“Be so good they can’t ignore you.”
Rarely is advice heeded. Truth be told, it’s not meant to be as we all must make our own way and in this business it’s no different. That being said, I remember reading Steve Martin’s memoir “Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life” which was released in 2007 (I read it in 2010). By that time I had already been through the ringer in this business and life. The message he had to give to other artists “Be so good they can’t ignore you.” That’s it, that’s all it was, it was that simple and nothing that sunk in because of the enormous nugget of truth in that tiny sentence.
Surely there has to be more, right?
I moved to LA in 1991 at twenty-two years old full of piss and vinegar and ready to take on the world and boy I did. Back in the 90s one could make a small fortune as an actor (or any other artist). Roles were abundant and ripe for the picking and the money rolled in. I remember I worked eight hours on a pizza hut commercial; my check, eight thousand dollars. Essentially I made a thousand dollars an hour and in the 90s that was bank. The goal (much like now) was “Where do I find an agent?” and “How do I get my foot in the door.” I was part of a group of actors who had set up an “agency” that did not exist except for on paper. It was run out of this one woman’s garage and we all took turns submitting each other for roles, called agents and casting directors (if need be), but mostly took their calls as the agency's assistants to book actors for jobs. This worked and it worked well for a while (until you realize you can’t go out for anything too big less the secret agency not being real be discovered).
Having come from a strong theater background with some exceptional teachers, it wasn’t long before I found and was lucky enough to study at the Stella Adler studio with Stella Adler before she died. There I was doing everything I was supposed to do. It was a step-by-step “How to make it in Hollywood” right down to the “right” look: waif-like girl-next-door with the required long hair and hint of cuteness, trained to be whatever role anyone wanted me to be. You wanted the girlfriend, done! How about the coquettish ingenue, boom! Drug addicted prostitute, oh, I could play a mess like nobody’s business. But what I didn’t have was an original thought. Don’t get me wrong, I did, but that was not where my head was at and I wasn’t even aware of it. In truth what I had was desperation and that’s a stink you can’t wash off. Did I know it at the time? Yes.
And that, my friends, is where I ought to have looked around and said “Enough.”
This business is like an exceptional lover who turns their back on you out of boredom only to have you fiend like a junkie for that first hit; this is not anything that is sustainable. We give away a great deal of power in the pursuit of our dreams because much of the time is spent chasing what is never meant to be caught, approval (this ultimately comes from you about you). And this is exactly the moment one needs to turn inward and begin the pursuit of becoming the best you can be at what you want to do, what floats your boat; that thing you love the most.
I am not saying stop trying. I am not saying give up the hustle or networking or going out for auditions, but what I am saying is that by putting yourself and your talents first you can have a career that lasts in this fickle business that is over in the blink of an eye: one day you’re in your 20s and then next you wake up to an age never considered.
Here is the thing, whether you know it or not you are already stereotyped: action hero, sidekick, queen, prince, mom, dad (oh, rest assured, in this business the minute you hit 30 is when the parental roles start flying in, actually, sooner), loser, winner, character actor, lead, supporting. Wanna know how many people break their “labeling,” almost none, there are a couple, but very few. Wanna know what you can do about it? EVERYTHING. I mean it. We are in one of the single most exceptional entrepreneurial times in history. It’s time you make your career your own. Let’s say your dream is to be a disc jockey, pardon me, a DJ (never mind me as I just dated myself), but you cannot get a job to save your life. You’ve got Youtube, start your own station, dedicate time every day to playing music. You can show your face or you can have a blank screen where people are only listening to your voice and record choices. If you have never been cast in anything other than a supporting role, now is your chance to work those chops. Write your own lead. What, you aren’t a writer? Well then find someone who is. You don’t need an HD500 camera, you do not need a “Go fund me page,” what you need is an idea and your phone. That’s it, pretty basic stuff. I am not saying it’s going to be a walk in the park, you will have to put in the work, but remember nothing says you have to make a full-length feature or 30 minutes tv show, these are the days of Vine (RIP) and mini-movies that are one minute long or less (you can do a whole lot in sixty seconds). Start small, don’t overwhelm yourself and while you are hustling for those auditions, waiting for someone to pick you, know that you have picked yourself.
I am not telling you anything new and I am not telling you something you don’t already know, but what I am telling you is to do it. And it doesn’t matter if it sucks. No, I am being serious, be okay with getting it out there (whatever “it” is), you will get better, you will find your way, and soon you will “be so good they can’t ignore you.”