“Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You”
It’s not just a punchline in a movie. “Don’t call us, we’ll call you” is a way of doing business that’s – for better or worse - alive and well in the entertainment industry. Not too surprising, considering that the supply of talent greatly outstrips demand. And pretty much has since the first silent movie hit the theaters. Perhaps even before, in vaudeville, Broadway, and on stages everywhere going back to the ancient Greeks.
The same can also be said for those aspiring to become professional athletes, musicians, or visual artists.
It’s not an easy career path. While the public may assume that talent rises to the top, no matter what, so much depends on things that the individual artist, athlete, or musician can’t control. There is no ladder of success that can be climbed based purely on talent, experience, and years of service. No guarantee that even the most gifted performer will be a commercial success or a recognizable asset. It’s a subjective business, driven by the personal tastes of the decision-makers or the whimsical public. It’s the opportunity to be seen or heard by those with the power to launch or further a career. Perhaps hardest of all, it’s career with very little positive feedback – hey, often with no feedback AT ALL - except perhaps when the talent is first booked, while on the job, or worst of all, summarily fired. (Not that being fired is a natural follow-up to being booked or directed on set. Most of the time.)
Actors new to the business often hear, “if there’s anything else you want to do – do it.” This is a thankless business and those who work in entertainment primarily do so because they can’t imagine – or want – to do anything else. As in professional sports, attention is focused on those at the very pinnacle of success. The famous A-listers, the money-makers who can be counted on to draw a large audience, generate widespread media coverage, and increase the odds that the production will be successful.
Most of know firsthand that it’s a hard business, and the statistics bear it out. Only 2% of actors make a full-time living from practicing their craft. That’s 98% who undoubtedly will meet living expenses by doing other things. And for those of us in the 98%, we need to find our balance outside of the acting world. We must find meaning and purpose within ourselves, and not let ourselves be defined by the massive amount of rejection that makes up an actor’s career.
Since there’s no way of knowing when – or how often – we’ll be requested to audition or play a role, it’s important to focus on what we CAN do. Don’t wait for the call that may or may not come tomorrow. We need to actively build our lives today, lives with meaning and purpose. Focus on your life and if they want you, they’ll know how to find you. Assuming that all your support materials are in order with proper contact information, of course - or at least make sure that your agent knows how to get a hold of you when opportunity comes calling.
Here are 12 tips for coping with the realities of an acting career:
1. Develop yourself as a person and cultivate interests and hobbies outside of acting
What are your other passions? Come on, I’m sure you have one or two. Take time on a regular basis to pursue these interests. Not only will they give you greater satisfaction, they’ll make you a more interesting person to the casting directors and producers. Unique qualities that set you apart, additional skill sets, and interesting life experiences are all part of the “value add” that you can bring to a role. Your agent can use those to sell producers on your overall package as an actor. And decision makers will notice.
An example? Skateboarding. Horseback riding. Even baking. If you have a talent for turning out the best chocolate chip cookies since Mrs. Fields, showcase your skills on your social media and note them on your resume. Post photos of that delicious triple layer cake you just made, or a time-lapse video of your latest souffle-making adventure, or even a simple how-to on whisking the batter like your life depended on it … perfect for those roles as a cook, a chef, or restaurant manager. They'll catch the attention of those looking to cast those particular skills. (And who may also be hoping that you'll be bringing edible samples with you to set!)
2. Manage a positive attitude
Focus on your wins, no matter how small. Did you score an audition for that major feature film or network TV show? Congrats! Do you know how many other actors were NOT chosen to audition? Many, many more than were selected, that’s for sure.
See your acting career as a series of valuable experiences, not just as a running tally of accomplishments and rejections. Don't be so hard on yourself. If you submit a poor audition or blow a callback, learn from it and go on to the next one. And keep a can-do frame of mind.
Casting directors, producers, and directors want to work with people they like and trust to do a good job. Actors with a positive outlook lift up the spirits of those around them. They come across as people who are easy to work with. Make sure that you come across as someone they’d want on their team.
3. Don’t take rejection personally
This may seem odd to those outside the industry, but rejection in an acting career is rarely because you, as a person, have been judged and found wanting. Truth be told, most of the time that you weren’t cast is because of other factors that you have no control over: age, height, similarity to the director’s ex, similarity to the lead, etc. Focus instead on your work, i.e. the audition – that’s the real job – and not the outcome. The stuff you do have control over. If you were invited to audition for a role, it’s because someone decided that you could be right for the part and they want to see your unique spin on it. If they go in “another direction” – and sometimes the actor they book is NOTHING like the original character description – there’s usually a reason for it and it has nothing to do with you personally.
4. Realize that sometimes your type is in demand. And other times not.
What are you going to do when the auditions dry up for a spell? It happens. Trends in casting come and go. As you age, you’ll transition from one type of role to another, such as from a young partying single guy to a dad of small kids. There may be a time when you seem too young for one type and too mature for the other, and casting directors don’t know where to fit you. If that happens, continue your journey, knowing that eventually you’ll age into it. I know that I’m in between most mom and grandma roles, as people typically think of them. Sure, I play older moms and young grandmas, but I’m not fitting squarely into one or the other quite yet. Like it or not, time will fix that.
