How Acting Is Like Love and Dating

Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve been a hopeless romantic since I was a little boy. I always believed in the power and value of big romantic gestures, like in the movie “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” In fact, I think the way I saw love and attraction was definitely influenced by the movies I watched growing up.

We’re artists. We feel deeply, sometimes much more deeply than other people. I think it makes us even more susceptible to wanting something so bad that we’re willing to do whatever we can to make it happen. But in real life, unlike the movies, the audience and the one you’re courting don’t have the benefit of first seeing all the other scenes that makes us love you and show us that you’re not some creep or wackjob. And we live in a world full of creeps and wackjobs. Do we ever.

The thing is, in any human relationship, all of your strength, action, passion, dreams, and desire only amount to 50 percent. Nothing you can say or do will ever increase your share of the decision to greater than 50 percent; doing so likely means you’ve committed some sort of crime. Much to the chagrin of control freaks, there are some things you just can’t control. Like booking.

It’s hard for some of us to accept that. We go into auditions wanting the job so bad that we scare the clients off. I’ve seen it countless times. Actors reeking of desperation. It’s like skunk smell; repellent. Ever had a sycophantic friend or associate? Doesn’t it weird you out?

When I was only 18, I went on a scammy modeling trip to New York with about 20 other models/actors from Minneapolis. One of the older models on the trip, a real nice and cool guy, took me aside at one point and gave me the Swingers talk: “You’re so money and you don’t even know it.” Only for me, specifically, he said, “Shaan, you don’t have to be the fun. Just have fun.” I’ve obviously not forgotten it. And what a great acting tip.

If you haven’t seen it, stop everything and watch this short interview clip with Bryan Cranston, currently one of our most celebrated actors. 

I can’t explain it any clearer or better than that. And he’s totally right. How do I know?

Since about the time I first started writing for Backstage back in August of last year, I’ve been shooting two to three episodes of network TV each month. I’m now recurring on two hit shows and on track to have worked on more than a dozen different shows in the last calendar year. Ninety percent of all my credits have been in the last two years. What changed? What Bryan Cranston said.

I had dinner with a friend I hadn’t seen in months a few nights ago, and after we discussed how my approach to the work has evolved, she had a realization. She said during her audition prep she’d been focusing so much on the character, but realized that her main focus should be on the story first, and the character second. You can’t create the character and performance in a vacuum. It has to come from the context of the story. Stories don’t exist to serve characters. Characters exist to serve stories.

I put it another way to my students in class, recently: If you approach your work from a position of trying to get a job, trying to impress casting or your agents or your manager, or indulging in what you want the character to be instead of what serves the story best, you’re being self-centered. It’s not about you. It’s about the story of the project and your approach should be tailored to suit its specific genre, tone, and writing style.

The problem with agents and managers telling their actors to go in and be “memorable” or “make bigger, bolder choices” is that it fucks with our heads and wrongly influences us to makes choices that serve ends that have nothing to do with the story and what the project actually needs. Oftentimes, what we need you to do is very simple, just to move the story along, and all that bigness and boldness will only make you look like you’re trying too hard and don’t get it. You don’t need the big romantic gesture.

You are money and you don’t even know it. You have to trust that you are enough. Just as you are. You are already interesting and compelling as a character, the result of a lifetime of wins, losses, heartache, pain, and pleasure. No one talks or walks or laughs or smiles like you do. And you are inherently lovable, without even trying.

Do your best work. Go in prepared. Do what you know in your heart is what serves the story in the most compelling way you could devise, as large or small as that may mean. Afterwards, let it go. You did everything that you could. Now it’s up to them.

Then just trust that when the right one comes along, they’ll meet you halfway. You have to know that they will. You’ll have found a match and be able to take one more step towards fulfilling your dreams.

Fall in love after the booking. Not before. The role isn’t yours yet.