Think back: do you remember the moment you knew you wanted to become an actor?
For many, it was watching a mesmerizing performance onscreen or onstage, one that seemed to reach out and speak truth to them and them alone. If you’re like me, there was an electric moment you actually experienced onstage—one where the world both disappeared and was more “there” than ever, and you felt some kind of magic power flowing through you. For (too many) others, it was watching their favorite performer clutch a gold statue in front of millions, or seeing some trumped-up, impeccably art-directed version of their life in a publication or piece of video.
Whatever it was, it wasn’t the truth.
Oh, the moment itself was true enough: unless you fell for the obvious trappings of the working-to-famous actor’s life, we’ve all experienced enough real, connected moments to know one when we feel it. But that thing you fell for was an abstract concept, not reality.
Behind that one transcendent performance that stirred your soul lay days, weeks, or months of work: learning lines, blocking marks, analyzing scripts. And behind that work was the work of getting that part, for starters, i.e. the audition, not to mention the five, 10, 22 auditions it took to net the one.
Behind each of these, there was the work that went into becoming good enough to be sent on auditions: the education, the scene study, the rehearsal. The un-to-underpaid theater work (and all of those auditions), the student and indie films and webseries.
Let’s not forget all the things that actor was not doing, as well: not going out for karaoke when it was time to rest up for an audition. Not sleeping in to squeeze in time for acting between whatever day jobs we had to keep the lights on. And all of the not-spending we were doing on vacations, gifts, savings and so forth—the financial cost of pursuing a dream while keeping the lights on.
It’s not a bad life, but it’s definitely not the carefree, glamorous one you envision from the glimpses you see on Instagram. As an old family friend who became a successful working actor—second lead in a long-running sitcom, the house in the Hills, etc.—used to warn the aspiring actors from her Midwest hometown during her visits back there, “There are nights when your friends are going to want you to go out and rip up the town and drink 57 beers. But you can’t go out and rip up the town and drink 57 beers: you have to get up and look good for the camera.” (And this was pre-HD!)
I say all of this not to discourage you, but to encourage you to pursue acting for the right reasons. If you want to be rich, there are better, easier, and far more lucrative ways. If you’re looking to ditch the 9-to-5 world, there are definitely easier ways. And if you’re doing it to hang out with the cool kids, to inspire the love and admiration of millions (raises hand), trust me: this life will never yield enough of those things to make you happy, no matter how much of them you get.
So how do you know if you should be pursuing acting? Very simple: if all of it gives you joy.
If you love the detective work of breaking down scenes, finding the spine of the story, and unearthing a character, acting may be for you. If you love collaborating with other story-crazy humans to make a piece of art that’s more alive than life itself, acting may be for you. If even the tedious work holds a certain perverse pleasure for you—the drilling of lines, the repetition of acting exercises, the schlepping to and from auditions—then yes, acting may be for you. Maybe.
And like everything else, that can change, too.
I’ll leave you with two stories: one that made me realize that it was time to get out, and one that helped me understand I’d perhaps never been in it for the right reasons.
When I was just starting out, a group of friends and I swore that if we ever turned into that Bitter, Complaining Actor we occasionally ran into at auditions, we would get out. Ten or so years later, I was sitting in a waiting room for some commercial audition and heard a string of bitter complaints come out of my mouth: about how long this was taking, and the traffic to get here, and how many people were being called in on this. I had become that Bitter, Complaining Actor. And I knew it was time to go.
And when I’d already long since left the business, I happened to be talking shop with my old writing/performance partner, when she let drop that she sometimes evoked horrible, painful emotions just for fun, with no class in mind and no object except to practice the art of acting. And I knew that I’d probably never been meant to pursue it.