“You are a ghost driving a meat-coated skeleton made of stardust. What do you have to be afraid of?”
This quote has been making the rounds on Reddit for a while now, and for some reason I fell in love with it. It speaks of not only the impermanence of our existence, it also touches on how we are all, in a very concrete way, part of something billions of years old, in the form of the “stardust” which makes up the elements that makes up us.
We are ephemeral and permanent; gossamer and unimaginably ancient all at once – a perfect contradiction for an actor to contemplate.
It also points out how separated most of us are from our bodies. But as actors it’s vital that we work to be in closer contact with the entirety of the machine that makes us up, that we not succumb to being mere “ghosts” behind the wheel of a meat machine, if you will.
So when we talk about preparing for the big day of the audition, or your first day on set for your dream role, we talk a lot about a certain kind of preparation that is mostly mental: learning lines, doing the background research and scene work, developing an action and separating out the beats within the text. And while all of these mental preparations are important, they leave out one important factor: your body is just as important as your mind.
That lovely brain of yours, the one that works so hard to connect you with a given role and get you in a mental state conducive to learning and emotional openness is not some free-floating futuristic alien brain-creature. It’s being chauffeured around in a vehicle that’s also rather important to your well-being. All the mental and emotional training in the world isn’t going to matter a damn if your body isn’t up to the task. So here’s a few ways to ensure that you’re ready for the long days of shooting, or the long run of performing in a play eight times a week, or just for the stress of the big audition—physically as well as mentally.
1.Be Ready For Your Close-Up
They say the camera adds ten pounds, and that’s pretty much true. But you know what else adds apparent weight to your face in those tight close-ups? Water. The dreaded bloating that comes from a bad diet or too much alcohol the night before. If you have a big shoot or audition day coming up, try to stay away from salty, fatty snacks, highly-processed and packaged foods–and the booze. Sorry guys, you might think its a good idea to just have one or two “just to relax,” but it will work against you on the day. Big restaurant meals are also a no-no, as they often contain mucho hidden sugar and sodium, and salt bloats you, especially around the face and eyes. Even if you aren’t any kind Anthony Bourdain around the kitchen, take some time to learn how to prepare a couple of simple dishes that aren’t terribly difficult and do yourself a favor for the last few nights before a big audition or shoot: dine in. Work your lines with your headphones as you cook, or have a friend over to help with dinner and run lines with you. (Just no booze! You can celebrate after the shoot!) High protein, low-carb diets heavy on the fresh veggies and fruit, and low on salt, sugar and refined carbs will leave you feeling so much more sharp and active – not only physically, but mentally as well. And skip the late night snacks. That’s when most people who are trying to eat healthier fall off the wagon; there’s kind of an “if it happens in the middle of the night, it doesn’t count” mentality that can lead to giving in to temptation to snack on unhealthy foods. And any kind of foods that can lead to a “food coma” are a no-no because that feeling doesn’t just disappear after you sleep. Your body is still processing what you did to it the next morning.
Water is life, as they say, and that’s certainly true when it comes to keeping your very own “meat-covered skeleton” in tip-top shape. Hydration keeps your skin healthy, helps to keep your mental acuity sharp, it fends off headaches, and it aids in digestion. Another thing about water many people don’t realize is that you are often slightly dehydrated without even knowing it, and your body frequently registers this as hunger. Your hypothalamus regulates both hunger and thirst, and the signals from your body indicating whichever one it is get crossed up in the hypothalamus. So, many times when you feel a little peckish for no good reason, you’re really just in need of some hydration. Health experts suggest that when you feel like a snack, try grabbing some water instead and waiting 15 or 20 minutes before you dig in. You might just forget you were “hungry.” And an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure; stay on top of your water intake and you won’t have to worry about it at all. Another highly recommended adjustment everyone can make is to down a big glass of water just after you wake up in the morning. We’re always, always going to be dehydrated after sleeping, and drinking water right away can prevent the error of eating too much of the wrong kinds of food for breakfast.
With as much as we know about the benefits of exercise these days, and as much as actors are invested in their full “instrument,” it is amazing when you still hear actors who say, “Oh, I don’t really exercise or go to the gym.” There are just so many things in the world of acting for which you need a body that will help you, not hinder you: dance, stage and film combat—hell, simply to survive 12 to 14 hour days on set without getting cranky you need to be in decent shape. And who doesn’t want to look good when you’re on stage or on film?? And keep in mind too, more and more evidence these days points to the need for at least a light weight training program as being the one to prioritize over cardio, even for women who may reluctant to lift weights for fear of bulking up. (It’s a myth.) Yes, you need to do cardio of some kind, at least some walking. But the body burns off more fat the more toned your muscle is. And the other thing about exercise of any sort is that it’s great for endorphin release, that lovely, amazing gift of a natural high our brains give us. There’s nothing like getting ready for a big day of auditioning or shooting with a burst of endorphins and the confidence and sense of well-being they deliver.
This is a tough one in this world and culture where overwork is not only celebrated, it is downright fetishized. We all like to think of ourselves as tough enough to take it, whatever it may be—a day job followed by a class, followed by a rehearsal, followed by a couple hours of learning lines perhaps. But the thing is all that hard work isn’t going to do you any good if you’re exhausted the next day. Lack of sleep contributes to cognitive problems, depression, memory problems, weight gain, and it ages your skin. That sounds like a set of problems no actor wants to have! So ultimately if you are burning the candle at both ends, you are burning yourself right along with it, and that’s not doing you or your acting any good. You may not need eight full hours of sleep, but you know how much you do need, and you know when you are making decisions that are going to cut it short.
We also have to find time, just in terms of our general health, to relax and do nothing. We’re not talking about surfing the net or watching tv—you’ve got to find a way to take some time to do NOTHING. Meditation works for some, or there’s a great Dutch concept called Niksen that’s worth looking into, roughly defined as “doing something without purpose,” looking out a window, hanging out on a park bench, or listening to music. Give it a try! Here’s to having the best meat-coated skeleton possible to help your actor’s brain succeed!