Oh, the perils of turning 30 in the pursuit of acting!
It’s been on my mind for a while, as I have taught long enough to have watched many young students to whom I had a strong connection close in on and cross the dreaded 30-year-old threshold. And that’s when it often starts to happen… The slow, inevitable, creeping bitterness… The career hasn’t moved as hoped. Some other classmate’s career has moved, and well, he/she isn’t nearly as talented as… No, no. Don’t have that thought! That is an unsupportive, mean-spirited thought to think, but damn it I factually am better than so-and-so and where is the justice?… Why did my teacher just suggest a scene where I play a young parent for chrissakes?…. The trips home are becoming more painful, the parental apprehension more palpable… My college friend just bought a five-bedroom house, and I still can’t afford to fix the brakes on my car…. The audition last week for that under-five corrupted my soul. That thing where I was up for the part that would have changed my life but then it ended up going to Fading Film Star was straw last. I can’t take it. My agent quit the business to become a goat shepherd in Wales one week after telling me this pilot season was gonna be mine mine mine…. Am I going to get to 40 and then quit the business, having screwed up my chance for 20 years’ career advancement in the business world?
Now, it’s not rocket science to observe the classic phenomenon of 20-something actors who hit Los Angeles (or wherever) full of vim and vigor and ready to take on the world, and then hit the wall. The wall of jadedness. The wall of cynicism. The wall of bitterness. Nor is it necessarily negative that the older someone gets while chasing a dream, the more there may be a certain urgency to it all. That urgency may be a very well-needed kick in the ass to get off the general pattern one might find that you can spend your 20s fucking off, but after that it starts to cost you. Urgency, good. Bitterness? Not so much.
If one were to generalize, students in their 20s are ambitious, eager, free-wheeling – as one might expect. Those north of 40 are often thoughtful, talented and diligent students in their own right, and have some mileage on the odometer that gives them blessed perspective and maturity that can enlighten the acting and perhaps ease the the spirit. Many of this group have returned to acting after time off for family/job, or perhaps are coming to acting later in life. And some have been at it all along, and simply made an artistic existence work within the framework of their evolving and particular life. The trickiest group? Ages 28-38, with a very tricky, sticky patch at 30-35. There seems to be a particular bitter flavor to the thirty-something variety of creeping doubt.
So how does one take the obvious generality that a thirty-something artistic striver becomes more negative and turn it into a specific action to counter the trend? I think The Bitterness has to do with the feeling of low self-worth, strongly attached to the subset of low financial worth, a sense that one can only live in poverty for so long via the choice to be an artist. As your twenties recede into the distance behind you, desires for a better material life, or marriage/family, etc – are often thrown into prominence, not the least by seeing friends seemingly surge ‘ahead’ of you, even if only by those metrics.
I question the idea that ‘success’ as an actor can only be defined as “acting is the only thing you do in your life, producing the only income you’ll ever need to maintain your life.” That certainly is the best case scenario, but to say you love the arts enough to pursue them professionally not only means an absorbing dedication to your abilities and your career administration, but also to designing a life that can handle very nature of an artistic existence.
The theedy-wheedy Oprah-cology part of this is that you need to ‘stay positive,’ and ‘believe in yourself,’ read The Secret, and all the rest. I’m not against any of the positive psychology cures, but I think one of the best means of overcoming The Bitterness comes primarily from good financial policies (see my post below on Getting A Grip On Your Finances), and being a valuable person outside the realm or your artistic pursuit.
Realistically, there is zero percent chance that everyone in any acting class will be a star. Zero. There is zero percent chance that everyone in any acting class will even make $100K a year from acting. However…. I truly believe there is a 100% chance that all students in an acting class can have a fulfilling life in the arts. The variables are infinite, the income streams may have to be multiple, from both artistic and non-artistic endeavors, there will be years of drought and years of plenty. But that love of acting and storytelling can be maintained, can be given a voice, there can be significant projects each year where the artist is able to thrive. I believe the student who wants a life in the arts more than ever has to have the entrepreneurial instinct, the ability to put other talents to work for money, or at least the recognition that there is honor in working a job-job for rent money – everyone does so, whether artistic or not. There are many professional actors who have long and fulfilling careers, who also supplement their income from other sources in a way that might surprise.
