An actor’s growing pains: It hurts so good

melissa farley 57Photo by G Rockett Phillips

 

I don’t know why I’m writing this now … I’ve been staring at a computer screen for about 14 hours and I haven’t eaten today. Everything feels fuzzy and raw, but I couldn’t seem to not write.

I just got back from L.A. and for the first time I am feeling a bit discouraged. It’s not for any particular reason except for perhaps I’m realizing how daunting of a commitment it is that I’ve chosen to willingly accept upon myself. Sort of like marriage except I don’t get a big shiny diamond ring out of it.

On Saturday I was scheduled to attend a workshop and open audition for Dan Ireland who directed “Jolene” and I was nervous. No I mean like really nervous. That kind of nervous where my stomach hurts and I get a knot in my neck and I don’t talk to anyone or am on like a 10 second time delay on responding because I’m so in my head about everything. I felt awful about this particularly because it consumed the whole rest of our trip. Michael Alvarez and I were actually on a studio tour of Warner Bros. Studios because that’s what we do in LA – cheesy touristy stuff because well, why the hell not? It’s fun and we might as well now because when I live out there I know I will not be spending money on anything other than Chef Boyardee products and toilet paper and a thousand dollar rent. So we were sitting there, waiting to enter this theater and see 90 years of film and television and live sets and all I could think was “Here I am desperately trying to get in these doors, not as a cheeseball fan but as my day job and what if it NEVER happens?”  You see, I’m guilty of being a “what-if-er” Imagine how exhausting that can be to those close to me. I sit there and ponder each and every possibility from the best to the worst and usually I dwell on the worst.

This is a bad habit of mine. I spoke to a friend yesterday who does the same and this whole last week she’s been working on exiling negative thoughts from her mind on entry, flipping it to a positive outcome and verbalizing that immediately to give power and validity to the thought. She said her whole outlook has changed, her attitude is improved, her burden feels lightened and her energy levels are even higher. Could be a whole sammich of bologna but I’m willing to take a bite … I don’t mind bologna every now and again.

So as I sat there and stewed in my pensiveness I thought, “Maybe this is a good thing that I’m nervous.” (I just broke thought and started thinking about beef stew because I wrote stewed… and hot dogs, and fried bologna sandwiches. Mmmm I think it’s time for a quick Ramen break. Oh the life of an actor) Ok I’m back, belly-filled and ready to go. Where was I? Oh yes, good to be nervous – It’s been some time since I have been really good and nervous and had my feathers all ruffled for an audition in Arizona. My first audition that I did a hardcore prep for was for the role of Anne Boleyn. I worked with a private coach for months on Boleyn’s actual speech or more so prayer, she delivered before her execution. Michael Cortez was the coach and I would refer anyone to him in heartbeat but he has since relocated to New York City. I remember sitting for hours with him sometimes just working on one sentence. I would repeat a word over and over again until it was no longer repeating a word written on a page, but it was my own and it would organically originate from within. Often I’d leave our sessions exhausted and frustrated because I felt I could never fully let go to the level that was needed. Talk about a mental and emotional workout.

The second audition I prepped heavily for was a short film called “Micah” The character was of a young, extremely intelligent woman who had been dealt a cruel hand in life, losing almost everything except her younger brother who she battled to have custody for, but her addiction to drugs hindered the process. I walked in a hot-mess; hair all disheveled, black eyeliner smeared around my eyes, dirty clothes and I smoked as many cigs as I could in the 15 minutes I waited for my audition and listened to “Mad World” on my earphones. All the other girls walked in looking so beautiful … it didn’t matter, at least not this time.

