In the excerpt below from the final chapter of ACTING: Make It Your Business, I and the Group of Eight (eight actors) offer parting wisdom to established and aspiring actors for bettering themselves:
“Entertainment is such a hard business” has been often said, but does anybody with an ambition for storytelling, ever truly listen? And I’m not talking about listening just to the cautionary phrase itself but also to the warning advisor (whoever it may be). Listening, that’s the key to success at being a professional, working actor. Listening in training, listening in the rehearsal studio, listening to the script, to the director, listening to audience reaction and most important, listening to colleagues you meet along the journey. All that listening is learning.
Before parting ways with you, The Group of Eight has a few exit lines of wisdom…
The Group of Eight’s Exit Lines of Wisdom for Aspiring Actors
“My recommendation to anyone who aspires to be an actor is to not get sucked into your immaturity and the fame game. Recognize the true value of art and what artistry is in terms of acting. The aspiration to that, to me, is the only reason to be an actor. Don’t let anybody or anything take you off that course. Taking on the great roles and communicating to the public the significance of what it means to be a human being—there’s nothing better. There’s no better life. There’s no better pain. There’s no better insecurity. There’s no better confidence. There’s no better absolute. There is nothing better.
“[Acting] is a worthy, noble profession and deserves the attention of people who have talent and want to express themselves that way. And there’s no support for it. None. Your parents aren’t going to like ya. Your parents are going to be upset about it. The society says, ‘Thank you very much,’ they’re only going to like you when you’re royalty, or if you make a million or twenty million dollars a film. The rest of the time it’s, ‘Oh, you’re an actor. Where do you work in the restaurant?’
“Why to do this? Why to subject yourself to [being an actor]? Forget fame and fortune because 97 percent of the union is unemployed. So if you’re lucky to have fame and fortune, God Bless. The odds of that are whatever. What’s interesting is everybody who gets into this business wants to be of that three percent that work because they’re ‘special.’ They’ve been told that since they were seven-years old. They’re all ‘special’. You’re ‘special, special, special.’ So there’s already a fantasy coming into the business, that you’re special. The only thing you have to overcome is what’s happening on the other side of the [audition] table. Once you overcome that, you’ll be that star. But that formula sucks. It’s not a true formula.”
“If you don’t wake up thinking about acting and go to sleep thinking about it, think about doing something else. If you choose to do this [profession] have a support system. Maintain your physical and mental health. This business is brutal and incredibly difficult. You’ve got to have the hide of a rhinoceros and the soul of a child.
…“If you’re looking for a ‘Daddy,’ if you’re looking for somebody to constantly tell you you’re great, you’re not going to find it. You’re choosing an incredibly competitive brutal industry. If you want to come into this industry, bend at the knees and gird your loins and stay as mentally and physically healthy as possible. Be ready to have a hell of a lot of competition and find your way through that.”
“I have parents, all the time, coming up to me with their sixteen year olds and telling me, ‘She wants to be an actress. Tell her no. Tell her how hard it is!’ I’m like, No, I’m not going to tell her that. They continue, ‘She doesn’t want to go to college.’ OK, then she shouldn’t go to college. She can go to college when she’s twenty, thirty, forty or fifty years old. College isn’t going anywhere. I know of a woman who is fifty years old and got into grad school. If an aspiring actress is absolutely dead set against going to college and what she wants to do is come to New York right now and just jump in, then maybe that is what she needs to do. She needs to follow that path and find out what she’s going to find out on the path.
“Follow your heart and do everything you can to not cater to your fear. If I have one regret, looking back, it’s that I still, still far too often cater to my fear. Instead of just picking myself up and saying, ‘Just be afraid and do it anyway.’“
“You never know when you’re auditioning. I was the understudy for the Manhattan Theater Club’s For the Other Side with Rosemary Harris. The reason I got the job was that they had asked me to be the reader when they were casting the young man in the play. And then there was casting about for an understudy and they just called me. So that is one piece of advice: Be a reader. Also always be nice to everybody because you never know who you’re going to meet on the way up that you pass on the way down.”
“Something that I always tell myself and that is ‘There’s always something to be gained. There’s always more that you can learn.’ Which is one of the reasons that I always like working with people who are better than me. And taking class, class never really ends. I read an article about Patrick Dempsey (Grey’s Anatomy) and how for years people thought he was a big joke because he did all those teen movies. The article went on to talk about how this affected him psychologically until he had to step back for a while, step out of the business and go back to acting class. Then he was very able to approach his craft in a new way. I think his experience spoke volumes about how you have to go back to basics.
“I always think of Laura Linney when she was nominated for You Can Count on Me and people asked her, ‘How did you do that?’ and she said, ‘I went back to basics. For each scene I broke it down and I figured out, How? When? Why? What am I doing?’ Acting is always going back to the basics. I think in this business it’s easy to get ahead of yourself or to develop an ego and those are the most dangerous things you can do.”
