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The Real Deal Los Angeles

Still ready for their closeup: How these once-aspiring actors became broker stars

Bit roles in "Melrose Place," "Heat" and "Never Been Kissed" helped pave their new careers
By Natalie Hoberman | September 06, 2018 12:30PM

From left: Steve Lewis, Beth Styne, Jay Luchs, Branden Williams with James Franco and Jessica Alba (Credit: iStock)

It’s clear in the mannerisms. It shows in the pretty face. It shines in the hair. And most of all, it flashes in the ego.

In Los Angeles, real estate agents and executives often seem as glamorous and sensational as movie and television stars. That’s because some of them were actors — or, at least, tried to be.

“Most realtors are out-of-work actors,” said Beth Styne, a regional executive at Coldwell Banker and a former actress.

Before they became brokers and executives in both residential and commercial real estate, a group of four real estate pros harbored dreams of acting, producing and managing in Hollywood. And though those dreams might have deviated, the skills and techniques learned in those years ultimately shaped their careers in real estate.

Steve Lewis, now an owner of his own residential brokerage, said he learned invaluable people skills during his years of acting and bartending. Acting “drags you into the light,” he said.

“As a salesperson or branch manager, you’re continually working on scripts and dialogues,” said Styne, who claims to have a similar “dialogue” whether selling a condo or a $50 million house. “The better you are able to deliver,” the more “you make those lines your own,” she said.

Branden Williams

Among the most prominent actor-turned-brokers in town is Branden Williams, the husband in the husband-and-wife powerhouse duo Williams & Williams. Along with his wife Rayni, the duo has listed a $250 million plot of undeveloped land, and a $188 million spec home in Bel Air.

But before he achieved that broker-to-the-stars status within Hilton & Hyland, Williams was on the road to becoming an acting star.

Born in Beverly Hills, Williams grew up with Hollywood, taking classes alongside Angelina Jolie and Tobey Maguire at Beverly Hills High School. A casting director first scouted him at a movie theater where he was hanging with some friends on a night off from busing tables at the Ivy.

Branden Williams with James Franco

He went on to act in several 1990s classics, such as “Never Been Kissed,” starring Drew Barrymore, Jessica Alba and James Franco. He also came close to landing Seth Green’s role in “Can’t Hardly Wait,” another teen film featuring Jennifer Love Hewitt. He eventually got a smaller part in the flick.

“I played a lot of cool guys’ friends,” said Williams, who admits to “never being a Thespian” nor to attending drama school.

But at 30, he knew his “time was up.” After a potential gig with a Warner Bros. sitcom went awry, Williams transitioned to selling homes in 2004 at the height of the real estate market.

Williams said he liked the potential money in acting and “surrounding yourself on cool sets with cool people,” but decided that if he were to go back into show business, he’d want to be a producer or director.

Williams eventually did get back on a set, playing himself, the real estate agent, on HBO’s hit show “Entourage” after showing properties to its creator Doug Ellin.

Beth Styne

With a Broadway composer for a grandfather, Beth Styne grew up living and breathing the acting world.

A former child star, she secured her first role at age of nine in a play in a small regional theater in New York City. She also sang in a country-rock band in her early 20s.

At age 22, she got her real estate license, but only after her late mother, also a real estate executive, pushed her to.

“I was all about the arts,” Styne said. “I was selling real estate to support my acting habit.”

Styne was selling about six homes a month while she produced and starred in the “Pinter Projects,” a series of plays from prominent playwright Harold Pinter. But when her real estate firm made her a manager in 2002 she became concerned that her dual life would not project the right image to real estate clients. So she dropped her acting hustle.

Today, as vice president and COO of Coldwell Banker’s Greater L.A. division, Styne oversees the sales of some of L.A.’s most significant homes, such as La Belvedere mansion in Bel Air, which recently sold for $56 million.

“As a realtor, you can still act, play gigs and be a musician,” Styne said. “But once you get into management, it’s just not possible.”

Styne still finds ways to incorporate aspects of her previous life into her current career. In client meetings or listing presentations, she’ll draw from an old acting technique known as “mirroring,” where actors are taught to mirror someone’s behavior — such as tone of voice and non-verbal movements — as a way to improve communication.

Jay Luchs

Jay Luchs moved to L.A. from Virginia in 1995 to be an extra on “Melrose Place.”

“I was watching it with a bunch of my roommates and saw Central Casting at the end during the credits,” Luchs said. “I called and asked if I could be an extra on it. Then I got a check for $31.”

Luchs, who grew up in a real estate family, first attempted a career in entertainment, even flirting with the talent agency and management side of the business.

His most prominent gigs were a non-speaking role as a reporter in “Batman & Robin,” the 1997 film starring George Clooney, and an extra role in “Heat,” with Robert De Niro and Al Pacino.

“From that point on, I got a bit of the bug,” Luchs said. “But that was my past life. It gave me a good run for a year-and-a-half.”

After a brief stint in the mail room at Endeavor Talent Agency, now William Morris Endeavor, Luchs took a job in the investment sales group at the Insignia/Edward S. Gordon firm. Soon after, he landed a 20,000-square-foot listing for a Tommy Hilfiger store on Rodeo Drive — the start of his career in retail real estate.

Luch is now a vice chairman at Newmark Knight Frank, and one of the top retail brokers in L.A.

Steve Lewis

Steve Lewis was down to $6 in the bank when he realized he would need another job to support his acting pursuits.

So he took a bartending gig at in Encino as a way to fund his acting classes, where he eventually met a woman named Nicole Laulua, who worked in real estate.

“She drove a Mercedes and I thought she had a nice house in the Hollywood Hills,” Lewis said. “I thought, ‘Wow, this real estate thing is interesting.”

Before getting his real estate license in 1985, Lewis, a New York City transplant, had landed small walk-on parts and even the role of a gangster in the 1980 film “Gloria,” though his part eventually was cut out. He even formed his own production company with actor James Van Patten with the hopes of selling it, yet no one was interested. 

“Slowly but surely the acting thing was just falling by the wayside,” Lewis said. “I realized this was just not going to happen.”

He eventually joined Jack Hupp and Associates, a Westside-based real estate firm, while still bartending on the side. Within two weeks of getting his license, Lewis sold a $5 million house on Doheny Road to the late Merv Griffin, a television host who would eventually become his business partner.

Two years later, he represented Griffin when he purchased a 157-acre plot near Beverly Hills for $5 million. Now called “The Mountain,” the land is currently on sale with a different broker for a record $1 billion. 

“When I sold him the Mountaintop, he asked me if I was still bartending,” said Lewis, who now runs CORE Real Estate Group. Griffin told Lewis to lose the bartending gig, saying, “it doesn’t look good if my agent is a bartender.”