Hey you – struggling actor. Yes, you. Come with me for a moment. I want to take you on a little journey.
Imagine for a moment that you have achieved your dreams. You did a terrific role in an important film, say, in the past year. Your work was noticed by the press & your peers. In fact, you were nominated for -- no, you won! -- an Oscar or an Emmy or a Tony -- whatever turns you on most.
& before this award-winning role (stick with me) you worked regularly for quite some time. You got paid well for it. A series maybe, or a string of roles on Broadway. You got a house. You took a vacation to Mexico. You bought a new car. You bought new car for your Mother. You own a pair of Prada shoes &/or an Armani suit. You worked hard, studied hard, paid your dues & you feel great about your success.
& you truly are the real thing -- not just a star but an artist. The best part is now you have access to more work & better work. You've got an abundance of choices. Every week your agent sends you 3 or 4 scripts to read: people you’ve always wanted to work with now want to work with you, too. Your career & your creative dreams are in harmony: flourishing / full / vital.
Okay, so -- What is your professional day like, when you’re not on set or in rehearsal? Let's say this: you get up in the morning, work-out with your yoga instructor / personal trainer / French teacher / fill in the blank. You shower. Make yourself a cup of coffee. Eventually you go to your desk & see an inviting pile of scripts. Any one of them contains a role that is yours for the asking. How do you make the choice?
You’ve already read most of them. Now you decide to go through them, one by one, to remind yourself. & let’s say each one comes with an equally good director, cast & money (this is a fantasy, mind you.)
So: the first one on the pile. Well, you really loved this one. But now for a moment let’s say your Oscar role was that of a semi-unattractive serial killer. And the script in front of you, while wonderful, requires you to play the role of, yes, a semi-unattractive serial killer. Not now, you think. Now, something different.
You ponder for a moment. Why? Is it to prove to the world you can do something else? No. Early on, in the beginning, it was about proving something...yes, you remember how that felt. Doing it in order to showsomeone else you could do it. Or to beat the competition. But now? It occurs to you that stuff is no longer your driving motivation.
As you sit there, you realize you don’t have anything to prove. You want to do something different…because... because... there is another aspect of yourself you want to give air-time to. To reveal. To connect with. To explore. An aspect of yourself, combined with an aspect of life, that you want to engage with. For your growth as a person & an actor, you want the challenge of making a different kind of character breathe / be real / believable. You put the first script aside & pick up the second one.
Now let’s say you are Al Pacino & you’ve won your award for playing Roy Cohn in Angels in America. The second script on the pile is by, oh, Tom Stoppard. It speaks to another political issue that you're passionate about. It is not, you think, just a role, but something that might do some good, shed some light. It tempts you. (& you’ve never been to Buenos Aires & always wanted to go!) You imagine yourself living in the world of the script, immersed in the place, the ideas, the purpose. The work you just did gave you an appetite for work that not only feels but thinks. That speaks to something you believe in. Hmmm…This is interesting.
Actually, where’s that new book you were reading, that relates in some way to this script? Something in it really struck you. On your nightstand. You find the passage. You sit on the edge of your bed & read. After a moment your body takes over & you start speaking it aloud. With no effort, the words ring with passion, intelligence, soul. When you are done you feel invigorated & ready to get to work. Yes, you just played a role that made a political statement. But really, given the world these days, you don't feel like doing anything but that. Perhaps this is the one. You go back to your desk to touch base with the rest of the pile. But you're already starting to feel exhilerated about the journey ahead.
Now imagine you are Meryl Streep, tea cup in hand, picking up the third script in the pile. It’s terrific. So is the next one. & the next one. (Of course they are, you’re Meryl Streep!) But something’s wrong. Maybe the problem is... that they are all film scripts. You began as a theater actor & lately you miss the gratification that comes from working in front of a live audience. Hmm, another kettle of fish. Shakespeare, Williams, Chekhov -- what?
