Monday, October 15, 2012

In Defense of Actors

        In Defense of Actors


In the past few months I’ve found myself in the acquaintance of a great many non-actors. Actually, non-entertainment industry…ers but, well, interestingly, acting seems to be the area where are they have most pre conceived notions. 

In fact, acting seems to be the area where most people, industry (a term for those in the entertainment business) or not seem to have the greatest pre conceived notions about the entertainment business. A, to be honest, rather shocking experience I’ve had post Twilight: The Unauthorized Musical Parody is of walking into a room of industry members and getting a completely different response depending on whether I’m introduced first as an actor or a writer. If introduced as a writer I am immediately assumed to be intelligent, savvy, and generally on an equal par with those in the room. If introduced as an actor I am dumb, naïve, unknowledgeable about business in any way, and nothing more than a “pretty girl.”

A disclaimer here – this is certainly not ALWAYS the case. I have many wonderful friends, both industry and not for whom this couldn’t be further from the truth. But sadly, in the past nine months especially, I have come to experience this more and more when I meet new people. And I felt it was time to address it.

A note: The “actor” I am using as a paradigm here is, what I consider to be, a typical New York working actor – someone who is, or is on the way to being successful in their field. In general, if you’re acting, you’re an actor – so I think this should be the litmus test for the issues below. I will occasionally address the “green” actor, or LA actor – I grew up in LA, and made my acting debut at five, so, while I mainly live and work in NYC now, I feel more than qualified to comment on the LA demographic – and yes, I think there is a difference to be taken into account.

These are the stereotypes I hear most commonly perpetuated:

 Actors are crazy, self-centered, overly emotional drama queens with potentially huge     psychological issues.

In reality, I think actors are some of the most well-adjusted, self-knowledgeable people on the planet. What do you think we do in acting school? Aside from technically developing our “instrument” (our bodies, and voices,) acting class is basically one giant psychology course – intensely studying both yourself, and the rest of the world. No, I didn’t say therapy session, though there is often crying involved. I said psychology course. Notice how the number one major (for those actors who choose to study something else in college,) secondary major, or minor for actors in college is psychology. Heck, even if you do think of it as therapy – it’s therapy where the patient comes out the other side incredibly self aware, and empathetic. Not committed to an institution.

One thing you can never really say about actors is that we’re repressed. We all have issues, but actors generally know what they are, and have good ways of dealing with them. Actors cry, we laugh, we get angry, because at the end of the day our job description – the thing we get paid money to do, is to get onstage, or in front of a camera and experience those things for YOU. The audience. Our job is to get you to experience YOUR sadness, YOUR joy, YOUR anger. And we can’t do that without being in touch with our own. We have to get up in front of hundreds, if not thousands of people, and just BE. Let people look at us. Become vulnerable. Show those things to strangers that they may not be comfortable even showing to themselves. If we weren’t well adjusted, we’d be locked away.

So in order to do that onstage, we have to be comfortable with ourselves in real life. That means we often experience life in big ways. We may be that friend who always laughs loudest at a funny movie, or lets others see us cry when we’re upset. It doesn’t mean we’re a “drama queen,” and it certainly doesn’t mean we’re faking emotion. It means we’re comfortable being in touch with it. And yeah, that can be off putting. I wouldn’t want to be a non-actor at an actor’s party. But think about what we have to do every day. We have to confront our own pain in the face – in rehearsal, in front of strangers, for some even in the national, or world spotlight. Yes, sometimes we may need some hand holding in rehearsal. We may need you to be sensitive of our feelings. Because that’s what we’re being asked to do – FEEL all day long. Think about it.

I think there's a general assumption that being emotional and being intelligent are mutually exclusive. Either you're ruled by your heart, or your head. Since actors are associated with being emotional the same way, say lawyers are associated with being intellectual (and if we were having this same discussion about breaking down lawyer stereotypes we would be making the case for them not just being thinking heads. Seriously - in the musical "Legally Blonde" there's a lyric that goes: "Don't lawyers feel love too? Even if they do...") Actors are not unthinking wells of emotion. And we couldn't act if we were. We're in touch with our emotions, we're comfortable with them, but we're not ruled by them. We craft them. We're analytically emotional. Usually the first week at least of rehearsal is dedicated to what we call "text analysis" - literally intellectually analyzing the text and making conscious choices about what the character is feeling, and doing, and what we need to do to bring that across. It requires a great deal of empathy, yes, but also intelligence. 

