Many people who follow a passion can tell you the exact moment they fell in love. For me, it was when I watched the Wizard of Oz at ten years old and heard Judy Garland sing Over the Rainbow. I can’t explain it, but since that moment I have never once questioned my decision. I simply opened my mouth and declared I was going to be an actor and nothing in the 15 years since then has changed.
Even at that age I considered every move I made- every community theater production and every acting class- as an absolute pivotal decision to the future outcome of my career. Aside from the occasional distraction, almost always in the form of video games (#nintendo4life), I was convinced that I needed to take every step with extreme caution because once I moved to New York, which I knew I was going to do, everyone and their mom would be taking acting careers seriously. I was preparing myself to enter a world of cut-throat competition, constant, belittling comparisons, and being told I was too fat or too this or not enough that. I also felt that I was going to be 100% on my own, that no one was going to help me, and everyone I would meet would have a second agenda.
This may seem odd that a ten year old would make these assumptions about her dream career, but seeing as how Judy Garland was my biggest influence the majority of my research revolved around starlets of the early Hollywood days. Judy Garland was forced to eat nothing but chicken soup for weeks at a time in order to lose weight. Studio spies would actually follow her to make sure she wasn't sneaking down to the malt shop and indulging in what any other 16 year old would consider a normal treat.
I was preparing myself for this kind of lifestyle and harassment because I thought it came with the territory of being an actor. To an extent it does, but only if you’re the kind of person to let it. Because when you look at the larger picture, Judy Garland was a depressed pill-popper who was married 5 separate times and may have committed suicide. Not exactly where I saw myself in 30 years…and the times since then have changed quite a bit (thank you, unions!)
What I learned after moving to New York was that you won’t get anywhere by selling yourself short. I can remember only three instances where I felt the classic actress expectations creeping up on me, but by the time those encounters occurred I had been influenced by too many talented and respected women to even let the situations have any lasting effects. (Aside from the spectacular women I know in my day-to-day life, there is also Amy Poehler, Lucille Ball, Tina Fey, Ingrid Bergman, Cheryl Eisenberg, Jennifer Lawrence…it’s a pretty long list!) For your reading pleasure, I’ve described those three moments below:
“You’ve gained weight? I can tell”
I’m sure many of you have heard of the site modelmayhem.com. It’s a site where 3% of the projects are decent photographers building portfolios, and the other 97% of the projects are actually invitations to Eyes-Wide-Shut cult-style porno dungeons. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but not much. Anyway, one of my first “jobs” on this site was travelling to NJ to shoot with these two older dudes who were weirdly trying to be flamboyantly straight while still exerting their masculine dominance in the form of light insults as if they believed these were the roles that should be played by photographer and model. It was maybe my fourth month in New York and I had been struggling with rapid weight gain and loss for the past year and a half. During this particular season I was definitely on the heavier end of the scale. During the first location shoot the “lead” photographer suddenly lowered his camera and said “So, what’s your workout schedule like?” I kinda laughed and said “Mostly yoga, but I don’t get to the gym much. “ And he said “Yeah, I was gonna say it looks like you've gained weight recently. I can tell in your arms.” Then his weird little henchman muse photographer pointed and said “Yeah, and look at her leg, she’s got a big bruise there! Wow, we've really got our work cut out for us in Photoshop, huh?” Then they told me I had a Helen of Troy face…so…I guess I've got THAT going for me. Anyway, I wasted a few more months on that site and ended up with a few decent pictures, but they weren't worth the poisonous working environment created by insensitive amateurs.
“Now give the teddy-bear a blow job”
The most awful on-set story I can think of was this one guy who was directing this promotional video for a social media site called pocodot.com. It was terrible. I got paid $50 but it was a one-man crew and I was the only actor, AND we were filming at his parent’s house because he was living at home during that time and they were like….90 years old. The script was already unfunny, but then he asked me to give this big stuffed teddy-bear a blowjob. I was like ...no...that's sketchy and not funny. If it had been at all funny I would have maybe considered it, but then the guy started being a jerk and was teasing me and was all like "Ohh, are you afraid mommy and daddy are gonna see?" Anyway, that video ended up having a major virus attached to it when they uploaded it to the site, and it hit the entire site so bad they were never able to repair it. Pocodot.com no longer exists. Who sucks now, dude? (See what I did there?)
A casting director in a very popular industry building was in the elevator with me. I could feel him looking at me not in a weird way but in a casting director way. You know: sizing me up, seeing if I could be interesting. I didn't try to talk to him or even look at him because I felt like anything I would have said would have made me seem like some desperate actor looking to impress, so we rode in silence until he got to his floor. When the elevator doors opened he suddenly turned to me very deliberately and said "I like your hair color. Nice choice" and then walked away. So, awesome, I got a compliment- but nice choice? My hair color was au natural, bro. It was weird because it implied that once you reach a certain standard or level of success you have to engage in some kind of marketing technique for your literal, physical self, and I refuse to fall for that gimmick. It was a strange thing to say so casually…but also pretty harmless. And now I find it to just be funny rather than some existential clue for what my future career will be like.
Do some people think I’m too fat or that I should dye my hair? Maybe. Do I care? No, because I like to act, not diet. Every lasting relationship and legitimate project I have worked on has sprang from an environment where I was hired to do what I do because of who I am and what I can offer in the way of talent. You wouldn't want to work with someone who doesn’t like you just the way you are anyway. Actors don’t hate each other and good directors don’t cast based on who has the best body. The real truth about competition is that it isn't about whose better; it’s about being ready for a particular job when luck presents an opportunity.
This career isn’t hard because the people are mean. It’s hard because there are so many people! The only way to stand out is to embrace your one-of-a-kind self. Everyone has something that only they can offer. This business isn’t an eye for an eye. It’s a favor for a favor. It’s a small world after all, and it’s much more fun to be positive.
* For an interesting look at the diet of a Hollywood actress in the late 1920’s, check out this link: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2413615/Vintage-womens-magazine-warns-Joan-Crawfords-dangerous-spoonfuls-soup-diet.html