Why Acting Is So Much More Than Just a Job

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Photo Source: Courtesy Alistair Petrie

Act 1, Scene 1: September 1989. Twenty-five drama students sit nervously. It’s their first day. They have succeeded where so many haven’t. They have won their places on the three-year acting course at the world famous London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA). Over two thousand applied so these are the so-called elite. The gifted. The future of the industry. The new Oliviers, Mirrens, Pacinos, Streeps. The pressure is on.

The door opens, and the room goes silent. The esteemed vice principal—who’s been at the Academy for 30 year—enters the room with measured steps. The air is heavy with anticipation.

VP: Remember…

The students lean forward as one.

VP: …acting…

The students are almost falling off their chairs they are leaning so hard.

VP: …is just a job.

Students: Oh.

The students flush with disappointment.

Acting is “just a job.” Of course it isn’t. But…sometimes it is. When you’re working, it’s a job, but it shouldn’t be just that. It has to be more.

And therein lies the contradictory, confusing madness—and brilliance—of what we do as actors. It’s a profession built on rejection. So much is out of your control in your life as actor. But control what you can control. Hamlet said it: “The readiness is all.” If you’re not acting, be ready to act; be out and about. Engage with the world around you. Keep observing and listening to the surrounding people, places, and things.

Acting is also a confidence game. When you’re feeling confident after booking a job, you can swan into auditions with things to say and opinions to offer. When your confidence is low, however, you feel you have nothing to offer at all. So look after yourself physically and mentally. Practice whatever keeps you in one piece: a stroll or a marathon; meditation or reading graphic novels; salsa lessons or volunteering.

And never compare yourself to others—especially other actors on social media. That’s all smoke and mirrors. We present the best (but rarely the truest) of ourselves on our screens and profiles. Everyone’s guilty of it.

With bolstered confidence, you can make auditions conversations. Find equality in that room, even though it’s traditionally a space where it feels staggeringly unequal. Don’t offer what you think they want because you’ll be wrong. Prepare hard, make clear choices, and go for it.

As I get older, I hear “older” actors complain about auditioning for “kids,” and they find it humiliating. I don’t give a rats arse how old the people are I meet to audition for. Age and experience will bring certain perks like respect and sometimes a straight offer, but even while aging, remain a kid yourself. Retain your sense of joy. If they are directing or producing something decent, chances are they’re smart. Don’t be cynical. It’s pointless. An ex once said to me as I was moaning about something trivial: “Negativity energy—don’t want to hear it.” Well, she was right. When was the last time you sat and heard someone moan and afterwards thought it was, for you, a positive experience? That’s what I thought. But you can still have a moan every once in awhile—it’ll make you feel better when the going gets tough. Just make it brief and end on an, “Ah who cares, it’s all good!”

It’s not a meritocracy, and it never will be. Don’t get wrapped up in that. The weird brilliance of a non-meritocracy is that as you get older, you still get to hang out with people much younger than you. I’m filming a big new show for Netflix. The six or so leading actors of both sexes are late teens and early 20s, diverse, talented, funny—and it’s their first jobs. And they’re magic and are just so full of beans. It’s intoxicating.

Actors are a community, and if we want anything universally from life, it’s finding our community, our tribe. I love hanging out with actors. They’re generally open, laid back, interesting, and a bit of a complicated mess. Support, nurture, and celebrate each other. Invite people in. Champion diversity, equality and gender balance. It’s not just important, it’s a life responsibility.

And lastly, as one of my oldest friends once said to me (and he had it carved in stone on his mantelpiece at home to remind him every day): Work hard, celebrate, expect nothing. My version would be: Dance, grow stuff, and don’t be an idiot.

After all, it’s just a job.

Alistair Petrie currently stars in “Deep State” on Epix and can be seen next year alongside David Harbour in “Hellboy: Rise of the Blood Queen.”

Ready to get to work on the next job? Check out Backstage’s London audition listings!