It's graduation season and scores of young thespians are emerging from our nation’s high schools and colleges. Film Academies, BFA programs, and high school one-acts are collectively releasing a shuffle-stepping multitude on their way to the next stage... literally.
I was once a decorated high-school thespian who chose a college for its Theater program. I graduated from the U of MN Theater Department with a BA and have worked professionally in the business for the last (this can't be right) 13 years. I've got more experience than some, much less than others, and have made gads of awesome mistakes along the way. In this sense, I'm delighted to have acquired some quantity of experience and wisdom, such that I can now lean back and give my two cents to the next wave.
So here it is: To you graduates, I present my top five things every young actor should know:
1. Assholes Sometimes Win:
Now, this should not be taken as its many false equivalents: “Assholes ALWAYS win” or “Good guys ALWAYS lose.” But the fact is that actors who are late, unprepared, rude, slutty, disorganized, and even actually “bad” actors... will be still be hired. Has been, and always will be, true.
In fact, this is as good a time as any to talk to you about the word “deserve.” I have my doubts about its place in the real world but, kiddo, in the Business, very little happens based on the concepts of deserving or fairness. You may “deserve” a role because of your years with a company, or your relationship to the material, or your resume, or a million other reasons real or perceived. And even if these concepts were not totally subjective, it doesn't matter. It really doesn't matter at all.
It also doesn't matter that the asshole who got the role dropped out of their last show a week before opening, or totally lied about another actor to get them fired, or is constantly shrieking about their personal life in the green room, or drives by you at the bus stop every day and never offers a ride, or kills kittens in their spare time...
You get the picture.
It doesn't matter because what trumps it all is that magical, intangible, totally subjective “thing” that permeates theater - all art, really. That little spark flew between a director's vision and an actor's presence and boom: die cast.
It sucks when assholes are hired instead of you (unless, of course, you're the asshole, which often happens) and it will feel like - and may well be - a complete injustice. So, in that way at least, show business it is just like every other job in the world.
And speaking of jobs, this leads us to #2:
2. Everyone is at Work:
The person who takes your headshot at the audition is at work. The person who puts make-up on you is at work. The person editing your film takes is at work. The person answering the phone on your behalf is at work. The person directing the play is at work. Everyone you encounter is doing what they're doing as part of their livelihood, they will be done at a scheduled time (inevitably later than they would like), and they are accountable to someone (other than you) for their success, failure and timeliness. And just like every other red-blooded American - even those of us who love our jobs - they don't want to work any harder or stay any later than is necessary.
This can be a tough nuance for young actors to absorb because many of you have just emerged from a place that may have appeared in every way to resemble the real, professional arena. Cutthroat competition? Check. Highly-produced mega-shows? Check. Thrill of opening and closing a show after all of its ups and downs and near-misses? Check.
But that was the job there.
You were the job there... and thank God, because all that money had to go somewhere...
The school was employed by you to give you that experience. Your educators, even while answering the challenge of producing professional quality theater, have the unique subscript of nurturing you, their student, as an artist and a person.
Out here, that's not anyone's job anymore. People will care about you, deeply - and that's common and terrific - but do not confuse their love with their job. For example, let's say your dear friend has a job with executives of a major movie studio. You think, great, they can, and will, help me get my awesome screenplay into the hands of these big-wigs who will recognize my genius and rocket me to stardom.
Your friend does not present your screenplay into the hands of said-big-wigs.
You panic and a buffet of awful streams through you. Your friend is in fact THE DEVIL - a lying, jealous fuckface who NEVER wanted you to succeed and was totally afraid that your movie would be enormous and you'd be richer and better than them!!! Or maybe your friend thought – nay, KNEW - that your screenplay was shit and is trying to spare you the brutal honesty that would inevitably follow such a foolish leap of faith. Maybe... maybe it's Hollywood strategy and your friend is, in fact, playing the game like a champ!
But the real truth is the hardest, maybe especially for thespians: It doesn't have anything to do with you.
Not you. Not your screenplay. Not even your friendship.
Those big-wigs don't want to see or hear about their employee's friend's goddamn screenplays! Ever. Because if they even pretended to look at every screenplay by every person who had access to them, they wouldn't be able to do their job which - yes - even big-wigs report to big-wigs.
