As with Goldilocks and her perfect bed, chair, and bowl of porridge, I believe there’s a happy medium that serves actors, and two extremes which can be deadly. My grade school friend Maria was an aspiring dancer born into a dance-friendly family—both of her parents had danced professionally in their youth.
While Maria’s father didn’t explicitly thwart her ambition, neither did he have any compunctions about whipping out his favorite maxim, “Dumb dancers are a dime a dozen.” (So we’re 100% clear, his point was not that dancers had low IQs, but rather that they could be willfully blind to reality that relied wholly on a delicate, finicky, and perpetually deteriorating asset—the body—and that they’d be well served to keep this firmly in mind, and to use their minds. He started his own thriving, arts-related business, which enabled him to support his family quite well.)
I was horrified the first time I heard it, but it didn’t faze Maria in the least. To the contrary, having this understanding so deeply ingrained allowed her to focus on what she could control, rather than getting caught up in worries about things she couldn’t.
Don’t be a dummy actor!
The above example is a wee bit flawed, because it focuses so much on whether or not to have a Plan B. I would never dictate to anyone what they should or shouldn’t do to take care of themselves; I understand that some of us work better with no net, others need to feel a lot of stability, while still others can do with a “Plan B for now.”
My real point is that I see too many actors who don’t take acting seriously enough to treat it as the holy calling it is, and thus, give acting a bad name. Many of these “actors” may be talented channels, but they lack the discipline to become reliable ones. And if you can’t deliver every time, sooner or later, no matter how awesome your gift, people will stop calling you.
Others in this group limit themselves to the easy, external actions that make themlook like an actor: listing themselves with services, getting headshots taken, even going through the motions in class. Impatient for access, opportunity, and success, they seek out shortcuts.
And more often than not for this group, “success” equals “attention” and/or “money.” Not that there’s anything wrong with either of those things, but if that’s what you’re after, it would be easier to rob a bank. (Note: please do not go rob a bank.)
But don’t let your head get in the way of your heart
On the other extreme is the actor who applies himself like crazy to every aspect of his work life, but can’t let go when it counts: showtime.
This type of actor works diligently at all aspects of his career, from understanding the marketplace to honing his craft. He shows up not on time, but ahead of it, and well-prepared, whether it’s for rehearsal with her scene partner or a non-delightful commercial audition on the Westside at 5pm on a Friday. He is responsible, hard-working, prudent, diligent. He reads widely and voraciously. He learns the rules and adheres to them.
And his work puts people to sleep.
A former boyfriend once told me that intellectually smarter people have a harder time with acting because they can think their way through a scene, whereas people who aren’t burdened with excessive smarts can simply live in it. I have no data to back this up, but I know that in my own experience, it is certainly true: when I get up in my head, God help me, because I’m sure not going to be able to act.
It is as hard for a person who has been rewarded all her life for being in her head to let go as it is for someone who has followed every impulse to learn to control them. But if you are too smart of an actor, you will need to do a little surrendering in the opposite direction. Let go of the controls, young Jedi, and let the Force be with you.
Happiness rests in the collaboration between heart and head
The only way to make an acting career work is to follow the middle way. Like the wise adage to “have strong opinions, loosely held,” the just-right actor is highly disciplined in her habits, yet able to let it all go on stage. She uses her brain to do the work it’s supposed to, not to try doing things it can’t. She is smart enough to know the difference between discernment and rigidity.
It’s a fine line to walk, day in and day out, over and over, year after year. But career longevity comes along with it.
And as an added bonus, this recipe for a long and happy acting life virtually guarantees a rich, full life, period.
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No new books to recommend this month. However, if you never read The Long Secret in your youth, you might consider doing so now. The more subtle and nuanced sequel to the legendary Harriet the Spy, this novel features characters from its predecessor, now on the verge of teenager-dom, dealing with a couple of mysteries during a privileged summer vacation on the tip of Long Island. Characters galore to inspire you, as well as a ripping good yarn!
Actor of the Month: Every once in a while, you hear the story of a regular, journeyman actor who does the right thing and makes the world a better place—even though there are no cameras trained on him, and there’s no percentage in it except a warm, fuzzy feeling. This is one of those actors. Keep making a difference, awesome actors who are Doing It Right.
Colleen Wainwright is a writer-speaker-layabout who started calling herself “the communicatrix” when she hit three hyphens. She spent a decade writing commercials and another decade acting in them for cash money. Now she uses her powers for good instead of evil by helping creatives learn how to strut their stuff in a way that makes the world fall madly in love with them.