…simple, right? Work x8. The End. Ha!
Although I won’t deny the frightening roles to actors ratio, I want to look past it, for a few moments, and focus directly on its denominator: the actor, him or herself. Whilst there are some prerequisites – great headshot, solid representation, talent(?) – that are somewhat key to the prosperity of one’s career, I believe there is a set of attributes equally as, if not more, vital to shaping a healthy, happy (and employed as possible!) actor. These are qualities that cannot be taught or paid for; much like a fruitful career, they must be sought after. To this end, I’ve made a list of eight things I feel an actor, at any stage of their career, should posses.
1. LONG-DISTANCE RUNNING SHOES.
“The road to success is longer than you’d like, but shorter than you imagine.” – Tim Fargo
You don’t have to sell your life to the craft, but I feel we often forget to fully acknowledge that reaching the career of the actors who inspired us to become as such will take both time and endurance. Determine your finish line. What exactly do you want from your career? You don’t have to know every specific detail but the less generalized you are, the more focused your route will be. Whatever your dream, it is completely valid, provided it is yours. Inspirations are great, but they are not you. You are not them. Be you. Your goals will inevitably change as you conquer each mini-milestone, but working towards each point will ensure you’re always progressing. Three years ago, I only wanted to be an all-singing, all-dancing West End wonder. Soon after, I was fortunate enough to be cast in a West End show. Then I injured my knee real bad. Like , two steroid injections and most of Christmas on crutches and enough time to watch 8 seasons of Grey’s Anatomy in 3 weeks bad. It sucked. But it gave me time to read, which then gave me time to write, which then re-opened my eyes to how much I love to write. So I’m now writing something I can act in. Shit happens. Plans change. Don’t stop. A director once told me that for every time you decide to keep going, 10 people will have given up. We can’t statistically prove this, but using it throughout the journey of our acting careers will be sure to give ourselves that extra push through rough patches. The thrill is in the chase, and in the journey. Pace yourself.
2. THE SKIN OF A RHINO.
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” – Samuel Beckett.
“We won’t be taking this any further…It didn’t go your way…Just not what we’re looking for this time.” With the frequency of rejections, one might think that, deep down, all actors a cult of sadists. It’s brutal isn’t it? At least Tinder is kind and won’t ever tell us about all the suitors that swiped to the left. As if I just revealed I’ve used Tinder. Anyway…these phrases form part of the continual break-ups actors are faced with that, after enough of them, can make us feel like the spinsters of the entertainment industry with nothing but a Netflix subscription and Judy Garland’s Greatest Hits to keep us warm, right? Wrong! Put the ice-cream down, honey child. There are so many reasons we won’t get a part that to think it’s personal at any point is completely unnecessary self-deprecation. Instead, we can use that blow to toughen ourselves up the next time round, taking any non-constructive feedback at face value and then doing a Beyonce and putting it to the left, to the left. We have to put it away because it will keep on coming, and if we linger on to what we don’t have, we’re left with empty and pointless baggage. Take it on board, but be ready to let it go of in order to put your efforts to the next opportunity. Resilience is of the essence.
3. AN INNER CONTROL FREAK.
“It’s only out of your hands if you don’t want to pick it up.” – James Baldwin
Our fate need not be completely relinquished to the powers to be. Fair enough, once we’ve done that last screen test or monologue, the decision lies with creative and production teams, but there is much we can do to maintain some hold on the direction our career heads in. One thing is to broaden our knowledge. Knowledge really is power. Research who’s casting what, what projects are in development, what new writing is premièring and where; all this and more. Solid background knowledge of the industry will enable you to decipher what interests you from what is out there; it also shows you care. Another is the DIY approach. For example, want to break into comedy? Find a writer. Make a one-person show. Make a two-person show. There are so many small-scale theatre spaces, festivals, and themed performance nights to take advantage of, in any city. If we plant our own seeds, we get to see first-hand how they are growing rather than expecting things to happen around us. You may not reach full flourish straight away, but it will be through your decisions, and it just might be quicker. Note that I say inner control freak. This is not a side of yourself that should be too visible. Leave the tyranny to Macbeth. Hide the freaky. But don’t leave it all to your agent / manager / horoscope. It’s your career; you have full permission to treat it as such.
4. A POKER FACE.
“There’s no people like show people. They smile when they are low!” – Irving Berlin
In drama school, our jazz teacher taught us about ‘the look.’ He referred to it as the glint in your eye that says ‘I want this job, and you’re going to give it to me.’ He insisted we used it all throughout warm-up and the entire 90 minute class. It’s a wonderful tool to use in various degrees for castings. I call it the Poker face. It’s breezy, calm and collected; it’s in charge. Word of warning: beware the fine line between intense and scary. Poker face is not Resting bitch face. Neither is it desperate. Ever noticed that you do better in castings for jobs you’re more chilled about? As I left drama school, I got down to the final for a lead role in a 5-part BBC drama (which went on to win a Golden Globe, sigh). Because I knew how much of a big deal it was, I let it get to me so much that it got to filming me in a ball gown for one of the scenes, in front of the whole creative team and I literally had to be filmed with kitchen towel under my arms because I was sweating so much. Not good. We always feel more at ease watching someone ooze effortlessness than watching someone sweating out their insides. The Poker face is exactly that; an enhancement mask. You may have a 10.30am audition after finishing your bar shift at 2am (true story), but at the end, or sometimes beginning, of the day you have to ask yourself “Which job do I want?” From your answer, you’ll know what you have to do. You walk in and give them the Poker Face. It’s completely valid to be a shy individual, but once that mask is on, you are an actor, and that actor is not shy. Call their bluff. Make them believe they’d be lucky to have you. Treat auditions as if they’re in your space. Own it.