The constant barrage of “would you look at this” is probably so nauseating to big-wigs that the mere mention of your screenplay might seriously jeopardize your friend's job. Their job, which is not about your development as an artist or a person.
Because that isn't anyone's job out here.
Except for YOURS - which leads us to 3:
3. Be Your Best Boss
If you've chosen Theater as a major in college or graduated with a Theater degree, it seems fair to assume that your aspirations are professional - to make your passion your bacon.
It is an endless challenge to navigate the delicate spaces between your art and your career. Most of us wouldn't have gotten this far if our primary pursuit was financial, and yet without financial diligence, this career is impossible. Know how much money you need and earn it. Earn it in a funny hat and behind a microphone whenever you can - but EARN it. Every month. Keep track of your expenses and have a good accountant who specializes in artists. Believe me - you do not want to spend one more hour than you have to explaining to H&R Block why you can write off fishnets and a subscription to People.
A good boss doesn't waste money, so you should be frugal. The only exception is last-minute road trips to the Grand Canyon with your best friend. That is always a good investment. Always.
A good boss invests in young talent, so take classes after graduation. Anything from monologues to improv to cooking to yoga. Your characters' depth will only be limited by your own. A good boss pushes your limits, so never say “no” to anything. And then when you're (finally) overbooked, you can ask your boss for a raise and some time off. And maybe, if you're real good, they'll agree. When you're fortunate enough to start deciding between projects, Taj Ruler said it best: "When in doubt, go P!"
Evaluate the project via the four Ps:
Passion - How, if at all, does this job feed my soul?
Project - How, if at all, does this project further, challenge, or impress me?
Pay - Is there any? Is it enough for the time and effort required?
People - Are they assholes?
How you balance the Ps will vary, of course, widely. You'd be amazed the kind of artless, difficult, garbage you'll do with a bunch of assholes if the price is right... And you'd be equally amazed the money you'll turn down if your gut flat-out rejects it.
Just know what's what. And write it down.
4. Know Your Type and Change With it
You want to know why Justin Bieber is losing his mind? It's because he changed and his type didn't. His entire identity and his fortune - and the fortune of everyone around him - is based on an innocent, teenage, heartthrob. When he was that it was easy. But he's a man(ish) now and when he sees himself on a glittery lunch box, he wants to drive his sports car up Malibu's ass. Can you blame him?
My point, distracted as it may seem, is this: Your type is not your type if it's not based, in some way, on reality; and to wear a false type is as unwise as it is unhealthy. Are you young and hot? Fantastic - embrace your hot ingenue-ness; and play Juliet with baby oil and no bra and make waves! Many years later, however (less than you think, though), your agent is going to call you to play a mom in a minivan and you're gonna have to put your bra on and learn to rock khakis. If you grow a beard and get fat - you, young sleek 20-something college guy - you better know how to do comedy.
Because a job well done, is still done. Have long term goals that star you with white hair and a droopy butt. Create the career that can take you from Juliet to Lady Capulet with dignity.
5. Remember that You Love It
The wording of this one is key. It's not “remember why you love it,” or “remember to love it.” That's none of my business. I assume you love it. Many of us have a pathway to choosing this as our life and they often hinge on a first, and then many more, moments. Maybe it was the first time you met another actor's eyes on stage and the scripts were gone and it clicked and – right!? That heart-stopping-no-shit-I-get-life-thank-God-for-this-place-and-these-people-and-please-God-don't-ever-let-me-be-without-this-feeling moments.
A couple of weeks ago I found myself standing in the hallway of the student union of Arizona State University wearing an 1850s period gown, hair up in a tight bun, delicate shoes - the spitting image (as far as you know) of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. I was not performing in the hallway. I was awaiting an entrance from the hallway into a very undramatic conference room, an entrance which would be cued at any moment, for several minutes. As I leaned into the door and strained to hear, I saw myself briefly through the eyes of those around me. Painfully out of context it looked so awkward. Was, in fact, ridiculous. Just the target of ridicule that the hordes of baseball hats woulda loved to take a swing at.
In that moment, I didn't hang my head and have to remember why I loved my job, or call up some request to love it despite the weirdness. I just knew - I love this. I love it because it's fun and bizarre and I never feel more alive or more connected to the world than I do when I'm working.
Remember you love it. Because otherwise you might mistake what you’re doing for standing hot and embarrassed in a hallway in Arizona.
...and that's not why you did all those years of trust-falls, is it?