"That was very nice work," the agent says as he looks up. My heart skips an excited beat and a smile spreads across my face. He critiques my performance. I strike him as very mature and adult in how I speak and how I carry myself, he says. When he looks at me, however, he sees a 16-year-old girl. Even my monologue, which was written for a teenager, seems too adult to him.
My smile fades. "I simply cannot figure out where to place you," he says. He then speaks words that continue to haunt me: "You're like a young face with an old soul." I stare at him blankly. What am I supposed to make of that?
Walking out of that room, I admit to myself the awful truth: My personality does not line up with my physical type. Well, at least not while I'm young. On the surface, I am a petite, fair-featured, sweet and innocent ingénue. On the inside, however, life has aged my heart and mind. A very tough childhood forced me to grow up fast. Doubts immediately set in. I start to get really scared. My eyes water up and I start to lose a little bit of hope. Failing is simply not an option. I need to work. I need to be successful. I need an agent. Yet if this agent "can't place me," how many others won't be able to?
I have always thought my maturity would work to my advantage. Now, that doesn't appear to be the case. Yes, I am a young face, and after four years of training, I can easily play young. It seems, however, that transforming through my acting isn't enough. It seems I have to transform myself.
Is that really what I have to do to make it in this business? Compromise my personality—a personality I know, love, and most important trust?
So, I adapt to survive. In the days that follow, I study the girls around me. I single out the youngest-looking ones—many of whom, unlike myself, are the actual age they look. I listen as they talk on their cell phones—their voices elevated to what seem like unnatural levels. I hear "like" every other word. There is gum-smacking, a habit my mother was strictly against. I hear conversations about how one girl copied another girl's outfit, which is "just so uncool!" I see teenagers twirling their hair, bouncing down the street, giggling excessively.
I start to transform myself, undoing all the good habits I've learned. My diction becomes far from perfect, and I begin to cut out some of my more advanced vocabulary. I smile and giggle more, and add a bounce to my movements. Over the following weeks, this is how I present myself to agents and casting directors. And—surprise, surprise—they all seem to like me.
But none call me. Whether they like me or not, the manufactured personality I've created is starting to leave me feeling empty and depressed.
Near the end of the semester, I have a scene due for class from a very intense and dramatic film. The character I play is mature and one I absolutely empathize with. My scene partner and I have practiced our butts off, and when we finish the scene the entire class is speechless. A few people raise their hands to sing our praises, and our teacher is extremely moved.
Later when the class takes a break, our teacher approaches me in the hall. "How are you feeling?" she asks. "Okay," I say. "I would kill to play a part like this, but..." I'm sure she can already see the discouragement in my eyes. She takes me by the shoulders and looks straight into my watery eyes. "You will one day," she says. "You will." With that, I lose it. I start crying uncontrollably.
She pulls me into another room and we talk. I tell her that as nice as her compliment is, I feel like I'll never play the parts I'm best at. I tell her about the experience with the agent and how I've been walking around in a complete identity whirlpool for weeks.
"I understand that I look young," I say, "but I always thought that maturity on the inside would help me out. I mean, asking me to sell myself as a 16-year-old is asking me to be someone I outgrew seven years ago. I'm not 16. I'm 23, damn it! If I look 16 and I have four years of training from a very reputable school, an agent better believe I can play the part."
She studies me for a moment, then softly asks, "What are you afraid of?" "I don't know... I guess I don't want to be that actress who always plays the flaky Valley girl or something like that. I don't want to get stuck playing young characters that lack depth."
She laughs. "Whether you like it or not, you're young. And you'll have to accept that you're going to be playing young for a while. That's just a given. Dig deeper. What is really scaring you?" I close my eyes and try desperately to hear my heart. I am flooded with memories of growing up. I see one disaster after another. I see struggle, sacrifice, illness, and a tremendous amount of pain. I see the love of a single mother trying desperately to make a better life for her children—a mother who has not for a single day given up on me. I see faith in the eyes of my twin brother, my grandparents, my mentors, and my closest friends.
I open my eyes and look at my teacher. "I'm scared of failing," I tell her. "Scared of letting down everyone who has sacrificed so much for me to be here." There it is, everything at once. I've never said it out loud before.
I explain that my family couldn't really afford NYU in the first place, but that it was my dream to come to the city and study drama, so they supported me. Now that I'm almost done, I feel pressure not only to succeed, but to succeed quickly. I am on my own. If I can't make ends meet, I'll have to pack my bags, go home, and kiss acting goodbye. Hearing the agent's feedback added to the pressure. It made me feel like I have a lot to figuring out to do, and no time to do it.
My teacher gives me a big hug. She tells me not to lose faith, that many people like herself are here to help me. "The process can be slow at first," she says, "but you will make it work." She pointed out how many struggling actors also have to support themselves. Even if it's a while before I book my first acting job, there will be ways to make ends meet.
She told me not to give up my sense of urgency, but that pretending to be someone else will only slow me down. She reminded me of the words I've heard countless times: "Be true to who you are." I promised her I would try.
But what if she's wrong? What if at the end of the day, everything I am isn't enough? It seems like if I wear the mask, I'll probably work sooner. On the other hand, however, isn't every real star out there unique unto themselves? Maybe putting my soul on the line will eventually pay off.
The next agent showcase rolls around the following week. I'm in the green room practicing the same youngish, happy-go-lucky monologue. Instead, I decide to whip out the old one I used on the first agent. And what do you know? When I finish the piece, the agent says she loved it. By the end of our interview, I feel completely confident that she, or some other agent, will sign me. And not the teenage me. The real me.
Rachel Marie Lewis graduated from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts in May 2009. She received a BFA in drama and lives in New York City. She trained at the Stella Adler Studio and is just beginning her career. Recent work includes The Shape of Things, Pericles, and The Ash Girl. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.