WHAT KINDS OF PEOPLE WANT TO BE ACTORS?
Lunatics, manic depressives, people with too much ego, people with too little ego. People with so much talent it’s scary. People with so little talent it’s scary. And just about everyone else in between. The ideal acting candidate carries the following in his DNA: ear, energy, intelligence, imagination, and intuition; the ideal acting candidate somewhere develops the following character traits: determination, drive, refusal to be beaten, resilience, pride, awareness of self and others. Wed those two lists of requirements and you have a potential actor–or saint!
So you have all those characteristics! Great. Now for a couple of comments:
Actors fib. Maybe it is a requirement. But fib they do. I have asked several actors why they want to act. Mostly they fib but here are some of their more truthful replies, followed by my own observations.
1. “I thought it would be fun.”
FUN? Let’s see. Work 9-5, beg to come in late so you can sign up for an open call. Or instead, get up at six AM and stand in a line outside the Equity building in every kind of weather. I remember waiting outside for two hours in 13 degree temperature for an open call for appropriately “The Grapes of Wrath.” That was life imitating at least the title of the play!
FUN? Tech and dress that goes on until one AM. A long subway trip home. Up at seven to be to work at nine. Get off work whenever. In the theatre at seven. Curtain at eight. Hours and hours and hours of rehearsal. There are ten people in the opening night audience.
FUN? Four months of open calls nearly every day and not one callback. The air is laden and leaden with depression, rejection, doubt, loneliness. Suddenly a small house and family in Nebraska sound like Eden.
FUN? After an audition, being told by the director you are better than the “star name” they cast, but golly gee you know the business! Gotta fill those seats! Subtext: You’re a nobody. “How dreary to be somebody! How public, like a frog.” This is small example of why I push for actors to read poetry. No actor sums up being a nobody better than Emily Dickinson.
FUN? You have the female lead in a 35 minute short film, opposite a huge name actor who won’t even speak to you because you are not also a “name.” [“I’m nobody! Who are you? Are you nobody, too?”] In fact he won’t even sit next to you in a bar scene. Me? Once that Northern Irish temper set in (controlled of course!) I was OK. Till then, I felt like Dickinson’s frog TAKE TWO.
FUN? Five years later you still have the scar on your arm from the nail some indifferent carpenter failed to hammer in properly and you, rushing off stage, slashed your arm on it. The wardrobe mistress blasts loose language not even heard even in triple XXX rated because you got blood on the costume. Excuse me!
FUN? You’re doing Shakespeare behind the NY Public Library. The woman whom you have a scene with in three minutes tears her ankle and you have to improvise both sides of the dialogue because the plot depends on this scene, all the while you keep the verbal balls in the air in dazzling iambic pentameter. When it’s over you grab the Xanax or go into cardiac arrest.
Endless examples. If you’re in it for “fun,” go dance on the rim of Etna or Vesuvius, or any other volcano, while its sizzling. Now that’s fun!
Reason # 2 which actors give for becoming become actors:
“I thought I’d give it a try.”
Me: Don’t bother. Fire swallowing is an easier occupation. Try it.
3. And yet another reason for becoming an actor:
“I was in a play in high school. It was a good memory.”
Me: Don’t ruin a perfectly lovely memory.
4. Reason (Usually at the bottom of very few lists, if there at all!)
“I just have to. It’s like breathing. It’s something I have to do.”
Me:Oh dear, hope he’s talented. His answer is impeccable.
With the possible exception of the “just have to” response, it is my own opinion that 15 minutes in the sun is what lures people into acting. You want sun? Go to Phoenix.
However, it is that same drive for recognition and praise that draws us all, regardless of how noble our professed protestations for wanting to act. The person who lacks that drive for recognition and praise won’t work his tail off trying to get auditions and trying to get roles.
Anyone who doesn’t want recognition is fibbing. Any actor who says he pays no attention to reviews or recognition has a daddy who’s a director, a studio nabob, a producer. If you are just acting for yourself (“I don’t care what people think just so long as I am pleased with what I did.”), then you don’t need an audience and it’s less draining to play charades on Friday evening with friends and neighbors.
So my bravos to those who truthfully say, “Yeah, I’m all for fame and glory. I want recognition. I want to be famous.” Then let the drive for fame also be the drive that gets you auditions and bowls over the directors and producers. But also love acting, and honor the profession, and want to be the best actor you can be.
Acting, every word and every eyebrow twitch, is a challenge. Let the challenge be a reason to become an actor. Because acting, especially on stage, is one of the toughest jobs in all of the arts. Challenge doesn’t begin to describe what it means to make an audience forget you and mix you up with character you are playing.
I remember once auditioning with the Duchess of York’s monologue as she curses her despicable son, Richard III. Although the director later cast me, her response to my monologue was, “I wouldn’t want to cross you!” That was not me. Those words were Shakespeare’s. Not mine. The challenge was to make The Duchess sound real -real with variety and energy. The director’s comment was not intended as a compliment. But it was to me-because of the challenge of Shakespeare’s words.
My advice to almost everyone who wants to be an actor is DON’T. Find something you really like to do where you can earn a living and then do community theatre. If you live in a large city, there are often movies shot in your city and you could do extra work. In other words, train for a good profession and yet keep your finger in the acting pie, only as a good amateur rather than someone struggling to live off acting.
Although what I am about to say goes against many people’s opinion, nevertheless let me say it–with the caveat that it is MY opinion and is not written on a tablet from Mount Sinai. I am not Moses..
There is, I firmly believe, a performing mentality: positive, gutsy, determined, self-confident (about self and ability), full of energy and vitality. I do not believe it is the role of a teacher or a coach to pull or to elicit from a student the energy, the vitality, the joy, the confidence that this profession requires.
Acting requires almost superhuman self-confidence, at least during an audition or performance. You certainly can be taught how to say a line or deliver a speech. But that drive to perform must be so strong that no amount of doubt can prevent or destroy your ability to shine at an audition or performance.
Not long ago a June graduate of one of America’s prestigious drama departments asked if I would coach her acting and guide her in how to audition. I agreed. Then she went home (Ohio) to visit a brother and his children. When she returned, she said their life was so good (family and home) that she wondered if she really wanted to act. I strongly suggested that she return home, find a job she enjoyed, and build a good life. I was absolutely sincere in my advice.
I am most alive on stage or in front of a camera. Not to act is not to be whole. BUT THAT IS ME. Relatively dull in real life, but a cyclone when performing. I do not recommend this profession to anyone unless you have the drive, the talent, the ability to function well in spite of rejection, and a joyous inner energy that is contagious to casting people and to audiences.
I wish you luck and sincerely hope that in another ten years we will see your name in lights on Broadway or on a movie marque on 42nd Street. Or that you will be happy in Montana, or Maine, or Mississippi, with a good job, a home, and a lovely family.