01.31.10

The Reality Behind Up in the Air

Six men and women who played real-life recession victims in the hit film talk to Nicole LaPorte about unemployment, the catharsis of telling their stories onscreen, and new directions.

If the individuals who are told they're being laid-off in Jason Reitman's film Up in the Air look genuinely devastated, that's because they're not acting. Rather than cast actors for those scenes, Reitman instead cast real people who had recently lost their jobs.

To find them, he placed ads in local newspapers in two cities that were hit hard by the Great Recession: Detroit and St. Louis. During auditions, people were asked what it was like to lose their job in a horrible economy, and to reenact their response to being fired, or, if they preferred, to act out how they wished they had reacted.

A year after filming Up in the Air—which stars George Clooney as a corporate suit whose job is to fly all over the country firing people—The Daily Beast caught up with six of the individuals to talk about their last several months. Here are their candid, heart-rending, and, in some cases, redemptive, tales:

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Cozy Bailey
Lives in: St. Louis
Previous job: Production at a leading chemical company
Current status: Unemployed for nine months but plans to launch her own landscaping business in the spring.

I'd only been in my job for a year and a half. I thought it was a solid job, that's why I took it. It was with one of the world's leading chemical companies.

After being fired, I spent so much time job-hunting. I probably put out 300 applications. I've got 15 years industry experience, that's all I knew. Pretty quickly, I got really beaten down. Why in the world would I find a job when there are so many people out of work? They can pick who they want down to their eye color.

I was job-searching like crazy, looking on the Internet, when I ran across an itty, bitty, tiny ad and I thought, ‘Why not?' The ad said, basically—it was for a documentary—it said, just send in a photo of yourself and a brief description of how you lost your job—that was about all. Then it sent you to a Web site. It was just a whim. When they called back, I couldn't believe it. The first audition was just, like, 10 seconds, just being in front of the camera. I guess they sent that to the producers, who picked who would come in.

[The next "audition" was actually used as footage in the film and involved participants re-enacting being fired.]

I broke down before we even got started, because it was the same setting [as my actual firing]. After it originally happened, I had a pity party for myself that night, but after that, I put it all out of my head. [The day of the filming] I lost it, cried. I had to pull myself together before we could even start being fired.

Afterward, I realized that something had got to change. I got the opportunity to get my hands dirty with a friend who's a landscaper. I've always loved gardening, keeping plants alive. I can't stand to see plants tossed. I would never have done this, had I not lost my job. You're too scared to quit what you know to go in a new direction, but after doing landscaping, it's what I want to lean toward.

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Arthur "Art" Hill
Lives in: Detroit
Previous job: Worked on the inspection line at Chrysler
Current status: Unemployed since 2005.

I had 30 years with the company. It was an auto company, Chrysler, in Detroit. And they basically were trying to put pressure on me to retire or quit or whatever—just leave. They were in the process of downsizing. But I wasn't ready to go. I had bills to pay. I was trying to get out of debt. I had charge cards. So they applied more pressure and…they kind of railroaded me and made up some kinds of charges against me, and softly fired me.

It's as if [Chrysler] didn't care. I became a number. And the people whom I trusted, it just turned out to be like they could care less. It was a numbers game. And that was devastating to me, because I thought I had security. But all along it was a false sense of security. If you work someplace for 30 years, you would think that someone would listen to you and be loyal to you.

I had just bought a house, and I started freaking out because I didn't know what I was going to do. I had to put a second mortgage on the house, my credit cards were through the roof. I was starting to think: Am I going to be the next person to walk in a soup line? You think about these things. You're devastated. When you lose your job, you lose your life.

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I have a wife and two kids. I started looking for work. I exhausted all my savings, I even went into what I had in my 401K. I had to pay all kinds of penalties, but I didn't have a choice. Needless to say, it's a day-to-day struggle to make ends meet and try to find a job. At my age, I'm over 50, I can't really start digging ditches.

