Why the Most Common Advice Given to Actors is a Crock of Shit

Oct 6, 2009 by     7 Comments    Posted under: Attitude, The business, Thousands of Stories

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, and die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” – Robert A. Heinlein

Raise your hand if you’ve been told something along these lines: “If you can see yourself doing anything besides acting, do it!” Okay, my minions, put your hands down and allow me to explain why I think this advice is total BS. I’m going to give you two different actors, and you tell me who you think has a better chance of future acting success.

Actor 1

Actor 1, let’s call him Bill, has always had a passion for the spotlight, and put on his own musical at the family Christmas party when he was 6. He acted a lot in high school and ultimately went to college, where he was repeatedly told that he had a gift and shouldn’t do anything else besides acting…it’s a waste of his time the masses said. Bill was in almost every production the University put on, he directed his own shows, read scripts like it was his job, and was always at the theatre building. He dabbled in some student films and industrials before he graduated and moved to Lala land. During the summers he worked as a waiter at a local restaurant and was in some shows at night. Every spare second of every day is devoted to acting.

Actor 2

Actor 2, let’s call her Jena, has also always been very passionate about acting. She has, however, also maintained passions for a number of other things such as jewelry–she started her own online jewelry company her sophomore year in college–, brazilian ju jit su, and dogs…particularly golden retrievers. In high school Jena was an all-around good student, spending a lot of time in the theatre but also focusing on her math classes. In college Jena majored in business and philosophy. She took a lot of acting classes, did a number of plays, volunteered at the Dumb Friends League, and spent most of her summers working on her jewelry business. Upon graduation she too moved to the City of Angels.

Alright, pens down. Who do you think is more likely to have their own series in 7 years? Really? Bill? Wrong. But Ben, he’s so focused on his acting. My acting coach says that you have to be super motivated to make it. Yes young Grasshopper, you do have to be super-motivated, but that’s different than focusing all of your time and energy on acting.

9 Months Later…let’s see what Bill and Jena are up to.

With Bill’s experience as a waiter in college, he was able to get a job at a nicer, upscale restaurant as a server. Originally stoked to have a job, Bill has now become despondent as the service industry seems to suck the soul right out of him. Bill has also realized that his “flexible” job isn’t really all that flexible. He got 4 auditions in week (yay!) but had to cancel 2 of them because he couldn’t get someone to cover his shift. Moreover, he got the lead in a play some new friends he met out here are putting on, but had to take a smaller part because of all the rehearsals he was going to miss for work. Drat. Bill just loves to act so damned much, but his job is slowly destroying him. What’s a boy to do?!? He’s gotta pay rent…

Jena, interestingly enough, spent the first 5 months when she moved to Los Angeles completely engrossed in her jewelry business which was taking off. She was able to pay back the small loan she took out to really get the business going, and is now making just enough money to support herself. Jena then put her headshots up on the various casting websites, submitted herself for everything she could, and had 47 auditions in 3 months! She booked a good number of them, and although many were smaller student projects and the like, a couple turned out to be really well done feature films, one of which was just accepted to the Telluride Film Festival. Because she works for herself, Jena is able to do each and every project that comes her way, making contacts, and never having to tell someone no to an audition or shoot date (unless she’s already filming!). Yesterday, Jena was doing her weekly volunteering at the Dumb Friends League (she loves those dogs!) and struck up a conversation with a fellow dog-walker who happened to be an agent who had heard of her Telluride movie. Guess what kind of dog the agent has? That’s right a golden retriever. Jena has a meeting with that agency tomorrow.

Take-Aways

  • You have to friggin’ pay your rent. If all you ever focus on is acting, how are you going to find a flexible, well-paying job? (Hint: creating your own will be the most helpful thing you’ve EVER done for your acting career)
    • During the years and years you are trying to break into the acting biz, how the heck is one supposed to pay the bills?!? I’m sorry, but if all you’ve ever done is hang out on a stage, it’s going to be that much harder for you to do this
  • SO much of this business is about being well-liked, which means you need to be an interesting person. Think about it, would you rather be on set for 14 hours waiting around with a boring person who can only talk about the latest episode of Dancing with the Stars (stupid Tom Delay), or someone who is full of ideas and passionate about all kinds of things? I’ll take the well-rounded, interesting person any day
  • How are you supposed to know if acting is your true passion if you don’t try anything else? Do things. Volunteer. Start a club. Work for a law firm. Not only will these experiences provide a contrast to the life of an actor, they will give you that many more experiences to pull from when you’re actually in front of a camera
  • It’s called showbusiness, not showart. To make it as an actor there are SO many different things you need to be great at. Networking. Marketing. Building relationships. Social media. Professionalism. Building instant rapport. Selling yourself. Web design. Etc. etc. etc. The point is, being an actor is being an entrepreneur…it takes a ton of different skills to really make it, and you can’t acquire all (many) of them by reading a script.
  • Actors are called upon to portray ALL kinds of people. What better way to study as an actor, than by doing different jobs, meeting people in all walks of life, and having as many experiences as possible?

Where the (bad) advice comes from

Here’s the sitch. When people tell you not to do anything besides acting, what they really should be saying is this: “To really make it as an actor is just like making it as a brain surgeon. It takes years of arduous work and turmoil before you see the fruits of your labor, and not everyone makes it. The payoff, though, is better than you can imagine.” That advice is perhaps a little less sexy, I admit, but it’s FAR more accurate. Just like my former roommate Eddie who is studying to be a brain surgeon (he hasn’t missed a single question in many of his med-school classes), you have to be incredibly dedicated and driven to reach the top. Eddie is brilliant yes, but he also spent the summer after his junior year of college locked in his room, studying 14+ hours per day for the MCATs. THE SUMMER BEFORE HIS SENIOR YEAR OF COLLEGE!!! That’s the kind of dedication I’m talking about here. That focus and drive is what it takes to make it to the top of any profession…acting is no different.

If all you want to do is act, then do it. You don’t need to focus on all these things. Put on a show in your living room. Go to the quad of your local University and just start performing. Do community theatre. Put yourself on youtube. Act. You don’t need permission or approval.

If, however, for whatever reason you want to make money as an actor, be well-known, be on TV shows people recognize, whatever…then that’s a whole other ball game. Go watch TV. Right now. I’ll wait…Oh, you’re back. How was it? Let me guess, you saw a lot of actors who are far less talented than you. You’re right. You know the difference between you and them? They’re making thousands of dollars a day, but treating this like a business.

Final words of wisdom

Rather than feeling like you should be spending all of your hours in the day working on acting (that’s stupid…you have to pay rent somehow), start asking yourself what you spend the majority of your time thinking about. What do you do in your free time? When you go for a run, are you thinking about the next movie you want to be in, or something else? As you’re drifting off to sleep at night, are you getting excited about the audition you have tomorrow or something else? When you have a spare hour in the middle of the day do you go on Actors Access to see if there are any auditions you can submit for, or do you go sit by the pool (hot tip: get wireless or an iPhone and do both!). On the weekend are you late for church because you were totally engrossed in the most recent acting blog posts, or were you doing something else? When was the last time you felt totally, completely, alive and thrilled with what you were doing? Was it on set or doing something else?

The answers to those questions will tell you if you’re on the path to success. Now go walk a golden retriever.


Ben Whitehair is the Los Angeles contingent of this blog. Find out more information and view his materials on his website, or read the rest of his blog posts.