Upon its release last week, I rapidly ordered a copy of Jenna Fischer’s new book The Actor’s Life: A Survival Guide. As a newly-obsessed fanatic of The Office, you can only imagine my level of excitement when it arrived on my doorstep two days later (Bless you, Amazon Prime).
My intuition was right – I couldn’t put it down. And not because she spent 250 pages gushing about her time on The Office and guaranteeing the dreamers that, one day, they’ll too find their own Pam Beesly and live happily ever after in the magical world of Hollywood — no. While her eight-year stint on The Office was indeed life-changing, Jenna spent just as many years fighting for screen time before and after Pam. Every struggle was a stepping stone towards a career that brought her dreams to fruition in unexpected ways. This book is a testimony to the fact that, despite her success, she too experienced failure, confusion, doubt, and rejection along the way. Reading Jenna’s words felt very much like reading a heartfelt, encouraging, and honest letter from a mentor or close friend who shares in your struggle and simply gets it.
If you are an aspiring and/or working actor read this book. Read it now. Read it next month. Read it next year when you’ve hit a low point and you need a reminder of why you’re doing what you’re doing.
After personally spending the past year feeling artistically stifled and struggling to find my rhythm again, Jenna’s book came at the perfect time to reignite my momentum as a new year of new possibilities and adventure approaches.
Below are my favorite takeaway moments from The Actors Life: A Survival Guide — moments that I connected to and gave me permission to feel the range of emotions that come with the pursuit of an artistic career.
T H E S T R U G G L E
Before I moved to Los Angeles, I thought the life of an actor seemed easy. And now, years later, I am telling you it’s not. It can be rewarding, inspiring, magical, intense, terrifying, consuming, passionate and unique. But it is not, and will not, be easy. However, just because something is difficult, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it.
I can’t even begin to list the times I’ve questioned whether or not I have the strength to “make it” in this industry; or how often I’ve thought of giving into the struggles that come with pursuing a career in the arts. It is hard. Others will try to convince you that what you do is easy; because many people on the outside rest under the misconception that being an actor is a cake walk. This is why they’re on the outside.
For me, what made the struggle even harder was the fact that my friends and family back home couldn’t understand “what was taking so long.” They couldn’t see the value of these small milestones. They just wanted to know when I would be on TV. Because that’s what translated as success to them.
I am incredibly lucky to have a family comprised of tireless cheerleaders. Whether I’m in the back row of the ensemble or standing center stage as the star, they are at every performance of mine. My family is a vessel of encouragement, love, and support, without whom I would not have the strength to persevere through the low points in my career. Every endeavor of mine since moving to New York has been applauded or met with excitement. But everyone’s measurement for success is different.
For anyone reading this who may not know me, I work in wardrobe as my “day job.” It has kept me artistically connected these past four years while I pursue a career as a performer. Currently, I’m a dresser at the Broadway Revival of CATS. Many people consider what I do to be “successful.” Sometimes, I fail to see the see it the same way.
I vividly remember the moment I told my entire family about this job opportunity at a holiday dinner two months prior to the remount of CATS. My aunt burst into tears, hugged me, and texted everyone she knew. My uncle started singing “Memory,” and my grandma turned to my grandpa and asked if he remembered seeing the show in 1987 (he nodded vigorously, but I don’t blame him if he didn’t). And even after their glowing reaction, I quickly followed it up with, “This doesn’t mean I’m giving up on performing just because I’m working on a Broadway show doing wardrobe.”
Why, Tara? Why did you just say that? Why did you feel the need to justify that to your family? This huge beacon of enormous faith in my talent, and I still felt the need to blurt out that finding success in one area of this industry did not negate the success I still sought as a performer. Of course they knew that. Of course I knew that they knew that. Why was I so fixated on saying it aloud?
Sometimes, we have to remind ourselves by reminding others. It’s not because my family asks the question of “when?”– it’s because I do. And I don’t just blurt out to my family, I blurt it out to friends, colleagues, working professionals who learn that I simultaneously work in two facets of this business. I will tell anyone who will listen that I am an actor because reminding myself of who I am is crucial to how I operate moving forward in this industry. I don’t want to leave the impression that I’m “just a dresser.” But just as much, I don’t want to leave the impression that I’m “just an actor” either. Because of this job, I have become more educated, multi-faceted, and valuable. And while it’s taken a while to embrace it, that has become my measurement for success.
