Why You Must Break The Rules To Win

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The achievement of success in the entertainment industry continues to have a mysterious quality to it. Some actors find success through years of hard work, slow and steady progress, and then they land one part (the fabled “big break”) that kicks all the doors open for them. Other actors land that big break much faster, leaving their cohorts behind in amazement. Others are shepherded into the industry by an already successful friend or relative, allowing them to jump past the hurdles of auditions for costars and commercials. And still, others begin as children, building a career so that by the time they reach adulthood, they can contend for the top parts and command salaries to match. Some have more inexplicable paths to success, such as a successful music or dance career, or by being a viral video creator, etc.

Given there are so many pathways to success, people in the industry try to create “rules” or guidelines to how one forges a lasting career. This is an attempt to find patterns in what can sometimes resemble chaos. Sure, actors still need to show up prepared and polite. However, the shifts the entertainment field has taken demonstrate that actors need to unthink many of the things they have been told. A lot of this is fear-based advice that deserves to be thrown away.  

Hence, all the ‘rules’ that actors have been brow-beaten with—you need an agent to pitch for you on your behalf, pleasing casting directors, or the best acting coaches are a little mean—are often backwards and just plain wrong. Below are the main reasons it is in your best interest to not follow the many rules dictated to actors.  

1.  There are no rules when you’re great.

It’s not enough to be “good,” you must be “great” to compete at the Olympics level of this industry. Remember, casting and production are looking for great people to hire. If you are truly great and are at the top of your game, then you should have the confidence to pick up the phone on your own behalf. The ability to use the phone properly separates the doers from the dreamers in this industry. 

Likewise, you should have the bravery to make the opposite choice of “gleeful confidence” in the audition room when the character description and stage directions decree “character X must be anxious and awkward” at the start of the scene. Great people can take those kinds of risks because their talent supports them. Many actors make the mistake of thinking that character breakdown and stage directions are rigid acting directions that must be obeyed. Those ‘directions’ on the page and character description (often written by casting or “Breakdown Services”) are simply notes to help you better understand the world and style of the piece. They may also be part of a writer’s pitch to producers to help paint a visual picture when selling a script.

2.  Everybody is scared.

Not just actors: producers, writers, directors, casting directors are all afraid that they may not keep their jobs or work again. This is why actors get snapped at and why the session runners of auditions often look so pained. Breaking the rules with confidence can give you the air of an elite surgeon that is able to saw through the skull, separate the halves of the cranial cavity, remove the tumor—and save a life. Essentially, your self-possessed presence can take the work off someone else’s plate by being the solution to a problem. 

3.  It doesn’t get easier, you just get braver.

Success in this industry goes to the brave. The bravery to pick up a phone and build a game-changing relationship with a major producer, writer or director. These acts of bravery might never feel enjoyable to you. But if you have the discipline to do them consistently over time, they will lose their intimidating quality. Instead, picking up the phone to pitch yourself for a role will feel as daunting as doing a load of laundry.

You will not catch fire by picking up the phone. Devoting your life to this work has required a certain level of bravery from you. Support that bravery with more bravery and make choices that stand out, ignoring the urge to fit in, please, and obey. 

4. A variety of people cast actors.

Obviously, casting directors do this to an extent by culling the herd, but producers, writers, and showrunners make and approve all final casting decisions. Too many actors have been taught that CDs jingle the keys to the kingdom when that is far from the truth. A change that has occurred in the last couple of years is that an incredible amount of major feature film and TV roles have been cast miles before they ever arrived at a casting office. There’s a right way and a wrong way to build game-changing relationships with major production teams to compete for these premium roles long before they ever go to casting. In other words, by the time it goes to casting, it’s too late to meaningfully compete for a role if you don’t have pre-existing relationships with the production team beforehand. A strong post-audition follow-up game is also critical.

The onslaught of unsolicited “advice” from other actors and industry professionals is not going anywhere. It is your responsibility to check each guideline against your gut. Determine if it is fear-based, limiting, antiquated, or based on assumptions. If it hits any of those red flags, discard it. Each day more actors carve uncharted paths to major success for themselves. They launch their careers using tools, opportunities, and innovation that previous generations never had.  

Following the rules limits the scope of your future. When your acting is truly great, stop waiting for breadcrumbs and handouts from others. Give yourself permission to bravely jump into the red mist.

This article was originally posted on Backstage.