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Self-Care: An Actor’s Secret Weapon

Self-Care: An Actor’s Secret Weapon
Photo Source: Jesse Balgley

Much has been said about the challenges actors endure: rejection, survival jobs, rejection, making ends meet, and, did we mention, rejection? Less discussed, however, is the often solitary nature of the struggle. Feeling very alone or isolated in your quest to do what you love can often compound every obstacle in your path, however large or small it may be. Backstage is here to tell you, unequivocally, that you are not alone, and you deserve to be cared for.

In performance, more than arguably any other existing profession, self care is paramount. Your mind and body are your currency and the product you’re “selling.” When your physical and mental health falter in the slightest, it shows in your acting. But, guess what? They will falter—sometimes frequently. In those instances, caring for yourself becomes even more critical. From keeping your head up amidst the “nos,” to vocal health techniques, to tips for maintaining overall physical and emotional fitness, here is the Backstage Guide for an actor’s self care. 

How do physical and mental health relate to one another?

Physical and mental health exist on their own, but each function immeasurably smoother when both at their highest capacity. There are, fortunately, many measures that can simultaneously benefit both faculties for different reasons.

Backstage Expert Douglas Taurel, also an actor and producer, explains that the physical demands of acting (late night shoots, sleep deprivation, malnutrition) “can have a profound change on your emotional and psychological state as a performer.” For that reason, he shares his eight most useful tips to help you achieve physical and mental health.

1. Eat nutrient-dense foods.
Eat high-quality protein, chicken, fish, and carbohydrates. Yes, carbohydrates, like brown rice, sweet potatoes, veggies, and some fruit, in moderation. Your body needs the carbohydrates for energy—don’t forget that your brain functions on sugar. Low-carb diets make it hard to think and keep your emotional state positive.

2. Eat the right carbohydrates at the right time.
Eat the higher complex carbs like steel-cut oatmeal, brown rice, and sweet potatoes before 3 or 4 p.m. and then switch to lower calorie carbohydrates—broccoli, spinach, squash—later in the day.

3. Drink water.
Good hydration improves your skin, appearance, and digestion. And good digestion keeps weight off. Add lemon to your water to help your body eliminate toxins.

4. Eat breakfast.
Eating breakfast in the morning helps your body focus throughout the day and also reduces cravings for bad food. The higher in protein and fat your breakfast is, the more mental and physical energy you will have. Try Greek yogurt with nuts or two whole eggs with almonds or cashews. (Actually, any nut is fine except for peanuts.) If you’re crunched for time, grab a whey protein isolate or plant-based protein mixed with almond milk and a banana.

5. No junk for breakfast.
Skip the starchy bagels and muffins. Starch is pretty high in sugar, will crash your energy stores later in the day, and make weight gain much easier due to what it does to your hormones.

6. Carry snacks.
Carrying snacks helps keep your blood sugar even. You should eat a little something high quality every three to four hours. Low blood sugar levels completely destroy your emotional state, and your stamina goes right out the window. Nuts (again, except peanuts) are an easy snack to carry, and they raise acetylcholine in the brain, which makes you feel mentally strong and think clearer. Reach for a can of tuna in oil—which is full of Omega-3 fatty acids help the brain with depression and OCD—organic protein bars like KIND bars, and of course, the easiest thing to carry: an apple.

7. Move your body.
The most important thing is to move your body at least 30 minutes a day minimum. Choosing which exercise can seem overwhelming, but if you just start moving your body, it will help give you momentum. And once you get in a rhythm, you can choose a mode that’s more specific for what you need. Exercising puts you in a positive state of mind and makes you more proactive.

8. Meditate.
Meditation helps you with stress. Don’t know how or find it hard to meditate? Just sit somewhere quiet for five minutes every day. You will be amazed by the positive response on your mental and physical state. The better you feel, the more you want to accomplish. When lost, remember this: Live clean, train hard, get rid of crap, have a positive inner voice, and you will have a much better body.

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Why are physical and mental health together crucial for actors?

It isn’t rocket science: You will lose out on jobs without good physical and mental health. It’s just a fact. For concrete proof, you can look to Shaan Sharma, a Backstage Expert and actor who shared his woes after a network recast a role he had booked because of his unfitness. Rather than sulk, however, Sharma used it as an opportunity to address the current state of his health and better both its components for the future. As he explains, there’s so little in this industry you can control; your health is ultimately one of the few over which you can exert power.

“Let’s take this opportunity as a community to examine how you’re caring for your instrument,” Sharma urges. “Are you getting plenty of sleep, eating healthy, caring for your teeth, hair, nails, and skin, and staying in good physical and mental shape? If not, look into it. Even if you are a character actor and your greater weight or niche look is part of your product, there are basic things you should be doing to just stay healthy and well-groomed.

