“A star does not compete with other stars around it; it just shines.” – author Matshona Dhliwayo
Anyone who has been in the acting game for more than five minutes realizes that it’s a crowded industry. Who among us hasn’t waited far too long in a hot, crowded room, absorbing the nervous, stressed-out energy of all the other actors waiting for a chance to prove in 30 to 120 seconds that they’re the right choice for the part? So we’re all acutely aware of the fact that there is a lot of competition for a limited number of roles. That means it is a legitimate and useful question to ask yourself: am I doing all that I can do to make myself stand out from the crowd? Here are a few ideas for how you can take the leap and really put yourself on the radar of directors and casting directors, and book more roles!
1. Get Good
This may seem like something that goes without saying, but far too often it doesn’t. The fact of the matter is, as actors we’re improving or we’re dying. Younger actors just out of school or new to the bigger markets may have significant performing experience, classes, and other training under their belts, and that’s great. But honestly it’s more a great start than anything else. The thing is, you just don’t know what you don’t know – and directors do know. That’s not meant to intimidate you; just keep in mind that when you do get a chance to meet a director or work on a project – and this applies to veteran actors too – it’s best to take a humble, open-minded attitude toward everything and be ready to learn. Directors are impressed by actors willing to engage fully and go for it fearlessly when they’re given a shot. Just understand that the skills you have learned so far are just the barest glimmer of the fantastically honed talent you will become. Attack each new class or project you work on with the hungry zeal of a convert who wants to know and learn and do EVERYTHING. Be a sponge. Always Be Learning, and always be aware that you can be better, and you will find ways to improve your craft. Along the way, you will catch the eye of directors and CDs and you will book more!
2. Create Unique Projects
Embedded in that attitude of always learning is that we should always be DOING. The dedicated actor is always working their craft. Even if that work doesn’t pay off in immediate financial gain, the investment in your skill set is a long-term one and it will bear fruit. So during your down time between projects, you should always be working on new monologues, new characters, new takes on old characters and creating your own material.
One of the biggest crimes we commit against ourselves as actors is being passive. That’s not entirely our fault; this is a business that creates a passive mindset for actors. We actors are implicitly placed on the lowest rung of the decision-making ladder. There is a huge swath of decisions made before we ever get involved, decisions made by the writer, the producers, the director, the cinematographer, the DP, the AD, the casting director, the agent and many, many more people before it finally gets to a place where we actors have some say in the matter. We wait for the casting notice to come our way, we wait for our turn to read for the role, we wait for the CD to contact our agent and call us back, we wait for the director to make the final casting choices, we wait to be called to set for our scenes – we wait. And we wait some more.
No wonder people feel powerless.
So STOP WAITING! It’s a huge mistake to allow that passive mindset to inform either the way you approach the business or the way you approach your craft. For one thing, as mentioned above, you don’t have to wait around to get cast in something to be working – and actors who are working are the ones who get themselves on the radar of directors and casting directors. In this day and age of so many on-demand subscription channels, not to mention YouTube and other web-based shows that are constantly starving for content, it’s a crime for any actor not to at least dip his or her toe in the waters of creating material. Get together with friends and hammer out some characters, or even a scene or two. Make a fun night of it! Play around with some quirky, silly, weird, funny, outside-the-box choices and get some rough draft ideas down of what you’re after on video. Then, (when you sober up) have a look at what you’ve made, hone it, tighten it up, ruthlessly cut the superfluous stuff, and rehearse it. Then get yourself in front of a camera – sober this time – and record a scene or a monologue.
I think a big thing that prevents a lot of actors from writing their own material is the weight we put on that one word: “Oh, I’m not a writer! I could never…” Well, here’s some news: you don’t have to start out with a 5-hour, 220-page, epic director’s cut script a la Peter Jackson or Stanley Kubrick. Start with a sketch, or a concept, or even just a character. How about one page? How about half a page? Think in terms of the baby steps we all walked as we learned acting, and apply that to your creative writing: I’m betting your first role in a production wasn’t Lady Macbeth or Hamlet, so there’s no reason to pressure yourself to write up a masterpiece on your first go-round. Don’t think in terms of finished product, think in terms of process, and for goodness sake, have fun! Record that stuff and post it.
3. Put Yourself in the Director’s Shoes
If you find the idea of even this user-friendly level of creating material intimidating, don’t worry. There’s another answer for you to get your unique self in front of the eyes of directors and casting directors, and that is by taking established material and putting your own unique stamp on it. Another way we actors sell ourselves short is we aren’t constantly learning new monologues and committing them to video and getting them out there where people can see them. So that’s first: learn some new stuff, tape it, and upload it, starting with your reel right here on NYCastings.
But you can really make an impact on how directors and CDs see you if you try to think like them for a minute. Let’s use that actor’s empathy to imagine a typical casting: what must it be like to watch a series of 200 actors who have the same basic, general appearance read the same five lines. Over and over. Again and again. Can you imagine trying to stay awake and aware through all that? Now think about how terrified most actors are of failure – that is to say, we tend to put more emphasis on not doing it “wrong” than on doing it right. So what you’ll find is actor after actor taking the safest, most pedestrian route laid out by the text and the breakdown, and thus reading in a very boring way.
So here’s your exercise for the week: learn one or two new monologues and take a different approach. Imagine some quirk in the character, or some odd backstory piece of their personal puzzle that isn’t apparent in the text and play with it. Get weird with it! Have fun! Do ANYTHING but be bland. The important thing is catching the eye of someone who has decision-making pull, and you ain’t gonna do that if you read the safe, established way. If you get too weird or too far out of the box on set, directors will pull you back. But what they love, love, love to see before they cast someone is an actor with the bravery and the skills to play outside the norm, and who can think and create on their own without needing someone to hold their hand or, worse yet, drag them along and coax something mildly interesting out of them. It’s much better to be weird than timid. The worst that can happen is you don’t get the call, or you give someone a giggle when they see your tape. But Hollywood history abounds with stories of people recording outrageously silly, weird, off-beat and hilarious monologues or scenes, and the right person seeing them and changing their careers forever.
So get yourself out there! Start today by recording some new material and uploading your reel at NYCastings. Also sign up for email alerts for castings in your area, and self-submit to some of the hundreds of projects that are posted here every day!