“You really have to realize that the competition is enormous and that rejection is part of the whole experience. Swoosie Kurtz, in the Actors’ Equity Magazine, said that, ‘It’s a life filled with rejection.’ I’m sure that even Meryl Streep gets rejected from a part she wants. There are many, many people who are well known stars who don’t get the parts that they want on the stage or in film. I know that some people have read, tried to get parts and haven’t gotten them and they’re big names. You have to be prepared for that but it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t go ahead for it. You can’t just be like a nun in a convent expecting the agent to call you. You really have to be active. Study. Get a network of fellow actors so you all know what’s going on. I remember Charlie Durning saying to me, ‘I never get a job from my agent, I find out about it from my friends.’
“You have to really want to do it [be an actor]. Nobody should squelch your dream but you have to really want to do it. You also have to think that you really don’t want to make money. If you want to make money, you’re in the wrong business because only a handful of us ever make any money; make a living at it. So you have to want to do it and not be concerned about material wealth and well being because it’s not a business that encourages that kind of thing. A lot of people think stars make a pile of money; well that’s the wrong attitude. You have to want to act because it’s important to you and you think it’s important to the world. If everything falls into place then you’re very fortunate, you’re very lucky. I have been very, very lucky.”
“Either be a really good business person or really have a fire in your belly because it’s not an easy business.”
The Group of Eight’s Exit Lines of Wisdom for Fellow Working Actors
All but James Rebhorn and Phyllis Somerville had advice for fellow working actors. Somerville couldn’t think of any at the time and Rebhorn replied, “I think it would be presumptuous of me to give them any tips. We each have our own burdens to bear.” The remaining working actors in The Group of Eight wanted to impart upon other thespians these following, final lines of wisdom.
“The director Tom O’Horgan once said to me, ‘You start out as a human being and you become the asshole depending on how big you go up in the business.’”
“Never lose your sensitivity to those around you, as a professional actor and as a human being. Never be rude or cruel to anyone, especially younger people and the [backstage] people who are breaking their backs as stagehands and dressers. There is no hierarchy. Everyone is completely equal, from the doorman to the director. Always demonstrate the kind of behavior, both onstage and off, that you want demonstrated toward yourself.”
“Define for yourself, ‘What is a rich life?’ What does that mean to you? Get really specific about the actions you need to take and the goals you need to set for yourself, writing them down. Then find ways to keep yourself focused and passionate, in terms of achieving those goals. Take responsibility for the way you’re using your mind. The quality of our lives is not dependent upon our circumstance, it’s really dependent upon what we’re doing, with the way we’re thinking about how we’re going to take what life is giving us and use it. I create my life by the way I think. We know as actors that we use our imagination to change our emotional state to prepare for a scene. If we can use our mind, our imagination and creativity to take ourselves into the dark place we need to go to play Hamlet then we can use the same tools to take ourselves into the places we need to go to be effective for the rest of our lives. It has a huge, huge effect on your experience of your life, your experience on what’s going on inside you and that has a huge effect on how the world responds to you.
“Also you should always be working on your craft. Your voice can always be better. Your grasp of dialect can always be better. Your knowledge of yourself can always be better. Your exercising of the muscle of courage can always be better and that may mean going into an acting class and working on a scene that scares the shit out of you. It may also mean going out hiking and doing something you’ve never done before, like learning karate; doing something that frightens you. Whenever you can, nudge yourself out of your comfort zone. That may mean getting into a relationship because you’re someone who thinks you can’t do relationships. That may mean walking down a different street you’ve never walked down before. You may find a café or store that you never knew was there and you’re like, ‘Oh wow!’”
“Unless you’re fantastically talented or very, very lucky and a star immediately, you need to protect your reputation. Not just as an actor but as a person. And news travels. There are people who really enjoy gossiping. There are people who do it inadvertently and I’ve known directors do it to each other and I have had directors call me, who are friends, and ask me about a particular actor. And there is one, who shall remain nameless, who I tell people is horrible. Not necessarily as an actor but as a person. I’ve worked with difficult people, mostly in regional theater, who were a little bit big for their britches.”
“Find hobbies, just to keep you sane. It’s a self-obsessed business to begin with, which I’ve always had a problem with and I really don’t like but it’s just the nature of what it is. For me, the only way that I’ve been able to make it work is to have other interests and to have a life outside of it. If you live in New York City, there’s a lot this city has to offer that has nothing to do with being an actor.”
Charlotte Rae “Be a generous human being and relate to each other on stage.”
Ms. Rae’s advice for being “a generous human being” is probably the most needed guidance in our business of entertainment but is also the most often ignored. All of us involved in this industry have lapses, where we fail to treat our colleagues and peers with generosity and respect. In these moments, we approach survival, ambitions, and success with a singular focus. We stop listening to those around us who support and encourage our goals.
…With great respect and admiration for your bravery to be an actor, I suggest that as you take the journey, you listen, explore, have fun, and, with every aspect of acting, make it your business.
Now go kick some ass with your new skills and talent.
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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 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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