If you’re reading this, then chances are you need a new perspective on your acting career. Many of us subject ourselves to unhealthy expectations from this crazy business. We unknowingly compare our careers to 100-yard dashes or corporate ladders. We expect that one step leads to the next in a predictable, linear fashion. We think that if we’re motivated, we can get to that finish line (series regular, red carpet, etc.) in record time.
Despite the countless books, teachers, and mentors out there warning us that this career will not be easy, there’s a voice deep inside that keeps telling you “you’re not most people.” Then, when the reality of the industry slaps you in the face, you’re left picking up the pieces and wondering if this really is the right business for you.
To avoid devolving into madness, I’m here to help remind you (and, quite frankly, myself) that there are much better metaphors for the life of an actor. Each of the following three examples has a lot to offer, though none are perfect. As we tend do as actors, pick and choose what is helpful and what works best for you.
1) Marathon Running
This is one is pretty simple to grasp and not new. To sustain an actual acting career - as opposed to a hobby - you need lots of patience and endurance. And it starts with training.
You can’t go from couch to marathon in one day. Likewise, too many wannabe actors think they can skip the whole training stage of their careers and go straight to the red carpet. They end up getting a cramp before they complete the first mile, and inevitably drop out of the race.
They didn’t cultivate their craft, and are grossly under prepared for the actual work it takes to thrive in this business.
So once you’ve done the training, it’s time for the real thing. But beware: if you sprint off that starting line too fast, you’ll get tired of this business real quick. And if you get too focused on the pace of those around you, you will end up either getting too complacent with the lazy runners or trying to match a pace that’s too fast and wasn’t meant for you. You need to find your groove, and settle into a pace that is sustainable for the whole race.
Also, running requires a disciplined mindset to be able to cope with the pain that starts to set in during the marathon. And while a coach can help motivate you during training, once you’re out there on the course, you need to have a strong mental game to be able to survive. If you don’t pay enough attention to this crucial psychological element, you will find yourself in the doldrums of the mopes, sitting in a bar on a Monday lamenting to other angry/bitter actors about how unfair this industry has been to you. Don’t be that actor…
This metaphor first came to me in the 'Off Camera with Sam Jones' podcast episode with Neil Patrick Harris. It’s a great way to look at your career versus the careers of other actors.
First of all, stop obsessing over every wave. There is an endless supply of them. Even as you age, the roles will change, but they won’t disappear. So stop worrying about your doppelgänger who booked the job for which you just auditioned. Instead, concentrate on paddling out to where you’ll find YOUR perfect wave. Sure, you’ll get smacked by other waves, get water up your nose, or watch others catch their perfect waves. But if you stay focused, paddle out far enough, and then have the patience to wait for yours, it will come.
This metaphor really encapsulates the discipline and hard work that has to happen in order for you to be prepared for those opportunities. Many hobbyist actors are stuck on the beach, too lazy to actually practice standing up on the surfboard (i.e. acting classes, workshops, reading books, watching content for research). Then they start to paddle out and get discouraged by how hard it is (i.e. the inevitable rejection that smacks us in the face daily).
They give up and go build sand castles on the beach.
To really sustain yourself in this metaphor, you need to start with a solid foundation of training while still on the beach. That way, when you get out into the water, you’ll have the confidence needed to try and actually catch a wave.
You may stumble, you may fall, you may try to catch a wave and not paddle fast enough, but eventually when you do get up, it’ll be worth all that work. But enjoy it for the short time it’s there, because inevitably you approach the shore and the wave crashes (and unfortunately you don’t simply catch the next wave). So you must paddle back out and do it all over again.
It can seem pointless to those looking on from the outside, but for those destined to be storytellers, we know each wave you catch is so worth it.
The final metaphor of gardening helps address all the unknowns of this industry.
When you plant seeds in a garden, many factors determine whether those seeds will grow and thrive; the soil conditions, sunlight, and water. The one thing you can’t do is force the seeds to grow on your terms.
Similarly, so many of the seeds you plant in your acting career won’t bear fruit on your preferred timeline. Each seed has to do a lot of unseen growing below the surface before you are even aware it’s thriving. But your patience will pay off.
When a seed you have been cultivating for years suddenly bears fruit, it is extremely rewarding. Perhaps a Casting Director you’ve never booked with has unknowingly become a huge fan of yours and fights for you to be cast in a meaty role. Or maybe that tap class you took in middle school finally comes in handy.
Sometimes seeds you totally forgot about start sprouting to your surprise. Maybe a classmate from five years ago remembers your discipline and talent and offers you a lead role in their indie project.
On the other hand, sometimes you try to plant seeds in the wrong type of soil. Perhaps you keep taking “leading man” headshots when decision makers do not perceive you that way. Or, you keep giving that “starter agent” too long to prove themselves instead of realizing that it’s time to start soliciting a new agent. Maybe you keep taking more acting classes, when what you really need is an improv class.
If you want your garden to thrive, then you need to become an expert in what kind of soil you have and what sort of seeds will flourish.
That may take lots of trial and error, which translates to years of cultivating and tending to your career. But remember; a gardener is never frantic or hurried. They are patient, methodical, and they inherently know that when the conditions are right, the seeds do most of the work.
Hopefully one of these metaphors will help you look at your career in a new light. I find each one very helpful when I’m in a booking slump and need a fresh perspective, or I’m just frustrated by all of the elements in the industry that are out of my control.
Which brings me to my last point…
It can seem like actors have no power in this industry. While it’s true you can’t force Steven Spielberg to hire you for his next lead role, you can take initiative and create your own opportunities.
Joining an improv troupe, writing a sketch show, or producing a web series are just a few examples of how you can catch a wave/bear some fruit/finish that marathon on your own terms. Not only will you find extreme fulfillment in creating your own work, but you’d be surprised what kind of future opportunities will follow…
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