There are dozens and dozens of classes, workshops, programs and teachers that focus on “how to” get in front of the right people in the business that can employ you. In fact, such advertisements arrive in my inbox numerous times a week. I don’t have an issue with this these classes, as exposure is an essential element of an actor’s career. However, what I want to focus on the bedrock of the profession: the craft of acting.
The natural, innate talent an actor possesses varies as much as it does in any athlete. In fact, an athlete’s talents are far more identifiable. There are very few professional baseball players who move from high school to ‘Double A’ baseball without undeniable, traceable excellence in some area of the game. It can be measured in the speed of their pitch, or the distance they hit or throw a baseball.
Yet, as we know, there is no clear understanding of what makes an actor an actor. Headshots? Agent? Getting paid? The answer varies with every actor surveyed. Because the ‘Craft of acting’ is so subjective and so varied, it’s a question that must be answered personally by everyone who proudly states that they are an actor.
If we’re really honest with ourselves, we’ve probably done personally embarrassing work that has garnered us accolades or a paycheck. Conversely, we’ve reached the depth of a character’s truth only to be cut off halfway through an audition.
There is an often sited statement that every actor has probably heard at some point or another: ‘Sweetie, if you can do something else other than act, for God’s sake do it!’ Of course the sentiment is important to point up how really hard it is to make a living as an actor. But I think the real question is, ‘Why have you earned the right to call yourself an actor?’ The latter puts attention on the nobility of this profession as something earned in the doing and not in the aspirations of being.
There are only so many classes that an actor can afford. So many teachers one can study with before discovering inspiration or great disappointment. There are only so many hours in the day to focus on craft between the two jobs, the cold mailings, and the networking. After weeks of struggling to keep the lights on, an audition just pops up the next morning. ‘Shit! I wish I had just one extra day…’
What makes the Actor different?
The baseball player can’t walk down the street and throw a baseball with strangers. The musician can’t play her saxophone while she waits tables. Yet, an actor has at his disposal all the tools of his craft at all times. Every moment of everyday in our bodies, in our imaginations, in our physiological understanding of the bridges that link the two, we are free to keep our instrument in tune. We are free to find the limits of our personal craft and the courage to break past those barriers.
An actor can fall in love with the stranger serving his grande, nonfat latte one morning. The nice barista steals your breath with a smile, and for a moment you’re caught in a truth so real that you instinctually turn away to hide your blushing cheeks. Was your heart racing when she handed the cup to you? Did you do everything in your power to bury that feeling and greet her with a casual, ‘Thanks?’ If you did, your instrument is working.
Two days later you happen to wander into the same coffee shop and instantly have a sense of anticipation and joy to see the barista. ‘Is she working today?’ You look around knowing that it was just an exercise, but your body seems to remember truth. You find yourself delaying just a few moments to see if she’ll come out of the back, but she doesn’t. Much to your surprise, disappointment creeps into your chest. The very nice older man at the counter takes an extra moment before he asks what you want to drink. He can feel something sad in you. You notice the older man noticing you and you put on a little smile that intends to say, ‘I’m not paying attention, sorry.’
You order the same drink, move to the same spot to receive it that you did three days ago, and yet a slight feeling of disappointment creeps up in you. You lift the same drink with the same hand, and your heart realizes she’s not working today. Your body feels the conflict between what it wants and what it gets. By the time you hit the street, you’ve shaken that feeling out of your body and you go forward with your day. Was this a surprise to you? It was the first time. But now your body just blindly follows the details of your imagination.
The homeless man a block away is suddenly an old high school friend that you’ve not spoken to in ten years. Is your impulse to turn and walk away? You continue down the street and hear him mumbling to himself. You’ve never met him before, but his ramblings seem to have value to you. It sparks an imaginative memory you shared together in high school.
Now you really want to walk quickly because the guilt is starting to build in you. Then, just as you pass him, he asks you for a quarter, and you make the mistake of looking him in the eye when you say, ‘sorry.’ You step past him putting your focus on your car twenty feet away. But he mumbles a hollow, ‘God bless you.’ Suddenly you hear sarcasm in his voice. This imagined friend from high school suddenly makes you remember how he was always like this. How he expected things from you without earning them. Guilt turns to anger for a moment as you consider, just consider turning around. But you don’t. One minute later you’re driving away and the complexities of emotions are dissipating. Not instantly, but they’re slipping away. Your imagination is alive and connected to your body.
The relationship and circumstance are imaginary, but your body experiences it as real. It is learned truthful ‘states of being’ because this kind of work is a daily part of your craft. Your body drives thoughts to your head, and you have active and three-dimensional subtext constantly feeding you. You find how the words you choose have life in the moment of the exercise, in the moment of doing.
Soon you find that the text of a script has the same feelings of truth, of spontaneity, of risk that the imagined circumstances possess. This happens quickly and effectively because it’s the same body responding to imagined circumstances, relationships, and events. Your body is extremely alive, and it’s learned to feel the circumstances you’ve asked it to feel. It’s available. It’s obedient. It’s in tune.
When your body feels this kind of truth, it doesn’t get thrown by the size of the audition room, or by the monotone acting talents of the person reading across from you, nor the outcome of the scene before you’ve even shot it. It has learned to live emotionally true in the imagined worlds you’ve given to it. When this imagination/body bridge is built, you’re now free to explore beats, moments, language, characterization, rhythm, dynamic, stakes, intentions, actions, arcs, through-lines, etc. Your talent is available to you, because you’ve experience it, not the idea of it, but the actualization of it.