As actors, we have an amazing charge.
In Hamlet's words, we are "the abstract and brief chronicles of the time", and it is our job to "hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature, show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure." That is "the purpose of playing".
And yet, actor after actor that I meet seems to discount the beauty of what we do in search of a career. People seem to think that once they "make it", they will be able to do whatever they want. And that's just not an informed opinion.
1.) Actors do something.
2.) Then they capitalize on the thing they do well.
3.) People notice.
4.) That actor is expected to repeat that success over and over until it gets old.
Even if you have a rising stardom, it doesn't necessarily mean you can do whatever you want. We allow people like Dustin Hoffman to play Willy Loman because his career is based around his artistry. So, it is still a safe choice to let him extend beyond the roles he might normally play. If you expect to be the same way, then you cannot wait until you get a career going to show your artistry. Bradley Cooper, for instance, is a wonderful actor - and you might never know it, because this industry holds him within very tight limits. He can't just up and do what he wants - even with his celebrity.
So, how does one go about building an artistic life right now?
For starters (and I have to give myself this advice on a daily basis), you have to inspire yourself. We have to engage ourselves in something that feeds our own creativity. When I was much younger, I lived next to the back of a grocery store, and there were these loading docks that were always empty at night. There happened to be a lot of light around them, and I was a chain smoker, so I found myself sitting on them in the deserted parking lot through much of the night. (I was also nocturnal in those days...maybe still am.) I would spend hours acting out plays by myself, going through this script or that script, and playing as I did when I was a child. Sometimes, I'd go to Balboa Park (I'm from San Diego) and work on scenes with friends - just for fun.
Since moving to New York, I've kept that spirit fresh by reading plays with people on a more-or-less weekly basis for the last five years. By doing that enough, I accidentally started a theater company, which now is the thing that feeds me and several others. It is my sincere belief that a group of people together can make a big difference - for themselves and others. And really, all we're doing is giving ourselves the ability to do work that inspires us. Margaret Mead's big quote, though overstated, has always really touched me: "Never underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has."
Dustin Hoffman said, in his Oscar speech for Kramer vs Kramer, that "When you're an out of work actor, all you can do is practice accents". It's just not true. This is a lonely business, but that doesn't mean we need to do it alone. In fact, we need a network of people to rely on. Why not connect yourself to a group of people and build together? It'll be much more enjoyable than conversations at the Equity building, during an endless string of open calls. I know. I've been there. It's not to say that auditioning isn't important, but it can't be your only source of art. You have to have an art to bring to that meeting.
Really, it seems to me that much of the issue with artistry in this industry comes from a lack of personal interest into why we are actors in the first place. Some actors seem to remove art from their equation. Many want to be puppeteered by directors. They want to be told what to do to get the good reviews, to get the standing ovations, the good accolades, to get the career - to get the personal affirmation they're looking for. And really - and I learn this more and more every day - you need your own personal affirmation in order to be able to sustain yourself in a business as difficult as this one.
Why? The reality is that as you grow in career, there will always be someone close to you that gets jealous and tries to tear you down. As you get to the point, where you almost don't need a day job anymore, you have developed enough friends that sustain themselves with things they love to do that you begin to short circuit. And if you don't have something to anchor to (a craft, an art, a belief in yourself), then you're dead in the water.
So, don't rely on the idea that people are going to see your talent and offer you things. It might happen. But if you take it upon yourself to build a creative and artistic life, rather than waiting in line for the big job to come, you will have the satisfaction you seek. And that sense of personal satisfaction can only lead to good things.
My teacher, David Gideon, is constantly telling us what his teacher, Lee Strasberg, once relayed to him:
"I wish you would stop worrying about being an actor and be an artist instead."
What are your thoughts on the topic?