One of the biggest challenges we face as artists is how to balance the creative and business demands that are required to have a successful career. Oftentimes, it is these difficulties that lead us down a path of 'getting a real job' or 'settling down' – and giving up on our dream, but, if you’re in this industry, you’re in it for a reason – because you HAVE to be. Living a life of comfort and stability is nice, but not if the cost is your dream. Speaking as one of you and having faced this challenge for ten years, here are a few tips and tricks I’ve picked up along the way:
Everyone knows that rejection is a prerequisite for being on the creative side of our business. Pitch a script here, "pass". Audition there, "no thanks". The only way to deal with this level of dismissal is to have the group of people that are in the fight with you – your tribe. As an actor, director and writer, I need the person to share my struggles and triumphs with who knows what it's like inside that fight, who’s in the ring with me. There are plenty of voices outside who love to give advice or direction, but until you’ve been in the battle with me, you just don’t know how it feels to take a punch and get up again. Truthfully, the only opinions that matter are those that come from the same foxhole you find yourself buried in. Find the people that will pick you up and dust you off when you’re down – they will keep you going – and, in turn, be willing to be that person for someone else. This is the true force behind creativity.
From the perspective of 'normals', we as 'creatives' are inherently different. We do crazy stuff regularly. We stay up and wake up at all hours of the day and night. We don’t work 9-5. We often place our art in front of what 'normals' would consider priorities – family, friends, life. We like coffee and sometimes, we have that extra glass of wine – at least I know I do.
It is oftentimes our greatest strength or our biggest weakness. In my opinion, it comes from love, but 'normals' don’t get it. They never will. Just as we will never be able to live in their shoes, they will never be able to live in ours. As I write, I sit at home over the holiday season and notice this to be all the more prevalent. If you are lucky enough to be blessed with parents and family that are supportive of your alternative lifestyle, well, lucky you, but most of our families will never understand why we do this. It is not up to THEM to change, it's up to YOU to accept that about them. Family will always want you to get a normal job or move back home. It's up to you to decide what’s best for you, but whatever you do, don’t allow the judgment of others to sway your path. Follow your gut and believe in yourself – and maybe learn to love your family and their 'advice' along the way.
There are multiple references in history where the commander of an invading army, after making a dangerous crossing over the ocean in an attempt to conquer a foreign land, orders his troops to burn the boats upon arrival – thereby eliminating any transport back home. The message is simple: win or die trying. Those who are successful in this business are generally 'all in'. There is no 'plan B'. Obviously, with more success come more opportunities, but oftentimes successful people make those opportunities through their sheer will to be successful. Find your niche and go after it with everything you’ve got. Don’t settle for anything less than the vision you’ve set forth.
I was once told the following: "There is no decision in your life that will have a greater influence on your happiness than the person you decide to marry". While not all of us desire to get married, I think the wisdom of this statement holds – who you decide to spend your time with can and will determine how happy and successful you are. However, no one has more particular influence than your most intimate partner(s) – they have an intimate influence on how you feel about your career, more so than anyone else in your life. Choose wisely. My personal experience has said that there is NO WAY you can know the battles and challenges you and your partner will face as you climb up the ladder of success, but the key is the commitment to face them together – and with someone who TRULY supports your decision to be in a volatile, unpredictable, and erratic business.
I had the extreme pleasure of working on the set of Clint Eastwood’s film, 'American Sniper', in a scene with Bradley Cooper. The day was truly a highlight of my career, if I had to choose ONE person in this entire business to work with, it would be Eastwood - except Paul Newman, of course. There are so many highlights to that small part, but the lesson I took from that day – watching masters at work – was one that continues to inform me today. My scene was small and entailed minimal dialogue, but Bradley Cooper Went. To. Work. I’ve heard it before, “There are no small parts, only small actors.” That’s not my point. My point was, every time Bradley walked on that plane, he was looking for something different. One time, he sat and looked directly at me as I spoke. The next, he wouldn’t look at me at all. One time, he placed his bag on the ground. The next, he placed it in his lap. He was LOOKING for it as he worked – doing the scene the same, every time, only different. As an actor, we can have a conversation about craft and WHY/HOW he was doing this or that – that’s not my point. What I took from Bradley that day is a much more important lesson that goes beyond craft: remain curious. Continue to hone your life’s work. Find something new. Education never stops.
As you climb the ladder in Hollywood, you will often come across projects where people want to collaborate with you. Sometimes you will take these opportunities, sometimes you will not – that is up for you to decide, but the ability to say “no” to something is powerful – and will save your success. I’ve seen it often where one person does a favor on a project for someone they care about, simply because they are a friend. It’s part of the business and knowing when and how to do those favors is a key to your success, but doing them half-heartedly or out of obligation will lead to more failure – theirs and yours – than if you had simply said "NO" in the first place. Prioritize your desires. What matters to you in this business, what is the story or perspective that you truly want to bring and does this project align with that? My experience has been that being able to say "no" to something oftentimes brings better and more aligned opportunities around the corner. It also leads to a respect between collaborators because you can rely on my "YES", meaning that you will get my absolute best. This business is built on passion. If you can’t bring your passion to a job, say "no".
In no way do I consider myself a financial expert, but in speaking with mentors, I’ve learned that the long-term success of most people in Hollywood does not rely on Hollywood. It seems counter-intuitive, but the more I’ve asked the questions, the more true it has become. Yes, the top 1% in Hollywood makes their money from projects, but the film business is project based – everyone knows that. The way to manage your sanity, is to always have money coming in.
