Out of the recession and into a dream come true

Angela McNamee dream of pursuing an acting career out of the recession is paying off.
Source: Angela McNamee
Angela McNamee dream of pursuing an acting career out of the recession is paying off.

I first met Angela McNamee four years ago while doing a story about California's newly unemployed pursuing their acting dreams.

I "discovered" her at the legendary Central Casting offices, where applications to appear in TV shows, movies, and commercials, were up 10 to 15 percent as the jobless rate barreled into the double digits. McNamee had just lost her secretarial position at an engineering firm.

"I'm going to be the next Lara Croft, on the browner side," she said with a laugh.

Why become an actress in the middle of a recession? "I always wanted to, but just didn't have the gumption to try until now," McNamee said.

You can see the story from June 2009 here.

Fast-forward four years. Did her plan work out, or did Hollywood become her land of broken dreams?

(Read more: 5% recovery: Most are still in recession)

"I'm now a card-carrying member of the Screen Actors Guild!" McNamee wrote me recently. Using the stage name La Nell Cooper, McNamee says she's made enough money as a so-called background actress to provide her with a decent living.

"I have to say, for someone without an agent and solely booking my own jobs, I've been part of some amazing opportunities," she said. "For every door that closes, another opportunity opens up."

The most amazing experience so far, she says, was landing a role as an extra for "Star Trek Into Darkness." McNamee got a promotion purely by accident.

"I filled in for a girl who apparently didn't handle the prosthetic makeup and contact lenses very well," she said, "so they upgraded my background spot to ... alien! It was awesome."

She spent an entire day in makeup. "You wouldn't even know it was me." The best part was "getting to meet J.J. Abrams and having HIM thank ME for taking the job."

Other gigs have included two days working on "World War Z" ("You can see me twice in the very end during Brad Pitt's voice-over. ... Pretty cool"), a PSA for a local bank and some modeling jobs. To land work for companies that take stock photos, she cut off her braids—"I've gotten so much more work from having done so."

(Read more: Ditch your job and brew some beer, this guy did)

Not everything has worked out as hoped. Auditions that McNamee thought she nailed did not always result in callbacks. "That's really hard to push through, but you do it because it's all you know, and it's all you want."

She's also finding it hard to find an agent without a reel that includes speaking parts.

But nothing compares to the personal heartbreak. McNamee lost her oldest son two years ago, but she said his military benefits have allowed her to put aside savings for retirement and college for his two younger siblings.

"I'm working as hard as I am so that his life wasn't lost in vain, and he can be proud that his mother went on to live her dream and help his brother and sister live theirs as well."

Meantime, the show must go on. Does Angela McNamee miss the steady employment working in an office? Not for a minute. "Acting is much easier," she jokes. "It's my dream since I was a little girl watching the Oscars with my mom, so of course I am going to have a bias toward the entertainment industry as being easier."

—By CNBC's Jane Wells; Follow her on Twitter: @janewells