In all fairness if I took myself seriously and you as a filmmaker took yourself seriously, I would handle each and every audition with such attention, care and time but alas things are pretty casual in the good old AZ. Most often I get a phone call or FB IM asking me if I want to be a part of a project. Don’t get me wrong, as an actor this is an honor and a privilege. When first starting out it is always a hope that one day you’ll get to the point where you no longer are required to audition, but people will just know your name and your work and want you. I do find it quite odd though when I am contacted by folks I’ve never worked for that operate this way, who say that they received a suggestion from a friend as a testament to my abilities. That’s always a HUGE compliment to be referred, however, and not to liken actors to take-out food or anything, how many times have you been to dinner with a friend and they ordered a dish and raved about how amazing it was when they had it before so you order the same thing. The waiter sets the plate down in front of you as you stare at the culinary masterpiece, utensils clamped in tight fists ready to pounce, your mouth salivating in eager anticipation at the promised food orgy that awaits your taste buds from your friend over yonder across the table. You take the first bite and … It’s … Ok. Definitely not the best thing you’ve ever had in your mouth. Just ok. Well, what if you think that about me???!!!! I hate that situation because then I’m walking on set with this little twinge in my side thinking “Ok Melissa, you have to deliver. This guy has heard of you and you have to live up to the standards that were set..” No pressure. I have to find  a way to let go of those nerves or find a way to channel and use that nervousness into energy for the performance, that’s my responsibility as an actor. Now that I have a demo reel, I usually insist someone watch it before they work with me just to insure that they at least get to sample the goods before they buy it.

So as I’m sitting there, waiting for my audition, feeling like I swallowed sour milk, I began to appreciate how bitter-sweet this moment is. Here I felt I had just arrived at a place in my professional career where this whole nerves nonsense was behind me and I go and throw myself right back into the rodeo. But, like growing pains, that means that my little wings are expanding and I am moving into a new realm that will challenge me, push me, make me uncomfortable and force me to be brave, do more, go further, take risks and be bigger, badder and better than I have ever been.

Am I ready for this? Gulp.

Well no, but is anyone ever really ready? I forge on anyway and return to my method – allow myself 1 minute to explore the fears and doubts and insecurities and then once that minute is up, I release them to the universe and plunge in. While I’m still navigating back and forth, I hope to apply what I learn in other markets, here locally. It is often when professionals from outside markets come in and introduce new practices, that people perk up their ears and jump in on the conga line. I feel like a sponge out there. My heart is open, my soul is willing, my mind is free and I want to absorb all that I can. I feel there is so much I don’t know. So many skills I don’t have, so many people I haven’t met, so many methods I haven’t studied, so many business practices I am not familiar with, so many industry standards that I simply don’t do for whatever reason. Now is the time and here is the place to merge that gap between LA and PHX.

Despite how much I want to believe that there must be some similarities, I came to also realize from talking to a friend that recently moved to LA, that it doesn’t matter how much money you have, the job you have, any of it … it is inevitably different and it is a huge lifestyle change. Forget adapting to altering factors of the industry, life itself is just different there. I knew of a student who for his senior thesis project was going to write and compile a manual for actors planning on moving to LA about everything you’d need to know – places to live, banks to use, casting agents to see, a priority listings of what to, everything. I don’t know what ever came of that as it was years ago. He either probably got defeated himself or he managed to survive and then like so many became territorial and opted not to share his insights with others to keep his advantage. That’s pretty common out there it seems; everyone seems to hold their cards pretty close.

I have learned that Craigslist is your best friend out there for casting and for finding amazing places to live whereas out here I’d only use Craigslist if I had a death wish. Also I learned that I better get used to the whole “Pay-to-Play” mentality, or actually allow me to correct myself, as my friend Kevin put it better “Pay-to-ask-permission-to-play” mentality. It’s like paying to put in a lineup to be chosen to play volleyball. I can see where that would get extremely frustrating when you’re already struggling for basic survival and things like food or I don’t know maybe gas at $4 plus a gallon to get to the auditions if you actually get one. A positive is that you’d get really good at knowing your type! Unless you’ve got money to burn or access to Mummy and Daddy’s bank account, you’re not going to submit yourself to just anything and everything. Instead you’ll become aware of what you actually have a shot at landing. It can be a cruel reality check perhaps when you may have to downgrade yourself from 90210 hotness level to like the awkward best friend of the leading man that sticks cheetohs up his nose for entertainment, but hey, at least you know you stand a chance at booking something!

