Hindsight is 20/20, but there’s no reason you can’t apply my wins (and losses) toward your future success. It’s been roughly 20 years since I embarked on a career as a professional actor in Los Angeles. All signs pointed to it being a disastrous undertaking: I was in my early 30?s, with no resume or training to speak of. I had few connections. I had zero locally-marketable civilian skills to meet my basic overhead, never mind paying for the classes, training, headshots, and everything else I didn’t show up with.
In other words, I was as delusional as so many others who show up in New York or Los Angeles thinking they are ready to work. I was absolutely not ready to work. However, I was ready to be ready.
That’s not semantic tomfoolery, it’s the truth. Because while I was not the least bit hirable—yet—I was in full acceptance of this fact. (Well, almost. I still had some deep-down, wishful fantasies of Fairy Godmother Fame, where someone would see me buying eggs at Ralphs or walking in one of my ridiculous hats, somehow intuit my considerable unrealized potential, and decide on the spot that I had the perfect look for their next pilot/film/Broadway show. But I knew that these notions were crazypants, and even if they weren’t, that increasing my measurable value couldn’t hurt.)
Here’s what I now see was essential for moving me from hapless civilian to full-time, working actor (with an expensive graphic design hobby):
1. Admitting out loud that I was an actor. This may sound even crazier than that whole fairy godmother/limousine-syndrome thing, but it was critical for me. From my childhood of creating plays for my cousins and myself to act in to doing speech team and theater in high school, I’d always loved performing, but I had such shame about it not being a “real” profession that I denigrated it at every turn. (When I finally started auditioning for commercials, I used to say that getting a rude director or agency people at callbacks was payback for my similarly ungracious behavior as an adhole copywriter.) Even after I began earning my living as an actor, I’d feel embarrassed to say it out loud. But I did anyway.
2. Putting acting first… When I finally decided to become an actor, I changed only two things: my mindset (see #1) and my priorities. Acting came before everything, including money, stuff, vacations, my marriage, friends, and family. I do not necessarily advocate this plan of attack for a rich, full life. But this is not an article about that; it’s about becoming a relatively successful (i.e., full-time, working) actor in a relatively (i.e., three years) short time. Would I do it the same way again, knowing what I know now? Who knows? But yes, back then, the smallest, shittiest part in the sketchiest, most out-of-the way production was more important to me than having a life. Why?
3. …because I wanted to act more than anything else. Yes, I wanted to be famous. Yes, I wanted to make money. But really and truly, more than these things—well, at least more than the money—I wanted to act. There was something in me that writing alone couldn’t get at, that demanded full expression. This is a hard, hard thing to explain to loved ones. My poor father already could not believe I’d give up a Perfectly Good Career to pursue writing; this he thought utter lunacy. And unless you have exceptionally understanding parents, so will they.
4. Be willing to humble myself. Humility gets a bad rap in this culture, especially today, especially in media power centers like Los Angeles and New York. But if you aren’t humble, you won’t work—or not for long. And not just because no one wants to work with a blowhard. Humility is required to learn anything, whether it’s acting technique, set etiquette, or the quickest route to the Eastside during Friday evening rush hour. Nobody starts out knowing everything. In the ways I was willing, I made huge advances quickly. In the ways I wasn’t—well, I ended up on the cutting room floor, and/or not getting asked back.
I also got down with being a lot further down the food chain. In order to stay in L.A. and audition, I gave up my fancy, jetsetting, freelance-copywriter life to become the World’s Oldest Go-fer. (“Colleen, go for coffee.” “Colleen, go make these 4,000,000 copies.” Etc.) Humbling? You bet.
5. Working from my strengths. For me, this meant commercials, because I had :30-second spots in my blood, and comedy, because I have one of those faces. I’m sad inside a lot more than most people would guess, and always identified with tragic heroines more than wisecracking clowns. But for the most part, I went where I was wanted, and I was not wanted for serious roles. I still played these parts in classes, and finally got to play one great dramatic role in a good stage production. If I’m honest, it was not my best work. I had my nights, but I didn’t have the chops to play that part even four times a week, putting it before everything else.
6. I was in the right place at the right time. I hate to bring up this part, but it’s true. Despite being 33 when I got started, I “played” about 10 years younger, and that was prime age for slightly comedic actresses in commercials, which had yet to peak and subsequently crash with the dot-com boom and bust. Agents were well into grumbling about contract weaknesses and low cable rates, but new media had yet to decimate the industry. A friend and former art director just emailed me today saying our old department had gone through yet another round of layoffs: out of 35 people in the old department, only three remain. The rest are all working in digital. I’m acting again now, but I have no illusions that commercials are the gravy train they could be in the ’90s.
7. I stayed only a little past it being time to go, and stayed friends with the people I loved. When it stops being fun, when you turn into that whiner you used to swear you’d quit before you ever turned into, it’s time to take a long, hard look at your chosen career. It took a while for me to separate from acting, and even longer before I wanted to come back and dabble again. Fortunately, when I did, the ties I’d made when I was still going full-steam were still intact. Don’t burn bridges, even unintentionally.