“Once our bodies and minds are healthy, the next step is to make sure you’re marketing a look that fits you and works for you…. Of course, there are things about our look that we can and cannot change. Our goal should be to do the best with what we’ve got in order to work as much as possible.”

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Mental health

It was the great French dramatist Antonin Artaud who wrote, “Actors are athletes of the heart.” The statement exemplifies precisely why mental health is as important to an actor as physical training is to an athlete. While requiring less tangible work than, say, preparing for a season of football, bolstering your mental health endurance can be even more challenging precisely because the methods to do so are elusive. Every actor is different because every human being is different, but nevertheless, we’ve broken down some of the biggest strains on an actor’s mental health—and how to overcome them.

Dealing with rejection

As mentioned in the very first sentence of this guide, you can’t say “actor” without “rejection” closely following thereafter. It’s a simple fact of the industry: No matter how successful or new to the business you may be, and if you don’t learn to coexist in some form of harmony with the ol’ R-word, you’ll go insane sooner rather than later.

There are many ways to retool that relationship. Backstage Expert Risa Bramon Garcia argues that embracing rather than bemoaning rejection is the key to not only living with it, but using it to better yourself in your craft.

“Our normal human reaction is to resist feeling like crap,” she says. “We don’t want to hurt. We don’t want to go to uncomfortable places, and we resist it in the work. It scares us; we do everything to avoid it. We see these words on the page and instantly shut down: ‘She sobs. She weeps. She cries uncontrollably.’ We decide it’s impossible or useless. (The main reason that’s written, by the way, is so that the writer can underline the depth of the character’s feeling, the importance of the moment. It’s there to sell the script, not to torture the actor!)

“You’re going to be rejected. Many times. Rejection is a real part of your work. It’s also a part of your emotional evolution. So what would it be like if you were rejected and welcomed the experience of feeling the hurt, the sadness, the anger? What if you were willing to truly let yourself experience those feelings wholly? And then were able to come out the other side – to find the power in it, to know the beauty in such deep feeling, to absorb the information revealed, to know the truth in both your unique experience along with its universality. It’s so uncomfortable for us to go there, but it’s vital for an artist. It’s essential to grow your entire instrument as an actor. It’s the most exciting human experience there is.”

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Staying motivated

Not too far away from the Island of Rejection is the Land of Staying Motivated. Or, more succinctly, how in the world am I supposed to stay motivated in the face of constant rejection, survival jobs, and dead-end auditions? Backstage Expert and CEO of the Sterling Studio Constance Tillotson describes actors’ motivation as the very “energy that fuels success.” However, intention is “the spark that ignites” that motivation. To get to the core of your intention, your spark, Tillotson advises all actors to ask themselves the following four questions:

1. Have you been at this for years but still feel like you are trying?
At the beginning, with rare exception, most people start out by “trying” acting. Once you begin to understand your craft, you try to get an agent. Once you secure an agent, you try to get auditions, then callbacks, then bookings. Because this is a career that does not happen overnight, and actors have been in the “trying” mode for so long, it becomes a repetitive action that’s reinforced in their muscle memory.

Think back to your first breakthrough in acting class. Did you feel great in the moment? Did you set a steadfast intention this would be your career? Or, when you struggled with your next class, did that instantly fill you with doubts and put you back in the "trying" mode? When you have intention, you own each of your successes, and when you’re struggling, you view it as part of the process that’s serving you to make you better. Doubt is never part of the equation.

2. Have you booked jobs but then feel like you hit a wall?
When you get a booking, it feels fantastic, but odd are, it’s actually taking you out of your comfort zone of “trying.” When your success is aligned with an inner belief that you’re talented and worthy of your dream, then a laser focus and intention kicks in. And this will last between bookings no matter how long it takes. When the Lakers go on a 10-game losing streak, get blown out of the playoffs, or don’t make the finals, they never think they’ll never win another game. They keep on pushing, make changes, and make it happen.

3. When you achieve success, do you rest on your success?
You’ve struggled for so long that when you book a job, it feels so good not to have to work so hard. Only this is actually the time when you must work harder! The trait of champions is that they cannot help but always up their game. Kobe Bryant’s incredible artistic display is a byproduct of how hard this man works. And it has been consistent throughout his entire career. This is what happens when one is connected to a higher purpose of path.

