A universal truth for all actors, on set and off – Just keep it real, man.

Keep it real postPhoto by Chris Labadie Photography

It’s been pushed in my face over and over again … the same question. I can hear it echoing in my head like a broken record or that horrible song “Does that make you crazy” to which I always yell “Yes it does make me flipping crazy!” before turning the radio off and mumbling to myself like a disgruntled old fool. So what is this haunting question, this bane of my existence? “Melissa, when are you going to learn to say no?”

I don’t know. I had convinced myself that our culture is one that encourages you to always say yes. Say yes to spending money that you don’t have, in fact, we’ll even help you by offering you credit cards so you can at least feel like you have money that you don’t actually have to spend it on stuff you don’t actually need. Just say yes.

What’s that, you don’t actually believe in marriage and know that you’ve never been faithful in any relationship … not a big deal, just say yes when you see the ring and “I do” at the alter and if it doesn’t work it out we’ve got this nifty little thing called a divorce to get you right of it in a pinch, in fact we’ll make it so easy you can do it online in 15 clicks or less! Just say yes.

You don’t like drinking or partying or sleeping with randos or saying yes to every role or doing stupid things? Well then you are unexciting, uninteresting and unsocial henceforth you will be unappealing to society as a whole, unless you learn to JUST SAY YES.

Yes Man” with Jim Carrey is an ideal example of my idol for the last year. I thought that the more I said, the more I agree to do and try and be, the more happy I would become. Then I remember how at the end the speaker pretty much calls him an idiot and tells him you can’t just say yes to everything, that’s asinine. The purpose of saying yes is to be open to the experience of life. I’ll just hold up my idiot sign now…

I’m ranting a bit. Probably to make myself feel better and beat around the bush at the fact that I’m a people-pleaser; always have been. I’ve said yes to so many things and it’s not necessarily that they’ve done anything to ruin my life or put me in detrimental situations, but it is so much lost time. So many things that I did for the fulfillment of another while leaving my own heart empty and hollow.

I’ve got to thinking, in case you couldn’t tell, because I am in a place of transition. I’ve been offered an “opportunity” and I hate to be secretive or hide anything here, but I must at least until mid June. Don’t get all TMZ on me, it’s nothing acting related directly, it just heavily affects my future and my career. It’s got me thinking about all these things that determine and make up the infrastructure of my life.

I stopped and looked at how I spend my days … it’s complicated. Half the things I love so very much and I don’t mind the insanity that it brings me with the unstable hours and adding monstrous miles to my car and having to always have multiple changes of clothing on me at all times and a purse big enough to be carry on luggage for a week-long trip; but the other things … the others I do out of obligation. I do because I thought they would get me somewhere. I do them because I didn’t want to miss out. I do them because so many others are doing it that I should probably do it too. I do them because if I say no, they may not offer me something else in the future. I do it because I don’t like to not be liked.

I enjoy being the girl that’s everywhere, in-demand, doing a billion different things. It makes me feel good, but there are these moments when I stop as I hear a baby laugh at the cafe table next to me and I ask myself “Will I ever have THAT moment?” Or when I call my mom and I can hear in her voice the hope that I’ll say I am free to go shopping with her that afternoon. I’m never free. I want to go shopping with her, I really do, but I’m never free, because when I am free, it gets filled. Someone finds out I’m free and suddenly there’s an audition available, or a party invite or a short film in need of an actor or just a friend I haven’t seen in a while who wants to take advantage of my freeness and grab a beer. What if I just want to be alone? What if I want to go shopping with my mom? What if I say no?

I keep reading these article from famous actors and people in the industry about how you have to find and maintain that ever delicate balance between your personal life (reality) and your acting career. You work your butt off on set or in the hustle and grind to end up on a set, and then you go home and BE home and invest your time and attention into giving yourself fully to family  and friends and loved ones. In flashes of bitterness I ask if they were able to do that when just starting out or if now that they are established and hold their place in Hollywood hierarchy, can they only now offer those words of wisdom?  I wonder if they, like me, felt stretched thin and bare down to the last fiber. If they jumped at every piece of bait dangled in front of their face at the chance of catching their big break but usually you just end up flopping around a deck somewhere? But still, you never know …

Maybe they didn’t. Maybe that was their secret. Maybe they lived in balance the whole way through and exercised discipline and choice of freewill to have Sunday family dinners and pick and choose which auditions to accept. Something I’ve never been all that good at.

