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The Working Actor

Dealing With the Business Side of Acting

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Dealing With the Business Side of Acting
Dear Jackie:

I am an actor, currently training in a college BFA program, and I love my craft. I feel so happy that I am shaping my skills and learning how to be the best actor I can be. Every assignment and audition and show is a great opportunity for me to be able to do something I love, and it's all practice for making what I love into a career.

Here's the problem: Recently, I have been learning more and more about the business side of acting, and it sounds like I am going to thoroughly despise this business. Yes, I understand that no matter what I do for a profession—unless I am working on a farm or off the grid—there will be a business side to it. So why not embrace the crappy business side of acting and run with it? At least I would be doing something I love instead of sitting in a cubicle.

To be honest, I can't answer that question. I have no idea why I am so against things like acting in commercials or networking. I guess it comes from a part of me that feels unclean and ethically wrong supporting major corporations. I don't want to be the face of a product or support the way mass media brainwashes people. There is a strong pull in me to say, "No! I can't become a product!"

I do understand why doing commercials and networking and all that jazz is beneficial and not much different from what I do now or will do in the future. So why is there a part of me that thinks that maybe I can't do this? Maybe I can't play the stupid game of being an actor. How do I tell myself it's okay and start to accept it all? Or do I need to modify my dream?

I don't want to sell out. I want to be an honest, humble, intelligent actor who gets gigs because I'm talented and professional, not because I happen to be the right height and have the right haircut. What do I do?

Confused

Dear Confused:

First of all, it's your life. It's your right and responsibility to blaze your own trail. Unlike some careers, for which clear signs point you forward and success can be gained from following a well-trodden path, every actor is experimenting, finding success through trial and error—if at all. What works for one actor probably won't work for another. It's what makes this business both amazing and devastating.

I'm unclear as to whether you find the entirety of the acting industry distasteful, but let's start with the specific issues you mentioned. Actors worried about "selling out" often point to commercials as the primary culprit. Not associating yourself with a product may seem clear-cut, but the issue is less than black and white.

Los Angeles–based commercial casting director Chris Game makes the point that most actors end up working a day job, selling out in a less obvious—and less lucrative—way: "You're telling me you don't want to do a Coke commercial, but you'll work for 'the man' making minimum wage? You'd rather serve jerks like me doughnuts than use your craft to earn a decent amount of money?" Game understands that some actors don't want to appear as themselves endorsing products they don't believe in, but he thinks that commercials remain—at the end of the day—just another acting gig. "You're being paid to play another human being," he says, "You're acting. Look at it this way: Just because you play Hitler doesn't mean you ascribe to his beliefs."

Whether you agree with Game, it's definitely possible to have an acting career without doing commercials. Sustaining a career without networking is a more radical notion. Perhaps, however, you simply have an unrealistic view of what networking is.

Merriam-Webster defines networking as "the exchange of information or services among individuals, groups, or institutions; specifically: the cultivation of productive relationships for employment or business."

Actors are their own products. Cultivating productive business relationships requires putting yourself out there—through auditions, yes, but also through a variety of other means. Now, before you pack your Ben Nye kit and go, hear me out.

Networking doesn't mean you have to schmooze industry insiders at cheesy parties or make eyes at lecherous producers. It simply means building relationships with others in the industry. Do you plan to take acting classes after you graduate from college? If so, are you hoping to make friends with your classmates? Bingo. You're a networker. Are you going to join a theater company and meet some other theater artists? Networker. How about indie films? Are you going to audition for those—maybe book one—and then meet some people you like on set? Man, you're a networking fanatic!

I don't know who ruined that word for you, but wash that dirty taste from your mouth and proudly claim networking for the completely natural, normal, and healthy thing it can be. Every industry engages in it, even holistic farming and foreign-aid work. As human beings, we would rather give opportunities to people we know and like—or at least to people whom someone we know and like knows and likes. Why search for a stranger when a friend fits the bill? Sure, in a perfect world every opportunity in every field would be open to every person on the planet, and job interviews would diligently pursue fairness and righteousness at every juncture.

Man, that world sounds exhausting.

At the end of the day your acting career belongs only to you. It may be that you decide not to mix your art with commerce—and there's no shame in that. You might be happiest working a day job and doing theater on your own terms. Great! Who says a "real" actor has to make a living at it? Should we look down on Emily Dickinson's poetry as a "hobby" because she didn't sell her work?

Most likely you'll find your path by striking a balance between what feels right and what feels like, as you put it, "the stupid game of being an actor." You'll probably figure it out, like we all do, through trial and error. Looking ahead into such an uncertain, topsy-turvy career can be frightening. Take comfort in that you don't have to make any life-altering decisions right now. Enjoy your training, and give yourself the chance to wait and see. You don't have to decide what feels right before you've even tried it.

And now, once more into the fray….

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