The actors I work with who have won Emmys, Golden Globes, and SAG Awards all put in even more work and want more extensive coaching once a job is booked. Their actions back up their intention to be great at the role. They know a booking does not make you great. Your performance does. If you rest on any success, that is the level at which you will remain until you drop lower.

4. Are you addicted to the struggle? 
Many are. Actors emotionally and mentally give up between bookings. They self-sabotage at the final hour of producers sessions. They cause problems on set when they finally hit the level they’ve dreamed of reaching. They look around and place blame on everyone else. They confuse being in the dramatic arts with being overly dramatic about life. They create and feed off the energy of chaos where there is order. They have struggled for so long that this is their comfort zone. They know how to act within it. Because they’re so caught up in their own dark web, they haven’t connected to shining their own light to inspire others.

No matter what level you’re at in your career, if you haven’t adjusted out of the “trying” mode, then the feeling you receive from success will just be temporary. Even if that takes destroying the success you have actually built. Take personal inventory. Clear your shelves of anything outdated that no longer works in your current system and replace it with the faster, more efficient hardware. You cannot connect to a wireless dream if you’re operating on a dial-up system.

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Staving off jealousy

Between acting classes, constant auditioning and training, and holding down any side hustles to pay the bills, it’s truly astounding that actors have any energy left for the green-eyed monster. And yet, when scrolling through Twitter and reading news that someone you know from school has been upped to series regular on that new prestige comedy, it can be tough to squander those feelings of old-fashioned jealousy. Comparing yourself to others in your career is the kiss of death, and yet, it is a pervasive tendency. Fortunately, there are ways (to an extent) to evade jealousy.

Backstage Expert Teri Wade argues that, despite the external nature of jealousy, it actually emanates from what’s coming from within, making it all the more important to get checked. Here’s her four-step protocol for overcoming jealousy:

1. Get clear about what you’re jealous of.
The good news about jealousy is that it’s a very clear indicator of what you want. Jealousy isn’t a wishy-washy feeling—it’s intense, pointed, and clear. Acknowledging this clarity is the first step toward using it to your own benefit. All you have to do is write down exactly what you’re jealous of and be really honest with yourself. If you’re jealous of someone who just booked a major role, is it because they’re going to be famous? Or because they’re going to be well compensated for doing work they love? Or maybe it’s because they’re going to work with artists you’d love to work with. There’s no right or wrong here, just clarity. Writing your answer down brings even greater clarity, and it also makes the next two steps easier.

2. Get clear about why you feel like you can’t have it.
Whenever jealousy is present, it’s because some part of you feels like you can’t have what the other person has, or, at the very least, you’ll have to overcome huge obstacles to get it. So another gift jealousy gives you is the knowledge that you have a block—a negative fear or belief that separates you from what you want. After getting clear about the specific thing you want, ask yourself, “Why does this feel off-limits to me?” Write that answer down. You might write something like, “It’s just not in the cards for me,” or “I’m afraid I won’t be good enough.”

3. Turn it around.
Next, take that negative fear or belief and turn it into a positive statement that represents what you’d most like to be true instead—even if it doesn’t feel true right now. “It’s just not in the cards for me” can become “It’s my destiny to star in powerful films that change the world.” “I’m afraid I won’t be good enough” can become “I trust in my God-given talents.” Use whatever words feel best to you as long as they fully collapse the old, negative fear or belief. You can tell whether or not the new positive statement is more powerful than the old by reading them both aloud. When you feel like you have the right new, positive statement, reinforce it as often as you can in whatever way feels best.

4. Check your work.
The “test” or marker as to whether or not your jealousy has actually been transformed is when you see others experiencing something you want and feel nothing but happy for them and inspired to achieve the same. Once you’ve passed that test, you come to know the truth that jealousy isn’t a negative emotion you have to deal with forever.

Jealousy is really just misdirected inspiration. And you wouldn’t feel jealous about anything you weren’t actually meant to achieve or experience for yourself.

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Reconciling audition and performance jitters

One of the most baffling misconceptions about actors, given the nature of their work, is that they can’t possibly experience anxiety when performing. To that point, there’s both good and bad news. The bad news is anxiety can absolutely ruin an audition or performance (and, consequently, your reputation). But the good news is that you can whip those nerves into shape and actually let them in to enhance a given performance or audition.

Backstage Expert Kate Durocher argues that in order for actors to get their nerves in check, they can boil it all down to the actual science behind them. “When a person is stressed, their adrenal glands produce adrenaline that rushes into the bloodstream,” she explains. “This causes the body to awaken and, in turn, the person tightens up, sweats, shakes, experiences dry mouth, has shortness of breath and can begin to feel dizzy. These reactions are what is commonly known as a fight or flight response. For some, this fight or flight response can turn into a full blown panic attack. Clearly, stage fright is no joke.”