Even though you are Meryl Streep, your life is not perfect. Perhaps your mother just died. Perhaps your marriage is troubled. Something is wrong & you find yourself longing to escape from the rigors of real life. You want to live in another world. After all, you don’t have to make a statement with everything you do. You haven’t been fun…silly for a long time and you realize that’s what you need now. Wait. That new play that wonderful young, unknown writer sent you...yes, that’s exactly it. You open it up to a speech you particularly like. You begin to read it aloud. Yes. Yes.
Now quickly morph into Tom Hanks. The coffee is de-caf. The pile of scripts – as usual, are all pretty good. One is a comedy, one a drama, one challenges you to use an aspect of yourself (your aggression? your fear of death?) you’re scared of.
But really, what you're dying to do next is work with people you like & trust & admire. Director Y, or Actor Z. The two of you have talked about finding a project. Given the last experience, right now what matters most to you is who you're in the room with on a day-to-day basis. You look through the pile. Which one of these would offer the two of you a great opportunity to play together? The 4th one, here... Yes! Awesome! Y or Z would be great for this. You read a speech out loud and imagine Y or Z in the mix. Excellent. Why not call Y or Z? Have Y or Z over this afternoon & read together? You reach for the phone.
Last but not least, you're George Clooney. It's the third cup of coffee & you've gone through the whole pile twice. All good, but...nothing. You know what? Maybe it's...acting! It (acting) just isn't doing it for you right now. You're wanting a different kind of challenge. Wait. The 5th script on the pile doesn't have a role for you at all. But it sure as hell is something you think belongs in the world. Producing? Directing? Yeah, maybe that's it. Right now, at this moment, maybe that's exactly what you need.
Now (sorry) let’s go back to you, the real you. Where are you right now? Driving to your day job? Taking the subway to meet some friends, wondering how you are going to pay this month’s rent? Fretting about not having any auditions this week, this month? Changing your clothes in the car for the next commercial audition of the day?
Must be nice, you think, but this has nothing to do with me. I have to act whatever they give me. Gee, I hope that day will come, but until it does, I just have to slog along. My agent hasn’t littered up my desk with a pile of scripts. I don't have the luxury of making choices.
... Yes, but to some degree, in the most basic of ways, you're the same as Al & Meryl & Tom & George. Don’t you have a bunch of plays or film scripts lying about? Don’t you have coffee? Can't you read aloud? Can you conceive of getting up in the morning and thinking: What do I want to do next?
Is your life imperfect, too? Are you in touch with something going on in the world that makes you angry or hopeful? That you want to talk about? Are you longing to fall in love? Are you tired of being appropriate? Has your road been so tough lately that you long to escape to a different world?
Don't you have actor / director friends? A cel phone with which to call them? An unknown writer friend with a new script? Wouldn't you really like to work with one of them? Can you call them up to come over for a play-date? Is there something that doesn't even have a role for you that you'd like in some way to push forward?
Even without an agent-generated pile of offers, can't you still take responsibility for what you want to work on? Can you still search for / find / get excited about what you want to try next? Can you, without anyone else's permission, give yourself permission?
I suggest that from this moment on, right now, you decide to live as a famous & accomplished actor. Not from the world’s point of view (no, at this moment, that probably won’t work.) But from your point of view, as a creative artist. Decide to make your raison d'être all about choosingrather than waiting or proving. Decide to invest yourself in your creative desires rather than in winning the competition. In all the ways that you possibly can, live from the place of who you would be & what you would be doing if you owned your corner of the world. In so many of the ways that count, that's not so far-flung from where you are now.
I often say to the actors I teach that you get to choose your own material at two points in your career: when you’re a star & when you’re in acting class. It’s bewildering to me how often actors prefer that I choose it for them. To me this is a form of giving your power away. It’s a passivity that won’t serve you very well in the long run. In the famous & successful run. If we're to realize our potential, we will be calling the shots.
So why not start today? Habituate yourself to exercising your power & your possibilities & your passion on a daily basis. Be famous, now.
I found this photo of Marilyn Monroe reading a script, taken by
Ed Clark for Life Magazine, on the website: If It's Hip, It's Here.
QUESTION: What is stopping you from taking care of your creative desires? The world? Or you? I'm not suggesting an answer, I really want to hear your thoughts.