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Chicoan Jake McLaughlin perseveres in Hollywood

Since his first small role as a soldier in <i>In the Valley of Elah</i>, Chicoan Jake McLaughlin has snagged several other acting gigs, including on the Starz original series <i>Crash</i>.

Since his first small role as a soldier in In the Valley of Elah, Chicoan Jake McLaughlin has snagged several other acting gigs, including on the Starz original series Crash.

It’s been nearly five years since Chicoan Jake McLaughlin took a leap of faith by cashing out the remains of his checking account to purchase a plane ticket for Hollywood for a movie audition.

A former neighbor who worked in a casting agency had told him about the audition for soldiers back from Iraq. McLaughlin, who fit that bill though he lacked any acting experience, was working in the concrete industry at the time. He landed the part and played a soldier in Paul Haggis’ In The Valley Of Elah with actors Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron and Susan Sarandon.

After the gig ended, with a virtually empty acting résumé, McLaughlin struggled to get more roles. These days, his prospects have turned around. He recently finished work on two other movies, and last week he began shooting a new film being directed by the famed Oliver Stone.

As the 28-year-old actor tells it, these successes have been hard fought.

“I’m not a self-conscious person, but I found that I began to get that way when I didn’t get work for a while,” said McLaughlin, during a recent phone interview from Los Angeles. “After Elah I had gone back to Chico and was doing concrete work again, and my agent told me I had to be in L.A. if I wanted to get more parts.”

McLaughlin then made another sacrifice, leaving his family to continue auditioning. Back in Hollywood, he encountered the additional stresses of going out for countless parts and hearing nothing back for months.

“It’s a feast-or-famine lifestyle for me,” said McLaughlin, who remembers a dry spell of about eight or nine months. “Sometimes you’re flush, eating out at a fancy restaurant, and other times your wondering how you’re going to pay this month’s rent. Once you get paid for a job you have to treat every dollar like gold.”

In fact, McLaughlin says there were a couple times he thought about quitting acting altogether.

“I love what I do but the biggest downside is the uncertainty of where your next job is coming from. I’m still fighting to get work. And unlike a lot of people I go up against who are single, I have a family and a large overhead,” he said.

McLaughlin credits his wife, Stephanie, with encouraging him to stay in the business. She and the couple’s two children, son Logan, 4, and daughter Reagan, 8, moved down to Los Angeles in 2008, after he started getting more work.

Eventually, McLaughlin’s determination and focus on auditions started paying off. He has appeared as a guest star on many television shows, including Grey’s Anatomy, Cold Case, Criminal Minds, Heroes, In Plain Sight and The Mentalist. McLaughlin also earned a role in Crash, a Starz original series that was canceled after the death of lead actor Dennis Hopper.

“It’s been really good,” said McLaughlin, who frequently puts in 14- to 16-hour days. “I just got done filming a movie in South Africa with Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds called Safe House.”

McLaughlin also has a role in Warrior with Nick Nolte. The film is set to hit theaters this September, and he’s excited about its prospects. “That’s an award-winning movie,” McLaughlin said. “There should be at least a couple guys getting nominated for that film. I got to see a pre-screening of the film and was blown away at how good it turned out.”

The movie is about an alcoholic former boxer (Nolte) who trains his youngest son (Tom Hardy) for a prestigious mixed-martial-arts tournament in which his elder brother is also competing. McLaughlin plays Hardy’s close military friend.

McLaughlin is currently working with an A-list cast of John Travolta, Salma Hayek, Uma Thurman and Benicio Del Toro on Savages, the Oliver Stone film. The plot, as he described it, is about two friends in California who develop a strain of marijuana that is of the highest quality. Their success gains the attention of a nearby Baja Mexico drug cartel that wants a piece of the action and threatens them with violence and kidnapping. McLaughlin plays a friend of a Navy SEAL throughout the film.

“It’s great because this isn’t a movie where I’m in a single shot and that’s it; my character continually shows up throughout the movie,” he said.

McLaughlin’s experience in Operation Iraqi Freedom helped him earn his big break, and subsequently many of his other roles have been similar in nature. But the actor said he’s planning on diversifying in the future. He also said he values the respect and dignity that comes with wearing a military uniform—even while acting.

“Even though I’m acting in a uniform, I was really there,” he said. “And there are real men who die in the same uniforms, so it’s something you can’t treat lightly.”

McLaughlin makes it homeward to Chico every couple months, especially in the fall when the hunting and fishing seasons are at their best.

“I hate cities but Los Angeles is my favorite city. Ultimately, I’d love to be able to buy a nice plot of land in Chico on a river and become a regular on a TV series and travel to L.A. when I need to.”