Regarding the psychological issues – no way. I don’t think you can have deep psychological issues and be a healthy actor. That’s not to say you can’t be deeply emotionally scarred, and severely traumatized. Perhaps those people who have experienced something incredibly painful and emotional are more in tune with it, and have a need to explore it. But there are many other people in other professions who have experienced similar things, and deal with it in different ways.

Yeah, sometimes we can create drama. But so can everyone. Theater drama can’t be any worse than office drama. And most of the time things are rather calm in our real lives. I mean we have enough drama onstage. Getting all that drama out onstage sometimes means that our personal lives are far more calm, peaceful, and well adjusted then the average person. I said sometimes

                                    Actors are vain, and obsessed with their looks.


Here’s the thing. I admit - if you invite me over for a party I will totally be that prat who doesn’t partake in dessert. But it’s not because I’m totally obsessed with being “hot,” it’s because I care more about succeeding in my career then getting to do everything my friends do. Believe me, I love chocolate. My mom (among her many other talents) is a gourmet cook. I make a mean cardamom coconut dark chocolate cupcake. But that’s only happening on VERY special occasions. Because the harsh truth of the matter is – if you’re an actor, you’re judged every day on how you look. It’s just a fact of life. And I don’t mean that everyone has to be skinny – I have a friend who played Tracy Turnblad in Hairspray and had to really work to maintain, and even gain weight for the role. In general, I do think the entertainment industry has gotten slightly better with regards to representing different kinds of bodies, and beauty in general, but the fact of the matter is, if you don’t look a certain way, you don’t work, and that usually means being thin, and really fit. But that doesn’t come from the actors – that comes from everyone around us. Agents, casting directors, directors, producers, heck, even corporate sponsors. The fact is, being an actor is like being in advertizing, only the product being sold is – YOU. If you watch Mad Men think of all those meetings where they talk about redesigning an ad, adjusting a product, using a different color background, going with a different “style.” Yup. That’s you. Everything from your hair color and cut, to your weight, to the clothes and make-up you wear affect your ability to be hired. At several theater conservatories, on the first day of senior year guys are told to gain thirty pounds of muscle, and girls are told to loose thirty pounds before the senior showcase.

Sure, there are actors who truly think they’re “all that”  - but that’s a human problem, not an actor problem. Most actors are concerned about their looks to the degree that it’s just something they have to maintain for their job.

This is where I have to offer a disclaimer. I think this issue is one of the big differences between NY and LA actors. Again, I’m making a generalization, but hear me out. In NY, most of the acting jobs available are theater related. And most of those are in the musical theater category. To be onstage, you MUST have some degree of talent. You just have to. You are up there eight times a week, and you have to be good. This is even more pronounced in musical theater. Sure, people get cast because of how they look, but at the end of the day you have to be able to sing and dance well, and there’s no getting around it. In LA, most of the work is TV and film related, where it is possible to get a decent performance out of someone with no skills whatsoever thanks to the wonders of editing, and retakes. I don’t consider these people serious actors, but the fact remains that serious actors are going to have to compete with them for jobs – in which case getting cast will COMPLETELY depend on how they look. Imagine if to get a job as a teacher, or a lawyer, or a doctor your looks were taken into account, sometimes ahead of your qualifications. Yeah. In general I would say this makes most actors, at least somewhat insecure about their looks. Not vain. There’s a reason we take so long to get ready for an audition. And it’s not because we like to. We’d far rather be able to go to an audition with no makeup, wearing sweats, and get to be judged purely on our technical abilities. Not the way we look.

                                                                 Actors are dumb


Actors are not dumb. Non-actors who want to be famous frequently are. I feel like this stereotype comes from the fact that actors are almost always hired to fill a pre prescribed role. Often they’re not a creator on a project. They audition, are hired, and then are told what to do. Therefore they get a reputation as someone who needs to be held by the hand, ordered around, and are basically on par with a trained puppy. That’s a difficulty of the situation. Not our intelligence level.

In fact, unless you’re dealing with a really great director, our opinion is often of no importance. The show has already been created by the time we come on board, and if there’s something that needs to be changed, well, the creative team already has a rapport, and a history with the show and, since most actors are not writers or directors, their opinion is more apt to slow down the process. Not to mention the fact that there is typically ONE writer, ONE director, ONE composer, and DOZENS of actors. Theater is not a democracy. If it were, no show would ever open.

