This week’s column is a follow-up to The Costs of Acting (the new record-holder for my longest column ever) and it will focus on the non-monetary expenses you can expect, in choosing a career as a performing artist. These costs will be emotional, mental, and spiritual in nature, and for some actors, these costs will add up to far more than any true dollar amount spent on pursuing acting in any given year. There are costs to your relationships, to your self-esteem, to your sanity… yet most actors could never choose another career. Despite the fact that the pursuit of acting at a professional level in a major market is one in which the odds will never be in your favor (unless maybe you find your IMDb Star Meter rising to the Top 100 someday), many, many people will give up everything in order to give it a shot.
I would never discourage anyone from living his or her dreams. I am living mine, and I know that I would’ve chosen to do so no matter how many people tried to tell me not to risk so much on a “maybe”. But the thing is, to me that word “maybe” means just that: It MAY BE. Not: It MAY NOT BE. So, right there, there’s a chance! And I’m a glass-half-full kind of gal. So, while this column will absolutely depress some of you (and perhaps be printed out by your family and used against you, when they’re lobbying for you to think it over and choose a safer life), I know for a fact that it will inspire others to make it happen, no matter what the costs. And there are costs. So don’t ever think this career choice will be an easy one. That doesn’t mean it won’t be worth it all… but it sure as heck will challenge your spirit sometimes.
Many actors will tell you that their career choice has had a negative impact on more than a few of their relationships. You start off by moving thousands of miles away from your family and closest friends. Jealous partners can’t handle seeing you in love scenes with other actors (or you fall in love with every new co-star and dump your significant other with each new film). Friends you had back home won’t GET you anymore, since you’ve “gone all Hollywood” or can’t talk about anything “normal” anymore, don’t eat when you go out to restaurants with them, or never even visit without a script in your hand and a cell phone attached to your ear. Actor friends you used to sit around and rant with about the worst parts of the industry will find themselves envious of your success (and it doesn’t even have to be a significant amount of success for this to start happening). And family members will actually take pleasure in your failure, because that’s when you fly home to get your spirit recharged, eat lots of home-cooked meals, and cry in the arms of those who otherwise never get to see you anymore. Man. That stinks!
Obviously, some people are blessed with an abundance of supportive people in their lives. Good for them! But almost everyone I’ve ever encountered in my life has had someone, somewhere in his or her life who — even with the best of intentions — isn’t so very supportive. I was the guest speaker at Industry RSVP last week and said, “There are basically two types of people: Those who live their dreams and those who watch others living their dreams and feel resentment and jealousy over the fact that they can’t do the same.” (Of course, it’s not that they can’t, it’s that they choose not to, but that doesn’t matter when they’re flinging negativity all around you.) Lyn Mason Green — actor and director of Canadian Actor Online — says, “There is no virtue in pessimism. There is no superiority in espousing the negative in every situation so that you can say, ‘I told you so.’ We want to encourage ‘dreamers’ to understand that there IS work involved in achieving their dreams and that, if they are willing to do that work, they certainly CAN do what they dream of doing.”
Regarding the “actor friends you used to rant with” issue, I’d like to suggest that you — early on — develop an understanding of the difference between friends and colleagues. Friends are people who loved you before you decided to try your hand at acting and who would love you if you gave it all up tomorrow. Friends are happy when you succeed and are there for you when you fail. They are also generally very supportive of your attempts. Friends are not so much into results. They are in your life because it’s fun for them to be there. Everything else is just stuff. Even if these friends are actors, they are okay with seeing your career take off when theirs stalls out. How many actor friends do you have about whom could you say the same? Be honest! Count how many of your actor friends could fly off to shoot a feature film with Samuel L. Jackson tomorrow and have you be happy for them without any twinge of jealousy or bitterness about how it “should’ve been you” instead? It’s a pretty small number, right? Right.
