When Is It OK to Turn Down a Role?

Photo Source: Jesse Balgley

Photo Source: Jesse Balgley

There’s a pressure on actors to accept every piece of work offered to them, particularly when they’re just starting out. All work is viewed as a “résumé builder” and an opportunity for much-needed experience. However, just as you wouldn’t go out on a date with every single person that asked you, you should exhibit a certain level of particularity when it comes to the acting jobs you accept.

While I discuss this topic at length in the article “Permission to Say No,” a good rule of thumb is whether the job causes more damage than potential good: If the job could damage your brand or your soul, don’t accept it. For example, if it would chip away at your soul to play a topless waitress in an edgy indie that might play at major festivals, don’t do it. You’re going to have to live with your soul for a long time. Don’t let the potential promise of festivals and the pressure to be “brave” as an actor push you past what your gut and spirit say you’re truly not comfortable with and which violate your brand.

This article was originally posted on Backstage

Be a Blank Canvas

Photo Source: Shutterstock

Photo Source: Shutterstock

In life, you truly don’t know what the person you’re talking to is going to say or do. You can achieve this dynamic on stage or on screen as well. Some actors protest and say that the script prevents that sense of wonder and spontaneity, but I disagree. If you really are in the moment, emotionally full but allowing yourself to be a blank canvas which responds truthfully to what’s happening before you, you really will respond in an organic manner as if you don’t know what you’re partner is going to say or do.  

This article was originally posted on Backstage

How To Keep Your Acting 'Real'

I once overheard an indie film director confess that when he’s casting for a role, he’s looking for “someone to save my ass.” Judging from everything I know about casting and the industry, this is definitely true. At the same time, one of the most effective things you can do as an actor is in an alternate arena: Be so real that your partner, audience, casting director, director, producer, etc., can't tell whether you're acting or really talking as yourself. Cultivating such a level of “realness” is so scary-awesome, as it creates a seamless performance and it gives the appearance that you are speaking with no trace of acting. This is one of the greatest gifts that you can give to the entire production, as it causes the directors, writers, and producers to look at you with a sense of wonder and gives your performance a mild tinge of danger.  

As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, the difference between “good” and “great” acting is the actor who starts every scene lit up and emotionally full, instead of empty and having to warm up as they go. This creates a strong platform from whichto take the jump into the red mist and be the actor who acts in a way that seems so natural it doesn’t reek of the stench of acting technique or preparation. A great example of this is the opening scene of the Oscar-winning film “Birdman.” The film begins with a group of actors sitting around a table on a stage, seemingly having a discussion. As the conversation progresses and the camera moves, we realize they’re actually having a table read and acting dialogue from a play. This example so vividly demonstrates the elegance and ease that truly seamless acting can present: It can look startlingly real.   

Blank Canvas
After all preparation and seeds of character have been planted inside the actor and that initial first-moment emotional “light up” has been sparked, the bravest “act” an actor can do is to be a “blank canvas” and exist moment-by-moment, just like life! 

In life, you truly don’t know what the person you’re talking to is going to say or do. You can achieve this dynamic on stage or on screen as well. Some actors protest and say that the script prevents that sense of wonder and spontaneity, but I disagree. If you really are in the moment, emotionally full but allowing yourself to be a blank canvas which responds truthfully to what’s happening before you, you really will respond in an organic manner as if you don’t know what you’re partner is going to say or do. As Joaquin Phoenix explained to the journalist Elvis Mitchell in an article for Interview Magazine, he wants his experiences onscreen to feel so real (and presumably uncertain), that they feel like life. “Without fail, if I ever go onto a scene and say, ‘I’ve fucking got it,’ then it’s the worst thing in the world. I think you’re just looking for life… I don’t want to nail it. I want to go into the courtroom and feel like I might lose the case. I want it to be scary—and it still is.” This quote aptly summarizes how, by allowing yourself to live moment by moment in the scene, you can create a combined sense of fear, uncertainty, and the unknown—all of which are so captivating to watch.

