As independent entrepreneurs marketing the product that is ourselves, it can be tough for actors to manage that most elusive of commodities: time.
We’re busier than most civilians, and we’re also more challenged on the time front, if you think about it. Sorry, but if all you have to worry about is dragging your carcass into the office every day for eight or nine hours, you’ve got it easy.
We actors, on the other hand, have to juggle auditions, classes, rehearsals, marketing, learning lines on our own, and performing – and for many of us, we have a job on top of all that as well! So the next time some smug relative wants to make a snide comment about how easy acting is, you have permission to enlighten them in no uncertain terms. With a baseball bat, if necessary.
That said, there’s a rich vein of experience to be tapped right under most of our noses that many of us overlook: working on student films and indie films. Lots of actors think themselves too good, or indie films to be too amateurish for them to waste their time on them. But the truth is, no matter what stage of your career you are in, you have a lot to gain from acting in a project like this. Here’s why!
1. Just Get Better
I once worked for this crazy woman who managed a restaurant, one of those people who are completely anal retentive and MUST have everything done their own particular, fussy little way. I remember when I was still training through one busy lunch, probably frantically slopping out soup or sloshing beverages all over the counter in my rush, and in frustration she said, “Kurt, you just…you have to…you just have to do better!” (Someone should have told her about specificity, perhaps…?) The point is that, of course, over time working on the job, I did indeed get better. But that’s the thing about experience – there is no substitute; you get better the more you do something. So any, and I mean ANY opportunity to act is a valuable learning tool if you approach it with the right attitude. You can choose to look down your nose at “the kids making their little film,” but that would be a mistake. A better choice is to throw yourself into it and surrender yourself to the project, to the give and take, to the exchange of ideas, to the spontaneous improv that inevitably comes up – and you will come out the other side a better actor than you were before. Great ideas don’t necessarily come from on high; they can be created by anyone, anytime, if you are open to seeing them.
2. Stretch Them Muscles
Remember that list of all the things we have to keep track of as actor/entrepreneurs? Classes and so forth? What most of them have in common is that they are designed to keep our instrument sharp so that when that big opportunity comes along, we won’t have to shake off any cobwebs. So instead of looking at student films or indie projects as a chore or a time-suck, a better attitude would be to think of it as a free class. As Bob Odenkirk (“Better Call Saul”) says about auditions, any day you get to act is a good day.
3. Become A Leader
For most of actors starting out, many of the projects you end up working on aren’t exactly super challenging. Munching on Cheetos while grinning like a maniac, or cheering at a greenscreen ball game as though it was akin to achieving nirvana, or being Guy Number 3 in a bar scene is often the type of work we get when we do get work. And any work is good! That’s not to denigrate getting paid to act, not in any way. But – and this holds true even for many, many actors well into their careers – when you work on smaller projects you can find yourself instantly catapulted to leading man or woman. How many indie films have you seen where an actor you’ve known only as a character actor or a supporting player in big Hollywood productions gets a chance to shine as the lead? This could be you, when you work with students and on small indie productions.
4. Connect The Dots
As we all know, networking is a huge part of being a working actor. And any project you work on, you make connections that can lead who knows where. Just because someone is a film student now doesn’t mean they always will be. Not to mention that the other actors, crew and everyone else associated with making a film – whether it be a student project or an indie – is a potential gold mine for connections for immediate work and for future projects. These people, after all, are not only in the industry – they ARE the industry. They are working on other projects constantly and thus they know who is need of what kind of actor. Get yourself on an indie or a student film and watch your network expand exponentially!
5. This Could Be The Start of Something Big
Everybody has to start somewhere. And for more and more big-name stars these days, that somewhere is in indie and student films. With the ubiquity of YouTube and countless other outlets where original work can be posted and seen, and with the interconnectedness of everyone and everything these days, there’s just no telling who could see your work on an indie or a student film – nor where it could lead. The notion that you need to be in Hollywood to get your start in films is just not true anymore. One example comes to us from Texas, where an unknown weirdo got together with a few friends and made a short film, about 13 minutes give or take. That weirdo was a fellow who goes by the name of Wes Anderson, and the friends were brothers Luke and Owen Wilson. So that 13 minutes of film shot on weekends outside Austin launched at least three massive careers, not to mention seriously upping the cred of anyone who was in any way associated with it. You just never know!
6. It’s Bloody Fun!
The thing about working on big-budget films or commercials is, no matter how cool the rest of the cast is, and how friendly and open the director and producers are, there is always going to be some undercurrent of pressure. Those huge crews and massive sets and locations don’t come cheap, and time is money. So there’s that kind of pressure, but also there’s the kind you put on yourself. You are always on some level thinking about your career on those jobs. You always are at least circumstantially aware that the work you are doing here counts. But working indie films and student films – while still work and while you still are going to strive to do your best – are so much more relaxed and fun. I have never laughed so much or had such a good time as when I’ve worked on smaller indie projects.
So get down to the film school where you live, or check out a job board website and find yourself some smaller projects to work on! What are you waiting for?