That means actors often can’t be outright smart. Sometimes, we have to be subtle.

Lets take into account, for example, those shows every actor has been a part of where one, or often, several members of the production team don’t know what they’re doing. I’ve had directors who refuse to set blocking, don’t show up to rehearsal, or down right haven’t even read the script. (MAJOR note: I’m talking about obvious, indisputable incompetence. This is not to be taken as an axiom that whenever you don’t like a director, you should assume they’re bad and do your own thing. That’s being an incompetent actor.) In those cases the actors are directing themselves. That takes mad skills, and great intelligence to pull off.

A potential grey area here are “green” actors. “Green” actors are actors who do not have much experience in the business. Typically they are fresh out of school and, though they may be talented, don’t really know the ins and outs of the business yet. In the most stereotypical sense, these are the girls who show up for a shady casting session in some guy’s living room where there’s nothing but a couch and a video camera, not realizing that something might be off. Yes, at one time we were all green. We may not have all been naïve (especially about a casting call in a shady apartment), but we were all innocent when we started – and that’s true of anyone starting out in any profession. The bottom line is: innocent does NOT equal stupid. If it did, you'd have to say most people under the age of fourteen are stupid. And (while some may claim they are,) I don’t believe it’s true. We all learn the ropes sooner or later. If we were stupid, we never would.

Actors know how to save and invest money. Often they start a retirement fund well before their non-actor peers. They know how to live frugally (one of my friends joked after the economy crashed that actors would be the only ones to make it through because they were the only demographic with true survival skills.) They are emotionally generous, and know that there are more important things in life than financial success. They read. They frequent libraries. They are culturally and artistically educated, and savvy, and have probably seen more art than any other population demographic (between research for a role, or audition, going to see their friend’s work, exploring the underground art scene, or simply wanting to feed themselves artistically they probably come the closest to seeing every theatrical production in a given area, not to mention films, art exhibits, dance shows and concerts.) In their heads they hold some of the greatest writing of all human existence, and more music then any ipod. They understand contractual negotiations. They know when to share a kernel of wisdom, and when to keep silent. They can convincingly play the most intelligent people in the world, not to mention convincingly pretend to have the most intellectual jobs – understanding the jargon, and basic operating procedures of lawyers, doctors, scientists, and presidents. To be a true actor you must be knowledgeable about, literally, everything.

You can not be a true actor without being intelligent. 

Except for some very talented, successful, well-known actors, most actors are “starving    artists” and need to grow up all ready and get a real job.


I’ll make this short and sweet. There are a lot of non-famous actors who are very much working actors. Regional theater, tours, small roles in TV and film – out of these careers can be made. Yes, there are starving artists. Jonathan Larson was one. Katy Perry, Jim Carrey, and many, many others were too. Some wait decades for their big break. Some, like Larsen never make it in their lifetime. But thank God they stuck it out!

Just because our culture doesn’t support the arts the way it ideally should, doesn’t mean that we should consider a career in the arts a pipe dream. Can you imagine if every struggling artist just gave up? The world would be a miserable place. And we’d have a lot of depressed businessmen. It IS possible to have a career in the arts. It’s not always possible to be Angelina Jolie.

                      Seriously, how hard can it be? Practically anyone could do it.

You try it. Seriously. Go take an acting class. Go audition for a local theater. Oh, and be really good.

Statistically it is more competitive to get into Clown College then to get into Harvard. Many theatrical conservatories have classes of about thirty students. TOTAL. I hold a degree with high honors from New York University. In drama. I still study, and train daily. I’ve also had over twenty years of practical experience on stage, and in front of a camera. I’m not unusual. All professional actors have trained to be able to do what they do.  I truly think everyone has some artistic capacity. But lets just say it’s called a craft for a reason.

OMG! I love my cast! They’re totally like my family! I don’t know what I’m going to do if I don’t see them everyday! OMG!


Yup. A lot of times it’s true. Deep in your gut, no joke, true. And I know – it’s easy to poke fun at from the outside.

In the best circumstances, casts bond. It’s necessary. And yes, it can happen insanely fast. And it has to. That doesn’t always make it shallow or insincere. Performing is dangerous – physically and emotionally. I will be called upon to perform stage combat, fall in love, mourn, and celebrate with people I met two hours ago in a rehearsal room. Part of what we are trained to do as actors is to keep each other safe. Acting is reacting – and we are constantly aware of what’s going on with our acting partners. Actors also tend to be sensitively aware of other people. We know when someone’s not ok. Our partners allow us to be emotionally raw – not only without judgment, but with support and encouragement. Often that spills over into us sharing things about our personal life off stage.

