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! 😀


Bonnie Gillespie is living her dreams by helping others figure out how to live theirs. Wanna work with Bon? Start here. Thanks!


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.

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11 Comments

  1. Avatar Monique August 21, 2012 at 1:08 pm

    Hi Bonnie!

    Thank you so much for all the wonderful insights throughout your posts! They’ve been extremely useful both within and outside of the acting arena.

    This posts sparked a memory of a something I learned that I think relates to what your saying.

    I can imagine one of the biggest symptoms of bitter actor syndrome is going to auditions with the mindset of… “I’m not going to get the part anyway”, probably with reasons XYZ tacked on as a statement ending.

    So often people go into situations with assumptions of what’s going to happen already firmly planted in our minds. While most often our guts are right we can forget that no one actually knows what’s going to happen

    Here’s the thing, by fighting the urge to put an ending on something that hasn’t happend yet you can open things up for the imagined impossible to be possible.

    Thanks again for all your insights Bonnie!

    Monique

    Reply
    1. Bonnie Gillespie Bonnie Gillespie August 21, 2012 at 1:38 pm

      Monique, thank you for this great response! I’m so glad you’ve been enjoying these posts and that they’re helpful both inside acting and outside. 😀 I like to think that finding balance in “real life” is a part of success as an artist, so that’s why so much of my writing is about conquering that “bigger picture” stuff that spills over. 🙂

      I love your thoughts about a big symptom of Bitter Actor Syndrome. I think you’re on to something. Certainly, we need to prep ourselves for disappointment so we’re not crushed by it, but something about being results oriented at all really does STOP serving us at some point. I love what you’re saying about “fighting the urge to put an ending on something that hasn’t happened yet.” I think there’s REALLY a lot of power in being “unfinished.” Love it!

      Thanks Monique, and I hope to see you back in Toronto soon! 😀 (I think I’m remembering that correctly, as our point of intersection, yes?)

      Reply
  2. Avatar Monique August 22, 2012 at 7:27 am

    Wow, good memory! Toronto is right 🙂 It would be great to see you back north soon! After getting a taste of SMFA, I’d love to get the whole experience!

    Reply
  3. Avatar Walker Brandt September 6, 2012 at 2:49 pm

    Hello Bonnie,

    I came across this article while perusing a friend’s fb page and wanted to thank you for taking the time to write it. 🙂
    Your article would do well to be on the first and last page of every theatre arts major curriculum text and on the wall of every acting workshop and studio; syllabus on acting, course 1: checking your balance for the performing arts before you start your journey (and a great check up reference while on it). We all need to balance a check book and every actor would benefit from tools to help them recognize the approach of and how to avoid being run down by their inner bitter ball. I think every human has the potential to be affected by bitterness when facing a challenge in life they aren’t prepared for, and often we aren’t fully prepared at any age for what lies ahead when pursuing our artistic passions. The key, as you point out, is remembering challenge, reward, and disappointment are a part of the life of a performer, successful or just starting their journey in pursuing their goals and dreams. A wonderful reminder on how to look at the brighter side of the experiences we have as performing artists and life in general is what you give in this article. After all, our goal as actors is to entertain while addressing life’s experiences as human beings and who wouldn’t have more fun doing that while remembering “Eh, the world’s round. We’ll get there eventually.” 🙂 I love that you shared that gem! I look forward to passing this lovely article onto friends and family.

    All the best to you.

    Walker

    Reply
    1. Bonnie Gillespie Bonnie Gillespie September 6, 2012 at 3:27 pm

      Walker, thank you, darlin’! I so appreciate this feedback and I would *love* to see more and more schools and acting programs, etc., helping actors condition themselves for the MENTAL GAME that they’re entering, as they begin a creative pursuit at the professional level. Thrilled this landed on your radar and I hope you’ll lemmeknow if you have any suggestions for future topics. 😀 “The world is round… we’ll get there…” is the greatest gift that high school bestie gave me, I believe. Here I am 27 years later, still saying it. 😉

      Thanks for stopping by! Still looking forward to working with you at some point!

      Reply
  4. Avatar Sidney Kean January 25, 2013 at 5:16 am

    Hi Bonnie

    What can I say!? Actor bitterness!! Your article I hope, has come around just at the right time, in other words not too late. Bitterness was always the one thing I was afraid of, as being bitter only makes the path much harder and a hell of a lot longer.

    Recently I find I am in the cartegory of looking at others and dwelling, and not looking at them and learning, also not looking at what I have personally acheived over the years.

