In almost 30 years of hiring actors, being an actor, and/or writing for actors, I've seen them—okay, us—make the same five mistakes over and over again. Curious? Read on. There are thousands of ways actors get in their own way—I've done it hundreds of times myself. But after careful consideration, I've determined that the ways we screw ourselves over all fall under five broad categories: neediness; handing over authority; not listening; moving too fast; and not being truthful.
1. Being needy.
It's no secret that many of us gravitate to this business because we're a little bit wonky inside. For whatever reason, we need more love, approval, and attention than the average civilian, and we think that waves of love from strangers will fill that big, black hole inside.
Well, relax, because I'm not going to try to talk you out of this one. Chances are good you already know it's nuts, and are in some state of working through it. What I'm talking about, need-wise, is the stuff that gets between you and getting the job.
Need is a gigantic turnoff when it comes to moving your career forward. Yes, you need/want the gig, no matter how poorly paying it is. But while that need might fuel you, it gets in the way in the room.
So do what you can to address it. Financially, it may mean a Stupid Day Job that pays well enough or reducing expenses. Physically, it means making sure your body is in good working order. Emotionally—well, that's kind of up to you and your particular mess. Be gentle as you work on this, but work on it.
2. Handing over authority to someone else for their career.
No, you don't have your own TV network or movie studio. (Arguably, that's a good thing these days.) You cannot just create yourself a lead role or series regular gig with a wave of your hand, and no matter how much better you think life used to be (e.g. under the studio system or some other mythical golden age), you never could.
There is certainly some luck involved in having a long and successful career in the arts. But if you look at most of the people who made it, there's a lot of hustle involved. They didn't have some agent ride in on a winged unicorn or even land ONE magical role that made them. They got the agent after the right pieces were in place, and it took work to get them that way. Or they landed that role after a lot of busting hump.
Control what you can. This column is all about that, in case you haven't noticed. Pick a month—any month—and get cracking on something. And never stop. Ever.
3. Refusing to listen (a.k.a. "Special Snowflake Syndrome")
I am about as stubborn as they come. And there's a place for all kinds of stubbornness, from grim determinism to relentless optimism—it takes grit and a certain willingness to overlook the overwhelming odds against success in this crazy business of show.
But failing to observe protocol or established rules of etiquette is dumb. At best, it makes you look foolish; at worst, it angers people. People have lo-o-ong memories when they've been angered.
Sometimes, doing the wrong thing happens out of ignorance (which is another good reason not to move too fast, as you'll see in a moment). If you know you're doing the wrong thing and decide to do it anyway—which is totally your prerogative—don't be surprised if you end up paying a price.
4. Moving too fast.
The worst thing may be nothing ever happening for you, but the second worst thing is having the exact, right thing happen to you before you're ready.
It's good to keep stretching; it's dangerous to go too far, too fast. Practice patience. Take the time to ground yourself—in your work, in your process, in your tools, in your life. You want your breaks coinciding with readiness.
5. Not being truthful.
The core question of The Method is "What's going on right now?" You don't have to be a Method actor, though, to extract value from this starting point.
The truth is a great place to live. It's far less work than maintaining a byzantine structure of lies, which reduces stress and worry lines, and it's very emotionally freeing, which is very useful to the artist who needs accessible emotional emotions in her career.
I get that feeling real feelings is often really painful. Boy, do I get it. An old friend joked (fairly accurately) that I cried for the first two years of acting class. Since then, I've done my fair share of crying on a therapist's couch, in workshops, and when consuming art that hits a little close to home. I still cry a good five or six times each week. It never feels good to feel the feelings, but it always feels better than not feeling them (and it feels fantastic afterward).
Every actor makes at least one of these mistakes sometime, no matter how evolved he becomes. But an awareness of these traps we fall into helps reduce the chances we'll get stuck there too long, and makes it easier extricate ourselves—not to mention avoiding them in the first place!