5. A VISIBILITY CLOAK.
“The authentic self is the soul made visible.” – Sarah Ban Breathnach
Dear actor, people need to know you! You can be hidden in your character, but you have to seek your audience. You have to put yourself out in the industry to get yourself in the room. Do as many things for your career as possible, and tell people whenever you can. If people can willingly post pictures of new kitchen appliances, you can share professional news. Invite the right people to come and watch. Do not fear the social network. Try and cause a stir. I published a post a few months ago called Ten Questions You Should Never Ask An Actor. It was a partially satirical account of questions fellow actors and myself had been asked. It was a different style to my previous material, but it’d been on my mind as something I wanted to post, so I just did it. And there were cool comments, and there were not so cool comments. But, the post got over 2,500 visitors in 2 days, and that felt so cool. I could’ve removed the negative comments, but I didn’t. If you put your work out there, you have to be ready for the reactions, all the reactions. There is beauty, albeit tainted, in the variety of the world’s opinions. But the fact that someone has taken the time to observe and comment on your work is so great, because it means that 1.You actually sent it into the world, and 2. The world replied. If you’re totally at a loss as to where to start, I totally recommend an amazing book by Austin Kleon, called Show Your Work. This book is basically where my whole ‘visibility cloak’ idea has come from. It demystifies the idea that you have to have Marlon Brando charisma in order for people to notice what you do. It’s so great.
6. AN INVESTOR’S BRAIN.
“Know what you own, and know why you own it.” – Peter Lynch
Think of yourself as a limited company, which in fact, if registered as a self-employed actor, you are. You are split into shares, which a creative team invests in every time they select you to be in their play, musical, TV show. Take a look at yourself. Take an honest and direct look. How is your portfolio? Are you high risk? Would you even invest in yourself? If not, then how can you genuinely expect others to? What can you do to improve your assets and make yourself more desirable to buyers? Do you need to brush up, spruce up, tone up? Take time to analyse precisely where the weaknesses in your capital (CV, headshot, general presence) lie, and then do something about them. The market (industry) is constantly shifting, with new and shiny start-ups (graduates) continually popping up. In this time of recession recovery (life), you want to present your potential buyers with the best sets of assets you possibly can. I don’t think I can, or should, use another metaphor.
7. X-RAY VISION.
“One has not only an ability to perceive the world but an ability to alter one’s perception of it; more simply, one can change things by the manner in which one looks at them.” – Tom Robbins
Not in a creepy ‘I know what colour your panties are’ way. I’m talking about the ability to look beyond it all. Beyond your circumstances, and beyond the negative opinions and obstacles. Do you look at the world and only see the crap, or the things that are missing? Begin to start observing the world through a sharper, brighter lens. As our bodies are our instruments, when we develop acute perception, we ensure our senses are working as efficiently as possible. A person watches movies; an actor observes performance. This also applies outside the cinema or theatre. That’s why people watching is such a great activity for actors. Seeing people be surprised, or pretending they’re not bothered by something, or even watching people lie; performance surrounds us, at no cost. For any actors working serving/hospitality jobs (holla!) this should be unavoidable. I particularly like (discreetly) observing people on dates. Seeing the way two people, with similar objectives, react depending on their personal physical and emotional connection to the other person…acting gold mine! Develop an enhanced awareness of the world. After all, it is this world your work endeavours to impress upon and influence. If someone has a different viewpoint to you, try to genuinely understand it rather than just passively tolerating them. Sarah Crompton’s review of Kevin Spacey’s performance in Clarence Darrow at the Young Vic quotes “Spacey has a knack…of seeming simultaneously to look at you and through you.” I don’t know about you, but if Spacey’s doing it, I’m thinking it’s the right way to go!
8. A DAY JOB.
“Hustle isn’t just doing the things you love all the time. Hustle is doing the things you don’t enjoy sometimes to earn the right to do the things you love.” – Jon Acuff
Superpowers aside, it’s our duty to acknowledge the reality of the profession, which is that – for the majority – an acting salary alone is not enough to support oneself. It is what it is. The important thing to bear in mind is this: when you make an acting a career choice, you cross the border from ‘hobby land’ and enter ‘professional town’. Therefore, being an actor is your day job. But until acting can single-handedly support you, you need a daily bread job. The job that feeds your belly. I have two (I like bread). Obviously, it won’t be the job of your dreams, but do what you can to ensure that it’s a job that doesn’t make you wish the apocalypse was now. Be able to proudly say “I’m an actor, and…[insert daily bread job here].” And be sure to say it, especially when not specifically in an acting job. Prevent anyone from calling you an ‘out of work’ actor by never calling yourself one. A painter doesn’t go to the supermarket holding their canvas and watercolours, but they’re still an artist. The same applies.
The actor’s life needn’t be a struggle. Artists can be exactly those without living on instant coffee and noodles. We have the right to grow and to thrive. But we have to do it actively. Teachers, agents, directors, etc. can all provide assistance, but the actor you’ll eventually become is a direct product of the work and time you invest. I challenge you to discover just how perceptive, proactive and durable you can be. In ‘Lessons for the Professional Actor,’ Michael Chekhov declares “we have only one instrument to convey…our feelings, our emotions, our ideas – our own body. It is terrifyingly true.” Craft the best self, and in turn, the best actor you physically and mentally can. Your audience will thank you. Your career will thank you. Your soul will thank you.