Not too terribly long ago, I accompanied a friend to a dinner function celebrating green industry jobs in Hollywood. The seating was assigned, and I was, for once, the only actor at the table–at a Hollywood event, a rare thing. When I mentioned what I did, the reaction was mixed; the folks at the table were interested, solicitous, and yet skeptical. Oh, was I really an actor? Had I been in anything they’d seen? What was my job job, then?
As vaguely (and depending on the tone, explicitly) insulting as these questions were, they were hardly new to me. Actors get them all the time. It’s a career that has a highly-glamorous profile, and very little mass knowledge of how extremely un-glamorous it actually is. The public conception outside of the industry–or at least the creative side of the industry–seems to be simultaneously that all actors are really just or primarily waiters, and yet somehow that all actors you encounter have at least one credit that you will recognize and find legitimate. Hence, the completely non-malicious and counter-intuitive pairing of: “Would I recognize you from something?” and “So, where do you wait tables?”
The questions didn’t seem to warrant answers. Or at least, the folks at my table certainly didn’t busy themselves waiting for my responses to move on–in tac, at least, if not in topic. Being an actor was such a fascinating career, they all agreed. So brave, so rebellious. Such a gamble–and for what? A shot at something? (Here the tone seemed to turn. What had been brave a moment ago now smacked of foolhardiness.) How many people really made it, after all?
As I listened to all of this, and considered whether it was advisable to interject, one of the women at the table said something that stopped me in my tracks.
“But, see, that’s the point, isn’t it? Actors are narcissists; they crave the fame. They want the limelight. That’s why they indulge in this career. Because they need to be the center of attention. Hence, the shot.”
I’m sorry to say that, as taken aback as I was, I couldn’t formulate a response in the moment. Part of it, I’m sure, was just residual shock that this person sitting two seats down from me, degenerate token actor, would blanket-label all actors narcissists who “indulged” in this career. But much of it was, in hindsight, that as viscerally as I disagreed, I couldn’t have articulated properly why I did so.
Last week, in class, the answer came from watching a terrific actress, I’ll call her Liz, perform a scene and go to a place where when it ended, she couldn’t pull back. During the critique portion, she cried and cried because she was still emotionally connected to her partner and the situation and the truth of it for her, and it was, she said, terrifyingly hard to get back out. That’s why she’d chosen the scene–for the challenge and to push her to new places here in class, where she felt safe. She was afraid, she explained, to go to places like this, where the truth is so scary and the emotion so wild, in auditions, where you can’t let it go and lose your composure. And so, she’d been holding back.
As she was talking, I found myself nodding along in complete agreement. Yes, I thought. That’s me, too! I’ve become afraid to commit fully to a challenging, devastating scene in an audition because I fear that I will lose control of the piece or my performance. And so, I don’t go far enough. Hearing another actor articulate this same problem was humbling–a reminder that we are not alone in our fears and struggles, and I was struck by how brave Liz was to give voice to this in a public setting, even one as safe as class.
While addressing Liz’s work and her fears, our teacher Jami inadvertently also answered the outspoken woman from the dinner party of some weeks ago. Jami first explained that Liz was not alone. How many of us, after all, had had the same reaction I’d had–extreme, immediate accord? Pretty much all, she bet. Actors, Jami explained, are inherently vulnerable and terrified to be so–but compelled to be by their drive to create. This is what drives them, motivates them, and makes them terrific, but also what causes them to implode, stress, and self-sabotage.
While she didn’t go into much detail in the room, the implications were clear; and when later putting Jami’s words into the framework of Horrid Dinner Lady’s comments, I realized that as a species, actors aren’t narcissists, we’re empathists.
So many actors experience emotions so fully that it can be both their greatest strength and their Achilles Heel. They fully commit to the emotional truth of the scene and deliver amazing performances, but they feel everything deeply and without moderation, and it can be crippling for a myriad of reasons. Either, like Liz and so many of us, their anxiety about not being in control of their performance leads them to pull back and self-sabotage, or their heightened sensitivity to everything and everyone before and after a scene can limit their ability to adapt in the moment or to really hear the feedback they receive about their work. And this unfettered vulnerability has consequences at home and in the room; it can ruin relationships, and even–unchecked–your career.
On the personal front, the danger is entirely the mental game we play as actors after every encounter with intense emotional work. Simply, you carry it home with you; when you feel like you failed or went too far or not far enough in an emotional scene, the frustration follows you around like a cloud for hours afterwards. It’s akin to light sensitivity–you’ve entered this heightened emotional state and everything that you encounter in the aftermath remains too bright and too important. And if you’re unlucky or not careful, that frustration will erupt all over the people you love most, which can cause serious harm.
Professionally, that poison can also make it into your performance in the room–if not the actual audition, then everything on the periphery. Outside circumstances start not only informing but also intruding upon your work, and your conduct. Every performance becomes high pressure, and all feedback becomes critique. You stop really listening, and so everything gains the power to hurt you, while nothing is allowed to help you grow. When this happens, you lose control over your own career and your artistic destiny.
So, seek a balance. Jami’s suggestions were myriad for how to do so–meditation and focusing exercises; physical exercise; hobbies; staying in class with peers who challenge and support you–but the end result is the most important. The Audition Room cannot be your mountain every time, a scary place where control is tenuous and jobs won or lost. It is and has to be just another room; just another safe space to practice being a real, truthful actor and being fully invested in the scene.
We’re empathists–vulnerable by definition and by design, and only then by choice. But even when it’s uncomfortable, we can choose to make our vulnerability a strength, rather than a weakness. Let ourselves be transported and let go and reach down deep, but then leave it in the room–not a mountain or an impossible, scary country, but a place where our vulnerability is valued, and welcome and wanted.