Dec. 2, 2013. The latter half of the year had been progressing nicely. I was on a train heading from Boston back to New York City after working as a day player on the film “Unfinished Business.” Two months earlier I had roles on the television shows “Blue Bloods” and “The Knick” (well, the part on “The Knick” got cut that day, but fortunately I got to work for real on Season 2). But the granddaddy of them all was “American Hustle.”
Back in May I worked a day on the film (the character had the unflattering moniker of “Stocky F.B.I. Agent”). The hype behind it was off the charts. David O. Russell was at the height of his powers and assembled an incredible cast led by Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Renner. Granted, my part was small, but it did involve the fun of a humorous interaction with Bradley Cooper in a frazzled stakeout scene.
With all this, I thought: Had I finally arrived? Was it time to leave my H.R. job at Accenture?
Not quite. When advanced screeners were rolled out for “American Hustle,” I checked the IMDB page for the film. The cast list was up on the site, and “Stocky FBI Agent” was listed as uncredited. The writing was on the wall: I was on the cutting room floor.
It was just months after my 40th birthday, an adult life dedicated to acting classes and workshops; performing in plays in church basements in the outer boroughs; and a grueling (and often narcissistic) pursuit of professional approval for myself and others. What was supposed to be the crowning achievement turned into a dream unfulfilled and an embarrassing reality. Because, yeah, I think I told everyone I knew that I was going to be in the movie.
"Had I finally arrived? Was it time to leave my H.R. job?"
Where does an actor turn to? How does he or she reconcile disappointment with perspective, disillusionment with hope? Fortunately, at that time, I was in a Young Adults Advent Group at St. Ignatius Loyola Church in Manhattan. For an hour and a half before Sunday night Mass, I could congregate with other adults and share strength, faith and doubt. It was invaluable.
At the risk of making a vast understatement, acting is a peculiar career choice. Auditioning for shows and being rejected over and over again comes with the territory. And yet, through experience I came to realize that word, rejection, is very misleading. If you made new contacts and impressed influential people, your career has indeed moved forward. But that type of careerism does not provide the inner peace that an actor really needs to sustain the peaks and valleys of the industry.
One of the valleys of the entertainment business is a sense that the clock is always ticking and you are desperate to make strides before it is too late. The process of “letting go” is painstaking for most. I see it daily in the Facebook posts of actor friends who so desperately yearn for the audition to turn into a booking.
Does my mother wish I played more respectable citizens? Most definitely.
Amid the struggle to create and prosper, acting is a lonely lifestyle. Collaboration on a production, be it three months of rehearsal for a play or even a few hours on set, is incredibly gratifying. But finishing a play or show can be a sobering experience. The world you inhabited so magically on the set or stage was merely temporal. Most castmates you will barely talk to again, even after having been so intimately tied to each other in the project. Now it is back to practicing monologues on your own, traveling to and from auditions alone, working on your website, writing postcards to casting directors and waiting for the phone to ring. (Actually, it is all email these days.)
O.K., O.K., you fall, get back up, you soar, you fall again, etc. As a Catholic, you continually search for the balance in your professional and spiritual life. Whatever balance you do achieve is far from perfect.
Should I have been a teacher instead? Man, I could have been good at that. My friend who went to business school gets promoted every two to three years. I booked four jobs in 2013 but only two in 2014. I would appreciate a similarly predictable career trajectory as one in the business world. I would also really like to go to the Bahamas or Europe but it is pilot season, and I do not want to miss the audition of a lifetime.
And then things started to happen. Freelancing with agents (as opposed to signing exclusively with them) with lower prestige led to freelancing with several more established agents, albeit smaller ones. It is funny at first, and then suddenly I realized, “Wow, I audition for a lot of ‘Drunk Cops’ and ‘Thugs.’ Work is work. No biggie, right?
Hopefully, through faith and gratitude, each time I do not get the job, or even the callback I can understand that it is meant to be someone else’s role.
Over the past five years, I have played a sexual predator (twice), an embezzling middle manager and a small-town sheriff who bullies a helpless teenager. Is it fun? Sure. Does my mother wish I played more respectable citizens? Most definitely. I take pride in the ability to “go there” when it comes to preparing for these auditions and embodying the character on set—to find the humanity in them, no matter what.
In a business where secular ideals are paramount and religious beliefs get little credence, I think a Catholic and an actor is presented with an interesting challenge: What is the overarching theme of this production? How is my character fitting into the whole? Undesirable as the character may be, how does he contribute (indirectly as it may be) to the values and justice the show or film is seeking to present? If he is a villain, are there character clues as to why this individual has become who they are? I do think these are important questions.
I am a character actor. It is unlikely I will get the girl after having saved humanity. I will hover on the fringe. I will definitely have flaws. Maybe the audience gets some guilty pleasure from my character’s behavior. It is entertainment after all. Beyond that, hopefully, my performance will serve the production’s deeper meaning, even if the representation on screen is about what happens when life goes terribly awry.
Undesirable as the character may be, how does he contribute to the values and justice the show is seeking to present?
Most of the time, I do not even get a chance to serve a show’s deeper meanings, because I did not get the part. I prepared well, felt really good about the audition, but it was not meant to be.
Like many other career paths, acting is a calling. And that is why it can be so frustrating—actors want to consistently put forth the gifts God gave them. For self? It would be dishonest to deny that is part of it. But over time, hopefully the calling becomes more for others. And you can only do that by letting go. Hopefully, through faith and gratitude, each time I do not get the job, or even the callback, I can understand that it is meant to be someone else’s role.
When I do get the part, I cannot get too attached to the pride, approval or even the camaraderie. Be in the moment, celebrate the victories, share the gift with others, and then let go. Look inward. Stay grateful. Try not to get down when the landscape appears bleak, and pray for discernment. Booking and performing matter, but acting can’t become my God.