Understanding that your body will likely get nervous, you can use your all-powerful mind to combat the negative effects. “It’s common for a person to try to ignore or fight their anxiety in attempts to lessen it,” Durocher adds. “However, this can create an adverse, unexpected reaction. If the adrenaline that is built up in a person’s body isn’t released, all that pent up stress and anxiety become trapped, making getting around it much more difficult. Instead, learn to embrace the fear. Expect that you will probably be stage fright quite often and accept it. This will allow you to become familiar with the negative reactions in your body and realize that with time, they will pass, making it easier for you to stay in control.”

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Staying artistically fulfilled

As an actor, more often than not, the way you pay the bills will not be incredibly artistically fulfilling. This doesn’t just apply to your survival jobs, but also to some of your acting gigs, too. Sometimes, you agree to a project for the paycheck, the credit or reel buffer, or as a favor to someone else despite the fact that you know well it isn’t going to be an exactly “inspiring” experience. In those moments, it’s pivotal that you remain artistically inspired in other ways.

“Artistic fulfillment” is a lofty concept all its own that, of course, means different things to different actors. Maybe that means finding an artistic avenue outside of acting, like painting, design, or crafting of some sort. Maybe it means a different specialty within the industry like writing or directing. Very often, though, it means creating your own work. Here, Backstage Expert Philip Hernández gives you his seven best pieces of advice for making your very own content.

When to see a therapist

The stigma around therapy extends far beyond the acting community; there’s a nagging conception that seeing a therapist means there’s something wrong with you which, in reality, could not be more false. Every person on this earth could benefit from sitting down and chatting with someone who has an outside perspective on their life. But for actors, especially, so much of what you do is about clarity, which makes therapy even more important for both your life and your career.

“Some people believe that therapy is only for weak or ‘sick’ people,” says Robert Curtiss, a Backstage Expert and former psychiatrist. “This is untrue. In fact, it shows inner strength to ask for help. As for the cost, many therapists have a sliding scale to accommodate clients with limited resources, and most insurance plans offer some mental health coverage. If you need therapy and can truly benefit from it, find a way to afford it. Some people can't afford to not have therapy!

“A therapist can help you identify problematic behavior patterns and help you to figure out why you do what you do, help you to cope and/or make necessary changes in your life to move forward, maintain your balance, and to help you deal with new challenges. This will only enhance your life and your career.”

Emotional health

A subdivision of mental health at large is emotional health: that which likely pertains less to your career but more to, well, your emotional well-being. Like your career-related mental woes, though, your emotional strife can be as difficult to work through. Below are just a few ways to help keep up your emotional health:

  • Find a community: Heidi Levitt, an L.A.-based casting director and producer shares five tips for finding your inner circle here.
  • Find a passion outside of the craft: In order to survive as an actor, you need an undying love of the craft. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t also have hobbies and interest in other areas. Here, acting teacher and Backstage Expert Mae Ross gives her top four reasons actors should exist “outside” of acting.
  • Cope with financial stress: Financial worries are omni-present and will be possibly for your entire career. It’s OK! Check out Backstage’s financial guidance archives for advice on everything from the survival jobs that won’t drain the life out of you, to the advice all actors should know when it comes to their student loans.
  • Make sure you have somewhere for personal decompression: Speaking of financial strain, as a working actor, you may not be able to afford your own place to live (and that may be the case for a very long time). It’s important that you have a place that is yours and yours alone to unwind every now and again. If you live with roommates, especially, this might not be at home. Maybe there’s a garden close to your apartment where you can read a book or even just a sidewalk bench on which you can people watch; anywhere you can go to be truly alone—for however long you need to be—is a valuable tool.

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Physical health

It should be obvious why physical health is everything for an actor. Try doing eight shows a week without ample stamina or completing a 16-hour day on set without succumbing to exhaustion. But for those exact reasons, it’s even easier for actors to fall victim to poor physical health. Truly, how in the world are you supposed to get a workout in before your 6 a.m. call time? As long as you prioritize your health, though, it can be done. Here’s how.

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Working out when you can’t afford a gym membership

Pinching pennies is a concept every actor knows all too well. After factoring in necessities such as rent, food, and gas/a MetroCard, there won’t be much left over for extra expenses, and that includes a gym membership, sadly. But there are other—completely free—ways to get a workout in!