The cool thing about the life of an actor is that many pointless and mundane experiences actually become important moments that you’ll reference later in your career. You may not know now, but in a magical twist of fate, what you’re dreading doing today could inspire a role years from now.
When you are able to use your experiences to feed your creativity and passion for acting, it doesn’t seem as hard. Mining for gold is not easy. But if you do it l on enough, you get to be the person who found gold.
A U D I T I O N S & S U R V I V I N G R E J E C T I O N
You cannot possibly get every role you audition for, so don’t put that kind of pressure on yourself.
This is the best damn sentence in the book. Hello, of course we should not be putting that kind of pressure on ourselves. But do we do it anyway? I certainly do. Almost every audition I walk into, I’ve already envisioned what opportunities the role could bring me, or how much time I would have to take off to accommodate rehearsals, or how excited I would be to share that I’ve booked this job.
That is a mindset that just breeds disappointment before even walking in the door. Much of the defeat I’ve felt over the past four years stems from the pressure I put on myself to book shows in hopes that it will fulfill a certain level of happiness and curb the satisfaction of knowing that I haven’t failed myself in my endeavors to become a working actor.
No job really changes everything. Nothing removes the struggle completely.
Every audition is a chance to learn, practice, and grow as an actor. The success is not always in getting the part but in the seed that is planted.
Failure cannot exist in persistence. If I’m still auditioning, I have yet to give in to the fear of failing myself as an artist. Auditioning and rejection are both an unfortunate part of the process. But if we weren’t rejected from the auditions we don’t book, there wouldn’t be room for the opportunities that are meant for us.
Your job as an actor is to create a consistent body of work. It is not to book jobs. It is not to worry and beat yourself up over every job you didn’t book. Those decisions are out of your control. What is in your control is your approach to auditioning. So just because you didn’t book a certain role, it doesn’t mean you’ve failed. More often than not, getting or not getting a role has very little to do with how well you performed at that particular audition. It boils down to who you fit into a bigger picture they are painting.
Living the life of a working actor requires a very special emotional constitution. You must have a strong will, you must be determined, and you must be able to withstand countless rejections without becoming depressed, cynical, or self-destructive. Because the hard truth is that it often takes more than good work to get the job. It’s about doing good work, certainly, but it’s also about timing, luck, being the right height, the right weight, having the right hair color, being the right race — any number of arbitrary factors.
So what if you never fit into the bigger picture? You’re relentlessly putting yourself out there, day after day, to find out where you fit in, and the offers seem to be few and far between, if they come at all. Does this mean you’re not giving the industry what it wants? Do you have to go back to the drawing board and rebrand who you are in order to find your place? Are you required to be someone you’re not to fit into the bigger picture or are you, as you are, enough?
So often we worry that we have to bring some amazing razzle dazzle to a role to stand out. We try to figure out what they are “looking for” when really we need to figure out how to bring ourselves to the role. Only you can give your performance. Only you have your unique set of experiences, emotions, and way of expressing yourself. Trust that you are enough.
It was hard to keep putting myself out there over and over, only to not get the part.
I found this Chuck Norris quote and put it on my bathroom mirror: “A lot of people give up just before they’re about to make it. You know, you never know when the next obstacle is going to be the last one.” I defiantly told my representatives that I would give it one more year, and after that I was calling it quits. And, wouldn’t you know it, that was the year Allison called me in to audition for The Office.
H E A D S H O T S
If acting is the business, you are the product, and your headshot is the packaging. You can be the most talented actor on the planet, but if you have a crappy headshot, you may never get the chance to show off your chops.
[Casting Director] Mara Casey suggests picking five adjectives that best describe the kind of characters you might easily play. And then ask yourself, does your headshot convey those five adjectives?
Jenna goes on to show examples of her prior headshots and the mistakes she made when choosing the right one to print and send out to agents, casting directors, etc. So I thought I would do the same:
I’m no more than thirteen in these photos and absolutely used them the entirety of my high school years. What is happening? I look like a small child. I am a small child. I also seemingly have auburn hair when in actuality it was dark blonde. S.O.S.