    I was talking to my wife just this morning about, ‘I wonder why and who could be stopping me’ Her answer was ‘Well you tried everyone else there’s only one person left.’ So thank you for this article, as I say it might just have come around at the right time.

    My Best regards

    Sidney

    Reply
    1. Bonnie Gillespie Bonnie Gillespie January 25, 2013 at 12:01 pm

      Sidney! Thank you for this. I *love* your wife’s words to you this morning. That’s really GOOD and I commend her for the gentle reminder! Absolutely, we have a CHOICE to respond to our lives with grace, with gratitude, with a spirit of wonder for all that *is* working. And always, there are more things going right than wrong… we just sometimes focus on the negative more than we should.

      You hit it with the “looking at others and dwelling” thing. Comparing yourself to anyone else is just toxic, because it’s not anyone else’s journey you’re on. Only your own. I’m hopeful you’re remembering daily to choose NOT to be bitter.

      Brenden, thank you for your post as well. It’s true that bitterness on the part of ANY member of the cast or crew can poison a set. It’s fascinating how powerful the stench of bitterness can be. I *hear you* on the NEED to be in LA and how it can just feel right. I was that way. I too marked a date on a calendar and then spent my every waking moment doing things toward that move, and it was the biggest turn-on, because I knew I was heading HOME. Sure, it has its hard days (no question), but look at where we ARE! I mean, people travel from all over the world just to VISIT this place where we live. No taking that for granted, here. I love that our main focus in this town is creating entertainment for the rest of the planet and I love that at every freakin’ coffee shop, you can hear someone pitching a story or watch someone typing away on their screenplay. The potential is palpable.

      Totally with you on the money thing. I would not be happy making more money at a career that doesn’t thrill my soul. I agree. Rent is paid. Belly is fed. All is right with the world. And when it’s NOT “all right,” it’s more right than wrong, and that’s plenty to be happy about, daily.

      Sorry you didn’t make it out to Thirsty Third Thursday! We’d have loved to welcome you to your new home! Loads of fine folks from the mailing list and SMFA programs worldwide, gathered together singing karaoke (or just watching) and loads of fun, great convos, and collaborations born. Next one’s in May, if you wanna mark your calendar now! 😀

      Reply
  5. Avatar Sidney Kean January 25, 2013 at 5:17 am

    Oh just to say as an add on…….That is one hell of a bitter pill to swallow!!!

    Sidney

    Reply
  6. Avatar Brenden Whitney January 25, 2013 at 9:58 am

    Almost a year ago, an event transpired and I became very bitter over the next, I want to say, 6 months. I didn’t do anything. I wasn’t willing to help others with their projects if they weren’t paying. If they didn’t do something exactly the same way a studio crew did something, or say something, I would let them know “so that they didn’t sound unprofessional”… or some other similar BS reason that I would give.

    I just stopped acting and just started doing crew work… I was blessed to work on some amazing shows, but since I was so bitter, I didn’t get along with my AD’s… so they never brought me back… it was a bad spiral.

    I still did a little bit here and there. Made some moves to keep my career progressing, mostly minor ones. I was signed by the top agency in my local market, an agency I had been trying to get in with for about 5 years… I did a couple of featured roles in commercials, but nothing major… nothing I believe to be, what I should have been doing.

    Then around… September or October, after working a server job for a couple months, I was invited out to LA for the launch of Blood Magazine. I had passed up a ton of opportunities, because they weren’t good enough for me, nothing was going on… so I accepted, made plans to crash on a friends couch and spent a week in LA.

    I had mixed and mingled, had some fun, then had to quickly get back to my home state, for a friends wedding that I was the best man of. On my way back, I wrote down in my calendar, MOVE TO LA on January 7. I felt like I needed to be in LA, for no other reason than it felt right.

    So I worked a few more months, was fired from my server job (didn’t let it phase me)… and arrived in LA on January 8. Ever since I arrived, it’s been like swimming against a strong current.

    Have I been frustrated, sure, but I haven’t dwelled on it. Has it gone according to my wish to the Universe? Not yet. But I continually say thank you and be grateful that I no longer feel stagnant. Everything I do, no matter how small or big, is a step closer to realizing my dream, because I’m in the city that I want to be in, doing what I love to do.

    So a long story, kept long, to get out of Bitterville, you can either leave (literally) or change to an attitude of gratitude (which I believe to be the better choice).

    I would rather be broke and happy, than financially comfortable and miserable, because I’ve been both… as long as I’m furthering my career, the money doesn’t matter… as long as I’ve made enough pay my bills for the month.

    Reply
  7. Pingback: The Most Uncastable Quality – Bonnie Gillespie

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