times Lucky (a hit at the Sundance Film Festival which opens next spring), to room with him and give pilot season a shot. Little did he know how different her experience would be.

When Balaban was picked for the lead in the Nova Scotia-set Canadian hit New Waterford Girl back in 1998, she had acted only in school plays and played a corpse in a student film. Since then, she's been invited to Francis Ford Coppola's estate for a reading and had an audition with Anthony Minghella for Natalie Portman's role in Cold Mountain. While in L.A., she's been going out on TV auditions like everyone else, but she's also having meetings with directors like Terry Zwigoff and Brian De Palma for feature films. "Liane is just on a different playing field," says Chernick. "She's a movie star."

For Balaban, pilot season is more vacation than stressful career-maker -- and it's a chance to collect stories. "I was waiting in the lobby of ICM to meet my agent and this man in tinted glasses and a bolero started chatting me up," she says. "He had a really raspy voice and we were bonding over the fact that neither of us carried cellphones or business cards. I thought he was a voice actor and thought, 'It's great, he's old, but he's still working.' I have his phone number now and he has mine." The guy turned out to be legendary director and unrepentant ladies' man Robert Evans. "I was whisked away by my agent who said, 'We'll be sure to keep you away from him.'"

At the end of pilot season last spring, Nevin booked a job on a USA Network sci-fi series, The 4400, and was sent to Vancouver for the shoot. The others went back to a warm welcome in Canada -- Chernick got funding to star in a film he co-wrote and is co-producing, Hirsh returned to Montreal to film the second season of Naked Josh, and Balaban got behind the camera, co-directing a video for the Montreal rock group the Stills. And after a year and a half, Markle went back to work at Alliance Atlantis. "I told myself, 'Once I hit $30,000 in debt, I'll leave,'" he says of his extended Highland Gardens stay. "But at that point I got an agent. So I said, 'At $50,000 I'll go,' but then there was interest from HBO and Comedy Central. At $85,000, I had to pull the plug. I think it's a pretty common story, people get trapped at the hotel. It's like a casino, you see one person succeed and it keeps you seated, keeps you playing." The next pilot season is only a couple of months away, and the whole gang plans to go back. Even Markle -- "But only for six weeks this time, just to show I'm still in the game."

Rogers Media Inc