Cut to the college years, when my theatre program required us to get headshots done by the photography department at the beginning of each school year.
2009 vs 2011. Talk about an awkward first-day-of-college photo disguised as a “headshot.” They weren’t great, but at least I looked my age. They were also a far cry from the small child straddling the white chair above circa 2005. Even so, I shamelessly sent these shots along with a barebones, unimpressive resume to professional casting directors and producers in New York while I was in school. What on earth was I thinking?
In 2012, my senior year of college, my school was blessed with a miracle named Julio Agustin Matos, who served as the first head of our Musical Theatre program and completely changed my life. Fresh off the Broadway stage, Julio created an intensive called The Transition Workshop — a guiding light for college seniors and recent graduates who were making their move from an educational setting to the “real world”. Many of his teachings mirror everything Jenna discusses in her book; Julio’s background is just more rooted in stage work. He too published a book entitled The Professional Actors Handbook: From Casting Call To Curtain Call (which I strongly recommend if you are actively pursuing a career on stage — it’s worth every penny).
Julio rapidly shut down the free school headshots we were getting and rattled off a list of professional New York headshot photographers we needed to schedule shoots with. I found a local headshot photographer (Julia Gerace Photography) in Connecticut who turned out some pretty comparable work. Here’s what I came to him with:
Not too shabby for a couple hundred dollars, huh? My hair still looks auburn, but these were my post-red-head days as I was transitioning back into my blonde locks. So as in love with these shots as I was, they were only going to last me about a year or so as I continued the journey back to blonde; but I finally found something that worked.
And you know what? I used these for three years. THREE WHOLE YEARS. Six months after these photos were taken, my hair was longer and blonder and my energy was completely different. So you can only imagine how mistaken most casting directors were when I walked into a room two years later and placed these photos in front of them. I was a completely different person, with a completely different look, and a completely different mindset.
Just before audition season approached in 2016, I wised-up and went to Curtis & Cort Photography in New York.
Hallelujah! I finally looked like myself. Let’s do a little side-by-side, shall we?
How did I go this long without new headshots? How did I pass around a shot from early 2013 almost three years later? HOW?! These are two completely different women. The one on the right is confident about what she’s selling. She’s got energy, she’s self-assured, she’s wise. She is ready to take the audition season by storm.
And you know what? 2016 was my best audition season to date. I didn’t book anything, but I was getting appointments and callbacks and more callbacks (oh my!). Rebranding myself was a giant step in the right direction towards getting in the room with the people who needed to see me.
Even the best actors need seasoning and time to grow into their potential. View this period as your time to grow and gain experience.
S E L F – C A R E & T R U S T I N G T H E J O U R N E Y
Your body is your instrument. You need to treat it kindly. People come in all shapes and sizes, and so do characters. Embrace a healthy size that feels easy to maintain and go from there.
Too easily in this business, we fall into a pit of comparison on many levels — career-wise, success-wise, and most commonly — the physical comparison. Eating disorders develop, thoughts of plastic surgery ensue, and Planet Fitness is tired of seeing you three times a day. When did becoming a carbon-copy of someone else start manifesting success? Sure, there are many women I compare myself to, admittedly, on a daily basis — especially actresses. She’s in better shape than I am. Her hair is styled perfectly every day. She’s got everything I want. But, does she? Does anybody? Why do we think that having what someone else has will fulfill our own needs? We are all so unbelievably unique with a completely different set of goals and skill sets to bring into this business. And that can, in turn, be the hardest logic to maintain in an industry where everyone is competing with one another for their next big break.
First, I needed to accept that things weren’t going to happen quickly. A lot of my anxiety was coming from my belief that I was failing because things were “taking so long.” I needed to stop comparing myself to other people and commit to an actors life, with all its ups and downs.
All too often, we compare ourselves to the results we see in other artists without the knowledge of the full journey it took to achieve those results.
Listen, it’s going to seem easier for other people than it is for you. That’s the harsh reality of this business. I cannot count on New York City’s fingers and toes how many times I have looked at someone else’s career and thought, “Wow, how has it been so much easier for them than it’s been for me?” But this is what we signed up for. We signed on to face rejection and comparison because that is part of what makes this business a business. Sometimes you get the part, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you work for months, years even; sometimes you rest in the drought for just as long. Facing that truth is so crucial; because it’s easier to take out the frustrations of the inner workings of this industry on other artists who are reaping the benefits of a seemingly “successful career” rather than using the rejection to propel us forward so that we may share in the success one day too.
