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.
There’s the plan you make and the one you take. There is what it should be, and there is this.
Success is a business these days. According to Forbes, there are as many videos on YouTube for self-help as there are on PornHub (obviously, this is a fake fact Snopes).
We love to live vicariously through others. We love to pretend we are successful. We love to try, but as Master Yoda said, “Do or do not. There is no try.”
Do the real thing. It’s a scary thought, but it is that simple and that hard.
How many actors do you know that only take classes? How many creatives burnt out through too much schooling? By getting an undergraduate degree in theatre, a master’s in acting, and a doctorate in god knows what? How many writers set their wallets on fire to attain degrees in putting words on paper rather than merely putting words on paper?
How do you build muscle? Is it dialing in your diet and focusing your training in the gym, or is it a secret formula hidden from you for years by the world’s greatest bodybuilders until now this Instagrammer is sharing the secret with you!
Doing the real thing is hard. Doing the real thing sucks. This is why we love watching a movie but hate writing a script. This is why we love talking about backstories rather than memorizing lines. This is why bullshitting your way through life is easy, and mastering a skill takes time.
What is the secret to writing? Writing. What is the secret to dancing? Dancing. It’s not always sexy or glamourous. Coaching is as much about watching film for patterns as it is about being on the field. Acting is as much about memorizing lines and screwing up in rehearsal as it is about performing.
Anytime someone overcomplicates something, they are going to sell you something. Anything worth doing is difficult. In life, nothing comes without a price, and the price for what we want is suffering. While I am not talking about lying on a bed of nails to win your love, I am talking about sacrifice. Only frauds and scams come easy.
The circus we will create for ourselves to avoid the blank page is astounding. We will convince ourselves that the mindless work we are doing, the YouTube videos, the research, the whatever is essential.
Nothing replaces the real thing. If studying was a measure for success, porn addicts would make the best lovers.
So why do we avoid the work? Consuming is safe. We can passively learn, although not really.
When we take action, we take risk. When we do, there is the possibility of failure, of confronting the reality that we are not as good as we think we are, and that terrifies us.
It’s one thing to pretend in our mind that we are a great actor, it’s another thing to audition for a film and be rejected. It’s one thing to talk about movies with friends and a round of beers, it’s another thing entirely to produce and direct a feature.
Fill the big rocks first.
If we do nothing for a moment, rather than consuming another podcast, another episode of Madmen, another how-to video, if we simply quiet our minds, we know what needs to be done.
Instead, we will fill our days with little rocks. There are only 24 hours in a day. Depending on what you need sleep-wise, that number is roughly cut by a third. Now, some people don’t have to work, the rest of us do, and while we fantasize about the day we only do our art from sun up to sun down and get paid vast sums of money, let’s pretend that we have to work 6-8 hours a day. That leaves us eight hours to create, eight hours to do our difficult task. And yet, we will fill that remaining eight hours with the most trivial tasks that have nothing to do with our art.
Rather than filling your day with small, wasteful tasks, what is your one thing? What is the thing you are afraid of? Is it acting? Writing? Dancing? Cooking? Writing your own tv show about dancing while cooking? Do that. Rather than waste your focus and energy on Instagram or Youtube, put that time into your medium. Do the real thing. Don’t ponder the thing. Don’t study the thing. Do the thing.
In fact, if you are stuck and feeling exhausted, do nothing. Rather than filling your time with more activity simply to feel productive only to feel more tired, rest. In fact, we could all use a little more nothing in our days from time to time as opposed to one more thing.
In his book “The Obstacle is the Way,” Ryan Holiday uses stoic practices to teach timeless principles. The lesson is in the title. How do we know what taste to do? Answer, where do we meet resistance? Instead of looking for how to avoid conflict, how do we meet it head-on? Instead of dancing around the subject, how do we use the obstacle?
In dramatic writing, a character is defined through his actions. Not his thoughts. Not his pithy puns or wayward wit. His action. Character is revealed through action. Action is defined through obstacles. Batman is only as good as the villain he faces. The obstacles the protagonist faces and the lessons they reveal about what he wants and who he is are what make a script. Why does the Joker work so well for Bats, because he is the antithesis in every way to the character?
Every hero must face their dragon. No script ever ends with the protagonist avoiding the problem. Even Odysseus, the wise and wily, ultimately has to face his problems. We cannot skirt the issue. We must choose the biggest dragon we can handle and take it on. To choose anything less is to lead a banal life.
Modern society, present times excluded COVID-19, has led us to believe that life is easy, that what we want is just a seminar and a few dollars away. We have been trained to trade money for pleasure, and our wildest desire can be delivered to our door without any real work; however, real things don’t happen that way.
The hard things are hard because it takes the strongest person to attain them. Why do we admire Stephen King? Why do we admire Michael Jordan? Tom Brady? They do the work, and they achieve the results. And yet, what about their opponents? What about Dean Koontz, Charles Barkley, and Matt Ryan? Are they lesser than? Hell no. Dean Koontz has written more stories, Barkley is one of the greatest players of all time, and Matt Ryan leads a hell of a football team. These men, all of them, get up and get things done.
When it’s time to work, work. When it’s time to rest, rest. If you do the hard thing, if you do the real thing, then you will know when you have earned your keep. If you shirk the task, then you will keep going back to the well again and again.
Do the work.
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.