Wednesday, February 18, 2015

What Does it Mean to Be a Working Actor?

Lately I've been asking myself the question, "What does it mean to be a working actor?"

I would argue that all careers have ups and downs. I have friends who went into more "practical" fields, becoming teachers and nurses and technicians and businessmen, and just like me their young adulthood has coincided with a recession and been riddled with job changes, unemployment, switching tracks, and constantly shifting goals. Also lots of wine, moves, breakups, and the occasional zen happiness.

Several of my friends have already changed careers and finished second degrees. Many more have found their career breaking down to one important hurdle at a time: If I just pass this licensing exam. If I just get this promotion. If I just get a job a half an hour closer to home. If I can just get through to Tuesday. If I just can relocate. If I just get a job at all.

Actors and artists are luckier than most in some ways - I like to think; we go into our dream profession expecting upheaval and uncertainty, so in many ways we are better prepared mentally for the curve-balls this life can throw us. Actors have the edge in that we know from the get-go that our career is going to be a madcap adventure through unchartered territory. We can dispense with the illusion of a predictable path from the start, and learn to create our own stability as we go.

But without a map, how the heck do you know if you're doing it right?...Welcome to my ongoing inner debate on this very subject.

So what does it mean to be a working actor, Jeanne Joe?

Does it mean you have to have an acting job at every given moment? Because I don't. Neither does Stephen Tobolowsky, whose column I religiously read in Backstage. Neither do any of the guys interviewed in the wondrous documentary "That Guy Who Was In That Thing," which delves into the stories of sixteen journeymen character actors that have some of the beefiest resumes I've ever seen.

And you know what? None of them work all the time.

No one works all the time.

Not even Meryl Streep works all the time, no matter the appearances to the contrary. I'll say it again, for my own benefit: no one works all the time. Rejection is part of it. Lulls are part of it. Rehearsals and preparation and training and submitting and auditioning and day to day minutia are part of it.

But still, there seems to be this deeply entrenched misconception that you're not a "real" actor unless someone else is currently endowing you with that identity via a "real" job. I've gone to parties in Manhattan and actually been told by dead-serious, hopefully (but doubtfully) well-meaning people that I couldn't really call myself an actor because I wasn't currently performing in something. Or because the thing I'm performing in isn't on Network TV, or isn't paid. Or whatever.

I mean, okay. That just literally makes no sense, but okay; you do you.

"It's like calling yourself a cowboy if you don't have a hat," they say. Because cowboys wear hats 1000% of the time.

"No," I reply calmly, grinding my teeth to distract myself from the desire to grind my heel into their toe. "It's not really like that at all."

Here's a practical-application problem for you, you know, like the word problems in the math SATs, because those were so much fun the first time. Good luck!
Last weekend, at one point, Jeanne Joe was at a bar with three other actors. (I know, I was proud of myself - socializing! Woo.) Two of the actors have full-time jobs (not on Network TV), and the other two have a mishmash of the stereotypical part-time/nannying/freelancing whirlwind that many young New York City actors compile. None of them are currently attached to any high-profile projects, but all four have built their entire lives around their artistic careers. So, are all four of them working actors?
What is the answer? YOU TELL ME, UNIVERSE. Because I say yes.

(If you're having a crisis about this particular job-defined-identity-validation - like I do every Tuesday - I seriously recommend watching "That Guy Who Was In That Thing." Listening to a dude who has acted in literally 165 actual Hollywood blockbusters and 57 TV shows talk about his deep, gut-wrenching fear that he'll never get another job will give you some perspective on the fact that THAT'S JUST HOW THIS BUSINESS WORKS. Sometimes you don't have acting jobs and sometimes you do.)

So what the heck does it mean to be a working actor?

I still don't know if I know. But I am one, dammit.

Does being a working actor mean that your acting jobs have to come from the outside, and involve money and recognition? Is it not professional unless there's money? What is work, or life, even? What is the meaning of life? Is money real? Am I real? What is reality? What?

...I think I exist. I'm pretty sure.

Does being a working actor mean you have to have a recognizable body of work? What is a recognizable body of work? Do I need an Oscar to be a real actor? Am I a working actor even if people in the Midwest have never seen my face?? Why aren't I famous yet?

