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The Working Actor

What Are the Chances?

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What Are the Chances?
Dear Michael:
I'm a 34-year-old black woman with a curvy body type, often believed to be six to 10 years younger than my actual age (due to my baby face). I've done a fair bit of stage acting and was a supporting actress in an independent movie a few years ago, but I'm now desirous to pursue a full-time acting career in film and television. I've been encouraged for years by many actor friends to pursue acting seriously, but I think I was fearful of making the plunge before. I now feel I'm ready to make that commitment and have decided to start by getting some solid training.

However, my biggest concern is the age factor. In a few months, I'll embark on a two-year Meisner training program in New York. That means that I'll be 36 or 37 when my training is completed. Instead of committing two years to full-time actor training, should I choose instead to study part time while pursuing acting work? (The program doesn't prohibit me from accepting acting work, but since it's full-time, there may not be much time for me to attend auditions, or shoots if I do land a job.)

I understand that it's never too late to do anything, including acting, but the reality is that it's not practical to pursue certain things after a certain age. (For example, it's highly impractical to think that one can become an Olympic gold-medal gymnast if one begins to train at 30.) Am I too old to embark on a serious acting career? In an acting career, one can expect to invest at least five years before making any significant dent in the business, if any at all. Hence, my concern is that by the time I have made significant strides, I will be at an age when there are very minimal roles. Also, it seems that age can be a prohibitive factor when trying to get an agent. I've been told, and have read, that agents prefer to invest in talent under the age of 25. No agent equals no work!

I know that I may sound confused, and maybe I am, but I'm about to make a serious investment, and while I am realistic about the industry and know that most people never make it, I also want to make an informed decision, so that I know what my limitations and possible obstacles to success will be.
—Too Old?. New York City

Dear Too Old?:
I think I can shed some light on your questions. First, let's talk about the question of timing. For some actors, starting early is important. For others, it's less important. What determines your optimal timing? It all comes down to type.

Beautiful young leading men and women are better off diving in while they're the right age for the roles they're most likely to play. As they get into middle age, there may be fewer roles for them. For character types (like me), it's often the opposite. While the early part of a character actor's career can be frustrating, as we age we find more roles for which we're right. I needed to get well into my 30s before I worked with any regularity, playing lawyers, doctors, high school principals, teachers, parents, and so forth.

If you're using the word "curvy" to mean you're on the heavy side, I'm guessing you may find there are more roles for you later on. If you mean you're cast a lot as the hot girl, now might be your time. Look at the parts you're right for; how old are those characters? If you're not yet sure where your TV/film persona will land, that's fine too. But if that's the case, I'd go ahead with your planned Meisner program and keep auditioning. If you find that you're working too much to continue the program, then, like that comedian says, "There's your sign." Go with the work and return to class later. Or you could enquire about evening and weekend classes (some Meisner schools offer them) and ask whether you might be able to switch to such a program if the work takes off.

But what makes me worry about you a bit is your decision-making process as you consider whether to pursue an acting career at all. You seem to be looking for a business model, and in that respect, this profession never fares very well. The projections don't begin to look promising until you're already established. It sounds like you're trying to nail things down, map out a reliable plan, and assess your chances of success or of getting an agent. While I admire your almost scientific approach, you can drive yourself nuts that way. As I point out again and again in this column, our business just isn't that predictable. Yes, starting late could present significant challenges and maybe prove prohibitive. On the other hand, some working actors—even some very successful ones—began careers later in life. There's no telling how it'll go for you.

I would gently suggest that if you're looking for assurances of success before you can feel comfortable committing, then maybe this profession isn't for you—and I don't say that as a putdown. You ask whether you're too old to embark on a serious acting career, pointing out the potential impracticality of that endeavor. My friend, embarking on an acting career is impractical at any age. You write that friends have encouraged you to pursue acting but mention nothing about your own desires.

That's not unlike people encouraging you to marry someone: The recommended individual may be the greatest potential mate in the world, but that person still has to be right for you, since you're the one who's going to have to live with him or her, day in and day out. Your friends are probably right about your talent, but they won't have to face your career challenges, experience your disappointments, or pay your bills while you try to cultivate success as an actor. So before you sign on for this two-year program and invest your time, money, and soul, make absolutely sure this work is calling to you. That calling will sustain you when the going gets tough.

If my concern is unfounded and you do have a yearning to act, then don't allow the impracticality or unpredictability to stop you. Go forward. Learn. Audition. Experience yourself as an artist, and let the showbiz fates take care of the results. Maybe you'll have no success at all. That has to be okay with you before you even start.

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