I read somewhere recently that it is all a state of mind. Those that are at peace and full of joy, never feel pressed for time or overwhelmed because they have chosen to be joyous and peaceful in every situation as it is happening. I think this is the approach that I need to take. So often I am waiting to get through something, waiting for the day to be over, waiting for my shift to be done, waiting to hear about the callback, waiting, waiting, waiting … that I don’t appreciate the right now. This realization occurred to me last week when a horrifically, remarkable thing happened to me.

I was on the I-17 stuck in rush hour traffic, but it was moving along quite reasonably and I was pleased that I would be able to remain in my 5-7 minute grace period that I allow myself each morning to get to work on time, taking into consideration traffic, parking anywhere between floor number 4 and floor number 8 in my parking garage and taking the elevator in my office building up to the 9th floor. I’ve gotten pretty accurate in that crucial calculation of time. I was mentally checking off a list of things that I needed to get done – emails to send, resumes to submit, events to RSVP to etc and thinking that I couldn’t wait until this day was over and I could be back in my pink fuzzy slippers and Hello Kitty PJ’s in  my wittle bed. Then my mind flashed to Brad, the young actor that passed away, because I had just testified in my journal the night prior that I would wait no more. I was reflecting on his death and why it impacted me so strongly when I barely knew this young man when BAM!!!! This car flipped up in the air and landed on top of the car in front of me and they both slid over to the left and landed in the carpool lane. Life stopped for a moment, everything went quiet and everything seemed to slow down. I remember talking to the 911 operator and seeing the people climb out of their cars grasping their chests, thankful to be breathing, to be walking. When I pulled away my legs wouldn’t stop shaking and I called my dad to calm me down as the adrenaline rushed through me. I was off that whole day. I couldn’t stop thinking about the accident, about Brad, about how I feel I’ve been living my life on hold. The soundtrack to my life would be elevator music.

Why couldn’t I appreciate it? In fact not only do I not appreciate it, I try to fill it – every single waking moment of it. Waiting means there is a gap and a gap means that there is emptiness and emptiness means that there is space to fill, and space to fill means that I can be doing more, always more, always seeking out worth. My name means “seeking one” in some cultures. I used to love that idea when I was a kid. I pictured myself this devoted scholar, perhaps a bit more Indiana Jones-esque as I spent my life seeking out truths of the universe. Now it seems a bit more bleak … Like I’m a lost soul, aimlessly wandering, trying to find a truth, any truth to hold on to.

From a practical standpoint, it really doesn’t make sense to not live a balanced life. Acting, art as a whole even, in and of itself in essence is a representation of life. So how can you represent it accurately, truthfully if you’re not living it? How can you be a lover when you can’t remember the last time you’ve had sex, how can you play a best friend when you don’t know how to be a friend to anyone, how can you express joy, sadness, loss, excitement, fear, anticipation if you don’t allow yourself to experience them because you’re always locked away behind office doors and audition lines and workshops and closed sets or the limitations of your own mind?

I keep waiting for someone to ask me after reading my blogs why I keep acting when I seem to have so many problems and that answer I know without a quiver of doubt or hesitation.

I love it.

It destroyed a marriage. I still love it. It consumes my thoughts. I love it. It frightens my parents. I love it. It eats up time. I love it. it causes me to feel insecure and inferior. I love it. It is competitive with no guarantees of a pay-off. I love it. It steals the hearts of those I love. I LOVE IT.

Last week I was talking to a man who has a passion for innovation in the digital world. His career is often just as unstable as my acting career because with innovation it is  new and highly disruptive to the natural order of things. It is often disliked because people are afraid of that which they are unfamiliar with and people are tentative to invest. He’s had more jobs, more moves and more position titles in his life than I can ever imagine. Why? He loves it. When talking about it he directly said that most aren’t willing to take the risk to do what he does because of everything I mentioned just above, but HE DOES, every single time he is willing to take that risk because it is worth it to him.

