Summer Is Coming!
Whether 2016 is the year you have decided to come out to the world as an actor, or you have been deep in the trenches for ten years, these industry truths can be elusive.
By nature, actors are optimists; it is our great asset and our greatest liability. Being realistic isn’t our strong suit, and many of us get by year after year on the hope that our big break is just around the corner. It is admirable and inspiring that we live our lives this way, but optimism, if unrequited, has a shelf life. Hopefully this list will help you to add a little dose of truth to your dream potion and set you on a clear course toward fulfillment.
1. STOP WAITING TO BE DISCOVERED
In 1937, Lana Turner was discovered at the Top Hat Cafe having a soda with some friends while cutting her typing class at Hollywood High School. She was introduced to Billy Wilkerson, then publisher of The Hollywood Reporter who felt she was perfect for films. After Lana became famous, the shop was swarmed with young hopefuls wanting to meet the man who made Lana’s dream come true…only it wasn’t actually her dream to become an actress, and she initially didn’t want to speak to the man because she was only 16 and felt it was untoward for him to be approaching her.
Go to Hollywood now and you can relive this experience in every Starbucks along Sunset Boulevard (and there are a lot of them), only today’s publisher of The Hollywood Reporter is more concerned with circulation numbers and views on their YouTube channel than he is about approaching an attractive 16-year-old to make her a star. Not to mention the fact that the guy behind the counter works for TMZ and he can’t afford the bad publicity or accusations of sexual harassment. Hollywood is a different world than it was 80 years ago. Oh you’ll still be approached at that Starbucks, but it’ll be by Scott Baio’s brother’s best friend who just started a management company. In short: you are not going to be discovered in a Starbucks.
Hollywood was built on storytelling and the lore of Stardom being some innate quality that lowly moviegoers could only dream of achieving; stars were chosen.
Back in the studio days, actresses would be hired on and then go into the marketing department to invent a life story, often as colourful as those on the screen. They would date who the studio wanted them to date and often have to painfully hide their true lives in order to protect their image.
Today, Hollywood still perpetuates the myth of the untrained actress plucked from obscurity because of her natural talent to quickly rise to stardom. In fact however, Hollywood is more risk averse than ever when it comes to hiring unknown talent. A simple skim through the breakdowns to glimpse the repetitive line ‘STAR NAMES ONLY’ supports this theory. Many top actresses who have seemingly come out of nowhere to achieve huge success are yet shrouded in myth. Jennifer Lawrence for example: she has been acting since she was nine years old in community theatre and a quick Google search reveals comments from former acting teachers remarking on her promise and instincts. She does wonderful work, and she had been practicing as an actor for more than ten years before she made it big, yet she is frequently quoted as calling herself “untrained”. As has Daisy Ridley: the star of the new Star Wars movie. Frequently called an “unknown”, Daisy attended theatre school, trained for years in dance and movement and had several roles in British TV shows as well as a lead role in a feature film. I think you are starting to get my point. Even reality stars have to know how to hit a mark and say their lines. To have a career in film, you have to know what you are doing, and you have to be well practiced at your craft.
2. WORK TOWARD YOUR 10,000 HOURS.
Many of us have read the book, Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell where he replaces the myth of extraordinary achievements being somehow ordained, with the statistical phenomenon of those achievements coinciding with 10,000 hours of specified work in their area of excellence and the opportunity of being in the right place at the right time: training meets opportunity and timing.
Another book, Bounce: The Myth of Talent and The Power of Practice, by Matthew Syed takes this theory a step further to describe how the brain learns a skill and how the quality of practice effects the success of the athlete. There is no question that graduates of Juilliard or Yale have a better chance of achieving commercial success than those who chose to learn through studying acting by watching 10,000 hours worth of movies. But training isn’t the only answer. The trap I see a lot of my peers getting stuck in is staying with the same school or teacher for too long, and not working on practical skills which are in line with the type of career they actually want to have. I.e. taking years of scene study classes with a teacher whose aesthetic leans toward farcical comedy when your dream is to work on Law and Order.
