How Actors Survive Hearing ‘No’ & Still Fight for the Spotlight

I once had a girl pick up the phone and call me to let me know that she wasn’t going to cast me in her student film. I had been expecting her to get in touch, after a successful audition and a very chummy callback, but in a million years I wouldn’t have guessed she’d try to get me on the line just to say, “Thanks anyway!” Her bait-and-switch tactic ended up stinging worse and weirder than most other kinds of rejection, but it got me thinking.  Almost every day I hear some version of “you have crazy-person goals” and the following are among the most popular flavors of rejection that I’ve experienced, from acquaintances and industry people alike:

The Overt Belittling

“Let me guess, you’re an ACTOR?”

In the waitressing world, I’ve encountered more than my fair share of smirking wise-guys who can’t wait to call me out for having a far-reaching dream. Usually, they’re holding the menu I just handed them to begin our time together as server and customer. Now our ensuing interactions, far from over, will consist of my nodding and laughing and unwittingly acknowledging that my ambitions sound stupid.

The judgmental quality of the question coerces an apology out of me, because it’s socially easier than turning on this person to say, “Yes. I am.” How did he/she know I’m an actor? Probably because my opening spiel as I approached the breakfast table was plucky and charming and fun and I look way too happy to be juggling a tray of eight ice waters. But before ever giving my smarts and commitment the benefit of the doubt, this person has rejected me.

no stop annoyed enough eva green

To cope

In order to keep the subtextual implication that I’m somehow delusional or chasing a pipe dream from seeping into my psyche, I usually turn to the concrete list of things I can do for my career. I submit to acting projects online, order more prints of headshots, send the email I’ve been putting off to my scary agent, sign up for a workshop, even just watch a great movie (this last one alone isn’t actually enough to stick it to menu-guy, so I tend to use it as bonus to-do material only).

I can’t exactly track down every slanderer and show him/her my list of achievements, but I did achieve them. That can only help my chances of booking work, and further prove that I’m not someone’s eye-rolling idea of an actor, I’m a real one.

The Vague Snub

“Thank you for coming in.”

I can’t even count the number of audition rooms I’ve walked out of, knowing to my core that I didn’t book the role.  Even if the casting director feigned sincerity, the polite, impersonal goodbyes usually mean I failed to blow anyone away with my two-sentence audition for the part of Office Receptionist. “The doctor will see nou yow.”…FUCK. 

When the powerful person behind the desk has chosen not to work with me on the lines, or direct me to move around differently, it either means I showed no talent, or they were hoping for a redhead. That happens, and it’s a tough pill to swallow after I’ve spent the entire week researching the project and making sure my shift is covered for the entirety of Thursday.

snl no kristen wiig bill hader nope

To cope

It really helps to jog or do something meditative. It can take a little bit of time to nurse my ego back to health, but that part comes easier when I’m set up for clear-minded thinking. I consider what might’ve gone better, but also pat myself on the back for the little things I did right. It was definitely funny when I talked about the wind outside and put “weather” in air quotes. They really liked that, probably. When all is reviewed and considered, I find that it’s best to then let it all go. Auditioning is my job, and even though I can’t ever change a bad audition, at least I showed up for work.

The Delayed Punch

“REALLY great job. Thank you SO much. WOW.”

Having an incredible audition experience, I’ve grimly concluded, bears no correlation to my probability of getting the job. When a director is gushing with compliments and laughing out loud at well-timed moments, there’s an inevitable swell of promise.  I’ll be lulled into thinking it’s safe to call home because I’ve finally got an update for my parents that isn’t, “I was actually able to get two loads done earlier so…yeah, now I have stuff to wear, like, all month.”

Unfortunately, the real sting comes a week or so later, when my initial enthusiasm morphs into a paranoid theory that I spelled my email address wrong on the contact sheet. I didn’t get the part. I would have heard by now. This particular brand of rejection can be the most torturous, because it’s tricky to know when, exactly, to move on from that false hope and go back to ignoring calls from unknown numbers. It’s probably not Spielberg after all.

tv music television nbc christina aguilera

To cope

I send a thank-you email for the audition, and then forget about it completely. That way, any news I receive will either be a pleasant surprise or closure. If the casting director is someone I hope to audition for again, I’ll see if they do workshops and then sign up. It’s hugely beneficial to follow up on relationships that feel positive, especially when I have the opportunity to wow the casting director with my talents once more. I may never find out why they didn’t call me, but a strong (tactful) follow-up will ensure they don’t forget me.

The Unintentional Vote of No Confidence

“So…what’s your plan B?”

