What’s Your Idea of Success as an Actor?

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When Oscar- and Golden Globe-nominated and BAFTA-winning actor Chiwetel Ejiofor was lauded for his portrayal of Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave, he was overwhelmed with support before the awards ceremonies. In stark contrast, he likened the subsequent days after the awards season to the Olympic Games and the World Cup saying, “You win and it’s great. But then it’s time for the next one, and nobody cares if you won before.” So what is Chiwetel’s idea of success in regards to his acting? He was once quoted as saying, “I like to disappear into a role. I equate the success of it with a feeling of being chemically changed.” Perhaps he is continuing to feel chemically changed in his more recent projects including playing an FBI agent in the film The Secret in Their Eyes, and starring in a London theater production called Everyman.

Kevin Spacey has had his share of accolades as well. With Best Actor Academy Awards for his portrayals as Roger “Verbal” Kint in The Usual Suspects, and the mid-life challenged Lester Burnham in American Beauty, and more recently taking home a Golden Globe for his character Frank Underwood in the political drama series House of Cards. But Spacey similarly equates success with an inner feeling. “I very often watch a lot of young people sort of meander around without any idea about why they’re doing what they’re doing. I mean to want and to be ambitious and to want to be successful is not enough. That’s just desire. To know what you want, to understand why you’re doing it, to dedicate every breath in your body to achieve; if you feel you have something to give, if you feel that your particular talent is worth developing, is worth caring for, then there’s nothing that you can’t achieve.” 

Dustin Hoffman has had his generous share of awards showered upon him for roles in movies like Kramer vs. Kramer and Rain Man. But he insists that even if he hadn’t received “by freak accident” a breakthrough role–as Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate–which lead to his prolific and celebrated career that he’d still be acting any chance he could find. “There’s no question in my mind whether I’d be teaching at some college or whether I’d go to some repertoire theater in Seattle, wherever, I’d be doing it.” His idea of success is actually doing what he loves to do, likening his sense of purpose as an actor to Picasso and his relentless drive to paint.

What are your ideas about success in your career? Do you share the sentiments of these three noteworthy actors, or do you have other ideas of success and milestones to mark along your actor journey?

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Super Bowl Bum Day: When Casting Calls for Envy

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So, the bowls of cheesy, salty snacks adorn the coffee table, fifty inches of high-def screen rests on the living room wall; all the hype, hoopla, and analysis is done, the stage is set as you tip a bottle with your best buds raring to go on Super Bowl Sunday. Then, come the commercials…gotta see those famous, infamous, acclaimed, highly-influential, much publicized, awesome national commercials! And, after all, you auditioned for one of them yourself. And then—hey! There it is…there’s the spot you went in for. And there’s the huge smiling-from-ear-to-ear face of the other guy from the callback lobby—he got the part. That guy won the spot; and you lost it. Who cares now if the Patriots or the Giants take home the trophy. Your day is destroyed.

Someone else is getting the exposure you want, they’re getting a lot of money which you need; he gets to tell his mom and friends of his success, add the gig to his resume—and you’re still struggling.

Actors are prone to career anxiety just as all careers are prone to trigger crisis at times. The acting field is notorious for its erratic earnings and rejection. Actor Hamish Linklater from the play Seminar, on Broadway, puts it this way, “In my ideal world there would be 99% unemployment for actors, and I would be the 1% that’s employed. I hear about somebody getting a job at Starbucks and I get jealous.”

According to Alain de Bottom, author of Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, “It’s a real taboo to mention envy, but if there is one dominant emotion in modern society, that is envy. And it’s linked to the spirit of equality…The closer two people are, in age, in background, in the process of identification, the more there is a danger of envy — which is incidentally why none of you should ever go to a school reunion — because there is no stronger reference point than people one was at school with. But the problem, generally, of modern society, is that it turns the whole world into a school.”

As everyone feels envious at times, it’s important to realize we’re all more than our successes and failures. We’re all a work in progress. So, accept the fact that you’re feeling this way, but don’t give in. Instead, use it as motivation, get yourself out there and work harder than you’ve ever worked. Directors, Producers, Ad Agency suits don’t give actors a big-time national commercial because they’re big hearted; they award you the spot because you audition, you’re prepared, you deliver the lines naturally, you take direction–in short, you’re a pro. That’s how you score a big-time national spot. And make sure you have an up-to-date resume and current headshots. There’s nothing a Casting Director wants to see less than an old headshot. Take care of the business of acting, and the acting business will take care of you. Remember: “Success occurs when opportunity meets preparation.”

To hear Alain de Bottom speak with witty insight about modern-day envy, click here.