MOST of your actor friends — once you are pursuing acting professionally in a major market — are not actually friends. They’re colleagues. These are people for whom you’re generally excited when they’re having career success, but who may very well move on to another tier of professional relationships and leave you behind. Similarly, you may begin to travel in different circles than you used to, simply because your career is advancing faster than some of your colleagues and slower than some of the others. Getting okay with this sort of thing NOW will be a huge help to you, when you wonder where your “friend” went (or get hit with an angry phone call from a “friend” wondering where you went). If you’re really just colleagues, it’s no big deal that you begin to socialize less at certain points in your careers. And about 90% of your actor friends are actually going to be colleagues. That’s just gotta be okay. Showbiz is not about friendship. It’s about professional advancement and relationships that benefit as many people as possible at once. You’re not being “used” by a friend. You’re being bypassed by a colleague who has moved a tier beyond. It’s not personal. And it won’t be when your career spirals up past that guy’s career someday.
I learned this the hard way when I was still pursuing acting. Two of my closest actor friends had — before I’d even met them — taken meetings with a writer and producer who were putting together a spec pilot. The creative team decided these actors were not right for the project and shelved it for a while, but then they eventually dusted off the concept, approached me, and wanted to have me come onboard. I, of course, took the meeting (and I didn’t mention it to my friends because I worried they would get jealous and, until anything was “really happening” there was no reason for them to even know about it. It shouldn’t have mattered. They were already out of the running anyway). Of course, a mutual friend that I had told about the meeting mentioned it to my actor friends, who confronted me, became infuriated, and ended our friendship, calling me a traitor. I cried for weeks. Eventually (after talking with probably my BEST, lifelong actor friend, with whom I’ve shared everything for the past 22 years — she’s Gayle to my Oprah), I began to understand that these were not actually friends. They were colleagues. And, the fact that I felt that I had a relationship with them that could and would transcend my walking through a career door that had been closed to them simply indicated my lack of experience with the friend vs. colleague concept.
Does it turn you into a cold, uncaring shark with no deep friendships to think this way? No! Not at all! What it allows you to do is focus your energy on deep, true friendships that will withstand all manner of career checkerboard jumps, rather than mistaking colleagues for friends (an issue that can hurt you, them, or both of you). The quality of your friendships (and the professionalism of your colleagueships) will improve, once you know which people fall into which category.
Measuring Your Success
As Jenna Fischer — series regular on The Office — said in her excellent blog, “It will be hard to explain your first milestones to friends and family back home. They are waiting to see you on TV or the big screen. It is hard to explain how a second callback for a job you didn’t land was the highlight of your month and a very valid reason to celebrate.”
That’s absolutely true. When you’re looking over the alumni newsletter or the family holiday bulletin, having been on avail for a national commercial suddenly pales in comparison to the valedictorian’s third corporate takeover or your cousin’s new baby taking his first steps. Sitting across from your overachieving sibling at Thanksgiving isn’t so much fun either, when she’s getting praised for having been named partner at the law firm and your biggest news is having finally gotten all of the footage together for your demo reel.
But comparison is usually a dangerous thing. It can cause actors especially to wallow in the “what’s NOT happening” thoughts rather than focusing on career advancements such has having become SAG-eligible, having met with three agents, having gone straight to producers for a one-line co-star. So, I’d urge you to only compare yourself to YOU (a year ago, where you hope to be this time next year) and never compare yourself to others, inside or outside the industry. And if people around you have a hard time understanding what to celebrate about the accomplishments (those little things) in the life of an actor, it’s possible that it’s because you haven’t learned exactly what little things are worth celebrating!
As for perspective on what “counts” (and perhaps, what may help, the next time you’re feeling grilled by those who need more traditional-looking benchmarks to know you’re succeeding), consider this: No one is “given” a callback as a favor. Certainly, there are actors who get “favor” prereads or first meetings, but you won’t even get a callback unless the decision-makers legitimately believe you have a shot at winning the role. Being put on avail or being asked to stand by on hold is a very big deal. Each of these accomplishments is “worth” being very proud of. No, people outside of the industry may not GET that, but it’s okay. Certainly, booking the role is something folks may understand and a concept that others may celebrate with you, but what if you’re fired before the shoot? Cut from the final print? What if you star in a pilot that never airs? In one that gets picked up but from which you are replaced in episode number two?