So here is my anti-bitterness prescription:
1. Sound financial policy. My experience is that almost all actor-related bitterness has financial stress as a strong harmonic. Again, read my previous post on Getting a Grip on Your Finances. The biggest lie regarding money is that you have to have a bunch of it first, and then you will be good with money. So people who essentially have zero net worth do nothing about creating sound policies to build the future, because they feel they don’t have the means by which to create a future. “I can’t save money because I don’t have enough money for my life as it is.” A vicious circle that must be demolished.
2. Be a valuable person, and not just on set. Actors tend to romanticize that their best behavior will appear on set, because only then are they fulfilling their artistic purpose. As a result, the 99% of their life spent off-set is on autopilot, without due attention to being of service, being responsible, helpful, on time, etc. So I don’t care if you’re working the lunch shift at a fast-deteriorating Wendy’s to pay the rent, you should be the best waiter in Los Angeles during that time. Be the valuable friend, the best employee, the stellar member of an acting class or theatre company. I’ve often said to the students at BHP that it is far more likely that someone in their class will get them an acting job than it is that Spielberg will – so treat them right. The old saw goes, “Don’t seek a lover, be one.” Well, take the principle there and apply it across the board.
3. Remain part of an artistic group. I run a class, so obviously I can say enthusiastically that I believe a good class can provide continuity, a place where for a few hours of each week creativity and storytelling rule the day. Sometimes the class is the only place where that creative spirit gets its exercise during the time a career is being built up, or is experiencing a trough. But often The Bitterness will result in a superior attitude about your class or theatre group, “It’s not the same as when I started,” or “I’m so much better than most of these people,” or, “It doesn’t inspire me anymore,” blah, blah. Perhaps you rationalize that you no longer need it as much as you might have earlier for technical ability reasons and so why spend the money and time? Well, don’t seek inspiration from the group, seek to inspire it. You stay part of a group because it helps keeps your responsibility level up, and your sense of value, the sense of being accountable. You stay because there’s a good chance you may well be the one who should get off your high opinion of yourself and help the new person. You stay part of a group because it’s great networking, because passion projects that can themselves alleviate The Bitterness tend to emanate from those groups. And no matter how swell an actor you’ve become via a class or group, you always need the gym. Just my opinion.
4. Break a sweat from physical activity of some sort at least 2-3 times a week.
5. Keep 1-4 in place even when successful as an actor. For those who hit some sense of the jackpot, I’ve witnessed they will abandon some (or all) of the policies that got them there, and then the series is cancelled, the movie wraps, the play closes – and they’re out in the wilderness, where The Bitterness lurks and bites them hard just when they thought they’d moved past it.
One has to watch for that jaded bitterness that can take hold like devil grass. I like mowing my own lawn (with a manual mower at that – boy do the jaws drop from passersby), and few months after moving in to our home, I noticed this damned weed growing like a horizontal vine over large chunks of the lawn. And once I developed the eye for it, I could see the slight color differential between the weed and the grass, kneel down to pull it up, and marvel at how three feet or more of this stuff would come off the lawn when I hadn’t noticed it before, and under it the grass having suffered for lack of sunlight. And thus a metaphor for The Bitterness that creeps up and takes over many actors in the 30-something range. Develop a feel for it – the discoloration, the jaded commentary, the lessening tolerance, the cynicism, the odd sense of superiority, the nodding, knowing apathetic justifications for no action. If you’re worried about money, do something about it. If you’re feeling the career blahs, do something about it (including projects of your own origination). If you think you’re so awesome, then share some of that with people who might need a dose themselves. Think your job-job sucks? It’s an honor to work, so be the best at whatever you do. If you feel the need to excel at something else and consider this in total opposition to the continued pursuit of an acting career, consider the idea that there is no shame in developing an idea for business, or a love of books, or cooking, or what-have-you and doing that concurrent with a diligent pursuit of acting. Because the thing about acting is that you just never know, do you? What phone call may come, what opportunity arises that leads to a chunk of blessed cash and a sense that it is possible after all. You have to stay in the game, and keep the weeds off the lawn.