5. Find your “unique value proposition”
A business term, this means that there is something special about YOU that no one else can bring. You’re a unique individual, with your own look, voice, or acting style. Become comfortable in your own skin and try to see yourself as others might. Ask friends, family, and fellow actors to describe you. Write down your interests
and special skills and how those shape you as a person. Acting teachers can be a great help here.
Uniqueness excites casting directors and producers. It doesn’t have to be offbeat, edgy, or shocking. Just an interesting combination of qualities that can make a character memorable. And guess what? We’re all unique. We just have to be willing to be ourselves and be vulnerable enough in front of the camera to let our uniqueness shine.
6. Be supportive of other actors
The best way to have a friend is to be a friend. Support your friends as you would want them to support you, and cheer their successes. More often than not, you’re not even of the same “type” and thus not competing against one another. And if you are, it can be interesting to compare experiences and see why one production cast you vs. your friend and vice versa. Sometimes, that unique value proposition is just the thing that makes someone “perfect” for a role.
Here’s another perspective: stay in the business long enough and you’ll see friends move to other areas in the business. They could very well end up working as casting directors, agents, and film and TV producers. Stay connected and celebrate their journeys, as they should yours. By being a passionate and inspiring force in your community, you will be known, respected, and called on and cast by your friends more than anyone else.
7. Promote yourself
Market yourself on social media. Guess what? More productions are looking to actors’ social medial profiles to get a better sense of who they are as people and if they’re folks they want to work with. It’s not just about how many followers you have on any one platform, although having a huge following (in the 10s of thousands and more) undoubtedly helps.
Keep in mind, too, that there are many amazing actors who are just waiting for their opportunities – and sometimes never get the chances they deserve. Promoting yourself may not change that, but hey, it couldn’t hurt.
Yes, this is partly self-promotion, but mostly it’s about building relationships. Get to know people inside your industry as well as in related fields. For example, actors will, as a matter of course, meet other actors, but focus on meeting those who have a say in production (directors and assistant directors, producers, casting directors, directors of photography, costume designers, etc.). Attend industry events like film festivals and make personal connections. It’s important to connect as a real person, not as your actor persona. Help others get to know the real, unique you: your interests, experience, and so on, versus harping on your professional achievements. People hire those they like, know, and trust. Getting to know you as a real person is the first step.
9. Keep training
This goes without saying if you’re serious about working as an actor. More so, in keeping with the networking strategy, you’re consistently making and deepening your connections in and outside of the classroom. The more people who know your work, the more opportunities for them to think of you for a particular project. And in the short term, more colleagues who can become friends to share your journey and stand with you through both successes and disappointments. We need others around us, not just to commiserate when things aren’t going well, but for the essential human need for companionship and understanding.
10. Create your own opportunities
It’s another twist on the “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” adage. One which many actors embrace, giving themselves not only the opportunity to shine as actors, but to also develop and showcase skills in screenwriting, casting, and perhaps even directing you’re their own projects (though you may have a better objective eye on production if you not star AND direct simultaneously).
Furthermore, it gives you a chance to give opportunities to others in both cast and crew position, favors that may be returned later in happily unexpected ways.
You’ll also learn much more about the casting process by watching actors audition for the roles you create. The good, the not so good, and the downright surprising auditions can help you better develop your own process. And, if nothing else, you’ll gain an intimate appreciation of what goes on long before you’re called on to audition for a part. You’ll see first-hand why some actors are better suited for a role than others, even if the others you “reject” may be technically superior. And like the casting directors you hope to impress, you’ll find yourself keeping those actors’ headshots and resumes handy for future projects you’ll be casting. Perhaps you may even decide to write or expand a different role altogether, tailored specifically for that actor to play. This happens in all levels of the industry.
Finally, let me leave you with one BONUS TIP, one you may have already heard (and possibly ignored) from acting teachers and coaches:
The audition IS the job. The booking is the icing on the cake.
Enjoy the process!
You’re an actor because you love the work.
You want to tell a story.
So tell it in the audition and make it your own. The audience will decide if your version is the one they have in mind, the one they think best fits. Or not. It doesn’t matter, if you’re just being you, because you’re not going to do so well being someone else. Unless you’re an incredible impersonator and that’s what the role calls for. But that’s quite another story, and not one I’m telling here.
Enjoy the journey. Learn all you can. Make friends along the way. Contribute as you wish. Just remember, the booking is the icing on the cake. It’s as sweet as all get out, but you’re not going to get there unless your focus is on baking the most delicious cake possible. With every audition, tell the story from your character’s perspective authentically, immersing yourself in their foibles, hopes, fears, and situation. Make their goals your own and show your unique spin as they fight for what they want or need from the scenes.
Do your best, forget about it (i.e. don’t worry about the outcome), and then move on to the next opportunity. If they want you, they’ll call you. You can’t force the results, but you can pull them to you with outstanding, genuine, heartfelt work.