To add insult to injury, I have found there are so many scams out there, saying that if you pay $150, they will get you a mail carrier job or give you a job in a post office or give you an electrician's test. So I have, through desperation, borrowed $150 to send to a company, and then come to find out it was a fraud, and lost the $150. That kind of knocked me back. People are hurting, but there are still others taking advantage.

I thank God for the little I've got, but at the same time, it's not adequate. It's enough to keep bread on the table, and a can of soup, but that's it.

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Marlene Gorkiewicz
Lives in: Detroit
Previous job: Worked in HR for an airline company
Current status: Unemployed for 10 months.

I was in my 27th year at the company. I started in HR in 1997. What happened was, I was handed a letter saying that my post was being eliminated. We were merging with another airline, so a lot of what I did was going to be outsourced. I kind of knew it was coming, I felt it ahead of time. You just hear certain things and think: This isn't going to be very good. I got my letter and, I think you just go through the motions is what you do. You're kind of nodding your head, saying, ‘OK' You're very numb and going through the motions. Airline people, we're really resilient. We're used to pay cuts and everything, but not necessarily being let go like that. So I was very shocked.

I feel as I'm getting older, I'm going backward instead of forward. I have to start all over again—with health benefits, vacation, sick days. It's still difficult to get over. I know people do. And I'm going to be one of them and start over somewhere. It's just going to take some time.

I was filmed [for Up in the Air] a week before my job was ending. I was working, just knowing when my last day was. So it was really fresh for me. It was painful because I knew a week later, that that was it. You kind of have to process it, but I still miss it. I miss everything about the airport. When I walked out of my office, I looked down and saw baggage claim. So I can definitely relate to a lot of things in [ Up in the Air].

I do not plan on going back to the airlines. I really stuck it out for so many years, so many pay-cuts. I can't go back to that environment. I loved working for an airline. I loved the flight benefits, I love travel, but as far as going back to it, it's pretty much cyclical. You go for a while, then you get a pay-cut. It's just a way of life at the airlines. I really don't believe I will be pursuing a career there again.

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Kevin Pilla
Lives in: St. Louis
Previous job: Director of engineering and design at an electronics company
Current status: Landed an entry-level job at National Medical Billing Services after 18 months of unemployment.

I have two degrees, one in business, one in IT. I was the director of engineering and design at an electronics company, a sales engineer, for 11 years. When I was fired, I was flown to Chicago, where the company is based. I was actually under the impression that I was going there to a new company car and a bonus. It was me and three other people. Much to our surprise, when we got there, things changed. We were told that because of the economy, there were not enough positions available at our level. They offered a compensation package, but when you have four kids… Basically, the compensation package was six months' worth of severance. I was dumbfounded. I was blindsided. I made a decision as I was sitting in the airport waiting for my flight: I can sit around and wallow in my misery, or get up and do something. Much to my surprise, I chose to sit around, and crash and burn.

I was unemployed for 18 months. I looked for jobs, but there were no positions. We racked up some serious debt. We had a little over 10 months saved up in savings. We wiped all that out. It became very bleak. We stuck it out, but we're still here, still fighting. Our debt was up to a little over $38,000. That was just credit cards.

The worst part about it was the frustration I felt in not being able to find a job. You spend so much time educating yourself, and making yourself marketable. But life doesn't work that way—some things are meant to not happen.

It was especially hard to tell my wife. She's very much a warrior. She is probably the stronghold of our family, and to have to tell her something like that… You feel like you let yourself down, let alone when you have to tell your loved ones.

I had done some IT consulting, and they had a spot at a company called National Medical Billing Services. I got a job in accounts receivable. So I used my business background and was blessed, they gave me a position that was pretty much entry-level. It actually kind of felt good, to be given a chance to do something different. It obviously never feels good to start over from scratch. I was just happy to be doing something again in the professional field, instead of labor work. It's been a really, really good position.

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Andy Glandtzman
Lives in: Grand Rapids
Previous job: Business manager for a luxury automobile dealership
Current status: Found work as a parent relations manager for a charter schools company after four  months of unemployment. He had to relocate his family from Detroit to Grand Rapids.

