I REGULARLY get lots of emails from young people with no real idea of what’s required to be cast in a professional production. And they’re usually written as if it’s some casual phone text between school pals that doesn’t look anything like a standard, professional business letter. Most are some variation of the following: They usually have a few phone pics, no resume and occasionally, a link to some kind of “audition.” And they assume that this is all any casting professional would need to put millions of dollars at risk to give them a shot in a leading role. And it’s completely lost on them that all they really know about themselves is some vague sort of “potential.” And their assessment of that potential isn’t one born of any informed experience or professional knowledge of the criterion necessary to successfully cast anyone for a role. They don’t realize that even if they were given the chance to audition and they managed to come up with one decent reading and putting it on tape, it doesn’t demonstrate a consistent ability across the board and over the long course of a shoot. And they’re not usually concerned about such things-even after you take the time and effort to actually respond and explain that to them. How did so many people gravitate to this way of thinking?
According to a regularly posed set of questions in “The Economist” magazine, the proportion of American teenagers who believe themselves to be “very important” jumped from 12% in 1950 to 80% in 2005. On a test that asks subjects to agree or disagree with statements such as “I like to look at my body” and “Somebody should write a biography about me”, 93% of young Americans emerge as being more narcissistic than the average of 20 years ago. With this rise in “self-regard” has come an unprecedented yearning for the hollow value of fame. In a survey in 1976, people ranked being famous 15th out of 16 possible life goals. By 2007, 51% of young people said it was one of their principal ambitions. On a recent multiple-choice quiz, nearly twice as many middle-school girls said they would rather be a celebrity’s personal assistant than the president of Harvard University! And all this is NOT helped by the EXTREMELY rare instance where someone with no real background got a part like Gabourey Sidibe did in the film, “Precious.” The reason this story is told so often is specifically BECAUSE it’s noteworthy for its rarity. If inexperienced people stepped into leading roles on film sets all the time, you’d never hear stories like this because it wouldn’t be a rare thing at all!
Anyway, it would be a pointless and largely futile endeavor to try to prove how ridiculous these misplaced values of fame and money are in one blog posting. So let’s focus on something more immediately useful. Namely: The realistic illumination of the basic criteria for casting actors in roles. So here’s the scenario: You are a producer of a film. And you’ve raised money for which you are responsible either to yourself or to investors. Obviously, you want to invest that money wisely in terms of where you choose to spend it in getting the picture made. So you interview people for the various crew positions like director of photography, art director, casting director, location manager, etc..etc. And in doing so, you’re likely to utilize a selection criteria based upon their previous experience demonstrating a viable track record in the industry to accomplish these tasks without causing problems that would waste large amounts of your time and therefore, your money. Things that would result in delays and mop ups that would be encountered by putting an inexperienced “rookie” in that position who would have to learn on the job with money at stake. So here are my two rhetorical questions to you as a “would be” actor with AMAZING potential but no visible track record:
1. If you were that producer and it was costing you thousands of dollars a minute to field a crew to shoot, would you put your money at risk by essentially “trying out” an actor who had no viable experience and thought the only criteria they needed was that they were obsessed with fame and thought they had mere “potential?”
2. Or like the trained, professional members of the crew you hired to avoid “rookie” mistakes that would cost you time and money….. would you try to cast an actor who had ALSO demonstrated a reliable track record in the industry for delivering a professional performance in a timely manner when money was on the line?
Because you as the producer would be finding out at the same time as the inexperienced actor, whether or not they had what it takes! ON SET!! And if the answer is “no?” It’s too late. And you’ve wasted not just lots of money, but the time that is available to you to shoot before other members of the cast and crew have to report to other projects. And this can even happen with a trained actor! A friend of mine was originally cast as “Marty McFly” in the film “Back To The Future.” He had studied with famed acting teachers Stella Adler and Peggy Feury and was nominated that same year for a Golden Globe for best actor! But after shooting for three weeks, he and the director felt he wasn’t right artistically for the part. And by then, Michael J. Fox was available so they re-cast him in the role. But they had to re-shoot three weeks worth of scenes at a significant cost to the production. So all this happened even with someone vastly experienced! Can you imagine the greater possibilities for failure with someone WITHOUT any experience and training? Someone who just thought it would be “neat” to be a movie star but hadn’t done any responsible, professional preparation and study?
