Rejection and Pliability04.20.19
"'When you’re insecure in one, you lean on the other one that’s doing better at that time,” filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan said recently on my podcast, WorkLife. “Pliability is the definition of strength.'" [link]
When I first moved to L.A., wanting to be an actor, I leaned pretty heavily on this. I was living in Brentwood at the time, was a particularly industrious individual who wanted to keep moving forward, and the thing that I remember most clearly was being in my apartment and hearing the sound of nothing. No phone calls. Nothing. I had an agent at the time, but auditions were few and far between.
So I kept myself busy with other things. I studied magic (literally became a member of the Magic Castle). I made a documentary. I advised startups. I said yes to a lot of things, most of which had nothing to do with acting. They weren’t always completely unrelated — like studying and performing magic was oddly somewhat useful just purely as a performance art and I think almost any performance art helps one’s acting.
But when I felt bad about where I was in my acting career, I could lean on one of these other areas where I might be doing better. Where I had some work I had to do or where someone was giving me positive feedback.
That’s why when I read this M. Night quote, affirmed by Adam Grant — I immediately flashed back… and thought how this was wrong. Now let me be clear, I think people should spend their time however they want to. Maybe they want to do all these things — I sure enjoyed many of these ancillary pursuits and occasionally do some of them now. But at the core of it, I wanted to be an ACTOR and I realized that spending time on these other things pulled me away from something that was staring me in the face — I wanted to be an actor and I was failing. I didn’t know why I was failing, but I was.
The facts were clear, I was barely auditioning, and when I was auditioning, I wasn’t getting jobs. I had a negligible starting resume — not zero, but only of the type where a casting office might give a flier for a small co-star.
By doing other things — and sometimes doing them well — I had distracted myself from that core fact. Now some of those other things included writing and starring in my own web series “The Consultants”. This web series actually did pretty well! We were a finalist in a Producers Guild of America competition and, years later, a manager at one of the big management firms literally told me that if he had met me earlier, he thinks he could’ve gotten me a job writing on “The Office” with that web series. (Who knows if that was true or not, but I do know one thing, he absolutely couldn’t have gotten me a job writing on “The Office” if I had nothing :) )
Also, as we know, there are many examples of people going from A to C by making their own content — it used to be feature films like Rocky and Swingers and Good Will Hunting, but I know lots of examples where a web series catapulted someone. There’s Insecure and High Maintenance but also even among my friends, I know friends who have gotten development deals, signed by big agencies, even a TV show, or laid the foundation for a working acting career via a web series.
But I did that and I didn’t have a working acting career. I had a little more though — in particular, I had footage for my reel which was helpful.
But still no frequency of auditions. So the next stage was getting into class (Lesly Kahn via a manager recommendation) and also improving the way I was marketing myself (I’ve sent out postcards for years which have been effective for me.)
Maybe I’ll write more about both in the future, but the core of Lesly Kahn basically got me to a place where I could book jobs in the industry — and I booked my first paying job as an actor while studying there which turned out to be a huge mini-break; getting cast in Dean Fleischer-Camp and Jenny Slate’s “Catherine”. The reason why it was huge was in addition to being a terrific project and great experience, is that a lot of comedy people loved it and I immediately got additional STRAIGHT OFFERS — Adult Swim, Funny or Die, and later some additional digital projects. Suddenly I had a decent resume. I got “The Newsroom” not long after that. There’s no way I get called into “The Newsroom” without those other credits. I got called into a bunch of new offices too and got seen for some big projects (including a request for a tape for what later became “Ant-Man”).
Now, I wish I could say it was a rocket trajectory from there, which it obviously wasn’t — but it has been a steady increase in auditions, offices that know my work, and projects that could be another decent break.
But I do think one of the plus sides of looking back at setbacks and not necessarily seeing what else in my life I can do that I enjoy (though again, totally fine to do it) — there always is a little bit of a voice where I wonder where I can improve or level up a little bit. Over the years that’s included improv or stand up or other acting classes / workshops or even other ancillary training. I do other stuff that’s similar, but I remember at Lesly Kahn, Lesly was super supportive of actors who threw themselves into yoga, because as you can imagine, a lot of actors could benefit from just slowing down a bit, getting centered, and being able to take that into the audition room. But I think it sometimes requires a little wandering in the failure before one is open to doing something like that (or even searches things like that out). But the wandering is part of that process and staying constantly busy prevents that wandering.
I’m not going to sugar coat this though — that type of mentality is exhausting. And I think that’s the balance — confronting the exact particulars of one’s situation and finding out how to improve it while keeping yourself in a mentally positive place enough to keep going. In some ways, probably no different from when people take a vacation — you’re going to get back to the grind eventually, but it’s hard to always be grinding.