Last week’s column on Casting the Actor vs. Casting the Character seems to have struck a chord with a lot of readers. I’m so glad! In keeping with that whole theme of what actors bring into the room that could potentially prevent them from being cast (even if they are the most talented actors), let’s look at bitterness and why it is career poison.
I’ve mentioned Bitter Actor Syndrome a few times in the past couple of years, but I don’t know that I’ve ever actually gotten terribly specific about what it is and how it can impact your ability to get cast and, perhaps more importantly, your career longevity.
One of the comments I made a few weeks ago at a panel discussion I moderated was that your energy walks into the room before you do. This is not new information, of course. Most people who observe social interaction at various levels can tell you about “vibes” that enter spaces before an encounter between two parties. Call it an aura, a mood, energy, whatever. It’s fascinating to observe the shifts in tone the room takes in an average day of casting sessions, as actor after actor comes and goes. If your energy is toxic, we’re going to feel that and possibly get defensive toward you before you even begin your audition. We may not know why, but we’ll say later, “He just rubbed me the wrong way.” Because this sort of thing can be one of those obstacles that stands between you and the role — and it’s an obstacle you control — let’s look at how Bitter Actor Syndrome begins and how to prevent it.
How Actors Become Bitter
People in general become bitter when they believe the world owes them something they’re not getting. Someone who has “done everything right” and still “gets nowhere” risks becoming bitter, simply due to the fact that he or she has that perception. A little myth-busting: There is no “doing everything right.” Not in this business (and not in life, really). Everyone has his or her own path and every actor will share a different story about the road and its obstacles, even if the destination each actor reached was the same. There is also no “getting nowhere.” Even if you stand still, you have made some progress just by attempting a career in this industry. People who do not value the very fact that they made an effort at something that is very difficult tend to become bitter quickly.
Most bitter actors do things like compare themselves to others of their age, of their type, of their look, from their hometown, who they see in audition waiting rooms, who they see accepting Oscars. Of course, non-bitter actors will do a little comparing too, but they don’t obsess on comparisons. They observe them. When you find yourself overly concerned with how someone else is doing, ask yourself if you are obsessing or observing. If you can’t tell, here’s a tip: Observation is fleeting and judgment-free. Obsession sticks around a long while and packs loads of judgments. Absolutely, a little competition can be a good thing! You can find yourself extra-driven by seeing something that your peer is doing very well and then challenging yourself to reach that tier of accomplishment too. That’s not what I’m talking about here. I’m talking about those hours of non-productive mind-taffy thoughts that do not lead you to work harder but instead lead you to the bottom of a pint of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.
Actors who focus on the process of getting cast rather than on the performances they deliver tend to “go bitter” over time. Look, the process of getting cast is crazymaking and always will be. Absolutely, you need to stay mindful of the business and its many rules, non-rules, idiosyncrasies, and nonsensical jolts, but what you control is your performance… and none of that other stuff. When you find yourself fixated on gluesticks vs. staples or color vs. B&W or scene study vs. audition technique class, you are tempting fate as far as bitterness goes. Shift your energy over to working on a character, dusting off a monologue, getting better at a special skill, writing up a scene to do in class, or transcribing a classic bit of dialogue from a favorite movie. Find a way to use that energy to get inspired and out of your head about the process. There are infinite potential factors involved in your getting an invitation into any audition room, almost none of which you control. Bitter actors spend a lot of time focused on those issues. Non-bitter actors work on their craft and keep a healthy perspective on the rest of the process.
How to Avoid Bitter Actor Syndrome
In addition to the tips woven within the above paragraphs, I would recommend that actors live a full life that extends beyond acting, beyond showbiz, beyond Hollywood. A little perspective can go a long way. Back when I was acting, I made it a point to take regularly-scheduled breaks from “actor brain” so that I could stay balanced, personally, and be a more interesting actor due to the breadth of my experiences.
If you are in a major drought for callbacks and bookings, consider changing up your training. It may be time for a new instructor, a new type of class altogether. Rather than getting upset that the numbers are starting to look really dismal for your audition-to-booking ratio, find a way to bring something new to your abilities. Go get in a play that no one will ever see at a hole-in-the-wall theatre. Do open mic night at a stand-up comedy club. Sing karaoke and scare yourself silly over how well you can belt out some classic rock. Use the energy that is building up inside you over all that’s wrong in your career to propel yourself in another direction. You may surprise yourself with some significant shifts of perception that not only prevent bitterness but improve your booking ratio!