The point is, you often won’t have the kind of success that people are going to really respond to! When you’re pursuing acting in a major market, it is assumed by everyone in your life that you have the opportunity to “make it” and make it big (like they’ve seen on TV). If you’ve been compared to any famous actor your whole life, your family and friends back home probably watch that actor’s career with great interest, assuming you will have the same measure of success and on the same timeline. Either teach your civilian friends and family from the very beginning that every AUDITION is confirmation that you are a professional actor or — if it’s too late for that — do what many actors do. Stop telling your family and friends that you’ve had significant auditions altogether. It’s hard enough for actors to let go of how badly they want to book certain gigs without those questions along the lines of, “Have you heard yet? Do you think you’ll get it? When will you know?”
Imagine if we were to call our family members who were regularly interviewing for promotions at work or trying to score big clients. “How did that meeting go? Do you think they liked your Power Point presentation? How big will your raise be if you get this promotion?” NEVER would such specific questions be considered appropriate! But because people are fascinated with the public, creative life actors choose to live, they have many questions… and the media assures people that there are NO lines to worry about crossing. All access, all the time! Since keeping a healthy mindset is difficult for even the most balanced artist out there, choosing to play your cards a little close to the vest about projects you’re going for is a pretty good idea, as it’ll contribute to your sanity level.
Fear can block your creativity. But you can’t seem to banish fear from your life, even though it can cost you work. Vicious cycle, eh? Actors (like most creative artists) must find ways to cope with the financial insecurity that comes with any artistic endeavor at the professional level. Sure, there is amazing financial success to be had for those who reach the highest levels in this industry, but there are far more years — even for those who reach A-List status — when paying rent looks iffy. That sort of thing really takes its toll.
Even for actors who have booked work, there is some of the, “I’ll never work again” mantra swimming around. In an excellent Backstage article by Brian Hamilton from earlier this year, he said, “In our constant quest for the next gig, it seems like we’re always proving who we are and re-establishing our qualifications.” The very fact that you continue to audition (even after you’ve proven yourself, won awards, reached the top) puts you in a position to fear for your status. “What if I have an off day? Does that drop my name from the list? What if my agent gets bad feedback about me? Do I get shelved?” All of the confidence-eating Actor Mind Taffy can really work a number on you! And from what I’ve heard — even for actors at the top tier — the fear never goes away. It simply gets dealt with. Some actors deal well (exercise, therapy, meditation, personal retreats, self-produced projects) others don’t (drugs, alcohol, reckless behavior, suicide). Get good at dealing with fear right away. There’s potentially too high a price otherwise.
Let’s get this out of the way: This business is NOT fair. You will be strung along while casting directors attempt to hammer out a deal with their first choice actor, keeping you around in case things fall through. You won’t hear back about an audition you really nailed, even though you’re sure you earned a callback. You’ll make it all the way to the network test for a series regular on a sitcom and learn that you aren’t the one who got cast by reading about the actor who did get the role in the trades the next day. I know it sucks, but it’s just the way it is (until you run Hollywood and make all of the changes you want to see) and it’s not personal. I can’t stress that enough. IT’S NOT PERSONAL!
Back to Jenna Fischer’s blog: “It’s not like other businesses where, if you show up and work above and beyond everyone’s expectations, you are pretty much guaranteed to move up the ladder.” Right. You can be THE BEST at what you do EVERY SINGLE TIME you audition and still NEVER get cast. Know that going in and you’ll save yourself a lot of grief. It’s not about who deserves the part, who did the best work, who has the most credits, or whose life is basically identical to that of the character. Casting is a business decision almost EVERY time. Don’t take business personally. It’ll make you crazy.
Saturday evening, I was watching the 2006 Creative Arts Awards (the non-primetime, non-network part of the Emmy Awards). I noticed something that really started to get under my skin (and I think it’s because I was working on this particular column and was sort of looking for this type of thing). There was very little respect shown for those non-celebrity types that were nominated for awards. Names were mispronounced, announcements of winners were laughed through by many presenters, and the speeches of the non-actors who won awards were cut down to as few as FOUR seconds. Now, I get that there’s a need for heavy editing for an award ceremony that most of the world cares nothing about, but it was the, “Oh well! He (or she… can’t tell *giggle*) couldn’t be here to accept this award, so he or she (or whatever *giggle*) forfeits this award and will never be welcomed at the Academy ever again,” type of comments that floored me. To the folks who are at the TOP of their field, these awards ARE a big deal. And even they get very little respect, while they’re being handed an award.
