The Dual Life of the Actor

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In my first article Welcome to the Desert, I explored how living in the arid, isolated reality of Los Angeles can often immobilize an actor’s life. Too often that paralysis stifles the actor’s creative soul – both personally and professionally. Today I want to explore another common dilemma for the actor: the dual life actors must lead in order to succeed.

Acting is a profoundly subjective art. A musician knows if they play a bum note. The mistake is verifiable. For a painter the canvas is separate – the work can be observed. This sense of objectivity or perspective is not afforded the actor. In the depth of the subjectivity is the wonder and grace of acting. To be able to forget yourself, to lose your self-consciousness is a kind of consistent freedom, and in that freedom there lies great vulnerability. You have to trust others for perspective. This vulnerable state can understandably also lead to fragility and insecurity. How many times in an audition situation (the most stressful place to practice your work) have you felt trapped between remaining surrendered to your work and desperately wanting to observe it from your auditor’s eyes? Yet you know you won’t do your best work if you are watching yourself. As any actor knows, when insecurity, doubt and self-consciousness develop, acting becomes an even more deceptively difficult art form. But to be a truly creative actor you have to embrace this subjectivity.

So, we can agree acting is a subjective art form. But there is one vitally important area of your work where you must become utterly objective: your career and the marketing of yourself. Therein lies the tension and duality of the profession. As an actor you are your art; however, you must also promote that art. Your artistic expression is deeply subjective yet you must also learn to market yourself. To do that well, you must become very objective. It is so easy for actors to blur the subjective and objective sides of their work. Nonetheless, you must constantly balance between these two pulls, learning and owning the times when you are supposed to be fully subjective, and, when necessary, learning and owning the need to be objective. Be an artist one minute and a businessperson the next. When these two become blurred and you try to act on them simultaneously, like in an audition, it becomes very confusing. In the end, it will defeat you and your work – it will immobilize you. However, once you have accepted this duality, you can begin to determine for yourself when you need to be engaged with your creative self and when you need to be engaged with your business self.

There are so many great, albeit obvious, ways in which you can feed your creative self. One important way is to stay creatively active. Don’t just focus on getting representation, sending mailings, making connections, and other aspects of the business. You can market yourself till the cows come home, but if all of your energy has gone to that one area of the profession, how will you remain confident knowing your work has grown rusty. In LA, your primary focus in your career is going to be film and TV, but you end up spending a lot of time waiting by the phone or just going to auditions. That won’t keep the creative juices flowing. You need to stretch and challenge yourself. A musician needs to practice every day. A dancer needs to stretch and practice every day. It’s no different with acting. Audition for plays, and do them even if they are not paying work. Take a class. Find a place where it is safe to make mistakes and continue to learn. Find a place where the “business” aspect of the profession is not the driving force.

Keeping the juices flowing is one of the main reasons in this town why an ongoing class is important, but make sure it is a class where you work every week. Don’t believe the teachers who say it is good to sit and watch other people work. Too often it is a justification for filling a class with as many students as possible. Watching others work is helpful and illuminating, but it’s not as important as getting up there and doing it yourself. Don’t get into a class where you work only every three weeks. If you can’t afford a class, then get together with a fellow actor and work on scenes yourself. It’s not as good as a class, but do anything to keep working. Do readings, be a reader for a casting director, attend open call auditions. Look for any situation where you can immerse yourself in the creative work itself. An actor should always be seeking avenues in which you are allowed to release yourself from self-consciousness. Learn to challenge your ability to play moment to moment, how to see with a growing effortlessness the world through the eyes of the person you are playing. When you are out and about, observe people. Nurture and give confidence to your imagination – your greatest ally. Be an artist who is in love with their art and is always looking to improve. Support and nurture your creative self.

At the core, acting is an art not a business. But in the same manner in which you cultivate and expand your acting, you need to place the same energy in your ability to be a successful businessperson. There are some very tangible steps to take in this area of your work.

Learn to promote yourself successfully. So often actors simply don’t know how to promote themselves. They hope the agent or the manager, or both, will do it for them. Actors don’t want to look at themselves objectively because they are afraid it will negatively affect their ability to sink into a role when the time comes. If you understand the duality of being an actor, the business side will give you confidence. Actors often feel powerless (a subject I will return to in a later article). Being pro-active about your own career is a way to give yourself a sense of empowerment.

The business and career side of acting is a very practical and non-subjective process. To succeed, you must be focused and professional. Your materials should be as professional as your work as an actor. Your headshots need to be as good as they can be. Talk to actors and professionals in the casting world about what makes a good headshot. Interview photographers and check out their portfolios. If need be, save up so you can afford that great headshot. It is your calling card. It is the first impression you give with someone who doesn’t know you. Make it a good one. Also your cover letter and resume must be first rate. There is no room for misspellings (don’t forget that you are also your own secretary). Avoid that trap of wanting to “reinvent” the resume by creating a new format for yours. If you don’t format your resume like 95% of the other actors in LA, it’s going to look like you don’t know what you are doing. You should have a business card and spend time getting your demo reel right. All this, and what follows, are what I call subliminal professional clues. It lets the people in the industry know you take yourself seriously and that you know what you are doing.

This next business practice is huge, and it amazes me how few actors do this in a disciplined manner. Keep track of your work. You are meeting people all the time in this profession. Record the circumstance, who you met, how the meeting went, and the date. When you meet a casting director, you are at the beginning of building a relationship. You never know what relationship you develop is going to come around again two years later. You never know if the director of the student film you worked on is going to be someone making a studio feature or directing a TV show in 5 years. Record every contact. Over time you can create a contact database. Do it in such a way that you can do mass mailings to promote your current projects. Make sure you keep track of your reviews and get a copy of everything you work on.

Every time you have an audition and you get a callback, even if you don’t land the role, send a postcard to the casting director thanking them for calling you back. Anytime you land work, after it is over, send the casting director a thank you card. Do the same to the director and producers. You must be on people’s minds if you want to keep working. Being professional and courteous is in itself a subliminal professional clue. How you conduct yourself at the audition and on set says a tremendous amount about you.

Just as you must be constantly growing and developing your creative side, you must continue to educate yourself about the business. Do you know how to get an agent? Do you know which agent would be best for your talent and stage of development? There are a lot of books and trade papers that can help you with this. Spend a day browsing in Samuel French. Read the industry magazines. The web is your friend, use Google and IMDB. If you are starting out, explore various paid workshops. Talk to other actors. Find out the ones that may be worth doing. There are also free seminars all over town (Casting Networks has at least one every month). Be selective but know what’s out there for you to use.

Once you acknowledge that there is a subjective and objective side to the totality of your work as an actor, you will create a mindset that will enable you to do both fully. You will cease to be immobilized by living in two seemingly contradictory worlds simultaneously. You will have learned how to separate them and be conscious of when you are doing business and when you are doing art.

This article was written by founder and instructor Richard Seyd for his monthly online column with (August 2005).