When I was a sophomore in high school I was (surprisingly) cast as Shelby in a community theater production of “Steel Magnolias.” I was the youngest person in the cast by at least six years and the majority of the people involved in the production were in their 40’s and above. Being such a young'un’ and in my first lead role in a show outside of school, I listened to the words of those around me like a child seeing the world for the first time.
At one rehearsal we were all sitting around discussing why we wanted to be an actor. When it was my turn to talk I’m pretty sure I looked like a complete idiot when I just shrugged and kept silent. I had never questioned why I wanted to be an actor; I just knew it was something I had to and wanted to do. The conversation swiftly moved on to the next actor who was ready to share. She explained that she wanted to act because she didn't like whom she was, and she always wanted to hide behind a mask. When she said that, warning bells went off in my head. I couldn't articulate my feelings at that time, however, because I felt so inexperienced compared to everyone else in the room that I assumed I was wrong for having that reaction. I wanted to feel sad for her, but what I really felt was annoyed. I didn't know why, and I kept my mouth shut, never uttering a word of it until this blog post.
Then something happened recently on the wonderful world of Facebook that brought me back to that moment from years ago. I put some silly status up about hypocrisy and lying and a friend commented in total jest “but you’re an actor, you lie for a living!” Yes, it was a joke, but it still struck another bell for me. I know my friend didn't really think I was some terrible person who lied all the time, but is that all he really thought acting was? Being really good at lying?!
Just so we are all on the same page, let’s have a very quick lesson, shall we?
In order to be a good actor, one of the first and most important rules you have to follow is you can’t judge your character. Oh, and also don’t be a little bitch about properly memorizing your lines. Just do it. Got it? Ok, next.
Every character you play is grounded from something in yourself, something truthful. You can’t resist a character’s choice in the script just because it’s not the same choice you would have made in real life. Each one of us has the ability to do and feel anything that anyone in history has ever done or felt. Maybe it’s buried so deep inside that you will never learn that particular thing about yourself, but it’s still in there.
Be vulnerable. This is the hardest part of the job. (There will be an entire blog post dedicated to this in the near future.)
You have now reached the end of the lesson. That’s it! That’s almost everything you need to know to be an actor.
Lying, or exaggerating feelings at the appropriate time, does not usually make for a captivating performance. And using a character as a way to hide who you really are is a disservice to the character, to the playwright, and to everyone else involved in whatever collaborative project it is you are working on. If you don’t like yourself and you use acting as a means to feel better you aren't seeking the truth, you’re seeking attention. Harsh words, but I stand strongly by them. You can’t hide yourself when you act- you have to expose yourself. Acting 301. Show us something real, something so true and organic that when we look in your eyes we know you are thinking something. Be so honest that it makes the audience feel like they are flies on the wall to the drama unfolding around you in the script. You can’t pretend to feel something- that’s asking the audience to meet you halfway. YOU have to do the hard work. That’s your job. The audience will come in with a willingness to be captivated. Be so good at being honest that you make them forget they've even agreed to suspend their belief.
I don’t want to think too much about why I like acting because I don’t want to lose that magic of just feeling like something is electrified in my bones when I am breathing life into a character, but I have pondered it a bit and have come up with this simple reasoning: Acting is the only way to do and be everything I ever wanted to be. I get to escape into my imagination, travel through time, fight monsters, survive a haunted house, fall in love over and over again, talk with an accent, analyze scripts, lead a revolution, stop a war, go to space, dodge explosions, connect with people I’d never get to meet….the list never ends! Being able to say “I’m an actor” is really me saying “I can be anything I want.”
I have such love for actors who balance a sense of respect with a sense of imagination and playing. Those are the actors who light up rooms. They lose themselves in a role with a passion that is grounded in positivity. For people to say they hate themselves and then choose a profession that in their mind let’s them get away with that is an indication of a rather terrible and serious personal dilemma. Sure, you have to go to some very dark places sometimes as an actor, but if you love who you are you will always be able to ground yourself again in that and stay emotionally safe without building a wall around your soul.
Don’t be an actor because you have something to hide. Be an actor because you have something to share.