Actor 101 – Catching the “Bug”

I had a conversation with a marketing client. He asked me, because I’ve been in the entertainment business for a long time, why his niece, who is struggling to make it as an actor, won’t join him part time in his office. The way he sees it, if the whole “acting” thing doesn’t work out, she’ll have a job that can grow into a decent career.

I didn’t know what to tell him.

He commented that actors seem to really hang on to the idea of being actors even if things don’t seem to be working out.

I didn’t know what to say.

Then he waited for me to respond.

I know that I’m not unique in hearing this. Usually when you hear it it’s coming from a relative or authority figure you are close to. Not usually from someone else’s relative where you have no context on the situation and, as I’ve mentioned before, context is important!

I fumbled and flailed for an answer. Since it was completely off topic I tried to just brush it off, but he was persistent. I implied that it’s very hard to give up on a dream; he countered that she isn’t making a living. I asked what she had been working on, he had no clue. It was a circular conversation headed nowhere. I finally finished by telling him that when you catch the acting bug it can be very difficult to shake and that the more he pushes it, the more she’ll likely push back. That must have been what he needed to hear because he was ready to move on after that.

But I thought about that conversation the rest of the day. I didn’t know why it was so hard to give him an answer. I tried to think about why I stuck with it, but I always feel like I’m a bad test case. I “caught the bug” back in kindergarten and was fortunate enough to have a variety of things all fall in my favor:

  • Supportive parents who didn’t mind making the commitment with me.
  • Moving to Southern California at an early age.
  • Beginning a professional acting career as a child and having success right off the bat.
I credit these three things, things that I had no direct control over whatsoever, to me having any kind of career more than any talent I have or persistence I may show. Not everybody is as fortunate. So I thought about it in a more abstract way. There is a trope, almost an archetype, of the hopeless actor who is always ready for the next audition as they get ready for their waitress job. It is a reality, but I’m talking about the way it’s portrayed in movies and TV shows where there’s an unfettered optimism about how they will make it soon, but it will probably be after they deliver that last coffee to table 22.  There are lots of reasons why people want to become an actor, but I believe that when it shows up in its most honest form the only people who are willing to go for it are optimists or natural gamblers. Or both.
There are, of course, lots of lures to becoming an actor: fame, respect, money, attention from the desired sex; all of these reasons, though, usually lead to burn out pretty quickly when/if there isn’t a relatively quick reward. The people who truly stick with it, who have a hard time doing anything else, they require that optimism/gambler mentality. 
It’s not an easy life to be a performer in the United States. As much as the life is praised and desired in the public eye, in private it gets very little respect. It isn’t seen as a “real’ career and too many times the very people you count on for support are the ones who will tell you that you can’t do it. They’re right to be skeptical, if it were easy then EVERYBODY would do it (and sometimes it feels like they are) but if they don’t support your choice it can be very hard to stick to it the way you need to to make it. That last reason alone is why so many working actors in the U.S. are also self-starters and entrepreneurs. It takes a lot of drive to actually make it and “making it’ at even the smallest level can take years. 
But there’s a flip side to that coin: not everyone who really wants it, no matter how much, are going to make it. Some people, most people, will not work enough to support themselves. That is a fact backed up by actual numbers and here are three articles that I found just doing a very basic Google search:
Like I said, the people close to you have a reason to be skeptical, but here’s the thing – it’s worth the shot.
Dreams are dreams for a reason, they are the things we want most that we know are hard to get. A dream career is something that at least has a shot of coming true provided you are willing to do the work. Yes, the numbers are against you, but if you’re an optimist/gambler then that doesn’t matter. Liker Han Solo said, “Never tell me the odds!” If you are an entrepreneur then now is the best time to try your hand at an entertainment career because all the old models are dying and everyone – big studios, small studios and anything that shows video content – is looking for the new way to monetize the work. It’s going to happen, but it’s still very much in the air as to who is going to show the rest of us the way.
So I guess, if he were to ask me again, I still wouldn’t have a great answer to his question but I do understand where she’s coming from and I’m right there with her.
See you next time.

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