This business is hard—you knew that when you started. But that’s why our Backstage Experts are here for you. As industry professionals spanning various areas of the business, our Backstage Experts are casting directors, acting teachers, coaches, and beyond, and they know the difficulties you’ll have to face. That’s why we knew they’d be the perfect group to ask the following question:
What is the hardest lesson (or harshest truth) an actor will learn throughout his/her career?
Here are answers from 15 industry professionals!
Paul Barry, L.A.-based acting teacher and founder of Acting 4 Camera
Actors should be learning harsh truths at least a few times a week. If they don’t, their progress is going to be too slow to truly capitalize on opportunities before many of their most marketable years have passed them by. Understanding that hard work does not always equal success though is the harshest of all truths. We all know a great older actor that has worked consistently his or her whole career on bits and pieces, and yet cannot seem to break through to the next level. Conversely, some lazy young actors can simply become surprisingly lucky, which seems patently unfair to everyone else. The simple matter is that life does not promise—or even owe you—fairness. Hard work does not always equal success, but it does always equal growth.
Your journey is your journey. At times breathtakingly simple, and at times phenomenally challenging. Learn to enjoy the entire roller coaster ride, and not just the peaks. When you do, you’ll find that the “harsh” realities are every bit as enlivening as the “lucky” breaks.
Joanne Baron and D.W. Brown, L.A.-based acting teachers
One of the hardest truths actors discover in this industry is that the most talented people don’t always book the job or experience the greatest success in their careers. This can be a harsh truth to face because when we first start out, we expect talent to win out.
Much to our surprise, there are spectacular talents we remember from our acting classes that somehow never work professionally. This can be a harsh reality to face when an actor sees someone they feel is less naturally talented book a much sought after job. A successful TV series producer told Joanne once, “We went with someone less talented who got less nervous the more callbacks they had, rather than someone who dazzled us in the first audition with their natural gift, but became less effective with each callback.” So the harsh reality is it may not be talent but resilience, perseverance, hard work, and a clear head that determines an actor’s fate.
Marc Cartwright, L.A.-based headshot and editorial photographer
As an actor, you are the instrument, and it’s easy to take things personally. Don’t. It’s not all about you. Casting decisions are about putting a puzzle together. It’s about putting the correct puzzle pieces in the correct puzzle. As an actor, your job is to serve an audience. People that only think of or talk about themselves aren’t very interesting. Invest your time and energy in learning what types of projects you tend to fit in and how you can offer inspiration and service to others. You will be a more compelling artist.
Stephanie Ciccarelli, co-founder of Voices.com
One of the hardest realities to face as an actor—but perhaps also one of the most reassuring ones—is that you will always be who you are. As we know, you can’t please all of the people all of the time. You’ll win some roles and be passed over for others. The more roles you audition for that aren’t your strong suit, the more disappointed you’ll be. This is why it is important to know yourself, be objective about your talent, and set realistic expectations. Audition for roles you are confident in booking and have a strong desire to perform. When it comes to not getting the gig, be able to separate your feelings from casting decisions, which are, in fact, business decisions (nothing personal). Choose to be happy for the person who booked and move on. More opportunity awaits you!
David Patrick Green, founder of Hack Hollywood
I think the hardest lesson an actor will learn is that once they have developed their skills, the work has just begun.
Everybody wants to be an actor and simply going to acting school is not enough. You have to be incredibly focused, motivated, talented, and have a razor sharp positive attitude—not to mention a willingness to sacrifice everything else to reach your goals.
There are people literally sleeping in their cars to get their chance and if you are not willing to give it everything you have got for years and years, your chances for success are infinitesimally small. It is not for the weak of heart.
Cathryn Hartt, founder of Hartt and Soul Studio
The harshest truth is how much people change when money and fame are in the air; how much people are willing to sacrifice of their own inner beauty to buy into the cheap facade of a chance at stardom.
The good thing is that you might be one of the ones who realize how sad that is...and you might choose to stay true to your heart and laugh at the foolishness of those who lose their souls on the way to their dreams. I hope you are.
Stefanie O’Connell, founder of the Broke and Beautiful Life
Careers aren’t linear. That’s true to some degree in every field, but especially so in acting. Scoring your dream Broadway show or feature film isn’t a destination, it’s a stop along the way. It’s always smart to keep in mind what lies beyond that pinnacle moment, even when you're just starting out.
