Specializing

I’ve been seeing a bunch of tweets and posts lately about Robert A. Heinlein’s 1973 quote from Time Enough for Love that ends, “specialization is for insects.” Actors in particular are loving this quote, because it allows them to be all the various characters and types they want to be, as they pursue acting. It also goes against my oft-repeated philosophy that Hollywood is a town of specialists, and actors need to know — and market to the top buyers of — their specific brands in order to get a shot, here.

I’m going to use this week’s column to beg you not to get too excited about a quote that — taken out of context — gives you permission to be all the colors of the rainbow as an actor, but instead to drill deeper to understand how using your primary brand — your specificity — actually gets you farther faster… and to a place where you absolutely can, eventually, show your range. But it’s knowing, selling, and living your specialty that gets you the shot at showing the world what else you can do.

Okay, so, an insect specializes. Got it. I can visualize a group of ants working tirelessly to bring discarded food, bit by bit, across the yard, up the anthill (built by specialists), down into the belly of the space that is a maze of caves (all created by other ants who specialized in that task). Most actors don’t want to be ants, doing the same task over and over again, in service to the community. I say “most actors,” because some do actually get this and totally know that being paid to do the same boneheaded character between “action” and “cut” for years on a top series is a lovely “insect-like” thing to do.

But for those who want to be everything, play everything, never specialize, I simply ask that you reflect on the careers of the successful actors you love most. They probably specialized ’til they reached a certain point in their careers, at which point they were invited to show the world what else they could do.

Back to visualization: Now it’s not an anthill. It’s a studio lot. And you — and another thousand or so folks — are driving a car (or being driven in a car — yay, you!) onto the lot. You’re a specialist who has been hired to act. The guy being let through the gates ahead of you is the one who’s been hired to do makeup a particular way. The one in the car behind you is a script supervisor whose unique skills are valued. Everyone has a specialty. Yes, you may like to do drama sometimes, but this particular show is a sitcom and you’re being paid very well to come to set and do the “same damn thing” that made the buyers fall in love with you (way back at the preread), over and over and over again. Cash the check. You’re a specialist… all the way to the bank.

And eventually, you’ll be a specialist who gets to show the world other specialties you have. You’ll have so many different specialties that your fans (based on your having done the drudgery of “insect work” all the way up to and then on that first project that got you known as a commodity worth investing in, of course) will follow along and check out your range. Some may love it. Some will want you to stick to your specialty.

Heck, I get the reluctance. I’m writing this while watching the Superbowl and an ad just came on for the next in the Transformers series. Before I even knew what the ad was for, I said, to myself, “Pff. Michael freakin’ Bay.” How did I know it was Michael Bay (or at least, Michael Bay-like) from the first seconds? Well, he’s well branded for his specialty. And it may not be for everyone, but it’s a brand that served him while he was starting out and got him to where he is today. (And if you think about how much it must suck to be so well-branded — AKA pigeonholed — I suggest you consider how often such a specialist can wipe his tears with hundred dollar bills. First-world problem.)

So, when you think about how far you’d like to stretch your range, rage against the Hollywood machine, and try to prove that you can be cast being all things to all people at all times, please consider that the “specialization is for insects” thing is only offensive if your specialty is moving bits of food from the yard to the anthill. If your specialty is getting paid well to show up on set and deliver that thing that you make look effortless, then lucky you! And lucky us, because you shared your gift with us.

Are *you* down with specializing? Comments are open below. Let’s jam!


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/001300.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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