In the three decades that I’ve taught acting, I’ve found that the keys to acting success are also the keys to a successful life. First among them is mindset: how one approaches not just a role but a craft and a career. What discipline one brings; what commitment; what portion of oneself is present.
I often ask aspiring actors at the outset what their goals are. The response I typically get is: to be a working actor. I reply, “Would an aspiring tennis player say that his or her loftiest goal is to be a tennis pro at a country club? Why then is being a working actor sufficient?”
Okay, I often hear next: to win an Oscar. But that’s out of an actor’s control. Glenn Close is one of our greatest actors, and she’s never won an Oscar. Does that lessen her artistry? Of course not.
Every aspiring actor’s goal should be: to be the best actor I can be. That’s both highly ambitious and something that one can control. Everyone can be the best that he or she can be, and that’s the first element of mindset: the aspiration. One has to aspire to a high level to be successful.
One similarly has to be willing to deepen one’s understanding of oneself. The actor – not the script – is ultimately the material. It is the actor’s technique that is being trained, and that requires a willingness to explore, assess, and realize one’s potential. At the heart of any artistic training at its best is the question “Who am I?”
In response to that question, one must be energized and disciplined. Being energized is not the same as being motivated. We all know the iconic locker room speech to motivate the team, and at times that may be needed. It can even make great drama. But being energized and disciplined is needed constantly. That’s what it takes to truly show up – every day, without fail – especially when you don’t feel motivated. That’s what it takes to be prepared, to challenge yourself, and most importantly to do what you agreed to do.
In that context, one must take responsibility for one’s fear. For most people, that is the mountain to climb. Recognizing that fear and grappling with it is where core growth occurs.
But mindset is not only about personal capacity; it’s also about what you do with it: how you approach your own responsibility.
The legendary director Peter Brook wrote in The Empty Space: the stage is a place where anything can happen and something must happen. But what happens determines the value of any production and, therefore, of the artistry involved.
As an actor, one should not invite an audience to “watch me,” unless one has something compelling and responsible to say. Violence, for instance, can be a crucial part of drama. What would Romeo & Juliet be without it? (Alright, it would be “& Juliet.”) Yet gratuitous violence is irresponsible. The actor has to make that judgment. That has to be part of the actor’s mindset.
The actor always has to be willing to decline a role. It may seem absurd to suggest that a struggling actor trying to start a career should be ready to say, “No.” But it’s part of the mindset for success. It’s part of aspiring to be the best that you can be.
What defines a successful career is not accepting whatever is offered but cultivating one’s own originality. As an actor, you’re only as good as your ideas. The late William Esper, my mentor in learning and teaching the Meisner technique, was fond of telling a story about playwright Edward Albee, who famously insisted on casting approval for important productions of his plays. At the end of one audition, Albee sarcastically congratulated the actor on successfully speaking the words that he had written. He then asked, “Now what is your contribution?”
To every actor, I say: Sing the song that only you can sing. That unique originality is what makes memorable work. The act of being human together is at the core of actor training and of theater. Don’t settle for being a cover band.
Audiences don’t typically go to the theater to see the actors; they go to see themselves. And they see themselves in the actors, when those actors are revealing their own humanity.
Think about the FX television series “The Americans.” Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys played KGB spies in an arranged marriage who are posing as Americans in suburban Washington, DC and working to undermine democracy. What could be more alien to American entertainment? But their artistry – and that of others involved – was so compelling that the show ran for six seasons. It won two Peabody Awards, the Golden Globe Award for Best Television Series – Drama, and numerous Emmy Awards. It was the humanity projected by Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys that was the essence of the show.
Core to achieving a distinctive and productive mindset is willingness to change and grow. Change is fundamentally natural – our hair and fingernails are constantly growing. Yet it’s something that human nature profoundly resists.
When we engage that resistance, we inevitably experience discomfort, and the discomfort is something one must accept, even relish. It’s no different than accepting the short-term pain that goes with increasing one’s capacity to lift weights.
Ultimately, mindset yields to vision and then to high achievement. That enables an actor – or an aspiring talent in any field – to be clear, alive, and in alignment with one’s own self. That, in turn, sets the stage for an actor to be the best that the actor can possibly be – and maybe even win a Tony or an Emmy or an Oscar.