This week marks one year since my arrival in Los Angeles. Upon reflection, I deem 2015 a success by every measure. I set out to accomplish a few specific, challenging goals: a commercial agent, a theatrical agent, a TV role, a SAG-AFTRA membership, and I accomplished all of these before the ball dropped on December 31. I want to take this opportunity to reflect on a few things that worked well for me. I hope other actors preparing to take on Hollywood will find it a useful resource. This post is not intended as advice, merely a few things I found effective on my way to produce my desired results. Every actor is unique, with specific strengths and areas to grow. There is no right path. If you have questions, feel free to reach out to me on Twitter. I’m @bostonblake.
Laying the Groundwork
My move to LA started long before I packed my car. At the beginning of 2014, I decided I would spend the year doing some LA recon. The business has changed since I lived here in the late 90s and I needed to get the lay of the land. I also wanted to set things in motion so that I would hit the ground running upon my arrival. One of the most common patterns I’ve witnessed in fresh young actors is stagnation that sets in after she or he arrives and is faced with the overwhelming task of building a life in a new city. To avoid that trap, I drove from San Francisco to LA about 10 times to attend workshops and meet casting professionals, forging new relationships that I would continue to nurture after my arrival.
In addition to my LA visits, I entered several Acting Challenges through indi.com. I believe these challenges had the greatest impact in terms of creating a positive entry into Hollywood. I won meetings with four Casting Associates, one of whom called me for an audition for Glee’s series finale. (That’s a heartbreaking story I’ll share in another post.) Not only did this bolster my confidence, but it also gave me something to talk about. One thing I’ve learned is the power of the story you are telling about your life. Being new in town is simply not interesting. When anyone asked, “What have you been doing since you arrived?” I’ve always had an honest, empowered answer since the day I landed. What’s more, I’ve become friends with members of the indi.com community, and good friends in this town are priceless.
In addition to the new people I was meeting, I also reached out to friends I already knew in the area — dear friends from decades ago and actors who had also recently made the trek from SF to SoCal. I reached out to people I had only previously known on Facebook and wanted to know better. Some are in the business, others, not at all, but it’s been essential for my mental health to connect at the level of human being — not just as a professional networking opportunity. I’ve also maintained connections with my non-actor friends in San Francisco — my Tribe — and this has made a world of difference.
Hollywood has a value system all its own, and it isn’t always aligned with mine. I regard many aspect of it as unhealthy. When that value system starts to peck away at my self-esteem, I connect with my friends who are living meaningful lives elsewhere, doing cancer research, offering legal assistance to immigrants, and working toward a cure for HIV. They remind me of who I am and why I do what I do. Making modern myths is a phenomenal contribution, and it’s one of the most noble things we can do if we do it meaningfully and responsibly. However, if it becomes merely about feeding the ego or satisfying a neurotic need to be seen, something essential is lost. The culture of Hollywood has an unmistakably toxic element, and my soul needs frequent infusions of nourishing energy. That’s what friends are for.
Every person in Hollywood has an opinion, and most of them don’t hesitate to share them. One of the things I love about being older is having decades of experience in listening carefully and asking specific questions. If someone recommends a class or workshop, I want to know specifically what they gained from it that made a difference for them, and I want to know what they have observed in me that makes them think it’s a fit. For me, time and money are resources to be allocated carefully.
Since I’m new to Hollywood, I find myself surrounded by many younger people who are still discovering who they are. I remember that stage of my own life fondly. Since then, however, I have participated in countless trainings, seminars, workshops, retreats, and programs, covering topics ranging from creativity to communication to sexuality. Because I can be obsessive, I’ve also studied much of the source material from which these classes are derived. When someone shares with me something cool they’ve done, of course I’m excited to hear, and part of me wants to take the class just so we can share that experience, but more often than not the content is a rehash of familiar material. My filters presently have three criteria:
- Can I use this to become a better actor?
- Will this help me develop relationships with the professionals I want to work with?
- Is the absolute best use of my time and money at this time?
