Acting hasn’t changed, but being an actor has. Gone are the days of mailing your headshot and resume out to a casting director and waiting to be called in. Reels are now resumes, and your presence on social media can supersede your ability to perform.
It’s the wild west out there, and if you want to succeed in a business that has such a low level of genuine success, then you have to learn a new set of skills.
Now, the actor is essentially an entrepreneur, handling brand, image, sales, content, marketing, and every aspect of their company, and if you are not developing the skills of a Harvard Business graduate then unless you are bringing unrivaled hotness, which is not in short supply, or unparalleled comedic timing then you will be left behind.
There are two choices. If you want to make a career of this craft, then you have to develop these skills or be left behind. Yes, you can just focus on “the art” and make your way from one small job to the next, but if you long for any sort of lasting success, then there is a new package of skills you need.
Display What You Know
Our eyes have been hijacked. Every artist is competing with every other influencer with a phone. The local theatre company is in direct marketing competition with Key and Peele, an Instagram model, and a travel blogger who has never left the country.
It used to be that the rehearsal room stayed hidden, that actors didn’t talk about the process of finding characters. Today, people want to see the life. Today, people want to be a part of the process.
We are always on our phones and computers. We are consistently looking for content well beyond entertainment. People want to read blogs that help them understand a topic, they want to watch videos that enhance their grasp of a field.
Being an actor is no longer just about putting a performance upon the stage or waiting for hair and makeup to get you ready for the sound stage. The career has exploded out of the theatre and into the world.
Now, I am not saying that every actor needs to be an influencer, but you need to understand how the current climate works. Think about it this way. What does it take to be a successful stand-up comedian? First and foremost, you have to understand the craft. There is a rhythm, a language, an art to developing comedy. Night after night, you have to put in the work in front of an audience, and day after day, you have to spend your time crafting jokes. Furthermore, if you want to be a relevant comedian after you master those skills, people have to know you exist. Luckily today, you can share your routine on YouTube, start a podcast, or simply stay alive on Instagram and with funny videos.
If a comedian is doing all this on top of their work in front of a mic, you better believe you, as an actor, better be putting in the work.
So, on top of acting classes, reading scripts, books, and plays as well as studying cinematography, story structure, and a million other things you should be working on because you love the craft, here are the skills you need to be developing today:
Maintain Your Sanity
This business will eat at your soul. You dedicate years to learning how to perform Shakespeare better only to be passable at it, and some kid on Youtube with a million followers gets a movie a deal. So what? Life isn’t fair.
What you need more than sarcasm and tough love is a tool kit for managing these waters.
Standing out amongst the resumes.
Create content. Make movies with your friends, read audiobooks for SoundCloud, shoot social media videos, be a presence. The headshot and resume are vital, yes, but just as powerful and perhaps more so is having visible content for the world to see.
When we decide where we are going to eat, do we just pick a random restaurant and hop in an Uber? No. We look it up. We check their website, look at Yelp reviews, and compare it with other places.
When looking to hire someone for a movie or for a commercial, we want to see what they are sharing with the world. What kind of person are they, what are they presenting to the world?
Websites, YouTube channels, blogs, Instagram accounts, Twitter feeds, all of these things matter.
Reels are the new headshots. Film is so accessible today, and photos contain so much manipulation. The amount of times agents have brought someone in based on their headshot only to have a completely different person show up is astounding. You can’t hide on video. Therefore, make sure your content is available, and that it is what you want to share with the world.
What is your personal brand?
Whether we like it or not, we must understand what our brand is. No one wants to be typecast, but that is the nature of the business.
Would you trust Foldgers steaks or Jack Daniels yogurt? People are more complex than products, but in this business, we must understand what we thrive. And if we are a pro at this, then we must understand how to market and share that content.
You Are the Business
Every artist must think like a CEO. If you believe the role you want is going to be handed to you, you are wrong. Display what you know online, refine the specific brand you are projecting, and connect with the people in your industry.
The days of a black and white headshot and an 8x11 paper resume getting you in the room are fading fast if they are not already gone.
In this business:
Stop dreaming of the days, you can hire a team of people to craft this image. Stop waiting to be the actor you want to be. Start creating that company the same way you create a character.
All of these things I am practicing and trying to get better at. I waited to start working on these things. Despite being a writer, I wrote in private for the last decade. Sure, a few of my articles and essays made it onto other sites, and I wrote a play or two, but I did not spend any time building my brand, and I am starting from square one.
Yet, that’s the point. We all have to start from square one. I am practicing what I preach.
