Having just finished watching the Olympics, the thing that most struck me about the difference between those who won and those who didn’t was not so much their performance ability, it was their ability to focus and stay in “the zone”. At this level of competition they are all good and capable of giving great performances but, sometimes, just from the way they approached the ice or the slope, I could tell which ones believed they could win and which ones were listing to an inner doubt, whispering in their ear.
This made me look at the actor’s version of the Olympics: Pilot Season
In many ways doing the twists and turns of the giant slalom or setting up for a triple/triple combination on the ice is very much like what actors must do as they face every audition. During pilot season, however, the number of auditions that each actor faces is compounded and the preliminary rounds turn into call backs and, finally ,tests. As each round occurs, the stakes increase and that is the point that separates the “winners” from the “losers”.
Having been in casting myself it is so clear how an actor feels about himself and his chances to book a role just from looking at the way in which he enters a room and carries himself. Some actors walk in and appear to be defeated before they even open up their mouths. Their own, personal inner monologue is saying, ” I’m never going to get this role” or “I’m not what they want” or “Why was I the only brunette in a waiting room full of blonds?”
Those kinds of thoughts are what I call “mind poison.” If you say these poisons to yourself, over and over again, not only will you believe them but you will be telegraphing them to the casting directors and producers you meet. Then, guess what, the poisons will become the reality . When exactly what you predicted would happen, happens, all that remains is the actor’s small satisfaction in saying, “See I was right all along”. If you want to prove you are right, why even bother going in for the audition?
In order to combat mind poisoning, here are some simple things you must do and know:
1) When you get the audition, do not treat the breakdown like the Holly Grail. The description that is given in a breakdown was written by a writer at Breakdown Services based on the script he was given. This description exists before the casting process has begun and before concept meetings have taken place between the networks and the producers. Scripts are written to be read by development people so a writer gives an example of what the person might look like or be. That does NOT mean that it is the ONLY way for a character to look or be. As the casting process continues the producers and casting people learn more about what will work for each individual character. As the rest of the cast forms, adjustments must be made to accommodate how one piece of casting can affect another. And when the producers take a group of actors to the network to test and they end up with no one, you can bet that they will, suddenly, become open to a wide variety of interpretations. In other words, if you allow yourself to be limited by what is written in a breakdown, you are assuming something that is not true
2) Your character did not read the breakdown and does not know how other people perceive him or her. If you let adjectives and descriptive phrases formulate your “idea” of a character, all you will be playing is the resulting idea of a character and not formulating a complete human being. We all have the same general idea of what a “happy person” or a “self-centered person” is. If you allow what you say and do to conform to that idea, you will be giving a generic interpretation of a character and not allowing a full human being to exist. A villain doesn’t wake up in the morning and say “I think I will do some villainous things today”. He simply does things and performs actions that feel right to him. It is up to other people to put a label on his acts and make judgements about them. Therefore, you must allow your character to live in his or her own space and time and not exist under the weight of your generic characterization
3) In the same vein, your character didn’t stay up all night working on the script. Your character only exists in the moment when it speaks the words. You must, therefore, allow your character to be free of your worry and your work and just “Be” in the moment. Remember you first decided you wanted to act because you liked the pure idea of “pretending”…of entering into a world where you could play and become someone else. Yes, that someone else is endowed with all that you are and all that you have experienced but it doesn’t need to be restricted or generalized because of your fears and judgements. As an exercise, after your name is called but before you enter the room, take all of your fears and all of your homework and put them into an imaginary bundle that you will leave outside the door. Then, when you go in, you are doing so without unnecessary baggage.
4) Because, as an actor, you are using feelings and reactions, you must make sure that you remain unburdened by the feelings and reactions of others. This mostly applies to your friends who are, also, actors. While I am not saying that anyone is out to sabotage you, the cumulative effect of comparing auditions notes with your friends is debilitating and destructive. You cannot compare the parts for which you go out with those of any of your friends unless you are an exact clone of that person. As we have often discussed, there are many, many reasons why you may or may not get an audition and no actor knows what those reasons are. In some ways it’s a numbers game. At other times it has to do with who the networks want and what actors they had in mind when they the script was written. Therefore, how does it do you any good to hear that someone else went in for a role or have a friend tell you, “Oh, you should have gone in for that. You are so right for it.” First of all, how does your friend know who is or is not right? Secondly, a statement like that will make anyone feel as if they lost an opportunity and feel bad about himself. In point of fact, how do you know that you lost an opportunity? The role might have been offered to the actor or the actor who got it had a deal with the network. You can only deal with the things that do happen and not with the “what if’s” and “should have’s” of the world.
Also, your friends are suffering from the same anxieties and fears that you have. You know the old expression “Misery loves company”? Well, on some level, misery and fear are easier to deal with if we thinks others are going through the same things. In other words, we try to spread it around. So, your friends pitch their anxiety from themselves and onto you. It is very uncomfortable to feel anxiety and to feel alone and it is ever more comforting to have those feelings land on another person. My advice: DON’T BE THERE TO CATCH IT. You have enough to do in dealing with your own worries. You don’t have to take care of your friends’ worries as well.
Therefore, be selfish in the good sense of the word….take care of yourself and make sure that you avoid situations that are guaranteed to make you feel bad.
5) Pilot season is not the be all and end all of who you are as an actor. Yes, it would be nice to get a series regular role but, what if there are really no roles for which you are right this year? What if you are going through a transitional age grouping….you are too old to play in your mid twenties but not quite old enough to play a parent. Does that mean you will never act again? Of course not! It just means you have to wait for another season or, now that pilots are being done all year ’round, you have to wait for another month. Remember, your career is a marathon, not a sprint. At the end of the day, you are going to accumulate a career’s-worth of roles so, whether or not you get one now or in 6 months really doesn’t matter.
Going back to my opening mention of the Olympics, you, as an actor, have it easier than athletes do. You don’t have to retire when you can’t land a triple axel anymore or when a snowboarding 40-year-old is just a bit too giggleworthy. You are going to have a lot of time to continue in your career. The only thing that can defeat you, is you. So, get out of your own way. Stop assigning yourself labels, stop playing casting director, and stop trying to control your character. YOU are your character so open up the mental dam that is filled with doubts and presumptions and just be in the moment and PLAY. They called it “play acting” when I was a kid. Don’t lose the sense of play.