Exercise: Keeping It Real
Call a friend, family member, or acquaintance and let them know you’re going to play a little game as you have the phone conversation. The game is that you’re going to interject lines of dialogue into the conversation but you’re not going to tell them when you’re doing it. The challenge is to see if the person on the other line can tell when you’re reading the text and when you’re really speaking to them. The person you’re talking to only has to engage in the conversation with you, and call bullshit when they see it, or if something seems like interjected dialogue (from your script or play) or simply inauthentic. I guarantee this session will make you more aware of when you’re being real and fully engaged with emotional fullness and when you’re not. 

This article was originally posted on Backstage



Permission To Not Be Perfect


How many times have you left an audition room wondering if you “did it right” or if you were “what they were looking for.” Questions like these are so defeating because they imply that there is some sort of perfect answer, and it implies that you, the actor, are trying to zero in on some form of correctness or some sort of zone that is free of flaws and error. This is a problem in more ways than one. First of all, it’s entirely futile as we’re talking about art and art is always subjective. That Jackson Pollack is, after all, a masterpiece to the guy sitting next to you, and a goddamn mess to me.    

The real danger with maintaining focus on some fanciful notion of perfection is that it can subvert the crucial journey of trying (and failing) requisite for artistic development. “The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried,” says cartoonist Stephen McCranie. In fact, I would argue that the master has failed more times than the beginner has even fathomed trying. Perfectionists are named as such because they do not take action—they find any and all excuses not to do something. Have you heard these? “I’d put myself on tape for that role I’m perfect for, but I have to lose 10 pounds first.” “The production company likes my script and is ready to purchase it, but it’s not where I want it to be yet.” “The audition is tomorrow and I don’t have enough time to memorize the lines so I probably shouldn’t go,” and so on.

Giving yourself the permission to not be perfect means you’re giving yourself permission to take a big jump and perhaps sail over to the other side of the cliff—or of course, plummet to the ravine below. This is the name of the game that you signed up for. Big risk, big reward. You may fail, and that’s part of life, but if you’re going to fail (and you are to some extent), you may as well do it on your terms with your head held high and making an impression.

You’re exactly who you are at this moment. You’ll either get cast or you won’t. But when you don’t take action (if that action is to pick up the phone, go to the audition, or sign on the dotted line), you’re protecting yourself from both potential failure and success. “You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take,” is a famous Michael Jordan quote. I help and empower all of my clients to launch their careers by competing for every role they’re right for—to not let a single role slip away.

Protecting yourself from taking action in the name of perfection or some related excuse also prevents you from engaging in the absolutely requisite work of forging a career. Every TV or film script you read and think is amazing is a 10th draft. Every performance you are blown away by is either a 10th take, a take after 10-plus years of intense training and experience, or several takes finagled into one by the editor with more experience than every actor in the project combined. This is a collaborative process brought to you by people who have been knocked on their asses for a period of years and the reason they’re able to call themselves professional actors, comedians, or musicians is because they kept getting back up. Maybe some bitching, moaning, and whining were included in the process as well, as after all, they’re human, but the bottom line is their career goals were more important to them than pasting on some oversimplified excuse that shielded them from having to take risks. 

Nobody’s perfect; no project is perfect. Everyone is part of the process from craft services to the EP, and everyone is working together to make a phenomenal project. All you can do is jump and see what happens. Don’t wait. How old will you be by the time you get the courage to tenaciously pursue your dream role or create your own Web series or pitch yourself for a role you’re right for? The same age you’d be if you never did.

Any actor I know who has a career I envy says, “I just never left.” Sometimes the only thing you can do when you’re at the end of your rope is to just keep hanging on. 

This article was originally posted on Backstage


Permission To Say No

You’ve all heard it enough: This business is competitive. You’re rejected by people who matter on a daily basis. 

This however, does not mean that you have to accept every single job you’re offered. This can seem extremely counter-intuitive, particularly if you’re newer to the business or if you’ve gone a long time between jobs. 

