Listen, it’s true! You are a wonderful actor. You went to grad school for it, after all.
Or if not grad school, then a rigorous undergrad program.
Or if not college, you spent countless hours (and dollars!) participating in the best acting classes you could find.
Or if not classes (they can be expensive!), you highlighted and dog-eared your Stanislavskys, Hagens, Meisners, Chubbucks, Shurtleffs, Suzukis, Strassbergs, Chekhovs, Spolins, Adlers, or Boleslavskys.
Or if not those, you devoured Michael Caine’s ACTING IN FILM again and again.
Or if not any of that, you listened to all the episodes of the AUDREY HELPS ACTORS podcast and watched every ACTING CAREER CENTER video you could find on YouTube.
Or you just practiced for hours on end in front of your own camera.
Or you’ve done theater for years.
Or you have the experience of eight thousand auditions under your belt.
Or all of this.
Or none of this, but something completely different.
The point is you’ve done the work! You’ve booked the gig! You are a good actor.
But here’s the thing, though: that’s only just the beginning. Because doing great work isn’t just about acting well, it’s also about acting right.
Recently I did a fun guest spot on a TV show. It was a recurring character, but usually I’d only pop up here and there to spout off a line or two before disappearing. There was a character there, but not a lot of opportunity to see how that character sized up in the company of anyone else for any length of time. Well, this most recent episode was different—I had a good-sized scene with another character and we were able to play with one another and build off our energies and craft a real shape to the encounter. It was great, the kind of scene that really revs me up as an actor. When we were almost done with it, the director came up to me and gushed about how charming I was. Oh man, that felt so nice to hear. I nodded and said, “thank you.” And then she asked if that was okay, if she was allowed to fall in love with my character, because she was. I dithered and blushed and we chatted for another moment or two and then we got back to work.
I took what she said as a compliment. But it wasn’t. Not really.
Because her question was not just an excuse to build me up, it was a valid query. I achieved a high level of charm in the scene, but…should I have? It was a success as far as my intention went, but was my intention correct?
I immediately thought of something Stephen King once said or wrote—I don’t remember where, but probably in ON WRITING, which is just full-to-bursting with grand artistic advice, or maybe Twitter—about how published writers needn’t be congratulated on how well they write. Of course they write well! They’re professional authors! That’s the JOB! Rather, they should be commended on how well their good prose tells the STORY.
(That’s a real loose paraphrase because I can’t find the quote…hit me up if you know where it is please!)
I heard the director tell me that I was a good actor. But really what she said was “I know you’re acting this moment well, but is it telling the right story?” Fortunately for me, I do think it was the right story (though I suppose we’ll find out for sure when it airs next year or whenever!). But it’s a good lesson. A necessary lesson. Perhaps even an urgent lesson.
As actors early in our careers, we spend a lot of time hoping we’re “good” enough to deserve the roles we’re given. We book a gig based on an audition and immediately wonder what it was about our 90-second performance that made the CDs, directors, producers, whoever, think we were right for the role. We hope and pray that on the day, our acting will be at least as good as those around us. This is a symptom of Impostor Syndrome, and I struggle with it just as much as you do. Maybe more!
But listen: we are good enough. We’ve done the work. We’ve won the role. We’ve been seen as having the skills necessary to do the job. So we mustmustMUST get past that hurdle as quickly as we can. Easier said than done, I know! Believing in your own worth is oftentimes the most difficult thing we can do. But we must, we have to! Even if we just pretend that we believe (hey, we’re friggin actors after all, right? Act!).
Because the real work can’t begin until we believe we’re capable. The real work of telling the story.
You can display authentic emotion take after take after take? You can make someone smile with a look? You know how to act two parts simultaneously, one with the text and the other with your physicality? You can visualize what the camera sees on any given setup? AWESOME. That’s great. But those are just the tools we use to help the rest of the cast and crew build the story. And we need to be sure that we’re building the same thing they are.
You are a good actor. Of course you are! Because that’s the job!
Now, finally believing that to be true, you gotta use your shiny tools in service of building story. You got the job, now get to work.