I worked in automotive retail. Basically, what happened to me was pretty common. What happened with auto retail, especially in Detroit, toward the end of 2008, it went downhill fast. In the beginning of 2009, the owner of the dealership said he was going to get ahead of cutting expenses, so my entire department was eliminated in early February. Seven of us lost jobs that day.

At the time of filming [ Up in the Air], this was all pretty fresh in my mind, so it was kind of therapeutic, because I was able to clear up a lot of things. I was able to say things I didn't have the opportunity to say at the time we were let go. [At the shoot], myself and the other people from the Detroit area, we were all kind of in the room taking turns, trading stories about how long we'd been out of work, how we lost our jobs. It really felt like a kind of therapy.

We were asked to relive our stories. They asked if there was something we would say now that we didn't get an opportunity to say at the time. What I said was the clip they used of me in the film. I said something like, "I'm not sure how you can live with yourself, but I'm sure you'll find a way while the rest of us are suffering."

After being fired, it was kind of a regrouping time. I got together with my wife and two teenage sons, and we had a realistic discussion of what was next. We lived in the Detroit area, which had one of the largest statistics of people unemployed. At the time I lost my job, the unemployment rate was 8.9 percent and it was continuing to skyrocket. To be realistic, we discussed that relocation was going to be something that would have to happen.

I got the job in early June after being out of work for four months. It's not in the auto industry, that was too risky. I work for the National Heritage Academies. What we do is we manage charter schools across the country. I'm the parent relations manager, the customer service manager for relations between schools and parents. It's so rewarding to me, especially coming out of retail and coming into something like this.

My family had to [relocate] in stages. We immediately put our house on the market and began looking for another house. I made an arrangement to live in temporary housing, I lived apart from my family for seven weeks. We carried two mortgages for five months, until we were able to sell our old house.

We're now finally at the point where we can begin to really start living again. We bought a nice house, but we haven't been able to do anything to it; to try to make it a home, as opposed to a house. We're starting to live our lives again.

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Erin (Welsh) Krengel
Lives in: Detroit
Previous job: Worked for an advertising company, whose main client was GM
Current status: Unemployed for six months before returning to her previous job as a research assistant in an animal research lab.

I was working at a local Detroit advertising agency. I was working on a national brand account, and my position was eliminated. It was one of the brands that GM ended up cutting. I had been in the position about 14 months. It was a career change. When people talk about getting laid off and how it's an opportunity to reinvent yourself—that was already my opportunity. I went to school and got my degree in zoology. I was working in a medical research lab at a university (before I switched to advertising).

It was a shock. I've never been fired from a job before. We knew there were going to be some lay-offs coming, but I just didn't think it was going to be me. When I got the call to come down to HR, I was terrified. I almost didn't want to answer the phone. I've never been through that before. I tried not to cry. I tried not to take it personally. But it's hard to not take it personally if you're still a person and someone's telling you ‘We don't want you right now.'

It was also extremely scary, because the economy in Detroit—my husband is in advertising, and nobody's job was safe at the time. Within four months, he lost his job. He lost it the day before I did [the Up in the Air] filming. I have a feeling my audition tape was more genuine than I really wanted it to be.

I tried to do some pro-active saving. I had some money in savings. My priority was to make sure our most important bills were paid, that everything was up to date, that we paid our mortgage. The basics: the cell phones, the cable. We don't live extravagantly. I don't have a latte-a-day-at-Starbucks habit. The things that most people cut out, I didn't have that to cut out.

In February, I was fortunate enough to go to a meeting with some of my old co-workers from my previous job at the university. They were looking to hire a new technician. I was lucky that I had a previous career, that I had a skill set I could fall back on.

Currently, that's where I am. But in the meantime, it took my husband, who has more years of experience in advertising, more time to find a position. He was laid off in February. He went back to work in July. He was actually looking for work out of state, because so few jobs were available in Michigan. So he's living and working in Chicago. I don't know how long-term that will be.

I've never really had to be away from him before. I've always felt I was a very independent person. I always took care of myself. But now, having him away, it's different. Not that you take that person for granted, but you value them even more when they're not there. That old adage, ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder'—it's real.

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Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.