Actors can be a sensitive lot, as we all know. It just makes sense; in order to to do this job and do it well, you have to be closely in touch with the entire spectrum of human emotions, and you need the empathy it takes to imagine yourself undergoing a variety of circumstances and to play out what your reactions to them would be. That’s a tall order and not everyone is cut out for it.
The flip-side of all that empathy and emotional fluency is sometimes we take things hard. We all probably go through periods where we are easily bruised on an emotional level.
Then consider the fact that auditions, or our “job interviews” – which, by the way, we endure far more frequently than people in any other occupation – are by their very nature going to involve far more rejections than acceptances.
So to recap: you’ve got people who are extra-attuned to emotions and perhaps even more sensitive than the majority of people, who are putting themselves on the line to be judged several times per week if they’re lucky, a process which is likely to ring up a minimum of a good 20 “No” answers for every “Yes” we encounter.
No wonder actors sometimes get discouraged and think about quitting.
But if you’ve ever gone through this phase or are going through it right now, here are a few things you might want to think about before you get a cover-up for that comedy and tragedy mask tattoo you got when you graduated theater school.
1. You aren’t alone
Two things to think about under this category, actually. One is to consider who you confide in, who are your acting confidants and to a lesser degree your close friends and family who aren’t in the business and how much do you talk with them about your doubts. One of the all-time greatest things you can do for yourself as an actor, especially if you are fairly green or in a new city, is to start or join an actor’s group. Not only will you have like-minded souls who can help with scene study, monologues, and etc., you’ll also have people who understand the tribulations of the actor’s life. They can not only offer a shoulder to cry on when you don’t book that coveted role, they’ll also be there to celebrate with you and help you run your lines when you do land the gig.
The second thing to think about when you’re going through a period of self-doubt is how many of the famous, successful actors we all know and love have been right where you’re standing today. John Krasinski is an example that leaps to mind. Today he’s a lauded director and highly sought-after A-list action star for big-budget Hollywood films. But before he landed the iconic role of Jim Halpert on “The Office,” he was a phone call away from packing it all in. In a 2018 interview with Stephen Colbert, Krasinski said his time in New York waiting tables and struggling to get work put him at the end of his rope. He had made a deal with his mom when he left to move to the city to pursue acting, that if he still hadn’t found some degree of success after two or three years, he would move back home. Kraskinski said he was actually on the phone with his mom asking for her to come and pick him up, when she suggested he “wait it out” until the end of the year.
Three weeks later, he booked the role of Jim Halpert.
But Krasinski isn’t alone. Another famous almost-quitter is Uzo Aduba, better known as “Crazy Eyes” on “Orange is the New Black.” She has said that just before she booked her breakout role as a quirky, endearing, hilariously unstable convict on the show, she had already given up on acting. She tells the story of struggling as a theater actor in New York then spending a summer auditioning for television and film roles for the first time. She said after reading for Crazy Eyes, on top of a whole lot of other recent auditions, the thought occurred to her that, “Maybe I’m not supposed to be this,’ you know? And then I got home, and about an hour after that I found out I got this job,” she said.
And don’t forget Naomi Watts. The near-legendarily talented star of “Birdman,” “Eastern Promises” and “21 Grams” had knocked around for nearly a decade before she finally landed a spot in a little pilot by the name of “Mulholland Drive.” The David Lynch series was never picked up, but the iconic director called Watts back in to shoot more coverage to turn the pilot into a typically oddball but compelling feature, one that was nominated for Oscars, Golden Globes and which premiered at Cannes. Watts had told the story of growing disillusioned with auditioning, and thinking about quitting before meeting with Lynch.
“It was like for the first time, somebody was interested in ‘seeing’ me,” she said about reading for the “Twin Peaks” director. “In the early days I didn’t get to pick and choose at all…[but after reading for Lynch,] I never had to audition again!”
2. Success and your definition of it
But let’s be honest: rattling off a bunch of top-tier celebrity actors who almost dropped out of the business before they hit the big time doesn’t mean that a breakout role that’ll buy your first Malibu mansion is right around the corner. Indeed, more so than fame and money, what you might need to reconsider as an actor suffering some pangs of self-doubt is what exactly is “success” to you? There’s a great scene in the twisted Bill Hader comedy series “Barry” that follows the ups and downs of a hitman turned journeyman actor (just watch it; as an actor I promise you will love it – and you’ll see yourself and your friends in its wacky characters). The acting teacher played by Henry Winkler is aghast at a student (Sarah Goldberg) whining about only booking films and series roles that are unchallenging to her as an actor. He says, (I paraphrase:) “You’re booking work, and you’re COMPLAINING??”
So what does it mean to be a success as an actor to you? Paying the bills, and steadily working is pretty great stuff, in the eyes of someone who doesn’t have that. Something else to consider is the sheer unadulterated joy and happiness most of us derive from acting. “Passion for the work” is not something you near about very often from office drones and bankers.
3. Maybe you’re not failing, you’re improving
Something else to think about that ties in with the examples of actors who nearly left just before they got their big break is that maybe you need to redefine what is actually going on during this time where you aren’t booking as much work as you’d like. The simple fact of the matter is that if you are taking classes, working as an actor on any project you can get hold of, and auditioning, you are in the process of improving your craft. Maybe you’re just developing the skills you’re going to need when that big opportunity does come along. It’d be a shame to bail on your education process just as it’s getting rolling!
4. There are so many outlets out there – get seen!
Finally, if you find yourself getting discouraged, perhaps it’s time to widen the shot: remember that there are more outlets than ever before looking for content, and content producers need actors. You are in the middle of a unique moment in history in which actors are in major demand on the web, on streaming services and in more traditional venues, so self-submit! Get your face in front of as many producers and CDs and directors as you can, and something is bound to hit!