I recently spoke to a group of Kansas high school students about the biz out in Hollywood. One point that I stressed to them is a lesson that I’ve learned over and over again, “Do more than just act.” I don’t mean produce and write either, although do do those. I mean, in addition to your acting classes and your life in entertainment, take some time and learn real world skills.
All of the kids I spoke with said they wanted to go to college, which is great. My advice to them though, was not to major in acting. I hope I’m not rubbing anyone the wrong way here, but I think unless you plan to become an acting teacher, there’s not much that a degree in performing arts will get you. If you’ve got a degree in something like criminal justice or forensic science and then you’re also a great actor, think of how much more valuable you’ll be to TV shows like CSI or Criminal Minds. If you speak a foreign language then you already know what I mean. I’ve gotten a lot of auditions and a job on a network TV show because I speak German. Having special skills like that puts you in a smaller casting pool when those specific specialty roles come up. And believe me it is much easier to book a role when you’re 1 out of a potential 100 as apposed to the usual thousands of other actress in LA who fit every casting notices for, “female/20’s/Caucasian, African American, ethnically ambiguous.”
In addition to being more marketable, as an actor it’s important to have experience outside of the entertainment business simply because it makes you more human. I have been on the casting side of projects a few times, and it is always apparent when someone shows up who is “just an actor”. If I were casting “Fame” that’d be great, but because most projects don’t call for actors to play actors, actors are needed who can act like real people. If you are one of these actor only actors, you’re reading this right now and thinking, “she can’t possibly tell what I do in my free time in such a brief encounter,” but it’s more obvious than you think. So, shake it up, gain real life experience and meet and hang out with people who aren’t actors.
Now, you may not be a high school student with your whole career ahead of you. I’m certainly not, but I am a firm disbeliever in the phrase, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” I think you’re never too old to learn something new. Of course you need to be taking your acting classes, but don’t make the mistake of getting stuck in a rut with them. Some acting schools will tell you that you have to stay with them for your entire acting career. Of course they want that, that’s how they make money, but I think you should change it up. Stay at your school if works for you, but also take some other classes outside of your comfort zone. I’m taking improv classes for the fourth time at UCB and improv is definitely not my strong suit, but I know those classes help me improve in every other area of my life professionally and personally. Over the years, I’ve also taken a lot of workshops for things like commercial acting, auditioning, and even one for the “Art of Clown” taught by Courtney Cunningham that was incredible. Workshops are a great way to get a crash course in something and maybe find an area that you’d like to expand on. Do some searching; there are tons of classes in LA for things that will help enhance you as an actor. Try some new ones and if you know of some great ones, share them in the comments below.
In addition to acting-specific classes get out and learn some stuff in the real world. Get some street smarts! You can do this by taking classes like martial arts, cooking, foreign languages, or even enroll in some college courses. You can also easily gain some real world experience with a job outside of the industry and away from people who work in it. Try jobs working in offices, waiting tables or bartending, dog walking, personal assisting, or even working construction. If you’re not sure where to start, you can always go to an unemployment office and see what’s out there.
Some actors think that doing anything outside of acting is setting yourself up for a “Plan B” and thus admitting defeat, and I used to think that way myself. I always wanted to say I’m an actor and only an actor because for some reason I thought that was more impressive or meant that I was more serious about my acting career. But now, I’m just disappointed that I didn’t take time before now and especially in college to focus more on other areas of study. It’s not too late for me, though, and its not too late for you either. This dog is learning some new tricks (see some my previous blogs for more details) and I suggest you get out there and do the same. Good luck!