A lot of actors don’t seem to have an issue finding representation right away as there are so many talent agents out there, but usually the first agent you sign with is more like a stepping stone and a way in. It should be accepted and appreciated as such. I heard several times on this most recent trip some news that us transplants might actually have one advantage over native LA actors and that is our ability to freely and regularly work out here. The owner of a studio and my friend who edits demo reels for a talent manager both said that most of the demo reels they see come through are absolute ish. In fact, the studio owner said he would rather tell most to just say they don’t have a demo reel instead of showing what they do have. This is encouraging! For actors just starting out it seems that we have a higher quality of level of demo reel material with better production value and stronger performances. This may be because most actors out there can only do student films for non-union work or book extra work which really isn’t applicable for a demo. I received multiple compliments from LA contacts including above-mentioned studio owner and this is just my first go at it, but it is a HUGE relief to know I’m moving in the right direction in regards to my footage.

Demo Reel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sa2Wct0EIJk

Also, not to go too mom or conservative nun on anyone, but oh man is the threat of ending up in porn real for attractive women! I was just talking to Nicole Randall about how legit agents and managers out there actually take issue with you or even won’t sign you if you’re not willing to do full nudity. And the opportunities are ample if not virtually everywhere – like every third person you meet shoots porn. They are always extending offers, the money is usually decent and the promises usually sound really, well promising. Just say no to being a ho. This is a career shift that you can’t easily retract or redirect off of that path and if you have a sensitive moral conscious, it may not be one that is easy to let go of either. It can seem hard to decipher at first because again, like I said, a lot of legit film and filmmakers out there feature nudity or explicit sexual content which is very different than our local scene where this is a rarity, so all I can suggest is to trust your intuition and listen to that all-knowing inner voice. If you don’t feel a peace about the project or the people involved don’t do it.

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that just because you’re in LA that every opportunity is legit. There are still scams out there; places that have no deeper invested interest in you than to empty your pockets, fraud agents and directors or filmmakers that aren’t nearly as big as they claim they are. Lucky for us in the age of technology it is usually just one quick Google search away from discovering the truth. Don’t also make the mistake of assuming that just because an actor is from LA they are a good actor or that by moving to LA you will suddenly be a better actor. They are just an actor that happens to live in LA and so now do you. LA does not have an magical powers to instantly convert you from sucky to award-worthy, it is just a land filled with vast opportunity. It is still up to the individual to take advantage of what is available and work on their craft. Once I understood that, the environment became a lot less intimidating. Truth is, there are a lot of bad actors out in LA. So I figure I have to be better than at least half of them, right?

Here’s another little golden nugget that got exposed, with all that bad floating around out there, you will be considered a hero if you walk into an audition and you are actually good! The casting agents will probably feel like giving you a crown and a cape and a bouquet of fresh daffodils and daisies. Why? Because they want you to be good, in fact their job depends on it. They have to go to the production team and show that they have secured quality talent, if they can’t do that then it is their butt out the door. As soon as their current film ends, they are scrambling for their next project just as we are and the more they consistently prove their worth and ability and finding good talent, the more they work and trust me, they want to work. So change up your perception a little bit and don’t see these guys as judges with sourpuss expressions and powdered wigs waiting to condemn you, look at them as fans cheering you on in the stadium hoping that you’re going to knock it out of the park! Again, a lot less intimidating. 

Well, I feel like this post was thoroughly weird, but I have to admit, I don’t feel as defeated after writing it so I’ll consider it a form of self-therapy. Anybody want to take up that idea of writing a “Newbie Moves to LA” book because I would love to have that available. Any takers? Anyone? Come on … Until then, I’ll continue to stretch my legs a little bit, dip my toes in the water and refuse to stop growing as an actor and as a human being. Through pain comes healing, through fear bravery is born, through adversity character is built and through exploration of unknown territory comes discovery of untold treasures.

 

 

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