We refer to our bodies as our instruments and this is an instructive way to think about how we as actors must commit to caring for ourselves if we want to succeed. If you play a violin or a saxophone, you don’t drag it behind you down the street or kick it down the stairs or leave it out in the yard overnight. Not if you want it to work correctly and well when you need it.
Acting requires stamina, clear thinking, and confidence. And all of these things tend to slip away when you’re feeling sluggish or sick. If you’re going to be on set for 12 or 14 hour days, or do a typical tight rehearsal schedule for a stage show including the dreaded 10 of 12 rehearsal–or even be at your sharpest while running from audition to audition and learning new sides under the gun while working two or three day jobs–you need to be as healthy as possible. Here are a few ways we can help ourselves to be the best actors we can be by keeping our entire instrument healthy.
This may seem like a no-brainer, especially in this day and age where there’s a gym or three on every corner and seemingly every famous actor out there has a gym body that looks like it’s been chiseled out of stone. However, a shockingly high number of actors seem to think that getting in physical shape is something that can wait. Perhaps they think that they can wait until they hit the big time and they can afford a private trainer at their fully tricked-out home gym in Bel-Air. While nothing is impossible, let’s just say that this order of events is unlikely to occur in reality. To do your best work–and thus be successful in whatever way you define success–your body must be able to withstand the relentless demands of rehearsals and performances. Keep in mind too that being physically fit doesn’t necessarily mean being ripped to one percent body fat or beefing up to the size of The Mountain from Game of Thrones. However, the fact is, muscle burns more calories than fat, and a toned actor is more versatile than one who is not. A solid exercise program should include some weight training, some cardio and some yoga, or at least stretching for flexibility. This goes for both men and women. A pernicious myth among women is that if they do any weight training at all they’re going to get bulky and overly muscled. Ladies, I promise that lifting some dumbbells a few times a week or doing some push-ups will NOT result in you looking like Brienne of Tarth by Christmas. It will, however, contribute to an overall tone that can help you with the physical aspects of acting, including movement and stage/screen combat. One more point on exercise: the mental and psychological benefits are often overlooked, but they are very real too. The release of endorphins you get from exercise is a fantastic natural mood elevator and helps tremendously to combat depression and to clear your mind so you can fully engage with the work at hand.
Another fantasy some younger actors seem to entertain is that they can eat like crap while they’re young and worry about getting healthier at some vague point in the future. Perhaps they’re also anticipating living in that mansion in Bel-Air and eating the perfectly crafted, balanced and healthy meals that will be prepared for them by their personal team of chefs. In the meantime, it’s McDonald’s and soft drinks all the way! Again, nothing is impossible. But even the damage done by half a lifetime of waging war on your own body can be difficult to overcome. Plus no matter if you “have a fast metabolism” or not, the fact is you will feel better, more energetic, and less sluggish if you eat better food. A balanced diet of natural, unprocessed foods, including lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, along with whole grains and nuts as well as a reduced reliance on meat–especially heavily processed “meat” like you find in fast “food”–will result in more energy and a stronger body to give you the resilience you need as a busy actor. Another health fact that is becoming more apparent is that sugar is truly a killer. Diabetes, obesity, heart disease and even cancer are being linked by more and more studies to over-consumption of sugar. What’s more, some studies have likened it to cocaine in terms of its addictive nature, and have linked the sugar-heavy western diet to chronic inflammation of the organs and the gut. Do yourself a favor and forgo that massive soda and instead go for a water with lemon. Your body will thank you–and so will your career.
3. Quit smoking tobacco
You just…at this point? Really? With everything we know about tobacco and the horrible things it does to your body, this too is a no-brainer. There are a million methods out there to help you quit, and often you can even get stop smoking meds for free. Personal experience here: the nicotine patch will help you tremendously in overcoming that “I’m going to murder everyone I see” phase when you first give up cigarettes. And getting that crap out of your lungs will free you to get yourself in better shape, speak and sing with a clearer, cleaner voice, and will even add to your range as a singer. Another benefit of quitting cigarettes is a tremendous boost in energy levels, which every actor needs!
4. Limit alcohol and drugs
Hey, we’re actors; by and large we’re fun, outgoing people. There’s nothing like the camaraderie of boozing it up a little with your castmates at a wrap party or on opening night of a play you’ve worked so hard to create. So no one is suggesting you live like a monk. On the other hand, there is a danger to taking the social life blended into cocktail form too far, especially for actors. Make sure you avoid crazy nights out right before a big audition or when you’re in the middle of a shoot requiring long days on set. Even if you’re one of those horrible people who are lightning-quick to recover from this kind of self-abuse, you still have to admit you’re not at 100 percent of your capabilities if you partied hard the night before. Find a way to compartmentalize and structure your boozy activities in such a way that they won’t affect your work. Future you will thank you.
The bottom line is this is a demanding line of work and we all need to be conscious of taking care of ourselves as we pursue our dreams–both mentally and physically. And the more we learn about the body-mind connection, the more we realize that our health, mental and physical, is a result of not only the way we think, but also what we put into our bodies. A good actor is a healthy, happy actor!