“You’re an actor? What might have I seen you in?”
When I was an actor I hated being asked that question by civilians. Because I knew that their short-sighted knowledge of ‘what it means to be an actor’ equaled a walk on the red carpet, encored by an acceptance speech, then followed by a month in rehab. My earlier career as a continually working actor included carpets in cast houses stained red by wine, accepting paltry payouts masquerading as salaries and a month rehabilitating my self-esteem after walking into an audition donning a cow costume. (Long story. Don’t ask. But I got the gig plus much additional employ as a result… but you’ll never get the embarrassing bovine details outta me. Never.)
Any, non-deluded, active participant in the arts whether actor, writer, director, designer or production member hopefully understands that their career is not about fame but the work. And that that employ will not be steady nor long-term.
But civilians who look to the fables of HBO’s Entourage and our industry’s other self-inflicted emasculation believe that for one to brand themselves as ‘actor’ that harpy of Hollywood, Broadway or the West End must be recognizable. In the civilian’s loopy logic an actor can not be an actor unless said actor is attached to notoriety. Odd how the civilian working the counters of McDonald’s or the register of a Walmart retreats from their own association with employment notoriety.
When I was a working actor encountering the “What might have I seen you in?” interrogation I often wanted to reply questioning the civilian, “Oh, so you’re a receptionist? For what Fortune 500 Company exec do you gopher coffee? What desk might I have seen you in?”
Civilians, and too often our families and non-arts friends, will never comprehend that working in entertainment does not necessarily produce a career of glossy exposés on TMZ or ferried limos to premieres and opening nights. Often career-in-the-arts pursuers are driving limos and working letters online to solve next month’s rent due.
Beyond my accepting that civilians have for far too long been brainwashed by those of us who’ve moved into the hot white glare of entertainment; writing, directing and acting in distorted mirror imagery falsely defining the majority of employ in the arts I’ll never get why civilians overlook the obvious– not every actor, writer or director can stand in the tiny celebrated circle of being number one. Just as in the civilian’s own tedious toil of whatever employ is theirs. Not every data entry operator will be heralded as the World’s Fastest Typist in the Guinness World Records.
Not every actor is going to be continually employed at their love’s art. Who would comb crumbs from our tables at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse or pour our rum and cokes at Friday’s?
Not every actor is going to be a principal on screen or on Broadway. Odd how civilians (and a number of actors themselves) over look that stages and screens are filled with bodies that speak and engage the audience and those communicating corporeal forms are not always celebrities. There are journeyman actors like James Rebhorn and Phyllis Somerville (see Acting: Make It Your Business). Acclaimed industry actors not known by name in the rural reaches and sub-divisions of suburbia. But each artist has worked hundreds of major (and minor) screen and stage projects as principals. Are journeyman actors any less an actor because they’re not a household name in Des Moines?
As an artist you shouldn’t live to be the career that others project or desire upon you.
How do you define your career? Happiness? Sense of accomplishment? Earning money to meet basic needs? Or is career success defined as being recognized by many? If that latter definition is the prevailing opinion within your cranium, a premise held by many civilians, I would then counter argue to that limited measurement that our spinning ball of dirt and sea is over-run with failure. And I’d bet several truckloads of Tastykakes that a majority of the world’s populous would take umbrage at such an assessment. Do you consider yourself a failure because your stint in a play in New York or Naples, Florida wasn’t recognized by the populous of Hoboken or Houston? Is a doctor in Nappanee, Indiana any less a success to his/her patients because Chicago medical professionals never heard of the farmland doc?
Do not let others dictate definition of your career. Too many actors are guilty of limiting upon themselves the scope and definition of their success. And some actors not only wound themselves with doubt because they believe success as an actor is a walk on the red carpet but they foist the same delusions upon their peers as well.
I, as a director, casting director and author, encounter the civilian query… but mostly by actors in the form of, “What have you done lately?” My answer is almost always, “I’m keeping busy.”
A single credit in any one of my career pursuits does not globally define my success. I define my career as, “I’m doing what I want, must, and just as importantly engaging in work that keeps me from the grave.” If that answer for my career doesn’t meet the expectations of others… I’m not living for their desires I’m living for myself and those I love.
There is only person’s career expectations to which you’re bound: You.
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Paul Russell’s career as a casting director, director, acting teacher and former actor has spanned nearly thirty years. He has worked on projects for major film studios, television networks, and Broadway. Paul has taught the business of acting and audition technique at NYU and has spoken at universities including Yale, Temple and the University of the Arts. He writes a column for Back Stage and is the author of ACTING: Make It Your Business – How to Avoid Mistakes and Achieve Success as a Working Actor. For more information, please visit www.PaulRussell.net.
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