This certainly doesn’t mean we always fall in love with our onstage love interest – that would be as ridiculous as saying we always despise our onstage nemesis. In fact, I know I personally am often closer with my onstage rival in real life. Playing that kind of relationship sometimes takes MORE trust.

A note regarding my comment about acting being physically dangerous. I would NEVER do anything truly dangerous onstage. I believe in safety no matter what. Never the less, I have been “drowned,” killed, and seriously assaulted onstage. And it takes a great deal of trust to be able to execute such things safely. Especially eight times a week.

Cast members are also all learning together. We may be trained actors, but usually we are all learning these lines, chords, and steps together. We struggle, and succeed together. We often spend more time together then we do with our families. We see each other every single day during the run of a show – and during rehearsals we are stuck with each other all day long. For weeks. Even months. Sometimes in a new town, state, country or even continent. Either we’re going to hate each other, or come to deeply care for, and rely on each other.

And - this is getting into tricky territory – it is true that many artists come from difficult, or sometimes non existent family situations (see comments on emotional trauma above.) Cast members really can become family. Yes, of course it’s often the case that cast members become close on a show, only to never see each other again, or to only reconnect when they happen to be cast together again. But I don’t believe that in the moment cast bonding, whether it lasts or not is insincere. Sometimes it’s just creating the bond of trust you need to successfully do the show. Sometimes it’s a long-term connection. All I know is that there are some actors I’ve worked with who have become my family in the truest sense of the word. I consider them my brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles. I call them in a crisis. We’ve shared life events. I’ve never had a “showmance” (a romance that only lasts for the life of a show. Sometimes less…) But I have found my adopted family in rehearsal rooms. Even people I bonded with on shows who are not a daily part of my life retain that sense of trust and connection – and I would love to reconnect and jump into another project with them. Actor bonding may sound like fluff, but there’s nothing insincere, or shallow about it.

                                           I wanna be an actor ‘cause I wanna be famous!


Lets just say, there are a lot easier, and faster ways to become famous then becoming a serious actor. No one suffers through being a starving artist purely to be famous.

And for anyone whose sole goal IS being famous – I feel sorry for them. I have worked with famous actors. I’ve experienced it by proxy. It’s far from fun. I liken it to this: If you’re a judge, you go to work, put on your robes, and become a “Judge.” Then at the end of the day you take them off and get to go home and be yourself. When you’re famous – the “robe” never comes off. Remember the idea of actors being their own product? When you’re famous – you’re a walking commodity. And you never get to take off the mask. Yes, it’s wonderful to be respected and lauded for your work. But being famous is another animal entirely. It can potentially come with the job, yes. But it’s not the spoils. It’s the challenge to overcome.

The theatrical community is a hotbed of moral depravity. Actors are sluts, and alcoholics. No child of mine is going into the arts!


 This has been a stereotype since the dawn of theater. Yeah, there’s inappropriate behavior. AND highly moral behavior. Just like everywhere. Going into the arts will not make you an immoral person. And don’t use it as an excuse to keep your child out of the arts. Instead, help them develop deep values that won’t be affected no matter where they go, or what they do. Besides, if there IS immorality in the arts – don’t we need more people of integrity to go into the field?

In conclusion….

Yes, there are unintelligent actors, just like there are unintelligent – everythings! But I beg you – in the future when dealing with actors, assume intelligence until proven stupid. Not the other way around. Whether you’re in the industry, or even just at a party where your waiter happens to be a struggling actor. Treat them with respect. They are probably smarter, and hold more credentials then many of the guests. They have taken up a noble crusade – and if it weren’t for them, there would be no theater, film, or television. One of the tragic things I’ve noticed, that so far has gone unmentioned, is that actors are the one artistic demographic that will most likely never be in the position of being able to give someone a job. Writers create projects that will employ entire production teams, and casts of actors. Directors, producers, almost everyone else can get you a job. But not an actor. Unless they’re well known, there’s no reason to network with them. So they are often treated as insignificant. But actors are creators too. One only has to spend five minutes in a rehearsal with poorly cast actors to know that they carry every bit as much weight as a writer, or director. We know what we’re doing. Trust us.