Joseph Pearlman, L.A.-based acting coach
The hardest lesson an actor will learn throughout his/her career is that success will never be handed to them, or magically fall into their lap. And, having representation is never a magic pill, as 99 percent of agents and managers will not pitch their clients over the phone. They will send an online submission. This is the equivalent of pulling the lever of a slot machine, as the submission disappears into an abyss of thousands of other clicked-on online entries.
No industry professional (agent, manager, casting director, director, producer, etc.) will bestow a career upon you. You must actively, aggressively, and strategically create your own opportunities (writing, directing, producing, singing, comedy, etc.) to create a platform for yourself to be taken seriously. Career success is consistent with the amount of focused work you put in and with your ability to build and maintain relationships with other industry professionals.
In my career coaching program, I help actors get noticed faster and launch their careers—on their own terms—by forging game-changing relationships with major directors, writers, and producers.
Jessica Rofé, founder and artistic director of A Class Act NY
As the artistic director/founder of A Class Act NY, an award-winning acting studio for kids and teens, I would say one of the hardest things for young actors to learn and accept is that you are not going to be right for every role you go out for and, oftentimes, it comes down to your height, or your look, something that is not within your control. It can be incredibly frustrating, demoralizing, and difficult for a child to grasp this notion that it’s not about who wants it most or who is the best singer, actor, and/or dancer, but that there are other factors that weigh into the casting process.
Shaan Sharma, L.A-based session director
That you will never be “discovered.” That acting is not a matter of talent but of skill. That means your success will be determined by how hard you work and your competence in the craft of acting and storytelling, not by which agent you have or what parties you go to or who you sleep with. Virtually every overnight success was years in the making. Don’t put all your hopes and dreams on wishing to be struck by lightning. Be the lightning.
Bret Shuford, NYC-based actor and the Broadway Life Coach
One of the hardest lessons for me to this day is that Broadway (and show business) is a purely for-profit business. I used to dream that the business rewarded the most talented, most deserving people, and sometimes it absolutely does. However, in the end it’s a business whose bottom line is profit. How many tickets is this person going to sell? Letting go of the need for validation within the business is key to staying strong so that the journey is more enjoyable than the destination. A good question to ask yourself is, what would I be doing once I’m in that Broadway show (or film, or on that TV show)? And start to live your life that way now!
Denise Simon, NYC-based acting coach
Here’s the hardest lesson I had to learn: It’s not about me! When an actor doesn’t get a part he thinks he wasn’t talented enough, good looking enough, personable enough, or likable enough. Although you may not have been at the top of your game on audition day, chances are you didn’t get the job because the casting director or director wanted someone taller, was looking for blue eyes, had a bad date the night before, may have been sick or the role had been cast already. Do the best you can and let it go. Why you didn’t get cast has nothing to do with you most of the time.
John Swanbeck, director-author
The hardest lesson an actor will learn throughout his or her career is that he or she is not necessary. Actors have no power unless they’re stars. How many actors get to be stars? How many even ever get to make a living acting? For a group of artists that, generally, have no power, actors are awfully demanding that the rest of us accommodate their process. This is an odd phenomenon for the rest of us because, well, generally speaking, we’re the ones doing the hiring, not actors. The easiest way for actors to learn this hard lesson is to start thinking like filmmakers and less like actors—and I don’t mean become directors. Everyone involved in the process of making a film needs to think like a filmmaker, not just the director. Trust me when I tell you real filmmakers aren’t looking for good actors. They’re looking for good actors, who think like filmmakers. Actors who think like filmmakers make us better directors. Then we need them. Then they have power.
Ryan R. Williams, L.A.-based on-camera coach, founder of Screen Actors System
Some people enter this business strong.
If you come to it strong already, you will have to learn that you are never strong enough. I have had students with Academy Awards who still push like they are brand new.
I’ve had middling, working actors who feel they have no room to grow. They pretend to know everything only because they lack the strength to reach for the next level.
The better you are, the harder that next level comes.
So the strong ones must make peace with this fact: Growing artists are cursed to look back on past work and see it as second rate.
So what about the soft actors? The weak, lazy, narcissistic, entitled ones?
They go away all on their own. This is not for them. The champagne wishes and caviar dreams turn into dust after an average of four years. You won’t be missed by the strong; they never noticed you were here
Some do grow strong along the way, but most crumble. But the soft can take comfort in this: When the bell rings at the end of 12 rounds in this town, show business will be announced as the winner and still champion. I just look forward to seeing who is still on their feet.