Many young people who write or call are absolutely sure that their “look” is what is going to open every door between them and that red carpet! So they think that trusty “selfie” they wallpaper their Facebook pages with, is all they really need to send a casting director before “Poof!” They’re a star! . Sorry……. But Meryl Streep’s and Tom Hanks’ “look” without their talent and experience, is valueless. In fact, if they weren’t famous and were standing next to you in line at the supermarket, they’d look like any other ordinary person to you. And Angelina Jolie, Halle Berry and Brad Pitt have attractive looks. But without their accompanying talent and experience, they’re just like a ton of other attractive people out there. The idea of a “Look” is a myth perpetuated by ignorance of the business by people on the outside of it. It’s only one component of the criterion and it changes from role to role. One time your “look” is valuable? The next, it’s a reason you didn’t get cast. Sometimes an actor is too attractive for a role! It’s not a “one size fits all” thing. So save the selfies for Facebook and Instagram.
I know that it’s frustrating to hear, “You can’t get hired unless you have experience!” Because your next automatic question understandably is: “But how can I get experience if no one is willing to hire me…….. because I don’t have experience?” A TOTALLY fair question. But literally every actor you can name has faced this same challenge. At some point, ALL actors you can name, were beginners. So here’s the solution. If it’s really acting and portraying the human condition you love, then you will always find a way to act. Because a true artistic calling is something you can’t NOT do!! It never lets go of you and requires you to honor it regularly throughout your life. And the size of the situation won’t matter at all to you! It may be a small theater where the people on stage outnumber those in the audience. It may be a scene reading get-together at a fellow acting friend’s house. It may be in a community theater program….It may be a free street performance! A true artist with a calling to create, will do whatever they need to do to pursue their art whether it’s acting, music, fine arts, dance, literature…..or any other medium. And you’ll pursue classes and training based upon your desire to break through your current boundaries and expand your talent and abilities out of a pursuit of greater artistic expression. And that will lead you to more and more opportunities and you’ll learn more and more about how to do it better and better. And in the process, you will have demonstrated that track record to rightfully take your place alongside other trained and experienced professionals. You’ll know what you can do BEFORE you step onto a film set! You won’t find out along with everyone whether or not you can do it! And you’ll get professional casting directors to trust you with their reputations by casting you in roles because they know you’re a professionally viable option and a fellow professional.
But if you’re in it for the fame? Do yourself and everyone else a favor and forget about it now. It will be a waste of your time because less than 1% of all working actors even get there. Without a primary focus on the artistry of the craft driving you, you’re unlikely to get a shot at the kind roles that make actors “famous” anyway. And if against all odds you do manage to get there, you won’t keep doing the thing that got you there because your calling was really to become famous. Not to pursue your art which requires discipline and focus over a lifetime. And in ten years, you’ll be on one of those “Where are they now!” shows.
Success to an actor isn’t necessarily demonstrated by the small fraction of those being nominated for major awards and making millions of dollars. The vast majority of successful actors are people you’ll never hear about and who’s names you won’t know. They’re pursuing their calling in local theaters around the country, acting in corporate industrial films, doing commercials, doing script readings for beginning film makers, doing short films for no money, studying acting their whole lives and always trying to get better at being faithful representers of authentic human psychology and storytelling. A great many of them are ENORMOUSLY talented and the only difference between them and the household names you know? Are the number of people who have seen them perform. Just because a lot of people suddenly saw someone in a breakout role, didn’t make them a more talented or better actor. They still have to work at it and maybe even more so because more is expected of them by the public and fellow film makers. And all the famous actors I’ve ever cast over the years, all started out doing things that would never make them “famous.” They all started out as “rank and file” working actors unknown to the public doing industrial films, local commercials and small theater stage plays while studying and honing their craft to continually prepare to deliver when called upon.
Real actors with a calling are totally dedicated to the accurate portrayal of the human condition as artists who can responsibly assist society in our attempts to know ourselves better. And THAT is where artists in ANY medium, share not just a calling, but a sacred trust. It’s a truly noble goal and it should be valued by a society that is willing to financially support such endeavors. And by admitting only those who have paid the dues and demonstrated the necessary respect to the process and the art, to be admitted to the ranks of professional actors. I really hope this has been helpful to you in how to better pursue the craft and study of acting. But if you’re only interested in fame and money without any hard work and you even made it reading this far? Then try “reality” TV. All you need for that is lots of ego and some reasonably dysfunctional behavior likely to produce petty drama with your fellow cast mates! And just like the cast of “The Jersey Shore” and Kim Kardashians of the world, you’ll end up reaching that goal of being famous without having to do anything noteworthy to deserve it!