Consider taking a break for a while. It’s not a bad idea sometimes to just leave the business and get recharged personally before giving it another go. I did that when I went to grad school and I think it’s part of the reason I’m successful “this time out” in Hollywood. Because this industry is very open to people stopping or starting at any age, at any time, it’s not the end of the world if you decide you need a year or two “off” to get your head together and either recommit to the ‘biz or choose another type of life. Oh, and a “break” can be as short as a long weekend. I know actors who hang up the “Gone Fishin'” sign and head out of town every few months, just to recharge and get perspective. This is a great way to stave off the Bitterville Welcome Wagon.
What if I’m already bitter?
Uh-oh. That’s a little more complicated. A director friend of mine is convinced that Bitter Actor Syndrome is an irreversible condition. In his opinion, what happens is that bitter actors find a way to behave non-bitter in energy, but that as soon as one little thing goes wrong in their careers, they’re right back to being bitter, grousing about the fact that the world is out to get them, convinced that all of the stuff that “went right” prior to this particular conspiracy coming to fruition was just a fluke. He mentioned that even very successful actors will come crashing back down to Bitterville if they have Bitter Actor Syndrome. He asserted that, like alcoholism, Bitter Actor Syndrome is a disease that can only be managed, never cured.
I’m not sure that I agree, entirely, but when I tried to think of actors I know who have been bitter and who have then gone on to become “not bitter,” I was at a loss for examples. I could think of quite a few actors I’ve met who have succumbed deeply to Bitter Actor Syndrome. Most of them have left Los Angeles, changed careers, or have decided to “show the world” by creating their own vehicle that will surely make us all sorry for our lack of faith in their abilities, back when we rejected them. Still waiting…. Note: Doers usually get to DOING way before anyone even has a chance to reject them. Those who talk about DOING after they’ve gone bitter… well… they get a lot of talking done, I’ve noticed.
So, maybe my director friend is right. I’m not sure. Any of you out there reading who have once been bitter and who have found a way to manage or cure that bitterness, I’d love to hear from you on how you did it and how often you feel tempted to “go bitter” again, when things don’t go well.
Why We Don’t Want to Work with Bitter Actors
The reason we don’t want to work with bitter actors is the same as the reason we don’t want to deal with bitter DMV representatives or bitter tellers at the bank. Bitter people are NOT FUN to spend time with. And when we have so very many options regarding who we chose to spend time with (such as in the event of casting a role for which thousands of actors have submitted), we will almost always choose the equally-talented actor with the better energy. It’s just human nature for us to want to get along with those we choose to spend time with.
In closing, I’ll recommend that you approach this issue like heavy traffic. Y’know those moments when you want to rage against the idiot driving slowly in front of you or slow way down to control the maniac racing through traffic and coming up behind you way too fast? Well, road rage exists for a reason: People get really intense about things they have no control over. And since there is only ONE driver you control in the worst traffic conditions (that’d be you), it is far healthier to find a way to be at peace with the insanity that is LA traffic. Load up your iPod with amazing music and buy an adapter that allows you to play its contents through your car stereo. Give yourself plenty of time to get anywhere and always take “work” or “fun stuff” with you in case you arrive way early and have time to kill.
I’ve written many articles for this column by having been a bit early to a speaking engagement or casting session. Yay, me! That’s one less thing to do that weekend, right? And the coolest part about it — since my energy enters the room before I do — is that I never rush in complaining, “Oy, these insane LA drivers! They’re making me crazy!” Why would I want those kind of statements to set the tone for the way I will be perceived by producers who have hired me to do casting sessions for the day? Instead, I come in relaxed and with a great feeling of accomplishment for having been early and having written the next week’s column. They mention how pleased they are to work with me because there’s never any drama about it. And then, sure enough, people with Bitter Actor Syndrome who enter the room are either softened by the overwhelming positivity or they stick out like a sore thumb (something that does not tend to please the filmmaker looking to assemble a team).
I had a friend in high school who once commented on bad traffic, bad directions, and getting lost by saying, “Eh, the world’s round. We’ll get there eventually.” I not only picked that up from her but I still say it to this day when a fellow traveler wants to get intense about the journey. Same thing applies to casting for you: “Eh, the world needs actors. I’ll get cast eventually.” Relax and enjoy the ride.
So, how do YOU avoid Bitter Actor Syndrome? If you’ve flirted with traveling to Bitterville, how did you come back from it so that you could share your gifts with the world while enjoying the journey? Let’s talk about it! I’m excited to hear from you, below! 😀
Need FREE training to keep your head in the game so you stay out ahead of any bitterness before it takes hold? I’ve gotchoo! 🙂
Originally published by Actors Access at http://more.showfax.com/columns/avoice/archives/000415.html. Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.