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Don’t Count Yourself Out! – The Power of Your Second Act

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I’m going to be 40 years old on August 8th and until recently I was feeling all sorts of messed up about it.

As a woman in the entertainment industry, it has always been a bit hard for me to admit my age. In part, because as an actor I generally play younger than I am (thanks to my half-Asian genes and rather energetic demeanor), and also because of a self-inflicted pressure for where I thought I “should” be by this point in my career.

My reason for writing this article is two-fold.  One: because there is true discrimination that can exist in the industry tied to age, which is why Gabrielle Carteris (President of SAG/AFTRA) was doing all that she could to have this information removed from IMDb. (Someone added my birthdate online without my knowledge, and I can’t get it taken down. So, c’est la vie.) And two: I have a suspicion that other people out there have had a similar feeling of “here comes forty” panic.

So, what does turning “forty” even mean?  Of course, it’s different things for different people and a lot of people feel really empowered by growing older. I always wanted to feel that sense of empowerment and kept waiting for that magical moment when I’d feel incredible about the age that I’m at, but that bit of revelation was taking its sweet, sweet time.

I jumped to Google and read the numerous articles showcasing people in different fields who flourished after forty including Vera Wang, Julia Child, Samuel Jackson, Arianna Huffington and the list goes on. I also followed the twitter feed of TV writer/producer Melissa Hunter who asked that “instead of 30 Under 30 and NextGen lists, please profile middle-aged people who just got their big breaks. I want to read about a mother of 2 who published her first novel, a director who released their first studio feature at 47, THAT’S THE LIST WE WANT.”  The tweets that came back are phenomenal, take a look.

In spite of all of this, I was still feeling super crap-tastic about this upcoming birthday, and I only talked to a few close friends about this looming dread.

I had put a pile of expectation onto myself as far as where I thought I should be in my career at this point, and it was weighing down on me in a major way. I wasn’t able to see all that I had accomplished for fear that time was rushing on too quickly to achieve the rest of the dreams and goals I still have.  I was stuck in the dreams of 20-year-old Helenna, not accounting for the fact that the world, the industry, and ME have all changed drastically in the two decades since I was starting theater school.

Feeling all of this turmoil and anxiety as 2019 came to a close had me in knots, and it wasn’t until the day that I talked to my long-time career coach and friend Barbara Deutsch that things took a turn for the better.

We were doing our annual recap session where I “complete the last year and create the next year” with her.  She could tell that I was deflecting from something that was bothering me, so she stopped me at one point and said, “Helenna, you are deeply disappointed about turning forty.” I was speechless. She was right.  I hadn’t said those exact words, or even really mentioned my feelings to her about it because at that point, I could barely admit this sadness myself.

That conversation was the first time someone truly acknowledged that specific emotion coming from me.  She didn’t immediately launch into telling me how great getting older is – until then, all I had heard was people encouraging me saying “age is just a number”, “getting older is awesome” “forty is the best decade” and more.  She really saw ME, she saw my sadness and my disappointment, and with that one sentence she made me stare that emotion right in the face.

Barbara gave me permission to feel shitty.

She is a woman who has been in this industry her whole life. She is a mother and a grandmother, an actress, a singer, a career/life coach, and this comment from her was followed by some of the best stories I’ve ever heard about aging and especially aging in this industry. Oh my God, I hadn’t laughed that hard in forever.

In her own special way, she basically told me that it doesn’t matter what other people say, whether it’s that turning forty is wonderful or that there is no way I could be forty because I look twenty-eight. I would have to come to that place of acceptance on my own.  She told me that I can’t turn back the clock, I can’t wish for more years, and I can’t stop it. It sucks, especially for women in entertainment, but it is what it is. There is no magic pill to stop time.  And that was when the shift happened.

By just seeing me, and acknowledging that I felt the way I did, I was given the permission that I couldn’t seem to give myself. I was able to let go.

After my conversation with Barbara, I listened via audiobook and also physically read, Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones and The Six.  I absolutely love this book for numerous reasons but one of the things that really stuck with me was the line, “Don’t count yourself out this early, Daisy. You’re all sorts of things you don’t even know yet.”  After reading that I had a good cry and all I could think of is YES. Yes, I am all sorts of things that I don’t even know yet! How fantastic and empowering.  I can still do anything I want, be anything I want, be even more of myself. I can continue to adventure and work hard and slay my goals, and as many women I’ve talked to who are forty years of age and over have said, I can truly “give less fucks”.