Do you HAVE to be on TV? Do you HAVE to be making a living at it? Geez, if so, there really aren't that many working actors out there. I've had one, yes one, precious person recognize me from a film. (They were a friend of a friend and it was one of the most surreal and special moments of my life.) I've had countless conversations with people asking, "Are you still doing that acting thing? Are you on Broadway?"

Yes. No. Grind teeth.

I will say this, though: it really helps to know what kind of work you want to do to build towards making a living at it. Some people get further faster than me, but I think the point is to always be asking myself what I really want, and how to get it. And being really, really real about the answers.

Does being a working actor mean that you have to be one of those people who do nothing but promote themselves as actors all the time? 

I don't think so? I hope not?

Look, I fully realize rabid-schmoozy-actor-mode is a valid business tactic. Part of me really envies the people who are good at it, because when I do it it usually involves smiling so hard that I strain my lips and get an eye twitch and aspirate my words and scare people. Frankly, those smooth actory-actors will almost certainly outpace me because I just don't want to promote myself all the time, and sooner or later I'll be at the same industry person's birthday party with one of those actors, and they'll schmooze better than me and get themselves a role that I could have schmoozed for too. I know it. I can predict the future. It is written in the stars.

But guys, sometimes I want a birthday party to myself sans schmoozing. Sometimes I want a weekend, or a week, or a month off from being an actor-in-actor-mode trying to get acting work and showing people how much of an actor I am so that I can act and be acting as an actor who acts. You know? I really think there's more to life?

Sometimes I want to go to Maine or Massachusetts or Texas and just hang out with people who are doing TOTALLY different things with their lives, and touch base with different aspects of what being human is. I mean, that's what I'm supposed to portray as an actor anyway, right? Being human. Visiting the non-acting world also reminds me that what I am doing with my life is kinda unusual and special. Yes, that's some useful #perspective.

It's easy for "being a working actor" to become the be-all end-all, but I don't really think that works for my sanity in the long run. Sometimes I take on internships or jobs that aren't at all about acting so that I can learn new things or survive or be a part of something I believe in or expand my skill-set or question my own life choices a little bit. Sometimes I go home and make myself soup instead of going to a workshop. (Okay, I usually go home and make myself soup instead of going to workshops. Who am I kidding.)

I remember someone telling me early in my career, "You're an actress. People don't want to hear about it if you're sick or have a headache or you're tired. You're an actress. You have to be pretty and vibrant all the time. You're selling an image. That's your job."

Right. And also the job of the Stepford Wives.

I'm more interested in being a human being and telling real stories than in being an airbrushed product, thanks very much. I firmly believe that acting (and all art) is fundamentally about telling the truth. In love. And the first person I need to tell the truth to is myself.

Yes I need to invest in and promote my business, but I also need to invest in and promote my spirit. It wasn't until the last few years that I realized, looking at my list of favorite actors, that most of them had studied something other than acting in school. I don't think that's a coincidence. Most of them had dayjobs for years, and actually kept up some kind of dayjob after achieving financial success as an artist. Advocacy work, charity work, faith, political groups - these things are not necessarily acting-related, people. But they relate actors to the world. Because it's all about being a human effing being. So what else inspires you? What else do you care about? What matters to you? Are you feeding all aspects of your life? Are you investing in yourself as a human? In other humans? I hope so.

So what does it actually mean to be a working actor???

The bottom line is, I think there is no one correct or right definition. Being right or doing it right is not a thing. We each must make the tough choices and fun risks as we deign fit.

To me, lately, being a working actor boils down pretty simply to seeking out opportunities to work in projects that excite me. It means developing my own projects. It means fostering relationships with people I want to work with (I'm looking at you Caroline Dooner. And hey, while I'm looking, I'm look at you too Sam Mendes).

Being a working actor means paring down my schedule to support the things that really actually matter to me, and being painfully honest about what those things are. It means taking an afternoon off sometimes and reading a book or going to a capoeira class or having happy hour with a friend.

It means allowing myself to focus on rediscovering the joy of play rather than constantly hounding myself to "improve my craft." Yes improving craft is important, but if that's all acting becomes for me I will have lost the soul of it.

To me being a working actor above all means living from my soul all the time.

What does being a working actor mean to you?

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