Sometimes, at my core, I wonder if that is what my real problem is. That I keep saying yes to all of these safe, straight-path routes to try to get to a desired outcome, when I should be saying NO to all of that bullshit and say yes to the risk? I don’t know what that means for me anymore. Everyone keeps telling me that film is leaving Hollywood and that I need to go South. I used to think my big risk was moving to LA, now I’m not so sure anymore. I just know that I feel a shift on the horizon. I said that to God as I drove home the other night.  I can feel it and sense it in my bones. Something new is coming and a change is on the way to deliver me.

I am always so afraid that I’ll miss it or that I’ll do the wrong thing and mess it up, but I came to understand something as I get older. Each decision is not the end all or be all of my life. I can make wrong choices and go the wrong direction and fall in love with the wrong people but that does not mean that my life is wrong, it means that I get the opportunity to make another choice, to go a different direction, to fall in love all over again and live life until I feel that peace inside of me that I am where I’m meant to be … Like Hercules. Sorry, that song totes just popped into my head after I wrote that sentence. I’m such a Disney nerd. Anyway, moving along.

This post could go on forever because I’m searching my soul for what it is that I’m supposed to be saying no to; what it is that I’m supposed to be doing and I feel like if I keep typing that means that I have more time to figure it out. I think back on things I feel I should have said no to because supposed limitations will arise from it but life seems to challenge me every time I try to place that limitation on myself.

A role where I showed my breasts … folks words vibrate in me a fear that I’ll never work for Disney or have a role as a young mom in a sitcom or be taken seriously. This morning alone I can pull up at least 7 different actress’s IMDB accounts that I know of to show those theories incorrect. My radio show because it is crude, sexual, liberal and outlandish. Good God look at Howard Stern, he made a lifetime career out of such audacities. Not that I am trying to be Howard Stern, but all it really does is show that I have an edge or that I can be dynamic. Right? Can you tell I’m not my usual self and that I am in a place of self doubt. I feel so lost. Anyone have a map out there they want to lend me?

Ok Melissa, focus – so what is it? Stop wasting these people’s time! What is is that you should say no to? Say no to anything that doesn’t move you. Say no to anything that doesn’t make your heart flutter. Say no to anything you feel instantly weighed down by or confined to. Say no to anything that you said yes to because of a fear of ANYTHING – whether that be missing out or not getting noticed or whatever the fear may be, because where there is fear, love cannot exist and all root decisions must come from love. Say no to anything that is a waste of your time, energy and resources and simply say no to anything you don’t want to do.

I think so often I say no to all of the wrong things that prohibit me from living fully and greatly. A post by Christopher Sheffield on Facebook the other day literally mirrored an article I read about how as artists we must be fearless when it comes to diving into the extremes and depth of our emotions.

“If you want to wear the mantle of an artist, you must accept the responsibilities the title will bring. It will be your duty to pioneer emotion, to experience everything the average mind fears, to abandon yourself completely to true love, to feel the deepest pains of loss and failure, to traverse the waters of morose depression, and climb the hills of ambition, to push your perspectives in every available direction to the absolute extremes, and even for some, to die. All of this is your responsibility as an artist, so that you may take these experiences and represent them to the world in your art. We must give faces and forms to life’s unknowns, so mankind will never truly be alone.” – Sheffield

When someone says “No, I will not allow my heart to feel that because it might make me weak or vulnerable or fall crazily, irrationally in love;” We must say yes! When we experience the loss of a loved one or are mourning the end of a treasured relationship, when most people would dismiss their pain and distract themselves with booze, drugs, people or sex, we must revel in that pain – feel it, remember it. We must say yes. When we are feeling alone and unwanted, instead of seeking out the next available companionship or easy quick-fix, we must be honest with ourselves and exist in that room with our suffocating loneliness. We must say yes. Ninety percent of the population does anything possible to stifle, repress, hide and fake their way through what they are honestly feeling. It is in those pure, raw emotions that true art is born and created. It is our greatest tool as an actor. To deny what and who you actually are is to rob yourself of your highest power and the greatest gift you possess. My sensitivity is my strength. My weakness is my courage. My pain is my love. My inability to say no is my exploration and my flaws are my characters.

Perhaps it is not learning to say no, it is learning to be real. Well look at that obvious coincidence – that is what acting is all about too. Be real in the moment on set and off, and that is where you will find your happiness and your truth.

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