I started really looking at the women around me, especially those in the Ms. In The Biz community and other female filmmaking circles, and also other career fields who are CRUSHING IT as they come up to and pass forty, even those in their fifties and sixties.  A lot of them have either reinvented themselves or reinvigorated their careers, and they are flying high in “Act 2” of their lives.

The conversation with Barbara and reading Daisy Jones all took place in December.  And now at the beginning of February, I can honestly say that magical shift I was looking for finally happened. As the women of one of my favorite podcasts My Favorite Murder would say… “FUCKING HURRAY!”

It took me awhile to come to a place of acceptance, but I’m feeling pretty freaking phenomenal about where I am at and I’m really excited about where my “2nd Act” is taking me.  I think the most important part of it all is that I took the time that I needed to process this passing of time, feel in the dumps about it, really take stock of everything I have and everything that accomplished, and then take a good long look at what goals I have now that are truly achievable.

I have also realized that am so much fuller of a person, an artist, and an actor with these almost forty years of life under my belt. And because of my plethora of life experience, hardships, perseverance, and persistence, I’ve learned that while I love this industry and it is something I’m deeply committed to, it’s also not everything.

I’ve talked about this before but having lived in LA for a decade, I believed the lie of the “hustle” for so long, and it wrecked me. I thought that I had to work myself to the bone more than anyone else, that I had to stay on the hamster wheel the longest, but that’s a toxic fabricated “truth” in our society. For me, nothing good can come from a place of utter exhaustion. I know that for myself, for all of us, we are all better if we truly enjoy life while pursing our careers. Work/life balance is no joke. It is of utmost importance.  Living life, REALLY living life, is imperative. And by doing that, my work and my craft only get better.

The best part is that “2nd Acts” can be different for every single one of us.  For example, some women I know have stuck to the same goals, dug in even farther and are crushing it!  Others have found new passions and moved on to follow them. Some have taken a break to start families, get Masters’ Degrees. Others are now SLAYING the game directing, writing, producing.  Some of these women will leave and come back to the entertainment industry, some won’t. Either way it’s all about living the fullest life we can all live and feeling ZERO guilt or shame about it. It’s all about the strength of our gusto and enjoyment of the “2nd Act”. 

For me, I get to put all of the years of hard work in this business to good use to fuel me. So now I’m just excited to use that good ol’ improv training and say “Yes, and.” To my “Act 2”. Yes, I’ve worked as an actor in the entertainment industry for almost two decades. Yes, I’ve produced numerous projects including two feature films. Yes, I founded Ms. In The Biz and have grown and cultivated a strong and supportive amazing community. AND now, I’m going to build on everything that I have. I’m going to draw on all of my experience so far, grow my career in entertainment even further, and open new doors in other areas as well.

The marker of this shift into the “2nd Act” of my life and career is my upcoming fortieth year.  For you it could be something entirely different, because your “2nd Act” can start at any age, at any time, YOU control that and it’s a freaking beautiful thing.

Maybe you are feeling that “Act 2” shift and you are thirty-one, or fifty-six, or seventy-eight. Maybe it’s your “Act 3” or “Act 4”. But like me, if you at any point find yourself at a crossroads or disappointed with what you have not yet accomplished, take a moment (or as long as you need to truly process how you are feeling) and don’t count yourself out this earlybecauseyou’re all sorts of things you don’t even know yet.”


P.S. Since writing this article, the Superbowl halftime show happened and J.Lo at 50 and Shakira at 43 completely rocked it, and a zillion articles came out about how women over 40 are AMAZING for numerous reasons.. So, yah. ‘Nough said. 😉

Helenna Santos

About Helenna Santos

Helenna Santos is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of Ms. In The Biz. She is also an actor and producer with Mighty Pharaoh Films and can often be found on panels at conventions such as San Diego Comic-Con, and has been interviewed by major press outlets including CNN. Her work as a contributing writer has been featured in MovieMaker Magazine, Backstage Magazine, IndieWire and BUST Magazine. She has produced numerous award winning short films, digital series, and feature films. As an actor, she can be seen in CW's "The Flash," as well as ABC's "A Million Little Things" and "The Good Doctor", and the highly anticipated Netflix limited series "The Baby-Sitters Club". Her latest feature film as producer and actress "The Shasta Triangle" is now available via VOD.