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The Working Actor

Friends With Career Benefits

Friends With Career Benefits
Dear Michael:

I'm wrapping up my training at an acting conservatory and getting ready to venture out into the "real world." I know that no matter how much training or talent you have, it doesn't mean diddly-squat unless you know people.

Recently, I've been going about making connections by emailing or Facebooking directors and other actors whom I don't know personally, just to forge connections. This doesn't amount to anything except a forced, awkward communication that probably repels them and that disappoints me. I've been noticing that the best connections to be had are the ones that involve friendship, and in some cases even sexual interest. Yet how does a person in my position develop these connections naturally and productively? What avenues are there for me to pursue to ease my way into having a connection without appearing to be an overly ambitious opportunist?

—Friend Requested

New York City

Dear Friend Requested:

I'm hoping I'm misreading you here, but it sounds like, among other things, you're asking my advice on how to sleep your way to an acting career. We give all kinds of advice here at The Working Actor, and it's always our desire to help. But it would be hard for me to advise you on how to pursue this path, for several reasons.

First, I've never known anyone who was involved in such a tryst, so I wouldn't know how to tell you to go about finding the influential partners you seek. Second, I don't think it's a wise path to pursue. I think the cost to one's self-esteem is too high. Third—and perhaps more to the point—I don't think it's generally effective as a method of career advancement. You might find that promised results aren't delivered, or that allegedly "connected" individuals who are interested in bedding you aren't quite as connected as they claimed to be. Even if they are, they're probably not going to put themselves in the vulnerable position of handing you a juicy acting job unless they sincerely like your acting.

Van Badham, a playwright, former university lecturer in theater, and current literary manager of the Finborough Theatre in London, says she "watched several generations of young actors, writers, and directors leave the cozy nest of university and attempt to fly straight into the big time of professional life." And she often found herself advising her students on the very subject of your letter. "Consider what giving yourself away sexually does to your brand," Badham told them. "Where you see someone as a person of influence who can get you ahead, if you sleep with them they see you as desperate, powerless, and manipulable…. Remember, the best way of getting ahead is to hone your talent and work your ass off. Reliable, professional, and talented will always win the job ahead of sexually opportunistic."

Now, I know that your question was also about seeking out nonsexual industry friendships, but as you said—and you're absolutely right—whenever connections are manufactured rather than occurring organically, they feel awkward. If you're making friends with people solely because of what they can do for you, there's a good chance they'll be savvy enough to know they're being schmoozed. And again, here's the problem: It doesn't work. I don't think the person with whom you've created a forced friendship will think, "Wow, what a fine actor. I want to mentor him and support his career." He or she may do you a favor or two, but I think you'd be disappointed overall.

I have some good friends who are in positions to assist me in my career. They include producers, directors, casting people, and even a celebrity or two. But we're able to be friends because I genuinely like them and I'm not asking for anything. I'm really not. On those rare occasions when one of these people connects me with an opportunity, it's always a surprise. Once—and only once—my sister, who's a producer, set up an audition for me. That was the only time that a relationship provided a career advantage. Mostly, my influential friends and I all go out of our way not to cross those lines.

So here's the puzzle—and I think you already see this: How do you make influential friends without doing it for the benefits of their influence?

Well, one answer is to just be friendly to everyone and socialize whenever the opportunities arise. You don't know who leads to whom, so just be a good friend. Be a giver, not a taker. When you meet people, don't look for your earliest chance to hand them your résumé or ask for help finding an agent. Instead, ask them about themselves. Take an interest. Do nice things, and don't ask anything in return. Remember, these people are probably asked for favors a lot. You want to stand out? Behave differently by not asking for anything. People can smell hunger, so put the potential benefits of these friendships completely out of your mind. Focus on the friendship, and benefits may come.

Be a joiner. If there's a cause you believe in, get involved. Do a walk for charity. Volunteer your time. Join clubs and groups—anything that reflects who you are. It makes you more well-rounded and may connect you with business contacts who share your pet causes and interests. Joining theater companies and actor groups is also a good idea, as it broadens your circle.

Another way to make authentic connections is by interning at a casting office, talent agency, or management company. Seeing people every day gives you the opportunity to get to know each other personally and establish a rapport. Or get a job assisting a writer or producer. You'll meet and interact with their contacts in the course of your duties, so you won't need to create reasons to approach them.

Finally, a thought: I disagree with your assertion that talent and training are worthless, and I think you're far too young to be that cynical. Sure, these things aren't guarantees of success, but then again, what is? If I were you, I wouldn't give up so quickly on the idea of plying your trade honestly and seeing what happens. There are many solid careers that developed that way. Talent and training may be exactly the keys to the doors you're trying to open, so don't be so hasty to dismiss them. What's more, moving forward in your career by virtue of your talent feels a hell of a lot better than getting a role because you wormed your way into a false friendship.

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