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My mentor, the late Sam Christensen, was a treasure trove of trivia from the TV/Film industry, especially when it came to old Hollywood. He told a story once about how the original Hollywood stars were made, and while fascinating by itself, it brings up a very important issue facing actors today.
Many decades ago, Sam was a Casting Director, and when he first came to work on the MGM lot, he was assigned a secretary, Beverly, who had been working at MGM since she was 18. However, the job Beverly really coveted at MGM was in Fan Mail.
Fan Mail? Really?
Specifically, Beverly had always wanted to work with the “B” Fan Mail. See, when letters came in from fans, they immediately separated them into “A” Fan Mail and “B” Fan Mail. “A” Fan Mail consisted of requests for autographs or pictures, etc. But “B” Fan Mail was much more interesting. That consisted of the statistics.
Well, any letter that was descriptive of a star and how that fan was perceiving them would get logged into a database. And when enough of the data started showing trends, Irving Thalberg, the famous wunderkind who oversaw more than 400 films in his 12 years at MGM, would issue directives to all the department heads.
For instance, if enough fan mail about Greta Garbo indicated the word “mysterious” to describe her hair, eyes, shoes, etc., then Mr. Thalberg would tell all the department heads “Make Garbo mysterious!” Consequently, they would then design her next role to be more Mysterious.
So Sam asked, “Wait, you mean they just took what was already perceived by the fans… dressed it up… and handed it right back to them?”
“Yes,” Beverly replied. “That’s how the stars were made.” Wow. Fascinating…
The Mysterious Greta Garbo
Is this just an example of “how things were” back then? Or was Thalberg a genius? Perhaps, because what he was tapping into was similar to the “customer is always right” adage we hear about in the retail world. You see, there’s no doubt that Garbo was intentional about projecting a certain image. However, that “intent” is irrelevant when it comes to what the audience perceives. So whether or not “mysterious” was what she was initially going for, that’s what the audience responded to in a big way. Armed with that information on the next film, MGM could focus their efforts (wardrobe, makeup, hair, lighting, etc) on simply amplifying the thing that they now knew the audience wanted, driving her to even more success and fame.
Is this deceptive? Does it insult the audience?
No, not at all. In fact, this is a big part of what authenticity is all about. Someone like Garbo can’t help being mysterious. Try as she might, this is like a bright neon sign on a convenience store window. So instead of running from it, or trying to cover up that sign with something else, Garbo (by way of Thalberg’s directives) simply cranked up the brightness a little more. In short, she came into agreement with what the rest of the world already perceived about her.
That’s being authentic.
Most of us walk through life never truly understanding how the world perceives us. Sometimes this gap is minimal, and sometimes the gap is big enough to be a problem. It’s like when you’re watching live theater, and during the play an actor drops a pencil on the stage, but none of the actors look at it or pick it up. They’re hoping the audience ignores the prop so they can move on, but the only thing the audience is thinking is “PICK IT UP!” When the actor finally does pick it up, there’s a collective sigh of relief because now everyone is back on the same page. In this analogy, picking up the prop is recognizing and accepting that thing about you that EVERYONE ELSE has been perceiving this whole time.
Me onstage in 1995 pleading with the audience to not stare at the prop I just dropped.
BUT! How can a 21st Century actor achieve this? Because chances are no one reading this has a full-time staff currently sifting through fan mail (wouldn’t that be a nice problem to have!?!). So what can you do instead? Well, the world around you has been giving you a kind of fan mail your whole life. Birthday cards from Grandma, notes on your report cards, performance reviews from work, love letters from old flames, social media comments, and the countless verbal interactions you’ve accumulated over your life have had this data embedded in it. The challenge is making sense of it all.
In fact, that became Sam Christensen’s life work. He created a system by which you could organize and analyze your “fan mail” to know exactly how you’re being perceived in the world. It is a very intensive process, so short of that, you can poll your friends, family, or even strangers on the internet to share their perceptions.
WARNING: if you do this, though, be ready for the results. Some people will be honest, some may seem like they’re being judgmental and hurtful. On the other hand, some people will be overly complimentary in an equally unhelpful way. You also will be inclined to dismiss some of the data based on your own knowledge of the people giving it to you. So if you can collect it anonymously, that is ideal.
And if you’ve been at this acting career for a long time, another approach is to analyze all your auditions. Specifically, are there certain characteristics that seem to be common? I don’t mean occupations or age ranges, but instead the personality traits that those characters exude. So, for instance, I get a ton of law enforcement, lawyers, doctors, etc. That indicates that casting seems to think I have an authoritative vibe, or maybe a confident vibe, or intelligent, etc. If you do enough of this work, you can start to get a much clearer picture on how you’re perceived by the world.
With that new understanding, you’ll feel more equipped when you take new headshots, edit your demo reel, create a website, post on social media, and most importantly… when you audition. Because you can stop thinking about what they want, and instead realize the only person you can give them is yourself. And you are enough.
Matthew is a Storyteller based in Atlanta, GA. He is a proud member of SAG-AFTRA, and has over 60 credits on IMDb. He and his wife own Get Taped, which is one of the original audition taping services in Atlanta (founded in 2010). You can follow him on Instagram @matthew.cornwell and Facebook, or just wait for him to nonchalantly pop up on your TV screen.
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