Confidence is a tricky beast, even for famously confident people like actors. You can be having a great day, then one little thing can shake your confidence and it’s completely shot, never to be found again. A common tale among actors is this: you’re all set up for success for a particular audition, well-rehearsed, solidly off-book, well-rested–100 percent ready to go, in other words. Then, while you’re sitting in the waiting room something mysterious clicks in your head just as your name is called and you head in to read: everything crumbles and all that confidence is gone–for no good reason! Sound familiar?
So confidence is pretty intangible and ethereal; there’s not always a super clear explanation for why it might escape us from time to time. However there are some tried and true methods for building up confidence, especially for actors.
Here’s a few:
1. It’s all in your head
Thoughts are a funny business: for instance, don’t think about a pink elephant. Stop it. Stop thinking about that pink elephant right now! See? Thoughts sometimes control us, not the other way around. But thoughts are almost literally nothing. They are electrochemical impulses firing between neurons in your brain. You can’t hold a thought in your hand or put it in a jar or examine it. However, for such insubstantial things, thoughts can and do have real-world consequences. The things we think about and which occupy our minds show up in the form of our emotions and physicality. If you’re under-confident about remembering your lines, what do you think about? You think about the possibility of failure, which comes with feelings of potential embarrassment. But here’s the annoying part of having a human brain: even THINKING about failure or embarrassment can lead to physical manifestations of what it feels like to be embarrassed. Suddenly you’ve got an increased heart rate, flushed skin, and you’re sweating–all because of a thought! So the first trick of maintaining your confidence is not to let your thoughts manifest in your body and thus create a self-fulfilling prophecy. So how do we prevent this thought>emotion>physicality feedback loop when we’re on the hot seat at an audition or performing? We fill our minds with positive thoughts. Pro athletes often talk about visualization: they picture the shot or the play before they go out to execute it. This is a great model for actors: picture your audition going the way you want it to go. You’re going to step into that room, smile and say your hellos, find your mark, take a deep, cleansing breath, and then say the first few words. From there the rest will flow. Imagine that before you go in to read and it should help stave off the pink elephant thoughts of negativity.
2. Actor, act!
It’s a trite saying but it’s true: if you act confident even when you’re not feeling it 100 percent, actual confidence often results. If you walk into a room hesitantly, slumping your shoulders down as if to hide, taking tentative, shuffling steps, there is a certain energy you are not only projecting, but also one that you are internalizing in your body. Think about how that lends itself perfectly to the thought/emotion/body feedback loop mentioned above. Try an experiment sometime at a low-stakes event where you don’t know anyone, say at a party or a new class you’ve just started. Imagine yourself being That Guy or That Girl: walk in, shoulders back, head held high, and look people in the eye–then do it. Say hello and smile and nod at everyone with whom you make eye contact. I know, I know, for some of us that sounds…just horrible. Like it might be awkward and stressful. But I promise if you give it a try, you are almost guaranteed to get at least one or two positive responses, possibly from people who also don’t know anybody and are grateful for the greeting! Human brains are weird. (As an actor you already know that, of course!) But one neat trick is that we often become what we are perceived as by others. If the first impression you give people is that of the confident guy or girl, they treat you that way, and thus you feel more confident, creating a different, more positive feedback loop.
3. Fighting fear
There’s a great scene in “Deadwood” in which Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen is trying to buck up the milquetoast newspaper editor over a looming confrontation. He shocks the editor with a sudden slap across the face and says, “Did you die? No. Pain or damage don’t end the world. The world ends when you’re dead.” A tad dire for an acting advice column, but follow me: what are you really afraid of when you go in to audition, or when you’re feeling under-confident about anything? What is the absolute worst thing that could occur? Surely not death. Or even dismemberment. So when you let yourself get caught up in a mindset of lack of confidence, you’re literally being fearful over nothing. Nothing can go wrong that won’t result in you walking out of that room and going on with the rest of your day. Even if you blow it spectacularly, the worst possible result is you might not get the callback. So what? There’s always the next audition. So the next time evil little negative thoughts start to creep in around the edges of your brain, the never-ending “what ifs,” turn those suckers around: “What if I go in there and read this piece just as well as I’ve rehearsed it, then head out for a nice lunch afterward?” Because really, that’s about the worst that can happen.
4. Baby steps
Speaking of thoughts and the ways they can manifest in the world outside of our skulls, one major way to build confidence is to acknowledge and hang onto the good things you do. Many actors have a tendency to brush off compliments and even minimize our accomplishments in our own thoughts, but this is a mistake. When you do something well, give yourself a pat on the back. Reflect on the moments where it all fell into place, relish that feeling, and allow it in. Get used to that feeling; success begets success! By the same token, you have to learn from your mistakes, of course. But then the key to dealing with mistakes is to find a way to leave them behind. Many of us have this ratio exactly backwards: we beat ourselves up for days or weeks for some stupid, miniscule error, while we shove aside the many positive results we see. Make a conscious effort to focus on the positive steps you take, no matter how small they may seem, and watch as they blossom and grow! You’re not perfect, nor will you ever be. But your mistakes don’t define you; your ability to learn from them and move on does. If you blow it at an audition, why did it happen? Were you under-rehearsed, tired, hungry, running late, or stressed out? Identify and fix the problems and move on with your life, don’t dwell on it. And if you kill it at an audition or have a particularly good performance, let yourself enjoy that feeling for a little while! Bask in it for a minute. And then move forward with a bit more confidence that you can make that happen again.