It might be a bit of a touchy subject, but I’d like to talk about your body for a bit. This is a really tricky area, especially for a lot of young women, but it affects everyone in the industry to some extent. I have seen a LOT of actors struggle with body image issues, so it’s something I feel passionate about. Often we think that changing our bodies or faces to fit a particular ideal will get us more work. More often than not I think the opposite is true: changing to fit an ideal will get you less work because there’ll longer be anything interesting or memorable about you. It happens a lot to celebrities – they have plastic surgery and suddenly they look like grotesque and inhuman and cease to be cast in anything. And beyond that, chances are that whatever you think is a problem is probably not what’s stopping you from getting work – it’s more likely to be a lack of confidence, or the fact that you don’t seem alive or vibrant in auditions because you’re too busy thinking about your big nose… More about noses later. Let’s start with body.
I don’t believe for a second that you have to be super skinny or super muscly to be a successful actor, but your body shape will affect the sorts of parts you get. To some extent, you won’t be able to help this, because your body has a ‘type’, just as your face does. There are things you can do to change your body shape, if it is required for a role – but pre-emptive dieting or working out won’t necessarily get you more work. It is important to get that idea out of your head so you don’t waste your time working out excessively when you don’t need to; it can be detrimental to your health and also to your career – your curves may be exactly right for your type, and losing them could lose you work. Also, over-working your body for cosmetic reasons can be bad for your acting – if your movement is restricted due to muscular deterioration/overdevelopment/injury, you can bet your acting will suffer. If you get into drama school, they’ll put the kybosh on severe workouts pretty quickly. So don’t chain yourself to the treadmill just yet.
The best way to approach your body is with a balanced perspective. No matter what body shape you are, physical training of some sort should be part of your daily ‘practice’. Our profession involves long hours and extreme emotional and physical situations, and you need to be physically prepared for that. Quite simply, you need to be physically fit – but exercising for physical fitness is NOT the same as over-exercising for vanity or low self-esteem. Your primary goal should be to stay healthy so you can do your job well, or to extend your skills as an actor (if you choose to do physical training that is also a skill, like martial arts or dancing). The happy by-product is that you’ll look healthy and fit – the best version of YOU that you can be. You just need to remember that the best version of you may not look like a celebrity. And that’s ok. You’re starting out. You don’t need to look like a celebrity just yet.
Time for a little myth-busting.
It is not a myth that looks have an effect on your career, but it is a myth that you can’t be an actor unless you look like a model.
I think most actors worry about some element of their physical appearance that they think will stop them being successful in the industry (you may have heard Jessica Alba constantly complaining about her big bum, for example). It might be height, skin colour or tone, weight, eyes, teeth, ears… any of the things that make you unique and human. I don’t want to be a fountain of cliché, but these are the very things that will get you work: because they make you, you.
Let me make my case.
Firstly, actors are usually hired to pretend to be real people (let’s forget the hobbits and vampires for now). Real people have real flaws and unique features, and casting agents will have their eye out for actors who have similar traits. They might be looking for something very specific (eg. a specific nationality, frizzy hair, or two different coloured eyes) or they might just be looking for someone who looks ‘geeky’, for example; and this is when your unique features will help you win the job over someone who looks, say… like a model. In fact, this is when your ‘geeky’ features and demeanour will help you win the role over everyone else. The physical features that you think make you less likely to get roles are actually the features that will get you the role. So you’ve got to learn to love them and wear them proudly. Your ‘imperfections’ are the best casting tool you’ve got.
A few examples…
Sean Astin: Samwise Gamgee, The Lord of the Rings series– perfectly plump and short.
Rupert Grint: Ron Weasley, Harry Potter Series – Ginger haired and googly eyed.
Zach Galifianakis: The Hangover, various hobos and crazy men – bearded, short, crazy eyed.
Christina Hendricks: Joan Harris, Mad Men – curvy, red haired.
America Ferrerra: Betty, Ugly Betty – short and curvy.
Lea Michele: Rachel Berry, Glee – ‘Barbra Streisand’ nose, short.
Pretty much the entire cast of Glee…
Think about the number of characters on TV or film that require a unique physical appearance. Now think about the number of characters who look like models. It’s usually just a few leads that look like models, and the rest of the cast look like normal people. ‘Normal people’ is usually a mix of attractive, striking, unique and intriguing. You’re pretty much only out of the running if you have the most boring face on the planet, and I’m pretty sure there aren’t many of those out there.
But now that you mention it, have you noticed that very beautiful people are often quite boring to watch on stage or screen? There’s a reason this happens.
Being concerned with always looking good while you’re acting will stop you from staying in the present moment and taking risks; which is what will really make your character come alive.
Really great actors forget about how they look when they’re performing, because they’re concerned with what’s going on around them and what’s happening in each moment, rather than being focused on themselves all the time. It makes them open and generous actors. This is part of the reason celebrities win Oscars when they get ugly-ed up for a role – they can concentrate on character and actually ACT instead of having to worry about whether they look hot in each shot.
It’s also worth remembering that other people, like make-up and wardrobe designers, are hired to make sure you look appropriate while you’re acting (notice my deliberate choice of words there) so you can stop thinking about it. Unless you’re a model, your job is not to look pretty – your job is to make a fictional person seem real. If you’re thinking about looking or sounding pretty, you’re not doing your job. So if you want to be a good actor, stop thinking about what you look like and get on with your job.
For now, you don’t need to concern yourself too much with what you look like. You should concern yourself with becoming good at what you do. Being a good actor improves your chances of success. As you become more successful, it will become apparent what you need to improve physically, in accordance with your type.
For example, you may start out being a cute geek, so your glasses and big teeth will work for your type – no need to worry about them. Then in a few years, you may start to look more like a leading man/lady, and people may start to ask you to take your glasses off in your auditions. It has become apparent that it would be helpful to get contact lenses. Then you may look in the mirror one day and decide that without your glasses, your large teeth look distracting when you smile, so you decide to invest in some dental work. Done and dusted – now you don’t have to worry about them. Again.
See how you didn’t have to worry to begin with? And once there was an actual concern, a little money and time was invested, and once again, there was no need to worry. If you’re not sure when and what you should be worried about, ask an industry professional (not a teacher or friend or family member – it must be someone currently working in the industry).
What I’m saying is – stop worrying. Stop obsessing. And I’ll say it over and over because I know it happens a lot with actors of all levels. And it never, ever helps. All it does is distract you from becoming a good actor.
In short, my advice about is: get over it. Stop believing that what you look like is holding you back – it’s not and it won’t. Stop thinking about what you look like and concentrate on being good at what you do. Don’t let a tough industry be an excuse to spend your life hating yourself – that’s the fastest way to burn out as an actor. You need to start being kind to yourself, starting now. There will be times when it feels like no one is on your side, so you need to learn to be your own best friend. Start to embrace imperfection – it’s your friend, just like typing is. It might be hard to face but it’s what will give you strength and confidence, and that’s what will make you a great actor.