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Compassion: What's in It for Me?
Do you remember the earliest moment in your life when a performance inspired you in some unexpected way? When you found yourself unexpectedly connected to a character on stage or screen? Nearly every actor talks about these moments as fundamentally shaping his or her desire to act, to create moments that resonate with others, that express an emotional reality. These moments have one thing in common: compassion.
Compassion is at the center of every career that has ever impacted me as an audience member. I suggest you stop worrying about what party to go to and how chiseled your abs are, and take compassion on for your own career, damn quick. That is, if you ever want to have the career you really dreamed of.
I'm no acting teacher, but I'm someone who has carefully observed actors and performances for a long time, and here's how I see it work:
Compassion has its roots in Latin and means "to suffer with." So compassion might mean to understand the characters you're taking on and suffer with them without judgment. When actors do that, their performances automatically resonate. Think of Kate Winslet in "The Reader" playing a character many of us would judge, but she creates a human being we can't help but empathize with. Or Sean Penn in "Dead Man Walking," playing an unrepentant killer whose façade cracks just enough for us to consider him as something other than a monster.
To help an audience identify with a character they otherwise might judge reminds us all of our inherent interconnectedness and similarity. By giving our audiences that gift, we're guaranteeing ourselves the most extraordinary careers and lives possible. Whoa! Quite a reach! But it's true. We long to be reminded of our connection to every other human being on the planet, and when we see work that does that, it resonates, deeply.
We are hard-wired to be compassionate, according to neuroscientists. Yet we're often stuck in a fog that prevents us from being our natural, compassionate selves. Watching a great performance can shake us out of that fog and make us feel human; it's something we deeply desire, and when it happens it feels great.
From the Dalai Lama: "Ultimately, the reason why love and compassion bring the greatest happiness is simply that our nature cherishes them above all else. The need for love lies at the very foundation of human existence. It results from the profound interdependence we all share with one another. However capable and skillful an individual may be, left alone, he or she will not survive. However vigorous and independent one may feel during the most prosperous periods of life, when one is sick or very young or very old, one must depend on the support of others.... It is because our own human existence is so dependent on the help of others that our need for love lies at the very foundation of our existence. Therefore we need a genuine sense of responsibility and a sincere concern for the welfare of others."
So consider why you got into this racket in the first place. That doesn't mean you can't go to parties or work on your abs. But while you're doing so, think about whether the physical condition of your body allows you to be a more compassionate actor. It might. If you can give this enormous gift to audiences, and give it consistently, you'll be known for it, people will be drawn to it, and you'll have the most extraordinary career possible. Presto. Just like that.
Jon Rubinstein owns Authentic Management and has been in the representation business since 1991. His blog, Adventures in Compassion (in the Screen Trade), is at becompassion.blogspot.com.
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