I know that your goal is to be on set. I know you want to be always working as an actor. I get it. I do. I want that for you too.
The truth of the biz is that most actors who are “working actors” aren’t working all of the time. They certainly are not on a set five days a week, every week of the year, exercising their acting muscles. Very few people on this planet have constant professional acting work, like a 9 to 5 job.
So, you have to be ready for whenever the phone rings, you’re hired and asked to go to set.
Do you feel ready to carry a feature film in the title role?
Do you feel ready to handle a big emotional scene?
Do you feel ready to make us laugh?
Do you feel ready to do a scene opposite Charlize Theron? Woody Harrelson? Viola Davis?
Do not expect yourself to be able to deliver the work if you haven’t been exercising the muscles constantly.
Actors are constantly hired last minute. You never know when you will be hired to play with seasoned actors in a scene. You want to have some confidence that you can do a scene with Jennifer Lawrence or Seth Rogen.
Your acting muscles need to be limber so that you can rise to the challenge when called upon. Think of yourself as an on-call doctor. Ready to jump in and save the day.
On set, you don’t just suddenly go deep as an actor.
On set is where you DELIVER the work.
It’s really hard to deliver the excellent acting work instantly if you haven’t been spending your waking hours developing yourself as an actor. Especially, during the down (non-working) periods.
What you do every day is what strengthens yourself as an actor so that you will have access to your tools and talents when actually working. You want to be in a position to be able to deliver excellent work at the drop of a hat.
1. Watch excellent performances. Know which actors you strive to be like. Read their bios. Google them. Read everything you can about that actor. Watch their interviews. Learn from them. Learn about the making of an actor, what it takes to be the kind of actor that you really want to be. I study Meryl Streep, especially her earliest work on film and any of her interviews about her process. I try to learn from the masters.
2. Read excellent scripts. Develop your taste for quality material. Read the scripts of your favorite films. Observe what makes good storytelling and dialogue.
3. Be in rehearsal constantly. Theater, new films in development, scene work, class work, free readings…anything that gets you on your feet and interacting with other actors. The quality doesn’t even have to be great, you just need to be practicing making things work. Some of my best directing learning has happened when I had a weak script to develop. Practice making a gem out of a stone.
4. Work with excellent acting coaches. When I’ve coached actors over years I can really see their growth and can prod them towards taking risks. It’s crucial to have outside eyes on your acting – you need to know what is coming across or not. Find coaches who you trust and who challenge you. Work with them even when you don’t have an upcoming project. Keep giving attention to your own personal development as an actor.
5. Be in classes learning new things. Learn about the camera, learn about acting with a new method, learn about singing if you are terrified to sing. Stretch yourself. Excellent work comes from excellent stretches.
6. Study people. Watch people’s behaviors. How do people react under certain conditions? Their body movements, their emotional ranges, their words. Simply watching humanity around you gives you the tools to pull from when you need them.
Be bold and brave and do not let the ball drop in terms of your development as an actor.
I know it feels hard to sustain sometimes, but don’t stop nurturing yourself every day. It will pay off when that call or email comes in and says, “You’re hired and we need you tomorrow!”
Act. Act. Act!
P.S. Yes, it’s appropriate to take breaks! Raise kids, earn money, caretake loved ones, have another career, travel, etc. That’s also part of the learning, right? But when you do come back to the acting, just come back with a vengeance. Just like you would train for a race after a break. Your body relaxes and then has to get in shape agin. Immerse yourself fully, and go for it.