Making the decision of whether or not to do that tenuously written short film, or to act in that derivative web series, or to engage in a shoddily produced summer production of “The Taming of the Shrew” isn’t just about damaging your brand or your reputation. Those things matter of course, and should be thought about. By saying yes to a project that…hell, you just don’t feel good about, allows you to set the bar lower for yourself and for what you’ll accept professionally. 

In the summertime, actors often find themselves saying yes to a project that they wouldn’t normally accept, because it’s slow and there’s this mythology that truly committed actors will act in anything they’re given a chance to be in—particularly if their résumé is light. Truly committed actors will act at any given chance by virtue of their deep love of the craft, right? 


Truly committed actors have taken the time to foster a realistic understanding of the business and they get that there’s a lot of crapola produced, a lot of stereotyped roles written, a lot of fear-motivated productions, and a lot of people scrambling around in the dark. 

Truly committed actors honor their commitment to acting and have the good sense that it could be extremely damaging to their love of acting, their love of the craft, to align themselves with such people. Acting is fun. The fun starts when you work on projects that you find fun, not when you sign on to projects that suck the joy of this career choice from you. 

Plenty of naysayers of course do abound, saying things like, “I’m not at a point in my career where I have the luxury of saying no.”

My response to that is: What if you are?

By saying no you propel yourself to the career you want now. You’re all probably familiar with the expression of God shutting doors and opening windows. By shutting that door yourself, you’re now forced to open a window, even if it means finding a damn axe and breaking through a wall.

If your thought process is “It’s slow (or I haven’t booked in over a year), I should just accept this role (that I don’t like or connect to) in this production (that I don’t like or have faith in) because I’m an actor and I need to act,” then you should have the courage to turn it down and go create an opportunity for yourself. This could mean writing a part for yourself, producing something you do care about, or reaching out to casting offices that you have relationships with—or any of the proactive endeavors that keep actors busy and their sense of personal integrity intact.  

From a more logical standpoint, if you don’t connect to a role when reading a script, chances are, you won’t connect to it in the room, either, or perhaps even on set when it matters. You will have spent your time and production’s time on the audition when neither was necessary.

Your representation may fight you on your choices to turn down an audition. They are working day in and day out to get you in any room. But don’t be afraid to say no. If you are uncomfortable auditioning for a prank show because you think they’re mean, try to fathom how violated your personal values would feel to actually be a paid performer on a prank show—where being mean would be a requirement. Just say no. If you don’t identify with science fiction and aliens, just say no.

 A role that is better for you will definitely come along, and you won’t have to force yourself to start from square one reading about science fiction worlds and rules. I promise you there are actors who already know and love everything sci-fi. Let them have that role. Yours is just down the road if you wait a bit.

“No” is just information. Think of it as equal to “yes,” which is just information, too. When someone else books a role you auditioned for, it’s not a “no” for you, it’s a “not yet.” Or a “not this one, but another one.” Same if you say no to a project. “Not this project, but another one that I’m more passionate about.”  

Still, in this business, you’ll hear the expression “work is work”—an expression that I like to think of as an excuse for not having the courage to have the career you really want. 

“Work is work” orbits around the notion that acting is a tough career choice. There aren’t enough jobs to go around, so why would anyone turn down work?

Even when you’re a nobody in this business, you still need to give careful consideration to the project that you attach your name to, the roles you agree to play, and the ways that you allow yourself to be portrayed. 

As Arthur Miller reminded us in “The Crucible,” as John Proctor: “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life!”

This article was originally posted on Backstage


Are You Beautiful Enough For This Business?

I recently coached a very talented client for a series regular role on a major cable drama pilot. This actor has a considerable amount of top tier film and TV credits and is, by all mainstream standards, extremely beautiful.

I called the casting director—a major casting office—for feedback a few days after her audition. When I got the casting director on the phone she said, “Oh yes, I remember her, she was excellent. Let me check my session notes. Oh here it is, yes, not beautiful enough.”

