The Downtime When You’re an Actor04.23.19
When I moved to L.A., my old acting teacher kindly introduced me to a former student of his, Chris Carmack. Chris had already done The O.C., some movies, and largely seemed to be getting a one-off spot on a TV show here and there.
Chris, who couldn’t have been been more gracious with his time, said something that really stuck in my mind. He had said (and I’m paraphrasing here from memory) that one of the problems with being an actor was all the downtime that you have. That he had had so much downtime, that at one point (I think), he decided he wanted to learn guitar, and subsequently got so good that he was now playing in a band.
I thought this was astounding! As an actor (and an established one at that; a year or two later, I was talking with a casting director who had called him in for a project and was so taken with him from The O.C. that she took a selfie with him after his audition) — he had so much time that he could get good enough at an entirely new skill that he was playing in public. Wow.
I feel like I now know exactly what he was referring to.
This obviously varies from actor to actor — but I suspect there are at least some broad generalizations. When one is starting out, there are probably a group of auditions that one can get. I mean, without any resume, I pretty consistently got auditions for NYU and Columbia student films. Just straight self-submissions, no agent/manager. There was also the occasional heard it from a friend or a friend of a friend. But it’s certainly enough to keep someone new to an industry going.
Then there’s the transition to trying to get more legit auditions (TV/film/theater/now digital) — and I think it’s not uncommon at that point, even with representation, to have somewhat of a fallow period. But that varies. When you’re studying somewhere — especially with younger actors, there will be plenty of actors who are getting more auditions than one can reasonably handle. I’ve gotten that on occasion, but that hasn’t been par for the course.
I keep track of all my auditions — just in a spreadsheet. Nothing fancy. Just lets me know who/what I’ve been in for, etc. The sheer number of auditions has certainly gone up over time — the first few years in L.A. was close to zero (1-2 auditions/year), then there was a blip up (10 auditions), then the year I started booking work was a large blip up (36 auditions), and then every year since then has been pretty steady at a high, but not crazy rate (40-60 auditions/year). (This does not include commercials but otherwise includes TV/film/a solid digital project/etc.)
This seems to be on the higher end, at least anecdotally, of number of auditions among my actor friends — but it’s hard to know. I certainly have heard many stories of actors who are like, “I get 3 auditions per day during pilot season!” or “I was shooting on set and I had to keep putting myself on tape for projects!” Do those actors get 100+ auditions/year? I know actors repped at big 4 agencies or a Gersh/Innovative or with a big management firm and none of them seem to go out THAT much but someone must be. There’s also a big difference between going out 3x/day and going out once, 3x in a day. 3x/day — to me — is like, I don’t know, let’s say 12x in a week, and during pilot “season” — 4 or 5 weeks where that’s the case? So said actor went out 50 or 60x that “season”? I personally don’t know this person and no one I can recall in my acting classes ever went out that much, but they’re probably out there.
There are a few times during the year when it’s “dead” — when it seems everyone isn’t going out. The big one for me is December — typically past mid-December, but December is definitely lighter. April (this month) is probably the other month. It’s not empty, usually there’s 1 or 2 things that come in — but there often are large stretches when there’s nothing.
But I think downtime is hard for an actor. It certainly can be for me. I’ve typically filled the time with projects — writing, a couple web series, a doc, etc. Sometimes it’s training — could be acting or acting adjacent (e.g. improv) or something totally unrelated (e.g. learning an instrument).
I’m sure there are plenty of people who are like, “That sounds amazing! You have all this free time to pursue all these different things!” No doubt and I’ve loved the things I’ve learned and the time I’ve had to work on these different projects. The issue — and it’s not even that you’re like, “Oh I have to be acting.” or “How come I’m not moving forward in my career?” though there is a little of each of that — I think it’s almost that you just think you’re in some sort of holding pattern. Which you’re not — but I think that’s when I try and tell myself to both enjoy that time and also the freedom to pursue other things.
One of the best things about being an actor is at any point something great can happen. Just the act of getting a great audition — a terrific show you watch or a casting office whose work you respect. It’s like — wow, what a shot in the arm. But the flip side to that, is there’s no consistency. It’s not like — ok, every week, once a week, you’ll get one of these. It’s totally random. I’m sure it’s some statistical distribution (who knows? Maybe it’s the poisson distribution that also maps out when buses will arrive and the bombing pattern of London during WWII.)
I used to be an athlete in high school (cross country). I trained really hard (probably 40-50 miles/week) but there were broadly things you could do. I still train at basketball even though I don’t play that much. But there’s always things you can do. Shooting drills, dribbling drills. Watching film. Don’t get me wrong, you can do similar, maybe not the same, but similar things, acting-wise. But I think that’s like — being in a league and trying to get to a league. Like I have a friend who at one point was trying to get to the NFL. He played college football but was an offensive lineman, and wanted to convert to tight end. But now he was out of the system. But he had prototypical size, could block, and could catch a little. He was working his butt off but he wasn’t in the football system, he wasn’t like, a junior at Iowa — he was 26 and out of whatever non-NFL leagues there were. So mentally, it takes more when you feel like you’re outside of everything than, frankly, it’s like a lunch pail type mentality because you’re playing for Duke. (He ended up giving up on this dream but did eventually get far enough to be considered by multiple NFL teams for their practice squads.)
But that’s the life of an actor if you’re not on a show or like, Josh Brolin. I have friends who have 50+ credits and it seems to be exactly the same way for them. You get a few days here. Maybe a few months even. Then it’s nothing. But hey, I used to have a very consistent job. Monday to Friday. Sometimes half a day on a weekend (or more). I didn’t like it!
The funny thing about the Chris Carmack story is I remember when he told me about the guitar playing — it wasn’t that I thought it was a waste of time, but I was just so struck — here was this really well established actor, someone who worked and at one point worked quite a bit, and he was like, doing something else. Well years later he booked “Nashville” and did 109 episodes of that show — clearly the guitar playing came in handy :)