What is it about what we do that we love? What makes us do this thing? This acting thing. How much is it artistry? How much is it salesmanship? How much of it is just the grind in pursuit of the chance to be who we really are?
We knock on the door of possibility, hoping that someone inside will throw it open, embrace us, and take us in out of the storm. Sit us by the roaring fire of desired success and tell us how safe we are now, how wonderful we are, how fine it’s all going to be. Well here’s the truth of it – When that door opens, the storm rages on. It’s like the door of a standing set on a sound stage – there’s nothing there but more sound stage.
Once the opportunity presents itself, it’s most likely filled with more pressure, more compromise, more disappointment. It’s never what we expected, what we set up for ourselves. The stakes are higher. Everything’s on the line.
I recently cast a TV pilot – The Cape – and I have to say, as difficult as these experiences always are (pilots are excruciating births), this one was pretty pain-free. I worked on a good project with really good people and I was able to maintain my sanity and my dignity (no easy task for me.) And then the show was picked up for series. And I, knowing better, imagined a paradise of success and happiness. Not so fast… The storm clouds have gathered. As Margo Channing said: “Fasten your seatbelts, it’s going to be a bumpy night.”
And while the people are good, and it’s good to have the work, the nature of the beast is that once we get to the other side of that door, the magic is gone and it’s time to get real. In this case, the daily grind of putting out a show and juggling the many new egos that have shown up for the party. The honeymoon’s over. Grab the last lifeboat. Don’t look back. And the only person who will determine our success – creative and otherwise, our peace of mind and heart… is each of us.
We have so much stuff we have to deal with that’s outside of the real work – the joy of acting, directing, writing, creating. We have to hustle, to train, to work out, to rehearse, to prepare, to drive long distances in hot cars and immovable traffic just to get to a place where we can have a chance, a moment, to leap into the unknown for 3 minutes, which really only means 20 seconds before they start to twitch, itching to check their iPhones. The suspended instant when we pray that our 10 – 40 years of work will manifest themselves before the crucible closes. We have to work our managers and agents and friends who we dare to ask for favors – if we have managers and agents and friends who will even email us back. We have to find the time for “meaningful self-exploration” and shrink appointments and coaches and hair dying and pilates and… life. And if we don’t get the job, we have to do it again and again and again.
And we see the shows and the movies and know we can do as well, most likely better. Eventually we get angry, tired, disheartened, depressed. We tell ourselves it’s not personal, it’s not about us. But it breaks our hearts. And we start to shut down, to protect that wonderful, open, vulnerable part of ourselves that made us the pure, innocent, devoted artist we know ourselves to be. We don’t recognize ourselves anymore. We stop even wanting to approach the door. We can’t imagine the roaring fire. The only thing roaring is our resentment.
Here’s the thing. That’s all normal. Reasonable. It’s real. It’s human. But we cannot give up our souls to the process of getting work. We can’t weaken. We can’t retreat. We have to find ways to protect ourselves from the rejection and from the heartlessness. We have to protect our artist selves – the fragile and pure creators in us. While at the same time embracing the transaction of our talent for hire. It’s part of what we have to do. And we can actually find a way to welcome, even love it… It’s possible. If we open our hearts and remember the joy of the creative flow that called to us long ago and demanded that we show up every day to do this thing, this intangible, unwrangle-able, scary thing. And then bring ourselves to the door, armored and intrepid.
Do we have to love it all? Of course not. Some of it is incredibly stupid and horrible. And none of that belongs to us. But we do have to love the part of it that we can claim. Our artistry. And there’s artistry in every phase of it. In managing people, in navigating the industry, in preparing ourselves for the moment the door opens, in handling the meetings and auditions and time on the set, and… in letting it go.
There’s an absolute need for artistry in all parts of our lives, enhancing and infusing the work with the passion of our families, our homes, our friends, our other creative endeavors. When Rebecca Romijn had her twins, she became a better actor. I directed her in a film last year and she was more joyful, free, and truly deep in her work. It can be our kids or our rock band or our blog writing or our inward journey, but we all need a place, a way to get purely connected to the expression of our artist selves.
Recently, when I was teaching in Chicago, an actress who had been sitting quietly in the corner for hours, almost invisibly, came down to do a scene. She seemed sort of plain at first, hunched over, not aware of her power and her beauty. But her work was gorgeous. The kind of work that’s free of self-awareness, free of judgment. It’s the kind of work that’s undeniable. She took my breath away. Along with the entire class. It even caught her by surprise. She was so fully inside the “want” of the character. So connected to the other actor. So in the moment. Specific, truthful, willing, available, emotionally present… And I realized that this is what we have to strive for every day. Focusing on that moment of pure connection, abandoning all expectation, believing absolutely in the creative gods who transport us.
My 13 year-old daughter, Gracie, has been singing in a small kids’ choir, backing up Dead Man’s Bones, Ryan Gosling and Zach Shields’ band. Raw, soulful, eerie, with the sweet humor of this quirky kids’ chorus. Watching them on stage (as I seem to have become a rock ’n roll stage mom) I understand that even someone with infinite “success” finds his liberation in creating something personal and meaningful, on his own terms, and outside the industry that celebrates ambition, celebrity and fast cash. This solidifies for me the core truth that we must each find the divine creation that guides us. We must believe in the spirit of our inspiration and make it our practice to serve our artistry. Every day. Sounds a little religious. Well, in many ways this is our faith. This is our divinity. And that belief, that connection, frees us, and then, somehow, everything else works. It puts it all in perspective. It relieves the pressure. It flows good energy into those places that are artificial and stuck. It makes it easier to love the rest of it. It keeps us true to our artistry, to our humanity, to ourselves. And in fact, it removes the door altogether.