Backstage Experts Answer: 16 Ways to Fail as an Actor

August 28, 2015

Our Backstage Experts are acting teachers, coaches, casting directors, actors themselves, and everything in between. Having been in the industry for decades, they’ve learned plenty and know what it takes to succeed, so we knew they’d be the perfect group to ask the following question:

What’s one sure-fire way to fail as an actor?

Here are answers from 16 industry professionals! 

(And if you missed the last installment of this column, check out “What Do You Wish You’d Known Before You Started in the Industry?” and see how to get your acting questions answered at the bottom of this article!)

Paul Barry, L.A.-based Australian acting teacher 
One of my first Backstage articles dealt with this question in a broader sense in the industry. 

As for what an actor can do to fail in performance, I would encourage you to consider that failure is welcome, and should, in fact, be embraced. For every piece of advice suggesting traps to avoid, there are A-list stars who did exactly those things and still maintain terrific careers. They may even have those terrific careers as a result of ignoring such advice. 

Regardless of your level of experience, you will always manage to screw something up. It’s only a matter of time. However, the one thing that all successful people have in common is that they haven’t given up yet. If you want to know what real failure looks like, it would be the alternative. Giving up. 

Is taking a risk, arriving late on set, or shouting at the casting director a way to fail? Maybe. Maybe not. But one sure-fire way to fail is to quit or not even try in the first place.

Tracy Byrd, L.A.-based casting director
The easiest way to fail as an actor is by managing expectations. For some, each audition brings an expectation of booking. When, or if you don’t book, you feel rejected. Book the room. Create relationships. Breathe and enjoy the journey. The journey is the destination.

Marc Cartwright, L.A.-based headshot and editorial photographer
Currently I think the easiest way to fail is to sit back and expect that someone is going to hand you a part based on talent alone. Unless you have some major nepotism working for you, you need to be out creating a name for yourself and not just waiting for an agent or manager to sell you. Strengthening your social media, creating your own content, and networking with filmmakers at festivals are all ways in which you can be proactive. 

Stephanie Ciccarelli, co-founder of Voices.com
Being arrogant is one of the surest ways to fail as an actor. One example of this is when an actor interprets set direction as mere suggestion. Choosing to stray from what you are asked to do could result in a lot more than not getting the role. When the person in charge provides you with direction, follow it to the best of your ability (given it falls within your boundaries as an artist). Make the performance your own, but don’t go so far as to omit or drastically change basic requirements of the script because you think you know best. Casting people want nothing more than to get the right people in the room. Prove that you are deserving of the opportunity by respecting the casting director, their client, and the script. If you do this, you stand a better chance of being invited back or landing the role.

David Patrick Green, founder of Hack Hollywood
One sure-fire way to fail as an actor is to follow the herd. Every actor has to realize that the reason they will be successful is because of their uniqueness, and copying what other people do either in pursuing their careers or in their acting is a guaranteed way to fail. They already have one of everyone else, so just be yourself.

Cathryn Hartt, founder of Hartt and Soul Studio
The only way to fail as an actor is to give up. Never say no to yourself!

Many years ago, my sister (Morgan Fairchild) was going on a commercial audition for a product for an advertising agency that had turned her down just two weeks before. I asked her why she was wasting her time even going. She said, “If I don’t show up, they don’t get to say no to me!”

By that, she meant that she would definitely not get it if she didn’t show up.  

Whoever shows up the most wins. Whoever quits, loses. Period.

Kate McClanaghan, L.A.-based casting director
If you expect to be “directed” with every utterance and move you make, you’re actually asking to be micromanaged, whether you realize it or not, and it’s a deal killer! In other words, you may (inadvertently) be demanding the director do your job for you. The director has more than enough to do without having to babysit your performance. No one likes to be micromanaged, and frankly no one (in their right mind) wants to micromanage you either. Instead, be a valuable member of the creative team from the start, whether you’re on an audition or on a job. We want to see what you have to offer first and foremost—how you think this scene should go—and then we’ll offer our two cents…at which point we expect you to apply it. That’s true collaboration. Not waiting to be molded and shaped within an inch of your life. Otherwise, your career will begin and end in the very same spot, and you will have only succeeded in frustrating yourself.

Stefanie O’Connell, found of the Broke and Beautiful Life 
The easiest way to fail as an actor is to get too comfortable. Whether it’s becoming too comfortable in your survival job such that you no longer push yourself to get into auditions and classes to improve your skill, or getting too comfortable at a certain stage in your career such that you don’t take the risk required to get to the next level, even if it’s where you really want to be. There’s a fine line between contentment and complacency, and the latter can be dangerous to any personal or professional pursuit.

Jessica Rofé, founder and artistic director of A Class Act NY
Don’t beat yourself up and try not to get in your own way! It’s easy for neurosis to creep into your consciousness—especially after an audition. Try not to be angry at yourself for not giving your best performance. Stop second-guessing yourself! That defeatist attitude will surely defeat you in the long run.

