This post starts off a little anecdotal, so please bear with me. It’s something I really want you to think about.
I remember when I was first starting out I used to read a lot of ‘how to audition’ and ‘how to work as an actor’ books. I remember they used to describe the acting industry as ‘tough’ and ‘competitive’ (der) and suggested that not many people actually ‘make it’ as actors. I figured I’d just be in the tiny percentage that did ‘make it’. I was pretty arrogant and fairly naïve… but that probably worked in my favour at times. I never told anyone that I believed that about myself, which probably worked in my favour as well – people are often pretty quick to laugh at you or shut you down when you say you want to be an actor, so I can imagine they would have found it pretty hilarious if I’d told them I thought I’d be the next Nicole Kidman (these were the days before Cate Blanchett… I’m showing my age now).
Years later, I’m certainly not the next Nicole Kidman (but hey, give me another ten years), and I honestly couldn’t tell you whether I’ve ‘made it’ or not. I actually don’t think that’s something I can measure. I strongly dislike the use of the terms ‘breakthrough’ and ‘make it’. They imply that there’s a definitive point where it’s ok to declare yourself an actor – and that point is usually based on fame or money. Not many actors I know are famous or make huge amounts of money, but they’re still actors, no doubt about it. If you can follow me for a bit with this line of thinking, I’d like to persuade you not to think about it in those definitive, unhelpful terms as well.
Acting is just like any other profession; it requires patience, time and dedication. There’s a ladder to be climbed, not an invisible wall to ‘break through’. Most successful actors start off small and work their way up. It feels pretty similar to starting off as a receptionist and working up to CEO, and it takes just as long. To really ‘make it’ – if you want to think about it in terms of title, money, power – it will take you a good 10 years or so. At least.
Think about the CEOs of powerful companies, or the Artistic/Executive Directors of arts companies – do you think one day they got ‘discovered’ and became a CEO within a year? No – that would be an incredibly stupid thing to do for that person (who would have no experience to back them up) and the company (which would be run by someone with no experience!). Perhaps they have some great instincts that would get them by for a while, but eventually the company would start to flounder, and that person would probably be fired. The same is true of acting. Being ‘discovered’ or ‘getting a breakthrough role’ doesn’t really exist, and it’s certainly not something you want to wish for yourself.
Let’s look at some actors who were ‘discovered’ at a young age.
Zac Efron. Became internationally known as Troy Bolton in the High School Musical series, aged 19. Began working in the theatre at age 11. Breakthrough: 8 years
Sarah Michelle Gellar. Became internationally known for playing Buffy the Vampire Slayer at aged 20. Performed in commercials and TV series since aged 4. Breakthrough: 16 years
Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Became well known as Tommy in ‘Third Rock From the Sun’ at age 15. Appeared in theatre and commercials since age 4. Breakthrough: 11 years
Has only really achieved ‘Leading Man’ status this year with Looper, aged 31. ‘Leading Man’ Breakthrough: 27 years
Mila Kunis. Became well known as Jackie Burkhart on ‘That 70s Show’, aged 15. Began working in TV aged 7. Breakthrough: 8 years
Has achieved ‘Leading Lady’ status recently with Black Swan, Friends with Benefits, etc, aged 27. ‘Leading Lady’ Breakthrough: 20 years
I could go on, but I think you can see my point.
There is also the other side of the coin, where child actors are discovered and become famous incredibly quickly. That sort of quick rise to fame is often terribly detrimental to the wellbeing of that actor, due to the pressure and sudden need for maturity. I don’t really want to point at particular actors here, but I’m sure you’ve heard stories of where child actors have ended up making some terrible personal and professional decisions. It seems to be the exception rather than the rule where young actors are able to rise to fame and stay there – I would list Dakota Fanning, Chloe Grace Moretz and the Harry Potter trio as the main current examples of personal and professional maturity and courage that has allowed them to continue successfully.
I don’t want this to dishearten you, or for you to panic that you should have started acting years ago. It is still absolutely possible for you to be a successful actor during those ten or twenty years on your journey to becoming well known (if that’s what you want to become). It just requires a shift in mindset. Do you really want to only consider yourself an actor if you’re internationally famous, or do you want to feel and conduct yourself like an actor from the very beginning of your journey?
I encourage you to decide for yourself when you can officially call yourself an actor. You really don’t need to wait until the whole world recognises that you are one, you just need to recognise that you are one. What will it take for you to feel like an actor? Is it money? A certain number of roles? A certain type of role? Getting an agent? Whatever it is, that’s fine, just make that decision now – and don’t make it too hard for yourself. When you can declare yourself an actor according to your own rules, it lessens that feeling of needing to prove yourself to the world, whether that’s at an audition or a family barbecue. You can start to build a genuine confidence in yourself from understanding that you’re at the beginning of your journey, but it’s a legitimate journey nonetheless, and no one but you can decide whether you’re a success or not.
Here’s a bit of perspective to help you out with this:
Most professional actors in Perth (and around the world) still do some sort of teaching or trade to fill in the gaps while they’re not acting. There’s no shame in that, and it doesn’t have to be a disappointing reality. For many, teaching is an incredibly rewarding part of being an actor, because they get to share what they’ve learnt and help other people on their journey. For others, working in a trade (such as a masseuse or yoga teacher) helps them develop as an actor.
Get real. It will actually makes things easier. I’m not saying give up on your dreams, I’m not even saying you should make your dreams smaller – but perhaps they might need a longer timeframe.
Enjoy the journey, it’ll make your success even sweeter when you get there.