There are obvious ways to work out for free, like jogging and hiking. These shouldn’t be overlooked, as every city and town has some sort of option for either or both activities. But creative actors know free fitness doesn’t end there. Do some research on your local gyms and workout studios, and you’ll likely find deals for first-time free classes as well as options that are entirely donation-based. Similarly for gym memberships, you can often get a few free classes or free month when first signing up.

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Vocal health

Of course, vocal health is going to matter moreso for musical theater performers than any other, but those who act in plays or on-camera aren’t at all exempt from caring for their cords. The former requires projection for what may be eight performances a week, and the latter requires rehearsing and shooting some scenes over and over and over again; needless to say, both feats are unachievable when your voice has gone hoarse. Luckily, Backstage has tons of resources for keeping your voice healthy for singers and actors of all varieties.

Here, Dr. Melin Tan-Geller, an otorhinolaryngologist and former pianist, shares her top five pointers for vocal health.

Here, voice teacher John Henry gives his 10 most useful exercises singers and non-singers alike can use for vocal health.

Here, Backstage Expert Andrew Byrne shares his highly useful tips for keeping your voice healthy during the perilous time known as cold season.

Here, private vocal coach and Backstage Expert Arden Kaywin lists the five elements essential for your voice staying up to par.

Here, founder of the Linklater Center for Voice and Language, Kristin Linklater, gives you the quick but essential rundown of vocal dos and do nots.

Here, finally, L.A.-based vocal coach and Backstage Expert Roger Burnley shares the one secret that just may save your voice.

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The dances classes all actors should take

The intensity of your dance education will obviously vary depending on your goals. Musical theater actors, particularly those with ensemble dreams, are going to have an entirely different set of needs. But there is one dance class that every single actor, regardless of skill level or career goals, should take, according to Backstage Expert Erika Shannon: ballet. Don’t be intimidated; sign up for a ballet class, even if you’re pliéing alongside five-year-olds, and watch your basic physical acting tenets grow.

For more individualized dance guidance, Backstage Expert Lisa Jo Sagolla details how to find the right dance class for you.

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Yoga

Yoga is one of the true-blue activities that is equally beneficial for both your mind and body. While strengthening your core or inner thighs, you’re getting in touch with whatever it is you have going on upstairs, and that’s the kind of efficient multitasking a working actor can get behind.

A few years back, Backstage’s very own Secret Agent Man decided to take up yoga on a whim, and it is now a valued part of his life. He has also found numerous ways that yoga practices can be directly applied to an acting career. “At the start of every yoga class, the teacher reminds us to honor ourselves for showing up,” he says. “That's a valuable lesson right there. An acting career is extremely hard, and you should all congratulate yourselves for having the courage to even try.

“Once class begins, we move into a series of poses designed to both strengthen and stretch different parts of our body. Every student has a unique reaction to these positions. Some find triangle pose difficult, but I've never had any trouble with it. The one that kills me is warrior one. But over the years, I've learned the pose I like the least is the one my body needs the most.

“The same is true for you. Don't just focus on your strengths. Challenge yourself by learning new skills and pushing your boundaries. That's how you become a great actor.

I never know what to expect when I go to class. Sometimes, I soar through the poses, feeling like I'm on the cover of Yoga Journal. But then there are days when my body moves like a bag full of wet sand. That's just the nature of yoga—and life.”

The very best part of yoga, though, may be the fact that you can essentially do it anywhere, at any time, for any duration, making it an ideal method for physical fitness and mental centering for an actor on the go.

Taking up a physical activity that can double as a special skill

As mentioned again and again (and again) in this guide, an actor’s resources are limited when it comes to both time and money. Everything you do can be used as an opportunity to grow as an actor, and physical fitness is no exception. When it comes to working out, why not look into an activity that could double as a special skill?

One multifaceted activity that you can easily bridge to acting is combat/stunt training. “With more training, people will understand how these things can be brought into a show,” says Jared Kirby, a fight director, fencing instructor, and choreographer of stage and screen fights around the world. “These are not things an actor necessarily needs to learn any more than 18th-century period costumes or dialects. It’s a tool in the arsenal. The training actors should really be focused on is how to make the violence both realistic and safe. You don’t do anything that’s not safe.”

The other prominent physical fitness-special skill two hander actors can take up is the circus arts. Think “Pippin” or “Bring It On: The Musical”: tumbling and contortion may give an auditioning actor the edge. “Instead of being a triple threat nowadays, you have to be a quadruple threat,” says Trevor Sones, an auditioning theater actor. “You have to be able to do all the styles of dance and do tumbling on top of that to book the gigs. Every audition that I’ve been to thus far has asked every male dancer if they can do tumbling or tricks.” You don’t want to be on the receiving end of that question without being able to respond with a resounding “Yes!”

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