I love writing screenplays and studying the story. I love rehearsing and learning. I love being an actor. I love driving to set, living in new places for a few months while working on Shakespeare, or doing a quick shoot in NYC. I love the work.
But there is more to being a professional.
There are so many things we don’t talk about in actor training. We get so caught up in the “How” and the “Why” that we feel to talk about the what. I recently gave some lectures to a group of students at a University about acting professionally, and what amazed me was not what they asked, but what they didn’t ask.
Many of them were already assuming success, a typical pitfall of all young actors. They were more concerned with how to get agents and how to avoid being typecast than where to find jobs, what to look for in contracts, how not to get scammed, and how to learn all the hard lessons we learn on our own.
Today’s blog is super simple and super short. What are three practical things you need right now? Are they going to take you from an unknown diamond in the rough to singing “Imagine” with celebrities? No. Are they useful? Yes.
1. A Blue Oxford Shirt
Do it. But it is now. Buy it on Amazon, or Poshmark, or from Ralph Lauren, it doesn’t matter. I have worn the same blue oxford shirt in so many shoots it is insane. Number one, it looks good dressed up or down. Two, it’s considered the all-American shirt, so it works in numerous scenarios. Three, you can wear it for anything in life, and it works.
Also, it’s a tax write off, so don’t sweat buying it. For some reason, actors feel ashamed to claim things on their taxes. Get over this. You need to itemize your expenses. You are a business. Treat yourself like it. Watching movies is research. Books are investments. You are responsible for your own R&D. But a damn blue oxford.
2. A Tripod
Even before quarantine, self-tapes were the way the industry was moving. Why waste people’s times, forcing them to take off work, only to have them come to a casting office for you to realize, “They don’t look like tier headshots.” Ninety percent of my auditions were self-tapes before the virus. While in-person auditions will return, you can bet there will be much more limited time in spaces, especially in cities like New York and L.A.
So stop building a book tower to balance your phone on while you record sides taped to your wall. You can still tape the sides to your wall, but by God, invest in a damn tripod.
3. A suit that isn’t black
First of all, I love suits. I would wear a suit every day, and probably will at some point. But also, lawyers wear suits. Businessmen wear suits. Villains wear suits. James Bond wears a suit, and so does Bruce Wayne. The point is, at some point, you will be asked to audition for a character who would wear a suit. Likewise, you will be cast in a commercial, industrial, or indie film that will need you to wear a suit. Rather than scramble and head to the Goodwill to find something that doesn’t fit, pick something right now that fits you and make sure it is tailored.
Second, make sure the suit is not black. CEO’s do not wear solid black suits. They are for funerals and service staff. Now, as you have decided to be an actor you will probably need a black suit to serve tables or tend bar, but not for film.
Lastly, there are Opening Nights, Galas, business meetings, job interviews, date night, and a million other things you need a suit for. Buy one that fits and wear it with confidence.
One day there will be a whole wardrobe team at your beck and call. In the meantime, you need to build a respectable closet that you can use for short films and commercials. One day you will have your own studio to record in. Until then, you need to make sure you can self-record quickly at home. One day you will have your own personal man on Savile Row. Don’t waste your money on that mismatched polyester job from the department store for the time being.
There are tons of hidden costs to being an actor, but the good news is that it is becoming easier than ever. There are more jobs and more opportunities than ever before. It is easier to get started and work than it was ten years ago. Instagram and Youtube let you share your work immediately, not that it needs to be, but you can share it; however, if you have the three things listed above, then you will have three practical tools to help you in your jobs.
Make your dreams tangible. I know in creative circles the word “goals” feels dirty like something corporate or industrial; however, when it comes to the business of art it is important to allow your muse to ramble but keep your feet firmly on the ground. After all, what is a book but a project, a play but a presentation, and a product but an idea?
Artists dream of worlds beyond our own. We operate on feel and love the rush of following a note, a color, or an image. Art becomes our drug and the rush we get from listening to our daemon is astounding. Yet, this can also bite us in the ass. Like Hunter S. Thompson we will let a deadline fly past because the moment wasn’t right or some other excuse.
Inspiration can turn into fantasy, and fantasy is fun. Rather than working on our craft we can daydream about success. The idea of what our life will be like when we write that play, that song, or that novel is more titillating in the moment than actually writing. We can picture all the fun we will have, how the world will be different, easier, more vibrant once we claim our prize. But, what about the dragon?
In fitness circles there is the saying that every plan is successful in getting you to where you are.
Instead of getting high on the dopamine hit of fantasizing about success you have to make your goals tangible. Becoming a movie star is not a goal, it's a mirage. A New York Times bestselling author is not a goal, it’s a marketing pitch.
