In a recent Access to Agents class, two students complained that they’d been in the business for "too long" without results. The first whiner’s tour of duty? Two years. My inner Harvey Fierstein voice graveled, “Oh, honey you’re barely an embryo.” The second impatient “Why-has-nothing-happened-for-me-yet?” actor bemoaned that she was in the business "three months" and that jobs had yet to materialize.
Oh, sweetie, you ain’t even swimming yet in entertainment's coin purse.
For anyone who enters our highly competitive, crowded-as-a-C Train-at-5 PM-business thinking, “Oh…I’ll just give this a year or two, and if nothing happens I’ll move on” do yourself and your serious-minded peers squeezed about you a generous favor, move on now. Nothing much is going to happen in a year or two. Even cow intestine slurping, reality show contestants who glut our screens now find that that former shot put placement to celebrity lands with a short slung thud.
And if it’s celebrity you’re seeking – oh man – you’ve got a long Disney E-Ticket attraction line of waiting. No Fast Pass lanes for anyone. And if you get to the front of that line, the ride may be broken beyond repair.
My partner, the agency owner, represented a now famous actress who for fourteen years was known as “a downtown actor,” i.e. for more than a decade she performed in many little-to-no pay showcases and Off-Off-Broadway plays in downtown Manhattan hovels while working multiple civilian jobs including waitressing. Midway into her second decade as an actor, a contact she made by networking downtown asked her for her favor to participate in a table reading of his new play. Neither the actor nor the playwright was widely known beyond the borders of New York’s entertainment industry. The play was eventually given a production downtown at a well-known theater’s village venue. The play and cast became a “must-see.” Cast, crew, and set were trundled to the theater company’s then uptown Times Square house. Greater success and exposure ensued. Nearly overnight many New Yorkers and visiting tourists became aware of the artists who had been toiling diligently—enduring many Ramen noodle nights—during their career for a period most civilians would consider, "Too long for too little return."
But even during the play’s uptown hyperactive marquee exposure many civilians from Hollywood to Hell’s Kitchen, and a portion of the entertainment industry didn’t know the names of playwright Warren Leight and actor Edie Falco of Roundabout’s premiere of “Side Man.” Now you do. How did Edie Falco become a name actors and audiences associate with success?
HBO executives took notice of Ms. Falco in “Side Man” and cast her in “The Sopranos,” which led to her subsequent self-sustaining acting career. That success built on a foundation of Ms. Falco’s talent, patience, dedication, more patience, plus a Hudson River-sized channeling of luck via people championing her while she labored as a downtown actress for fourteen years.
The pace to a self-sustaining acting career varies. More often than not, the journey for actors being able to “do what they love” and nothing else without financial worry is a curving pot-holed course of great distance traveled until smooth straightway is rode.
Time. Give it generously to yourself. Embrace the journey—ruts and rolls included.
Patience. Determination. More patience. A dash more of determination. That’s how success is achieved – however you define your success.
It’s the persistent drip that cracks the stone.
Paul Russell’s career as a casting director, director, acting teacher, and former actor has spanned nearly thirty years. He has worked on projects for major film studios, television networks, and Broadway. Paul has taught the business of acting and audition technique at NYU and has spoken at universities including Yale, Temple, and the University of the Arts. He writes a column for Backstage and is the author of "ACTING: Make It Your Business – How to Avoid Mistakes and Achieve Success as a Working Actor." For more information, please visit www.PaulRussell.net.