Case in point: Someone invited me to attend a $300 networking class delivered by a young actor. I asked who I would be meeting. The answer: a roomful of actors who were learning how to network. That didn’t seem like a good use of my time or money. For about the same cost, I was invited to a private event where I was introduced to agents, managers, and casting directors with significant influence. What’s more, birds of a feather flock together. It was no surprise that I liked the people I met as much as I liked the person who invited me, and I believe I will be able to call some of these people friends and co-creators for years to come.
This is a big one for me. I’m extremely privileged and I strive to never take it for granted. I’m healthy with all my limbs and senses. I have a college education. I have a supportive family, including living parents who are excited about my path. I have a lifetime of friends I’m in contact with through social media.
I do my best to be transparent about my journey on my Facebook Page. I mention every single tiny win, and I share when I screw up or get overwhelmed. My friends who “like” and comment and cheer me on are on this ride with me. It would be terribly lonely without them. When it came time to join SAG-AFTRA and I needed to raise the joining fee fast, they came through on GoFundMe. My union membership was made possible by my incredible community. I make a point everyday to express my gratitude by doing my best to be worthy of their belief in me, and that outpouring of gratitude keeps me focused on all the goodness in my life and creates a positive feedback loop, which brings more goodness for which to be grateful.
Walking Through the Doors That Open
One of my favorite resources for actors is the Inside Acting Podcast. In an outstanding interview, publicist Stephen Rohr draws a distinction between kicking down the doors you want to go through and stepping through the ones that open. A number of times I thought I had found the right agent and became disappointed when it didn’t work out. But ultimately the one who signed me is a perfect fit — and one I had never considered!
When I was invited to a private networking event that met my criteria and felt right, I spent my last dollar to attend. It was another attendee at that event who later referred me to my current agent. My first TV role was something I never thought I’d do (and I’ll share more about that in a future post after the show is announced), but by stepping out of my comfort zone I landed my first guest star credit. By being unattached to what opportunities look like, I’ve been able to take advantage of many more of them than I would have, had I insisted they show up on my terms.
One of the most repeated sayings in Hollywood is, “If you can do anything else other than acting, you should do that.” I regard this as equal parts Gospel Truth and utter horseshit, depending on how you interpret it. To some people it means, “If acting is the only skill you have, that’s what you must do.” Horseshit.
If acting is the only skill you have, you’re a lousy actor. Actors are doers, adventurers, seekers, and experience junkies. (Actors admittedly tend to be lousy at business and administration; that’s why we have agents and managers. But outside of that, good actors are lifelong learners.) Acting is about interpreting life, and if someone is incapable of living, they have no business interpreting it on stage or on screen.
However, there’s another side to this. In 2013, I had finished my BA and was preparing to go into non-profit fundraising when I found myself facing an uncomfortable truth. Though my life circumstances were fine, I was deeply unhappy. I could not imagine doing what I was doing for five more years without killing myself. That’s when I asked myself this question: If you had one year to live… If you knew you would die during that time, and that you would die the middle of something, what would you do?
At that moment, I was reborn. The answer was immediate and unmistakable. I would audition for and act in as many plays as I could during that year and I would give it everything I had. If I couldn’t get cast, I would sell everything I had to produce my own work, and I would die onstage.
When I stopped acting professionally in 2001, I thought I was finished forever, but the fact is I’m most inspired and happy when acting is a primary focus in my life. When it’s not, I’m lost. I’m a generally cheery person and I can make the best of nearly any situation, but that isn’t the same as being fully alive! That’s the meaning of the statement above: “If you can’t be fully alive unless you are acting, then you must act.”
Acting professionally is really, really hard. Unless someone is living this life, they have no idea how challenging it can be, mentally, emotionally, and physically — and it will never get any easier, at least not as a permanent condition. I’ve found it useful to assume this is a truth (though I’m open being wrong). By accepting this as reality, I remain prepared to face the challenges as they come. If you start looking for easy, you’re screwed.
For some actors, it’s many years before they can actually pay their rent with acting income — and frankly most never do. That is not a negative belief; that is a fact. Every actor, no matter how successful, is worried that their current job will be their last. Despite all this, quitting is not an option because they know they can’t be happy without this craft and profession. At this point in my life I understand that the same is true for me.
That’s why when I have hard days (and I have lots of them) I ask this question: Are you going to quit and do something else? Then I laugh… and I get back to work.