Never Let Them See You Think
I’m an actress, always have been, fear I always will be. I’m more decades into this now than anyone wants to know. (Please don’t ask. I’ll be forced into the sad industry ritual of lying about it, unconditional surrender masked as pluck.) And what I’m finding is that it’s most important not to think too much. Or at least, not to let anyone know you’re thinking. Perhaps that’s the most important bit.
One of the blessedly-plainest pieces of advice I ever received came from a name agent in Los Angeles. A good guy, a solid citizen, who blew a lot less smoke than most. I won’t name him here because someone will think I’m being sycophantic in hopes of getting signed. So we’ll just call him Rock-hard Steele Fortress, which is actually not that far off and which I would argue adequately conveys his je ne sais quoi as I remember him, standing like a castle in front of my MFA acting class.
“If you want to work in television,” he told us flatly, “you have to do two things. First, you need to watch a lot of television. Then you need to go to your bathroom mirror, look in it, and be honest with yourself about whether or not you look like those people.”
My journey through the commercial world has been a curious one. Prior to grad school, I reveled in non-profit theater and enjoyed the confines of my very own walled garden, Division 13 Productions, a company I ran primarily with other women who definitely, definitely, thought a lot about everything. I’d already been ruined forever by exposure to Greek drama as an undergraduate, so I felt perfectly at home in our Beckett shorts, our two plays by Sophocles in a single evening. There was a Francophile aspect; we staged memoirs from Genet and Duras and produced the first stage adaptation of a Carrère novel. Over nine years, I played everything from Antigone to a bougie French housewife to a 14-year-old Russian boy.
All of this, I was sure, set me on a long-bending arc toward revolutionizing performances of roles for women, across dramatic forms. Oh yea, dear reader. Do not doubt the ambition in this girl. I worshiped Diane Venora, who started her career doing Shakespeare at the Public and developing the iron inner workings to show up on screen opposite Al Pacino in Heat, as (for once) a credible mate — a strong, complicated match for a strong, complicated man. Understand, for a young actress, the impact of seeing that portrayal. I honestly believed it would change everything.
I chose to be undaunted. I was never naïve about the cold realities of acting as a career, particularly for women, what with our expiration dates and the expectation that every character, no matter her situation, must present as if she’s simultaneously fresh from the gym and on a 14-day fast. I would embrace type. I’d fight my way into the room. Then, like the Greeks pouring from the horse, the full-flesh females that I’d lend breath would vanquish every trope from within. The Ingénue, all eyes and no asking the obvious question. The Sassy Girl (Utterly Benign Edition™) who only talks tough until the hero melts her. The impossibly-sainted Mommy.
I met with a manager — semi-seasoned but still hungry, earnest. He took in my resumé and had me read some material. I’ll never forget the look on his face. Admiration and melancholy.
“You’re very good,” he said. “But you’re going to need the right role.” I liked the compliment but needed more. Did I read Quirky? Damsel? Diva? He said he wanted to keep an eye on me, urged me to keep in touch. He was very curious where I’d go. (Same here.)
Next, a chance meeting with a Broadway theater manager at the Rum House, under the Hotel Edison in New York City. He was out catching a drink during act two. I was shaking off a date gone wrong. It was the perfect moment to run into someone in the business who had nothing to offer but distant goodwill. He gave me that same head-tilted look of semi-fascination, semi-mourning.
“Well, it’s tough,” he concluded, “because you’re a pretty girl, but a funny type.” The dread. He didn’t mean Ha-Ha funny. He meant something far worse. Hard to place. Hard to capture. I wasn’t exactly who I appeared to be.
All of this, dear reader, gave me a heartfelt case of the Fuck-Its. I returned to a solo performance I’d workshopped in California: a half-original, half-adapted, partially-sung, category-defying dance-theater confessional-art thingy that people sat down to watch. My director, bless him, went with calling it “a play for one actor” because there were lots of parts, all played by me. Dialects. Characters ranging from age seven to 70, male and female. (Ever tried playing both halves of a scene? Good fun.) I invited every colleague and casting director I’d ever met so they might soak in it. I’ll always remember who showed and who didn’t.
I headed back to the hustle, strengthened. (“Do your work, and I shall know you,” wrote Emerson. “Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself.”) And I remain in it now, freshly aware of how unprepared I was for one solitary thing: the head game.
I’m not talking about audition mindset. I’m not talking about knowing to be prepared or to make nice with the monitor; these are obvious to anyone who was raised by actual parents. I’m not talking about paying career coaches to cheerlead me through bankruptcy with self-help that sounds alarmingly like self-delusion. I’m talking about the idea that my head has no place in this game.
I’m not meant to trust my own eyes and follow my own instincts. I’m not meant to even see the clichés, much less want to vanquish them. My sentience is an assault against the hardworking people who have paid their dues by rendering unto Caesar faithfully — those pleasant and generally well-meaning professionals who rather intend to keep earning their living now. The message reads loud and clear, I think I’ve even seen a casting office literally tweet it. NEVER COMPLAIN.
That breakdown perpetuating stereotypes of women I’d prefer not to reinforce? Double down on that representation. Otherwise, we’ll all have to agree that I don’t want this badly enough. Perhaps I’m just bitter because someone else had a better day. Right behind me is an actress who’d kill to be reading, etc. (Seeking to avoid clichés, I drown in one. The actor ingrate.)
Now, I can’t claim to be immune to self-doubt. So I study the scene, I see the reductivism, I fight to find the truth in it. Then I look in my bathroom mirror and ask myself whether finding the truth in reductivism is something to spend a life doing.
I do work. Mostly through sheer force of will and a network fueled by loyalty and solidarity. The one blessed agent who took me on and continues to submit me, fight for me, submit me, submit me. I trust these advocates, I adore them. I send a gift basket every Christmas. One of the great benefits of the long game is discovering who your friends, and those who actually believe in your gifts and your voice, really are. I embrace my sides, I do my hair, I go out. And go out. And go out.
I work on a screenplay about a woman who isn’t exactly who she appears to be, and whose adventure is her own. I remember the audiences I’ve been privileged to spend fevered nights with, that incredible feeling when hundreds of people sit perfectly still and rapt in their seats. I greet warmly every casting director that I meet in a windowless room, trapped there for hours entertaining off-type types like me. I recognize the limitations of art and commerce in combination. I accept feeling foreign and strange as I seek my place in the workings of that inscrutable monolith: The Industry.
I do my job. Telling stories that feel true. Trying not to think too much.
Anne DeAcetis is an actor, singer and writer based in New York who recommends self-producing as often as possible to widen the range of stories being told. www.annedeacetis.com