I’ve been told that Arnold Schwarzenegger took his first pay check in Los Angeles and bought an apartment. He took his second pay check and bought a second apartment and rented it out. He now had both of his mortgages covered by the single rental of the second apartment. In the story I heard, he was quoted as saying that it gave him “the freedom to do whatever I wanted.” As creatives, this is our currency. As mentioned above, the ability to say "NO" or not to be involved in a project that doesn’t speak to our passion or brand is invaluable. Find your passive income streams, whatever they may be and you will find the freedom to risk, challenge, and BE yourself.
Again, NOT a financial professional, but I learned the hard way. It may differ state-to-state or country-to-country, but I think it’s worthwhile to be aware of the potential tax pitfalls regardless.
A few years ago, while still working a side job, I made a decent amount of money as an actor for the year. I withheld the max amount of tax income from my actor pay checks thinking I would cover the taxes owed and perhaps get a refund. WRONG. The income from my acting money was taxed as if it was my ONLY income for the year. When I added in my income from my side-job, my total income level was much higher, meaning I owed much more money on my total income.
As you climb the ladder in a creative industry, your business manager or tax professional needs to be someone who understands the nature of our business and helps you plan accordingly. You are trusting this person with sensitive and valuable information and relying on them to keep you financially fit. Choose wisely and be on top of your finances.
Every person has a story to tell. Growing up in Texas, I was enamored with the American West – stories of Cowboys and Indians filled my childhood daydreams. To this day, I still love the wide-open spaces and solitude of these stories. I count Sam Shepard and Clint Eastwood as artistic influences. As an actor, I have been called a “Lumberjack on Roller Skates” an “Underdog Boxer who goes the distance” and a “Velvet Moss Covered Rock.” I’m hard headed, determined, decent, repressed, complicated, heartfelt, stoic, tough, quiet, sensitive, sturdy, and simple. It’s taken me years and thousands of auditions to know that, much less accept it.
“Find your niche” is what casting people always tell actors. We rebel against it because “I’m an actor, dammit – can’t you see that I can play DIFFERENT people?” It’s also terribly difficult and takes many failures to really know and accept it about ourselves, but allowing someone to know who you are and how to cast you easily is a key to getting opportunities. Once you get these opportunities, you can prove how great an actor you are and your ability to stretch, but rarely do those come without first showing the industry your typecast.
I’m speaking about it from an acting perspective, but this lesson is no less true for composers, musicians, directors, writers, even grips, special affects artists and set designers. Allow people to know how you are uniquely GREAT. Be proud of it and hone it to a high level of proficiency. Find the influences that drive your passion, the story that you have to tell. It will be the gas in your creative tank on your road trip to success.
Another lifetime ago, I was a college and professional football player. Prior to my senior year at Yale, in the biggest game of our season against Harvard, I received an email from a player who had graduated three years prior. I had known him little, just as an acquaintance, but he offered some advice to me that I’ve never forgotten. He said, “In the middle of the game tomorrow, find a time – during a time out, between plays, when you’re on the sideline – and just be with it. The fans, the smells, the team, the sounds, everything. Take a moment and take a picture in your mind. This will be the one you hold onto when you’re five years down the road and a washed-up former football player like me.”
The next day, in the middle of a time out with my team down 14 points and in front of 85,000 people, I did exactly that. For ten brief seconds, I stopped and took it ALL in. I didn’t notice the score or the competition. I noticed the fans, my teammates, and the pure aura of the stadium. I sat there in the middle of the field and marveled at the scene – to be grateful for the opportunity to be here, now. I still hold this picture, this feeling, as one of my most cherished memories – and the pinnacle of my playing career.
As we are on this journey together, I would heed the advice of my friend who had the generosity to share the path ahead: take a moment to enjoy the steps you have taken, whatever they may be and the place you stand now. Someday, you might look back on that moment with true fondness.
In closing, I would offer that these are small pieces of wisdom I have picked up along the way on my own personal journey. However, I’m just one beggar telling another beggar where he found bread. Take them or leave them. Or comment below – I’d love to hear how my musings affected you. The way I see it, we’re all in this thing together. Thank you for taking the time to read it- I hope it helps you. I will look forward to calling you part of my tribe along the way.
About Alvin Cowan
About me? I'm an actor/director/writer/producer who lives in Los Angeles - Venice, to be exact. I grew up in Austin, Texas and yes, I love it, miss it, want to go back - and will always be happy to give you my Austin restaurant playbook. I attended Yale University, where I played quarterback, and then subsequently flirted with the NFL - it was more a co-dependent relationship, I wanted them and they didn't want me. Either way, I was briefly with the Buffalo Bills before jumping into entertainment after stops in Romania and Albania - long story.
Most of my time has been as an actor, but the past couple years I've branched out. My highlight, so far, was definitely working on a scene with Bradley Cooper and Clint Eastwood (my creative role model) in American Sniper. We're just about to take a half-hour comedy, Big & Save to market for pitching and have a hour-long drama script about Venice surf and skate culture, Dogtown, ready to go - just looking for a producer/rep to help me get it out there! Know anyone? :)
As a director/actor, I'm currently shooting a short film called Rain for Sale - a classic western in the Eastwood, There Will Be Blood vein. I also just began writing a feature length modern western called Coyote that I hope to direct/star in.
So, thats me. As you can probably tell, Eastwood, Sam Shephard - these are artistic influences. I'm in LOVE with the American West (but not just "Westerns") and interested in stories of love, loss, and life set in backroads and wide open spaces. But, please, I love collaborating and talking films of ANY kind - drama, horror, adventure, comedy - so reach out. I'd love to meet you!
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