Gunnar Todd Rohrbacher, founder of Actors Comedy Studio
I think most of the time when you ask questions about how an actor can succeed or fail, thrive or flounder, win or lose points, etc., you can just replace the word “actor” with “person” or “human.”

For me, the easiest way to fail as an actor is the way I think people fail as individuals, which is to take without offering.

I think you fail as an actor when you ask for fame, notoriety, work, or even an audition and you aren’t clear on what you have to offer the craft. It could be talent, obviously, but it could also be enthusiasm, joy, an extraordinary work ethic, above average training and skills, a finely tuned sense of humor, or deep vulnerability. Maybe you have a passion for telling stories and you’re great at it.

Whatever your personal investment in the work is, it should be clear to you as should be your desire to share it. If that’s not the case, in my opinion, you’re failing.

Shaan Sharma, L.A-based session director
Laziness.

Laziness is our primary enemy as actors, and is all the more likely to want to creep in as you get stronger and more skilled as an actor. That positive feedback, that little run of jobs…if you let that go to your head and ease off the throttle, others will surpass you.

You have to keep your work ethic and discipline in good times and bad. The quality of your work can never dip—not as a result of anything you could control. Not one job is expendable. It could have been the one to launch your career to greater heights.

You can’t book everything. But you can book everything you could have booked if your work is consistently high quality and you conduct yourself like a professional.

That’s what makes a working actor work. Besides, what kind of artist do you want to be remembered as? One that cut corners or one that brought it every single time. Be a legend.

Ilene Starger, casting director
The easiest way to fail as an actor is to not be prepared, both in the immediate sense of not having given enough thought/prep time to an audition, but also in the larger sense of not constantly doing your “homework.” 

As an actor, you must soak up everything, and be a voracious reader, viewer, and listener. Also, you must find the balance between humility and confidence. Don’t allow yourself to be defined by the feedback of others, or the dry spells which are common to every career. If you are talented and do the “heavy lifting,” you will get gratifying results. When you meet people in the industry or enter audition rooms, don’t exude desperation or have a chip on your shoulder; be yourself, but try to exude a quiet sense of centeredness (not self-centeredness!) and positivity. How you present yourself and the type of energy you put forth will be related to your success/failure rate.

Lisina Stoneburner, Atlanta-based acting coach
People-pleasing: spending more time trying to get everything right for everyone. You will never find your way to an organic experience this way. Always chasing the acceptance or next best suggestion someone else gave you and trying to do something “right” in someone else’s eyes will never allow you to own a character, a moment, or an experience, and therefore there will never be anything true anyone ever really wants to participate in with you. Know what you can do, and do it with all your might.

John Swanbeck, director-author
One of the surest ways to fail as an actor is to think like an “acting class actor” and not like a “film actor.” The two aren’t the same. We don’t hire actors who look like acting class actors and we don’y hire them with the idea of directing them to be film actors. That’s not directing, that’s teaching. When we hire a cinematographer, we don’t hire someone we have to teach how to light a shot or move a camera. What actors learn from most acting classes may create emotional depth and gravitas, but that’s only half the equation and, by itself, without cinematic thinking and techniques, can very easily result in a good actor coming across as boring, forced, and/or over the top and, thus, un-hire-able by anyone other than student filmmakers and aspiring filmmakers who haven’t learned yet what makes a performance cinematic.

Ben Whitehair, L.A.-based actor
“Failure” is such a loaded word, but what comes up for me is that giving up on yourself is really the only way to fail, which is different than choosing a different journey. As I wrote about in my last blog post, it’s really about the daily journey of an actor. And if you decide that this journey isn’t for you, that’s OK! There is no shame in choosing something else that sets your heart on fire every day. 

But if this is the journey for you, then the only way to fail is to give up—to not do the things that have you come vibrantly alive, to get caught up in the end result so much that you miss the incredible path along the way. 

You have everything it takes to create the life of your dreams. I promise. 

Ryan R. Williams, L.A.-based on-camera coach, founder of Screen Actors System
The fastest way to fail as an actor is to have a twisted definition of success. If you want money and fame you might as well make a sex tape or perform like a circus monkey on reality TV. To fail in the arts is surely to be an artistic failure.

Many of the students in my weekly on-camera acting class probably don’t know they have already defeated failure many times. 

I am not just talking about the students of mine who are currently regulars on a TV show or working in mainstream pictures helmed by famous directors. I am talking about the actors who haven’t caught their break…yet. These are the unsung actors who most likely feel that success is a distant dream. 

I have good news for all those actors. If you train hard and put up truly accomplished work in class each week, you have already averted failure, at least for the moment, simply by acting well. Put up a good scene, nail a daring audition, hell, be the funniest person on line at the Ralph’s even though your heart is breaking. Now say, “I acted well today. Tomorrow failure may arrive at my door and I will chase it away with the weapon that is my ever-expanding understanding of my work. Just like I did yesterday, only better this time.”

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