My point in bringing this up? Look, no matter who you are, you’re not going to be treated like you have great value until you’re famous (at which time, your butt will be kissed like never before). And after that, if you’re suddenly not hot anymore, you’ll be a pariah. And it’s not because you’ve done a dang thing wrong. It’s just the way this fickle, image-obsessed, who-can-help-me-today town is. (And I’d love to say that it’s all Hollywood’s fault, but I have to believe that there are people all over the world buying the tabloids and watching the scandal-filled celebrity news items to credit with teaching Hollywood where to place its collective priorities.)
How to survive this? Find value in yourself, don’t look for self-worth in what others have to say about you, and always take a moment to remember that LIFE is a whole lot more than just this industry and the people in it.
Why We Do It Anyway
At this point, you’re either really pissed off or really charged up. Me too. Yes, both. And part of the way those of us who choose to continue the pursuit of performing arts at the professional level in a major market happen to deal with that conundrum is by letting all of these costs become “reasons to kick ass” at this career.
Artists know that choosing to create is not really a choice. What is a choice is where we pursue it. When actors say, “I didn’t choose this career. It chose me!” but then complain about how hard it is, pursuing acting at the professional level in a major market, I am tempted to say, “Okay, you didn’t choose the path, but you did choose where to walk it.” See, you can be an actor ANYWHERE. Pursuing acting at the professional level in the largest market for entertainment on the planet is a choice. If you find the costs of acting to be too extreme but you have no intention of giving up the craft, that’s cool. Just relocate. There is nothing wrong with being a big fish in a small pond. And, if you think about it, to the fish, it’s all just water anyway.
Others will constantly try to discourage you from pursuing this career. And with good reason. It’s hard. It’s ego-crushing. The odds are terrible that you will ever find any financial success whatsoever. The reason people will discourage you from putting yourself through such things is because they care about you and do not want to see you struggle. It’s not because they don’t want to see you succeed. They’d actually love to see you succeed, and if the odds were better, they may be more likely to tell you to stick with it. Look, earning a living as a writer is almost as difficult as earning a living as an actor. I have a friend who introduces me as, “One of two people I know in the world who earns money writing.” And, of course, I supplement my writing income with casting income (or vice-versa, depending on what kind of year I’m having). And, even though I’ve been a self-sustaining writer for over six years, I still have a family member who, when we talk on the phone, says, “Now Bonnie, when are you going to stop all of this Hollywood foolishness and come home?” And I have friends who work as series regulars whose family members are happy for them, but still wish they would get “real jobs” with benefits and a sense of security.
When it comes right down to it, you have to reach a point at which you decide it’s YOUR life you’re living and not anyone else’s. I did this a few years back (I call it The Age 28 Epiphany, but it can happen at any age for any individual) and that’s when I sold everything I owned on eBay and moved to Hollywood to give it “one more shot” before I woke up 40 years old and wondering whose life I was living, always asking “What if…?” about my choices.
It’s impractical to think that people don’t make life decisions based on their dreams. And I think that’s one of the coolest parts about this whole business. It’s based on a whole lot of dreams — some of which happen to come true. But here’s the question you have to ask yourself, in choosing to go for it at the professional level in a major market: Can you find joy in the pursuit of acting? Would you consider that pursuit to be “living your dream”? If the answer is yes, and — whether you succeed or fail when you go for it — you’re okay, then rock on! Get to it! Take the harsh but realistic information that is out there about the true costs of pursuing this career and — knowing what to expect — go and GO BIG! Why is having the realistic information such an important part to the equation? Because it’s a DREAM, not a DELUSION. And even the most fantastic dreams are based in some foundation of reality. Be realistic, be ambitious, be happy!
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Excited to jam with you!
Originally published by Actors Access at http://more.showfax.com/columns/avoice/archives/000443.html. Please support the many wonderful resources provided by the Breakdown Services family. This posting is the author’s personal archive.