The other day I received an email from an actor who has been in LA for ten years and even though he’s been relentless with his mailings etc., he has yet to get a manager or agent. He wrote about his despondency about not going on meetings: “I'm getting to the point now where I don't know how much longer I can go on with having every professional attempt I've made get rejected…when you continually put out effort year after year, the smallest little break, even if it's just a meeting or an audition can recharge your energy, even your spirit. I'm starting to run very low on both.” He has a good day job but in his words “…no matter how good a job it is, it’s not acting.”
Whew. Most of the actors I know can relate to this. It is so tough out there. Tougher in many ways than when I started out. But, I remember when I started out, the older actors would complain about how tough the business was compared to when they started out. So, the business is always changing. And it's always been tough. I am reminded of Norma Desmond from Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd who couldn't make the jump from silent pictures into “talkies” and probably even more relevantly, from ingénue into woman-of-a-certain-age. She couldn't let go of her image of how her life was supposed to be so she was cut off from the possibilities of her present. What if she had allowed herself to change? To play supporting roles? I bet Mr. DeMille would have given her a job..another close-up.
The same day I received the email from that actor, I visited a manager friend in his office and guess what? The manager was despondent! He was so frustrated that he couldn't get a certain client in for a role--he was worried about changes in the business--he was worried that there will be another strike. So here you are—people on both sides of the table struggling with the same feelings. So what do we do? Well, the business has always been hard. It has always been a miracle that any of us have gotten work. But I know personally that the way to become really despondent is to focus on the problem. And from my perspective, I think the actor has it better in many ways than the manager. The manager is totally dependent on the acceptance of others—the casting directors etc. to give his clients an audition. His fulfillment comes from getting people work. The actor is also somewhat dependent on others too but the actor can find a way to do what he loves. He can go to class, if he can’t afford class then he can learn a new monologue or a new dialect, he can contact the AFI or one of the many local universities with great film departments and offer his acting services, he can audition for a play.
I saw the comedian Margaret Cho on TV the other night on a great show on CNN called The Big Idea. She was discussing how many times she was told to forget her dream of becoming a stand-up. In fact a top agent she met early on told her to give up because Asians never make in in show business. She didn’t listen because giving up was simply not a choice. She was doing what she loves. And she was going to continue doing it whether or not she was “successful” at it. I feel the same way. I know that as long as I am doing my work I am happy. When I am in the moment—that glorious moment when I am really “in” the scene-- where it feels like the part is playing me—I have no idea if I am getting paid, or how much I am getting paid or what my billing is or if I have a dressing room. I am just experiencing pure joy. And often, when I am completely fulfilled by the process of doing what I love and not paying attention-I get a little break. I’ll get an audition or role or maybe a sweet note from a student thanking me for something they heard in class. And it's enough to keep me going.
I always tell actors to give it a finite period of time to see if the acting thing works out—say thirty or forty years—if it doesn’t work in that time, then give it another twenty. You may or may not “succeed” (whatever the heck that means), but what a great time you'll have trying.