When I’m working with an actor in therapy I always inquire about her origin story. “Tell me about when you first discovered acting.” And then, “What brought you here to Hollywood?”
If the person says something like “because I like seeing the world from different perspectives, putting myself in somebody else’s shoes,” I (gently) call bullshit.
Or, not complete bullshit. Acting, or “putting oneself in another’s shoes,” is a brilliant and inspirational endeavor and requires deep empathy and intelligence on the part of the actor. Of course, that’s an undeniable, wonderful aspect of acting!
It’s just not the whole story. And in my clinical opinion, it’s not the part of the story that holds the most sway over how you feel here.
Because, I know you. And I know that acting, while insanely rewarding, is also really, really hard. I know that the (albeit admirable) act of “putting oneself in other’s shoes” is not enough. Not enough to get you through the lonely moments, the late night shifts at the restaurant, the living with 3 other people in a Hollywood apartment, the rejection, the casting office comparison game, the callback right when you take a vacation, the ups and downs, broken promises and dashed hopes. Not enough to combat the eating restrictions, the never-ending trips to L.A. Fitness, the perpetual bills for acting classes and head shots, the raised eyebrows and ceaseless questions at Thanksgiving (they mean well), the watching your high school nemesis guest star on CSI.
It just isn’t.
So I challenge this initial answer. Because it’s important to figure out the deeper motivation—what brought you here, truly and wholly. The drive to act is an integral part of your story, and it was strong enough to get you here to Hollywood—but you’re gonna need something else to STAY…and to thrive.
What am I really looking for, when I ask this question? I want to know what it meant to you, when you found performance. Why was it so quick, so keenly PERFECT, familiar? Why was it almost like falling in love?
Meet Jeremy*. Jeremy was raised in a family where life was very chaotic. Several siblings. Not quite enough money. Distracted parenting. You get the idea. Well, like all children, Jeremy needed attention, love, and support. And, actually, kids are incredibly creative when it comes to figuring out how to get that, despite whatever circumstances in which they find themselves. Jeremy’s particular efforts had a comedic slant. He started making jokes. Being funny. Telling stories. Life of the party. And guess what? His previously preoccupied parents started to look his way. To enjoy him, to choose him. He had obtained that feeling of being wanted. Then, after such success, he went to school and did the same thing. He became the charming class clown. He was absolutely hysterical, and studied comedy with a vengeance, became an expert on the subject. And sadly, during the course of his life, while he honed this skill—each year becoming more and more talented, he also came to believe that being funny is the reason that anyone wanted him around. He figured, what else could he do but become a comedian? So, he headed to Hollywood. Then, at a casting for “Always Sunny,” an agent said he didn’t think he was all that funny (despite a fantastic audition), and Jeremy was devastated.
Life doesn’t have to be rough to turn to performance, however. Jackie, an actress, comes from a family where high achievement is very important. She has kind parents who motivated her very much, but at a very young age, she came to understand that, in order to fit in with her ether-reaching siblings, she was going to have to be extraordinary. No one else in the family was artistically inclined, so when she discovered she could sing and act—and land all the leads in her school productions, she found her superlative place. However, when she moved to Hollywood, to her surprise and dismay, she realized that everyone had been the best in middle and high school. And now, she is confused as to who she is.
There are as many of these stories as there are actors in Hollywood, varied and diverse, ranging from the most inspiring, positive narratives to the most heart-wrenching.
Talent is so deep-seated, so intimate. You see how it’s important to know how you fit in to it? It’s often far more personal than a simple enjoyment of the craft. Because, along with a career in comedy, Jeremy is also pursuing being wanted. And, accompanying her intention to act, Jackie wants to belong. Performance is, in some ways, a battleground on which they are valiantly fighting for SELF.
These are real motivators, rooted in family, in past experience, in identity. They are deeply significant. You understand your origin story because to understand it is to master YOU. Perhaps, when you fully explore these roots, you can appreciate why you’re here in a new way. “Oh, this is why I want this so badly, why it hurts so deeply when I don’t have it.” You may even appreciate your talent in a new way—this thing that has helped you define yourself, know yourself, and practice who you were going to be. “What a cool way to get what I needed!” This kind of respect for your past creates room for a proud and compassionate interpretation of your acting pursuit.
And the more proficient you are in your history, the more freedom you can have from it. Have you ever heard of actors doing best when they “don’t care?” They mean they’re not looking for personal validation; they’re only there to play the scene. They’re having fun; they’re in the moment, and isn’t that when acting is so satisfying?
I want that for you. It’s important that you get there, every time. It’s a meaningful job, and it does not need to break your heart.
So, let me ask you then, why are YOU here?
*These are the sorts of stories I hear in session, but Jeremy and Jackie are not real. The confidentiality of my clients is of the utmost importance.