a bit of advice for a new actor

a friend who lives outside Los Angeles, recently started an acting class for (i think) the first time. she posted two different monologues unlisted on youtube and asked me for some advice – some pointers. as i was writing the letter back to her, i realized that it had in it a bunch of advice that i really wish somebody had told me when i was just starting out. below is nearly the entire response as i sent it back to her, but there are a few edits – primarily to protect her identity but also to remove stuff that is kind of specific to her and therefore not likely to be of help to anybody else. i did of course get her permission to post this in this way, so please don’t feel weird about that – she’s okay with me posting this here.

acting tips

there is one section that i’m keeping in (with just a tiny change) that’s a little specific to her that has to do with her accent. she’s from Europe and her accent limits her cast-ability more than say a thick New York or Southern accent, but though there are opportunities for people with thick American Regional accents, it is definitely my opinion that opportunities increase for actors who can master accents – just look at Sean Penn and Glenn Close and Gary Oldman – but it’s definitely not the kiss of death for an actor. it just opens more doors, and in my friends case, her particular accent would limit her possibilities substantially.

so that said, here’s my response:

hey [removed],

i watched your monologues yesterday and let me first say i was pleasantly surprised. you clearly have talent and IMHO could – with some intelligent and persistent work – have a future as an actress. you’re very comfortable speaking lines as if they’re your own – which is an excellent place to start – but also have an instinct for understanding what the character is actually going after, what their objective is – and that’s the most important job of an actor, full stop.

beyond that, i’m not sure what kind of advice you’re looking for. if you’re still in that class, i’m sure your teacher is already working with you on a few different things and i wouldn’t want to confuse their process at all. different teachers value certain qualities over others, but they’re all going the same direction, so having more than one person giving you acting advice at the same time can have counter-productive results. i’d rather say to trust them and their process and give yourself over to it as much as you can – that is the best way to get your money’s worth while studying with them.

let me instead give advice of a more business-minded or administrative nature.

casting options1) the first thing i’d suggest is to find somebody who can train you how do a really solid American accent. limiting yourself to the [European] girl speaking English will severely limit your cast-ability – a very large number of our biggest stars aren’t American, yet have flawless American accents, so get yours as soon as you can and you will find your casting options multiply exponentially.

2) audition for and act in everything you can. do not wait until you think you’re “ready”. find out what the local casting networks are (there are several in Los Angeles – including a number of publications and web sites) and connect to them. consider even the auditioning process acting – and whenever you’re not hired for something, do NOT let that discourage you. take it from somebody who’s been on both sides of that table. NOT getting a job says absolutely nothing about your talent or even your skills – more often than not, it has much more to do with things you have no control over. perhaps you’re too young for the role. perhaps you don’t have the right kind of chemistry with the actor they’re already cast in the opposite role. you can’t control that kind of thing, so there’s really no point in wasting your time worrying about it. just audition all you can and learn to love the auditioning process – learn to channel those anxieties and fears that are naturally a part of that process into making your work better and more focused.

then as you audition and work more and more, keep your eye on …

3) … your casting. this is perhaps the least understood term by actors. i almost just said “new actors” then amended it in my head to “actors without years and years of experience” but the sad truth is that this part of the business sadly has very little to do with experience. i’ve known tons of extremely talented actors with literally decades of experience that still never get a true understanding of their casting. i’ve found that casting has to do with a couple of things:

a) a willingness to set aside your ego and see yourself on screen (or stage) as if you were somebody else. a willingness to see yourself, warts and all, as you really appear and sound. i say appear because it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with who really are – who you are off stage or away from set. you might be a wonderful person, but might have physical features and a particular voice that lends itself very well to playing an asshole or a raging bitch.

b) a certain amount of business savvy. an understanding that every successful business must have an honest and realistic understanding of its economic edge over its competitors.

stage actingif you’re already well-known and have a smart, savvy agent or manager, you don’t have to worry so much about casting – the offers you get will simply fit your casting automatically. also, if you’re big enough the public might even be willing to see you stretch a bit – particularly if you do it in some random indie here or there, but 99.999% of the acting work force, must know their casting or risk wasting an incredible amount of time and energy, barking up all kinds of fruitless trees (sorry for the mixed metaphor).

as a director, i absolutely love actors and the myriad opportunities i see for them. i love finding actors for my filmmaking friends and creating connections that wouldn’t have happened otherwise and then hearing after the fact how amazed the director, producer or crew member friend of mine was by the actor or actress i suggested for the role. however i also hate to turn down actors who come in to audition for me and then blow me away by their talent, but i have to keep the best interests of the piece in mind. that’s just the nature of the beast and it’s important to understand that as an actor or you risk getting extremely discouraged whenever you don’t book a gig.

incidentally, i do keep in mind actors who blow me away at auditions but whom i can’t use in the current project. i stay in touch with them and will readily suggest them for other projects and use them in future projects whenever possible. for instance, the actress that i didn’t hire for a project i did in late ’09 ended up doing VO on that same project once we hit post and i’ve used her in two other projects since.

the over-all moral of the story is that acting is a career like any other and it requires patience and persistence and intelligence. you obviously already have the talent. if you’re willing to stick it out, do all of the work and try (as much as possible) to keep your ego out of it and be honest with yourself every step of the way, you CAN make a living at it. you might not become rich and famous, but if that’s why you want to act, you might as well go out and buy lottery tickets. otherwise, if you just want to keep it as a hobbie, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that – just so you know. everybody needs a hobby and acting is as fine a hobby as any other, i guess.

there you have it. i know it’s a lot and i know some of it might seem harsh, but acting in my experience is one of the most mis-understood professions out there and i’d very much like to help change that if i can.

cheers & again, congrats. you work impressed me.

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