Every artist has a different journey, and you’ll have to figure out yours — you’ll have to determine how much you can endure. Because the roadblocks, doubts, and insecurity are all part of living an artistic life.
Resist the temptation to become cynical, judgmental, and negative about your fellow artists. Most importantly, don’t be judgmental about what you need to thrive as an artist either. Don’t be afraid to be a little self-indulgent. It’s okay to have rituals, It’s okay to have needs. The important thing is that we find a way to create a mutually satisfying environment.
C R E A T I N G T H E W O R K
If you want to be an actor, you must live an artistic life. You must find ways to express your artistic life with others. Artistic lives are full of risk.
Being able to generate work for yourself is an essential part of the process of becoming a working actor.
Sustaining work as an actor starts with the relationships you make with other artists…Building a successful career is not about getting in good with the people who are already established. It’s about creating the next big thing with people just like you.
In 2014, I met an actress by the name of Emm O’Connor doing a poorly-run production of Grease here in New York. I was playing Marty, she played Jan. Emm was goofy, wonderful, talented, hilarious — the total package. Shortly before the run of our show, she shared that she was considering straying from acting to pursue screenwriting and asked me join a table read for a pilot she wrote called Capital Advice. It was a laugh-out-loud series about a quirky overnight radio host named Gwen who tries to “Delilah” her way through a conversation with a caller who dials the wrong number looking for her cheating boyfriend at the local pizza joint. Gwen awakes the following morning to learn that her words of encouragement inadvertently inspired the caller to burn down said pizza joint. Thinking that these unfortunate events will ruin her career, Gwen’s show starts getting more traction and attention than any other segment, and she defies her boss’s orders to refrain from taking calls beyond song requests and turns her late-night playlist into a talk-back called Capital Advice. It was certainly impressive to read something so cleverly crafted, filled to the brim with massive potential from someone as young as Emm. And wouldn’t you know, eleven months later, we filmed the damn thing.
The single best thing an actor can do, both professionally and personally, is to create their own work. Whatever you do, I promise it will create momentum.
Every project you finish has value. Whether it’s the one-woman show you wrote, the web series with only twenty-four views, the pilot you wrote with your friend, all are important and will pay off somehow.
Shooting the pilot of Capital Advice inspired me in many ways to create more work of my own. Watching Emm fearlessly pursue her desire to be a screenwriter inspired me to create work of my own. Two months later, Emm and I began collaborating on a new series called Technical Difficulties. It was the first time I had written a finished product that I was proud of. Six months after that, I wrote my first one-woman show, and performed it twice over the course of the following year. Since then, my mind has been overflowing with new ideas and ways to create my own work — and it started by meeting someone who showed me that you can go out there and make it happen for yourself.
It’s completely normal to want others to see something special enough in your talent to create opportunities for you. But if we’re not simultaneously creating opportunities for ourselves, we’ll just be sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring. Be the call you’re hoping for and put your talent into the ether. You never know if your idea could be the next sensation.
The very best way to advance your career is to be seen. Nobody will see you in your kitchen, expect your creepy neighbor! Student films, short films, showcases, improv shows, web series, standup, YouTube videos, play readings, street performing — you never know where they’re going to lead. The more work you do, the more people see you, the more likely the right people are to find you.
Establishing good luck isn’t just about being in the right place at the right time. It’s about making the kinds of choices that put you in the right place at the right time.
As actors, artists, and performers, we are undoubtedly going to face discouragement and obstacles. But moreover, we will also experience triumphs and elation if we persevere. Jenna’s words provided me with that reassurance and confidence, and I hope it can do the same for you. The Actors Life: A Survival Guide is a must-read, must-know, must-feel.
You’ve chosen an unpredictable life, but certainly a life worth living. Go forward, embrace the journey head-on, with all of its ups and downs. More than at any time in recent memory, we are in need of artists and stories to remind us of our shared humanity. As you go forward, though you may get discouraged, please don’t hold back your gift. Because the world needs actors. The world needs you.