Justin Whalin and Zoe McLellan, who co-star in the new adventure film Dungeons & Dragons, recently sat down for a chat with Back Stage West to share their experiences surviving as actors in Los Angeles.
Whalin's television credits include General Hospital, Charles in Charge, the Disney Channel's Perfect Harmony, the sitcom It Had To Be You opposite Faye Dunaway, the ABC After School Special Other Mothers (for which he won an Emmy for his portrayal of a son with lesbian parents), and the long-running series Lois and Clark: The Adventures of Superman, on which he played the young journalist Jimmy Olsen. Whalin also appeared in the John Waters film Serial Mom.
McLellan began her career in small roles in such films as Mr. Holland's Opus and Inventing the Abbotts. Her credits include the series Sliders and Star Trek: Voyager, the NBC movie Home Invasion, and the feature Total Stranger. She currently plays a recurring role on USA's Invisible Man, and she recently starred in the indie film Stonebrook opposite Seth Green and Brad Rowe.
Zoe McLellan: Growing up in Seattle, I had the opportunity to take classes since I was 7 years old. I did theatre. I auditioned for film, television, commercials, and built up not just a resumé but also some confidence. I learned how to master my craft before arriving in Los Angeles. I moved here quite a bit later than you did, but it was good for me to come here with a resumé and a SAG card so that agents weren't laughing in my face, thinking, Here's another girl just wanting to be a star.
Justin Whalin: I grew up in San Francisco, and I came to L.A. for the first time when I was 13. Before that, I did work in San Francisco for two and a half years. I studied at A.C.T.—American Conservatory Theatre—and I studied at different repertory theatres around San Francisco.
When I came to L.A., I didn't know anything about doing TV or film. I'd done some commercials, but those were cast in San Francisco. Mostly, I'd done a lot of theatre in San Francisco. So, from a stage perspective, at 13, I was pretty experienced, and I had a good grasp of being an actor. But as far as understanding what it meant to be on camera, I knew very little.
I came to L.A., like you did, with my SAG card and with my AFTRA card, which were really important—and with a resumé. I was a big fish in San Francisco for my age group before I came to L.A., and you're right—the confidence factor is very important. You've got to come here thinking you can succeed. I remember when I first started auditioning and coming down here, I always thought to myself, They've never met me before. I'm going to surprise them. I was 13 and cocky, but it helped, I think, to build my confidence first.
Zoe: You brought up the difference between theatre and television and film acting. I remember my very first audition for a film. I was in Seattle. They were taping the session, and I just went crazy. The director finally said, "Zoe, what are you doing? The camera's right here. Just talk to me." And it took that director saying that to me to change everything. I am so glad I learned that before coming down here and just going nuts and thinking the audition room is the stage and I have a house of 300 people.
Justin: I have the same story! The first thing I did in San Francisco, I played [the title role in A.C.T.'s production of] The Little Prince for two years. I'd been playing to 1,500-house theatres. My first TV job when I came to L.A. was on General Hospital. I was 13, and I didn't know anything except theatre. And this was a soap opera, where the camera is as tight as it can possibly be, which is the exact opposite of stage acting, where you've got the back row to play to. My first few episodes of General Hospital are truly embarrassing to watch. I'm playing to the back row on a soap opera. That's bad. You live and you learn.
Zoe: Here's a big lesson I learned when I first moved here: Not to take anything personally. I came to L.A. with confidence in my craft, and I was very offended when I didn't get a part. It took me awhile to understand that it is not always about your acting.
A director once said to me, "Zoe, you need to be more NATO." I said, "What's NATO?" He said, "Not Attached To Outcome." That was a huge lesson. Walk away and let it go, even if you want the part really bad.
Justin: That's really hard for an actor. It's hard to say, "It has nothing to do with me." The first time I realized that, I was 17, and I had already got the part, and I was sitting in on casting for a different part. I was reading against a lot of the different actors who came in. I wasn't involved, obviously, in the decision-making process, but I did get to hear what everybody was saying. You would be shocked at what lost people jobs or got people jobs. It had nothing to do with their performances.
Zoe: You have control over your work. Your craft is yours. One of the most precious parts of acting is the work before you show up on the set, the time you spend being with your character before you bring that character to life. To me, that's the most rewarding part of it all. It feels very good to show up on a set just knowing that's with you.
Justin: The reality of it is, if you want control as an actor, do theatre. You don't run things in film; you don't run things in TV. In film, it's about the director. It's his world; it's his movie; it's his vision. It's the director who's going to make you look good or look bad. You can't control things like you do onstage. You have, as Zoe said, control over your performance, to a certain extent. But overall, you really are counting on the director, which is why it's so important when you pick films and choose work.
One of the things you have control over is whom you work with. You can say no. It's a lesson that's hard to learn. Saying no for an actor is incredibly difficult. Everybody wants to say, "I'll do it. I don't know if it's any good, but I'll do it. I'll try to make it great." Don't do something you don't want on your resumé. It's hard to get it off your resumé. I say that from experience.
You need to know what your goals are. As long as you know what your goals are, you'll know what the right jobs are to audition for and what the right jobs are to take.
Security in Acting
Justin: People talk about actors being insecure all the time. They say, "Don't ever date an actor. They're all insecure. They'll drive you crazy."
Actors are some of the most secure people on the planet. The reality is, we work in a business that makes us insecure. What other job do you know of where somebody comes in and judges you, not just on your work, but on how you're dressed, what you look like, how tall you are, or how much weight you've gained? There are so many arbitrary things. Not just one person but every single person who views your work is going to have some opinion on it—educated or uneducated.
Zoe: You really have to be OK with who you are—not just be OK with it but stand up for yourself.
Justin: That's right. I've been in this business for almost 16 years, and I've watched a lot of people fall—a lot of my friends, a lot of who were very secure people when they started.
People want to pigeonhole you in this business. You have to, to a certain extent, give in to that at the beginning. You have to find your niche. Are you a good guy or are you a bad guy? Are you a lead or are you a sidekick? Are you funny or are you not funny? You need to figure out what are they mostly casting you as.
What you have to do is think of it as a game. Play the game with your own integrity. You have to find where your integrity and the game can go together. You never want to go back and say, "That's not me. I wasn't being honest with myself."
But it's a tough business. It's not for the insecure. It's for the amazingly secure. The people who are so secure that they can have everybody looking at them, having everybody talk about them and criticize them, and go, "It's OK, I'll do better next time." Almost impervious and oblivious to criticism is what you have to be. BSW