Class is certainly a great place to work your skills, but if you want to land a role on a TV show, you are going to need to learn to audition for television.
Not all of us can afford to spend hundreds on acting classes every month, but we can afford to pull sides off of the internet and self tape auditions for roles that are currently casting or have cast in the past (showfax is a great resource for these sides). I do this bi-weekly, and have done for a number of years. The benefit to this is threefold. One, when I have approached new managers or agents I have a body of work that demonstrates my ability to audition for shows that are currently casting, and shows them directly how they can gain financially from working with me. Two, I am doing the same work I would be doing in a scene study class, week after week and working to find roles that fit me well. (I can also compare who is cast with the work I have done in many cases to see how my interpretation would have fit into the tone and direction of the show as a learning exercise.) Three, I am developing my audition skills and working on meaty characters and scripts so that, when I am called in to audition for these roles, I have the level of comfort that a seasoned television actor would have, or at least one who auditions a lot.
This work goes a long way toward my 10,000 hours of acting. I have a lot of friends who work in various corporate jobs: doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs, etc. They go to work five days a week and work for eight hours a day on various aspects of their expertise. How many hours do you spend per week actually acting? I truly believe that the only way to be an actor is to be an actor for as many hours in the day as you can, every day. Obviously there are many different aspects to acting that you can use to fill your day — I would even include vocal exercise and physical exercise in those hours, but I don’t include the hours spent blaming my agent for not getting me auditions or doing “research” watching Netflix. Just sayin’.
3. CREATE SOMETHING
There is no excuse. All you need is daylight and a cellphone.
One of the things I learned during my first stint in LA was this: it’s not who you know, it’s what you’re selling.
I’ve spent my whole career doubly focused on building my craft and building my network until I went to LA and learned that everyone is some celebrity’s best friend, or personal trainer — even Scientology calls their place of worship the Celebrity Centre — and all of the “I know so and so” conversations always lead to the same place…nowhere. There was a moment when I was attending a film festival and a colleague was rushing us along to an event because it would be a great place to see (insert current A-list celebrity who has been paid to attend the festival in order to attract sponsorship and launch an Oscar campaign by doing press for her film). I thought about how frustrating those parties are — where the celebrity is in the centre of a circus, shaking hands and taking photos and being wonderful, but definitely not stopping, looking a young actor in the eyes and saying, “Come with me Suzy! I think you’ve got what it takes.”
And, if you are lucky enough to meet that star, or producer, or director or whatever and they are interested in hearing what you have to say – the first question they will ask you is “So, what are you working on?”
Now, the only way to have an answer to this question is to actually be working on something. And not just something that you think is fun, but something that you have developed that comes from a knowledgeable place about the industry and its trends and demands — something provocative, original and that only you can play the lead in — and the best way to find that thing is to take an idea directly from your own life.
There are three things you need to remember to find that diamond of an idea that will help jumpstart your career: one, you will have a million ideas before you find the good one; two, all that matters is that you get started making something; and three, don’t be precious about it — start pitching it early. I’ve seen way too many people spend two years writing the perfect screenplay and then another two years trying to get their first big meetings for that screenplay at which point they find out that another writer with a long resume just went into development on a very similar idea. Things are in the ether and it is not because everyone is ripping each other off.
If you don’t test the waters on your idea, there is a good chance you will be disappointed.
Besides, hearing about similar ideas along the way will help you hone your pitch and your story into that unique product that only you can write and act in.
For those of you feeling like this idea is impossible for you because you can’t write, that’s what the collaborative nature of this industry is there for. Go network: drop into an improv meetup for $5 — find your tribe, and start making magic so that the next time you are invited to one of those celebrity film festival parties, it won’t be because you are going there to see somebody, it’s because you’ll be going there to be somebody.