Sadly, we are so accustomed to this kind of thinking. It’s what advertisements would have us believe a real life is. Instead of working commercials show people experiencing success. Wealth looks like margaritas on a beach and not years of dedication. The hero’s journey has been co-opted by corporations because they learned what people really want is a valuable life and therefore their products need to be what delivers that meaning--not, of course, actually living a meaningful life. In this world, creativity becomes a class, a clickhole that leads from one video to the next, or a marketing package that eliminates the friction between you and your ideas, because it is so much easier to listen to a lecture and buy something than to slay your dragon.
Writing a chapter a day is a goal. Memorizing a monologue, graphing a Shakespearean sonnet, or submitting an audition is a goal. Systems produce results, not dreaming. Seinfield wrote a joke a day. On top of everything else, while he was a nobody and no one gave a rats ass about his habits he made sure to write a joke a day. Being in a movie doesn’t make you a comedian, it is the reward for the work. A stand up special is not given to you because you have a vision board, it is earned through working on your material, writing, and doing the work.
Even Apollo knew that he could not control the outcome. The god of Archery, son of Zeus, could only control the approach. Once the he let go of the arrow the result was out of his hands.
Today, we believe the outcome is guaranteed. I went to college, therefore I will be successful. I studied hard, got good grades, and even read a book--well, watched a summary of the book on YouTube--about productivity. It should be easy. It should come naturally. It should.
What sours most people on artistic careers is not the art, or lack thereof, it is the life. When we are young or working a 9 to 5 we imagine what it would be like to pursue our dreams. Like a Billy Joel song we know that we could be a movie star if we could only get out of this place, and that seed becomes the work of the Sandman. We dream of the riches to come and we wait for our real life to begin.
When we get the courage to pursue our dream we find that the life is not what we thought it was. There is a whole of a hell lot more work than we imagined. It looks nothing like Vogue or Instagram and looks a lot more like work with a lot less structure. It feels like the target is always moving, the industry changing, and God forbid something like a virus or a quarantine gets dropped into the mix, a regular atomic bomb for the workforce.
The more we can see our work, be it a drawing or an outline, the more we can work on it. The more we live in our heads the less we have to face our failures. Everyone believes they can sing until they hear the missed note come out. Everyone believes they can act until the lines come out flat. Everyone believes they can write a novel until they stare at the blank page.
The secret to becoming good at something, to stick with the archery metaphor, is to shoot. How did Michael Jordan become so good? Or Gretzky? Or Apollo? They took more shots.
Most people want to get it right before they shoot. They hide in the shadow, dream of what it will be like when the world sees how brilliant they are, and they aim, and they aim, and they aim, until their arm gets tired and they put the bow down. Be like Detective Riggs, shoot first, ask questions later. Get ready, shoot, and recalibrate. Then, repeat infinitely.
It is not the big wins that make us, it’s the little victories everyday. The small goals we set for ourselves, the little benchmarks we hit, are the things that lead to big wins.
What are tangible goals you can set for yourself? How can you get 1% better at your art everyday?
This is not a passive thing either. Look, I love reading. I read a lot, and I listen to twice as many books as I read. But consuming is not the same thing as producing. Watching a movie is not the same thing as being in a movie. I’ve listened to a ton of Daft Punk, but I have no idea how to create those sounds.
If you want to be an actor, you need to act. This can take the form of a class, or simply recording yourself on camera and watching the playback. Want to be a writer? Then you have to write.
Right now I am struggling with becoming a better dramatist. Putting one word after the other has become a habit. I started journaling and blogging years ago, so at this point it flows more easily; however, I want to combine my love of drama and my writing, and while I have a few plays under my belt I am by no means a master at combing all the elements of story: five act structure, antithesis, catharsis, theme, all that jazz. And so, I am working on outlining more stories, and thinking in terms of structure (while also continuing to let it rip with things like this).
Many of us think the big wins come from dramatic gestures like moving to New York or L.A. Yet we fail to realize the real change comes from the tiny decisions we make every day. Then, when the big moment arrives we do not doubt our ability, because we’re standing on thousands of hours of making the right decisions.
All we are entitled to is the work. Despite what magazines and blogs sell you, there is no guarantee that your book will work or that your script will get produced. There is no guarantee that you will be the next Avenger or even book a role at a regional theatre. There is nothing wrong with setting lofty goals and striving for them, but in order to get to the big goal you must build the lattice work. Otherwise, all you are doing is putting your money on black.
Take your shot.
Brock D. Vickers
This is the beginning of a new part of life: a habit: an idea: a routine to dig at what makes a man great.