Stephen Tobolowsky on the Most Difficult Thing an Actor Faces

Photo Source: Clay Rodery

When you study acting you are likely to do scene work. You may do improvisations. Monologues. Animal exercises. All useful. However, none of these tools can help you handle the most difficult things you have to face as a professional actor: the two kinds of nothing.

It is a mistake to think that all nothings are alike. They’re not. In acting there is the nothing you have to deal with when you are working. On the set they call this “waiting.” This is different from the nothing you have to deal with when you are not working. This nothing is called “despair.”


Life is difficult when you are waiting for something to break. Every profession has its ratio of anticipation versus doing. Take washing the car or mowing the lawn. These tasks are all doing/no anticipation. Unless you count the anticipation of not doing them anymore.

The opposite profile is all anticipation/no doing, like betting on the lottery or playing right field on a grade school softball team. Acting is more like the lottery. Lots of anticipation. You must know how to wait. Wait for auditions. Wait to see if you get the part.

This kind of nothing requires creativity on the actor’s part. My college professor, Dr. Burnet Hobgood, called this “the actor’s passive creative state.” He said that because he had a Ph.D. I call it the time for opportunity. I look for ways to be inspired. Inspiration turns the hardest of times into a blessing. In no particular order I spend my downtime reading books and plays I don’t have time to read when I am working. I listen to new music. I write notes about what I have experienced. I watch old movies to study the great film actors of the past. I pray for an end to the passive creative state.


The second type of nothing happens after you get the job. The focus of this nothing is on how to prepare. Film and television are exercises in time management. There are vast open spaces of nothing to fill. I have been on sets where young performers are more energetic than YMCA campers on an overnight. When the time comes to shoot, they’ve lost their focus. Guard your energy on the set. On the set of “Swing Shift,” the great director Jonathan Demme told me the best advice he could give was, Sit down. It’s a long day.

I need 10 minutes to focus before doing a scene. I know this. I ask the A.D.s for a warning. From then on, no distractions, no music, no phones or Internet. That’s me. Other performers like to use the camera rehearsals to focus. The one thing to avoid is giving your best take during rehearsal. Wait for them to say “Action.” The worst kind of nothing is when your performance doesn’t make it to the film.