I was on the subway a couple of days ago when two kids entered the train. They seemed to be around 14 or 15 years old and wore clothes typical of the age—lots of torn edges and pants that were both too tight (the girl) and too baggy (the guy), along with a few minor piercings and tattoos. Like so many kids, to them their appearance seemed paramount: The girl had long brown hair that was perfectly straightened; the boy had a well-honed athlete’s build. It was mid-afternoon and they were carrying backpacks, so it was obvious that they were coming from school.
They talked loud enough so I could hear their conversation without effort, punctuated by thick New York accents. As I do with most noisy school kids, I immediately tried to tune them out so I could concentrate on my reading. After all, there is only so much information I need about Justin Bieber, cat fights, and the lack of good snacks at school. Despite my attempts to tune them out, something they were saying caught my attention— not only the words, but the topic. They were talking about their pre-calculus class, and how they knew they were going to breeze through with As. They talked about their teacher, and how excited they were to be in the advanced class at such a young age. (Apparently they tested into the class earlier than most students.) The girl told the boy that the reason they got the great teacher was because of their school’s high national ranking, and responded excitedly about the academic excellence of their school versus the other schools in the district. They further discussed their classmates, and the boy expressed his disappointment that his friends were slacking off and weren’t living up to their full potential in the classroom.
As I exited the train and watched them continue uptown, I marveled at how profound my profiling was. Based on how these students looked, I made an immediate assessment about who they were, what their interests were, and how much I could (or could not) relate to them. So color me shocked when instead of violence they talked about calculus. Instead of swearing profanity, they swore pride in their school. As a human being, it shook me out of my comfort zone and humbled me into seeing people for more than what stereotypes would allow.
But as an actor (and a coach), it causes me to look more deeply at these assessments for what they are worth.
Human beings look at the world and, in a nanosecond, compare what they see to what they know. Commonly known as “generalizing,” we are hardwired to categorize the people we meet and compare them to our past experiences so that we may more easily understand them. Stereotyping takes this one step further, and promotes these generalizations as truth. We start to make instant assessments of people until they prove the opposite, rather that keeping an open mind to all of the possibilities. And, we do this in a split second, as if via instinct. So, how does this affect our work as actors?
Since acting involves the art of conveying the human experience, and human beings experience the world in generalizations, it stands to reason that acting would involve generalizations as well. Actors have come to know this as typecasting, and most actors cringe at the mere mention of the phrase. But typecasting is responsible for most of the work you and I are blessed to do. The trick is knowing yourself well enough to know what “type” you default to, making choices about what kind of work we want to do, and then making sure these two things are synchronized perfectly. Actors who hate typecasting are the ones who lack control over it. If you control your type (or in marketing terms, your “brand”) you can take advantage of the human tendency to generalize and use it in the audition room.
Here are a few basic starter tips for creating your own type/brand:
1. Start by thinking about what kind of medium(s) you want to work in: film, TV, theater, musical theater, commercials, industrials, etc...What are the similarities between the actors in this medium? What are the differences? Where do you fit in?
2. What kind of genre(s) are you interested in: comedy, drama, horror, thriller, romance, etc. Again, look at the main players and see how you compare. Is there anything lacking in your work/skill set that you think would be useful?
3. Who are some of the people who have the career you crave? What do they have going for them that you could add to your arsenal? And more importantly, how are you different? How can you stand out?
Ignoring typecasting is not going to make your career any easier; the more you can take control over your career and present yourself in a clear, unique, and easy to understand fashion, the easier it will be for you to do the kind of work that inspires you.
Like this advice? Check out more from our Backstage Experts!