The Subjective Nature of Beauty
Suffice it to say, I am a man of great self-restraint. As you can imagine, there was a part of me that suddenly morphed into this client’s mother and wanted to shrilly bark at this casting director that my client looked like a pageant winner and a stand-in for Gwyneth Paltrow, and how dare she suggest anything to the contrary. But I thanked the office for the (candid) feedback and amicably ended the call. 

The conversation definitely brought to light an issue that riddles the city of Los Angeles like a plague. This is a city that contains some of the best looking people in the nation, and few actors ever feel they’re beautiful enough (men included). There’s a good reason for this: It’s a part of the culture here, more so than in New York, I assure you. This is the culture that welcomes plastic surgery with open arms, where I’ve heard agents say, “I’ll represent you, just get your nose fixed,” where friends tell other friends that “a boob job would just even out your proportions.” A place where my male students won’t touch the tortilla chips at our bar nights because they’re on a low carb diet, because their reps said they have to lose weight and get a six-pack before they submit them for leading man roles.

Here’s the thing: In Los Angeles in this business, there’s no shortage of people to remind you where you stand in the looks department—almost anyone here in a mild position of power is eager and willing to tell you. If you’re not a 10, boy, you’ll find that out fast. But even the clients that are 10’s are still under pressure to not lose or screw up what they’ve got, and to get subtle enhancements (injections, mild surgeries) to enhance their divine genetic code. Essentially, no one in Los Angeles is free from scrutiny and insecurity—not even those we consider luckiest. 

Other actors help reinforce this culture of insecurity by making each other feel insecure, by applauding each move for cheek implants, each dinner of Swedish fish and celery, and each attempt to emulate the appearance of the model or celebrity of the day. When in reality, actors need to be embracing the weird and asymmetrical stuff that makes them distinct. 

You’re Not a 10: Use It to Your Professional Advantage
Look, the remainder of this article is not going to be some attempt to convince you to love yourself for who you are, along with your crooked teeth and acne. I’m not a self-help guru (and common sense should nudge you in that direction anyway). Nor do I have the energy to try to convince anyone that they need to love the things that drive them crazy in the mirror. Nor will the rest of this article tell you to pack it up and move to Iowa where those mid-America folks will definitely consider you a perfect 10 (if only it were that easy…). 

Rather, I’m here to tell you that it’s time to leverage the lack of perfection in your appearance to your advantage. 

There’s been a revolution in the last 10 years that indicates we are more willing to accept the interesting face. It’s almost as though the media is loosening up: Just as we’ve shrugged off the notion that the perfect TV family has to have two white parents and a smiley, fresh-faced set of kids (one of each gender, of course), we’ve also shrugged off the idea that a leading man/leading lady has to look like they stepped from the pages of the A&F Quarterly.   

Now, more than ever before, people are willing to agree that beauty is subjective. Just look at Lena Dunham, Zooey Deschannel, and Jenny Slate—all female actors who have been told repeatedly (and continue to be told) that they don’t meet the traditional benchmarks of beauty. 

Sure, about half the agents, managers, and acting coaches in Los Angeles still haven’t caught up, but it’s your job as actors to be aware of that. It’s your job to showcase your singularity and individuality during your next headshot session—and not get made up and photographed so you represent some glamour boy/girl.

One of my trademarks as a coach is that I help my clients use their unique personalities to find their acting singularity—the exclusive combination of attitudes and behaviors that make them a complete original. This process involves discarding and torching any impossible or arbitrary beauty ideal. Success as an actor isn’t going to happen if you try to imitate others. So now is the time to showcase a personality and aesthetic people have never experienced before—yours. 

Who remembers the first time they had a Frappuccino? I remember when I had one for the first time. In New York, in 1996, and I thought, Hot damn, that’s pretty good; I’ve never had a coffee drink quite like this. Interesting, provocative, and daringly different actors like Jenny Slate, Zooey Deschanel, Lena Dunham, Seth Green, and Jonah Hill all figured that out: They took everything about them and turned it into a “hot damn that’s different” selling point.

This article was originally posted on Backstage