By: Jackie Apodaca
Building and maintaining an acting career is a daunting endeavor, especially in the early years, when you’ve got so little idea about how to navigate the terrain. Here’s a list I’ve pulled together, with help from some folks with a few years of experience under their belts, of things I wish I had known before I decided to become an actor. It’s a long road. I hope this list helps you skip a few potholes.
1) It’s called show business for a reason.
Acting for a living is a business. I wish I had worried less about whether it was an art or a craft and had begun researching it in a practical, unemotional manner. My actor pal Nick says, “How one handles their business—relationships with agents, managers, producers, and directors—is crucial. Business sense and relationships matter as much as talent, beauty, luck, and opportunity.” Flora, another actor with years of experience, adds, “I think it’s sometimes difficult for an artist to look at the pragmatic side of life. Certainly I would have liked to have had more business tools. I wish I had known when I first started out how important that is, ultimately.”
I wish I had listened less to acting teachers and sought out advice from working actors. Why I thought teachers, far removed from the real grit of the acting industry, had the skinny on the current practices of the acting profession, I’ll never know. I should have tirelessly queried the numerous professional actors I had the luck to work with in graduate school. Instead, I just hung out with them backstage, assuming my place among them was assured.
One should always overprepare for every opportunity. It’s funny: I was pretty good about this one at first, and it paid off, landing me an agent and a really great job right out of school. But because it wasn’t a lesson I really understood, I slacked off, assuming my success was based purely on talent. It was especially hard to overprepare for jobs I didn’t deem worthy of my “art.” Silly me. Actor pal Amy clarifies what overpreparing means: “Read the script, look up everything in your monologue or sides you don’t understand or can’t pronounce, make active choices for each beat, and rehearse, rehearse, rehearse—preferably with another human being! That way, when you go in, you’ll be able to relax and do your best work.”
No. 4 is from Nick, who’s seen a lot more CDs in his career than most: “What I wish I knew is that casting directors don’t forget the times you’ve come in not quite ready—’slightly half-baked’ is how I like to coin it. I wish I knew that having three auditions in one day might only allow me to be able to focus 30 percent of my attention on each, and that I would ultimately show up to all the auditions half-baked. Casting directors don’t forget because at the end of the day, their jobs are on the line, as they bring in guys and girls who need to wow everybody in the room so they look good.”
Yes, having strong opinions serves me well as a producer, director, and, heck, as an advice columnist, but I probably turned off more than one colleague with my “helpful” suggestions. It took me a while to learn to keep my mouth shut when the timing or situation didn’t call for my input—something I still struggle to do. On keeping your mouth shut, Amy adds this helpful point: “When you get frustrated with a casting director, director, technician, designer, or another actor, take it home to your mom, your significant other, or your shrink. Try not to yell at, write nasty letters to, or in any other way express your dissatisfaction to the above-mentioned people. You’re probably overly tired, hungry, or reminded of someone from your past who angered or hurt you. Build bridges; don’t burn them.”
I wish in those times when I was getting all tied up in knots about blowing an audition or not landing a role or wondering why some agent/CD/director hadn’t called, I’d remembered not to take any of it too seriously. Yes, actors are important vessels of communication in a society. And yes, acting is a difficult craft. But one role, one job, one audition? It’s just not that big a deal.
7) Money isn’t everything.
You can have a satisfying actor’s life without making a dime off your acting. Throughout my early years, I believed that making 100 percent of my living from acting was the definition of success. I have since watched numerous actor friends, some of them far more talented than I could ever hope to be, give up acting altogether. I now believe that continuing to act, in and of itself, is success. Funny, this is how I looked at acting when I first fell into it in my teenage years. I didn’t stress out about day rates or callbacks. I just acted whenever I could, for the sheer pleasure of acting.
Yes, clearly, being friends with Steven Spielberg or dating George Clooney would be helpful, but what I didn’t understand when I began was how incredibly important all my connections with other up-and-comers would turn out to be. People from classes, plays, theater companies, films, and even crappy local commercials have turned out to be incredibly valuable connections. Networking doesn’t mean getting established people to pay attention to you; it means paying attention to the people you are already working with.
9) Don’t believe the hype.
I, like many of you, have heard that old diatribe “If there’s anything else you can do, go and do it” so many times my head hurts. For a while I believed it. Then I looked around and saw how capable, well-adjusted, and multifaceted my fellow actors really were. I realized that any of us, all of us, could do many, many things. What’s more (and here’s the shocking part), we could be happy doing them! Pursuing an acting career is a choice, just one of many wonderful choices open to you. It’s not “all or nothing” or “take it or leave it.” Honestly, I don’t even believe it’s a calling (although my fellow Working Actor columnist, Michael Kostroff, would disagree). I believe now, looking at it 20 years in, that it’s just a thrilling, invigorating, creative, explorative, inquisitive, and passionate thing to do. I love it, but there are plenty of other things I can and will do.
You may have heard this saying more than once. Attribute that to its accuracy. Success, in whatever form it takes, comes with time and many years of hard work. Sure, we’ve all heard stories about the exceptions—overnight sensations who don’t seem to have to work for their fortunes. For most of us, however, the actor’s life is just that—a life. Don’t put too much importance on any one role/job/agent/break. Try to enjoy the journey.