A lot of people mean well, even as they circumvent telling me that they don’t think being an actor is smart. Acquaintances will be excited for me, even impressed at my moxie, meanwhile knowing privately that winning the genetic and cosmic lottery is the real prerequisite for Hollywood success.

I try to forgive people who ask about my plans post-acting (unless it’s the same menu-holding schmuck from earlier, in which case I forget to offer him refills and let him suck on ice for a while). This person might be precluded from knowing that literally every role on TV comes with a paycheck. 

The base assumption is that I’m putting all my eggs in the basket labeled “NOTE TO SELF: BECOME NEXT JENNIFER LAWRENCE,” when, in fact, I’m just grinding to pay my bills doing something I’m passionate about.

jennifer lawrence snow sunglasses badass joy

To cope

I don’t have a plan B, so it helps to write a little letter to myself. I include the reasons I’m an actor, the obstacles I’ve overcome already, things I’ve achieved, challenges I look forward to ahead. I write down my strengths and assets. I ask myself if there’s any alternative in the world that sounds more tempting than what I’m doing right now. Most of the time, there isn’t. (Being a professional dog-walker is one hell of a fantasy, though.)

The Reality Check

“Your father and I are wondering what you’re planning to do about health care?”

Touché, Mom.

hbo crying college cry veep

To cope

Red wine.

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Amy Adams, Renee Zellweger, and Jon Hamm Waited Tables (So I Do Too)

Today I was lectured by a man about free refills, and I couldn’t do a thing about it. Standing there helplessly in my ketchup stained apron, a uniform that I tote bleakly from work to my overpriced, Los Angeles duplex and back, day after day., I listened to this man’s unsolicited (and glaringly uninformed) two cents about the extra cups of coffee he was entitled to.  I stood there and nodded— much the same way I used to let hot guys in high school be mean to me— not because I’m a doormat, but because I’m far too image-conscious to let myself appear publicly flustered. I apologized several times for the inconvenience this man was experiencing at the hands of someone else’s rule, and let him know that I’d send his message up the ladder. Another treasure for our suggestion box.  

It’s moments like this one, among countless others, that remind me just how crucial it is that I find a way to make money doing what I love. That’s laughable, and a little obvious at this juncture in my infant career, but it can’t be overstated just how badly I need to book a role on a goddamn TV show.  Contrary to the adventure stories of cliché adolescent runaways, I didn’t road trip all the way to Hollywood for the palm trees, or any kind of upgrade in lifestyle because hey, I really want to know what yoga and kale are all about.

I moved here to be an actress. Sometimes when you’re lost, or stumbling through life, a job in food service can really build character. But when you’re a determined (albeit credit-less) artist, and wearing low-cut shirts to the auto shop because you’re not sure how much it’s going to cost to make that rumbling noise under your car stop and you desperately need to save money to get new headshots and drink heavily this weekend, a restaurant job can wear your character down. I can feel mine weakening.

The crazy thing is, I love where I work. My coworkers are my friends, many of the café regulars are endearing and complex, and the food leaves my ever-growing stomach with zero complaints.  And this is exactly my problem. I feel myself melting into the comfortable routine of performing a job that requires no critical thought or ambition. I can memorize food orders from a table of four people or more, and meanwhile be thinking about the game-crushing snapchat I’m going to send later. Should I also send it to my ex? Is that too much?  I can leave work at the “office” and go to bed without ever feeling like I’m behind on anything. Anything but my acting grind, that is.

There’s a reason why actors from all walks of life flock to the food industry, and that’s flexibility. If an audition comes up, we can hand our shifts over to the next zombie who performs the exact same tasks in the exact same manner. We don’t let anybody down when we disappear, we can work all night, audition all day, and sometimes even pull off working only 3-4 days a week. The caveat is that we sacrifice precious hours of our lives handing sandwiches to people who don’t give a damn how well received our production of Macbeth was in college, they just need another napkin. That hurts.  

When I moved to LA to pursue acting, I envisioned a lot of challenges. I pictured greasy industry professionals who would tell me to lose weight, or try to trick me into doing porn in a dingy apartment. I even pictured turning down blockbusters because I would take a chance on an indie flick that would end up flopping. Far from my spectrum of worry was the thought that I might land a waitressing job that was both mind-numbing and addictively comfortable. I appear to be at a crossroads.

Back behind the register I fantasize about the dramatic way I might have quit, if only the coffee-refill-idiot had been so foolhardy as to pat me on the butt or call me a dirty word. In the fantasy I deliver a generous smack to his face and a rousing speech about the respect I demand as a human being. I win an Oscar in the fantasy. There’s no telling when or how I’ll leave this place, but of course I can’t serve muffins forever. I’m an actress! A storyteller! And the palm trees outside do look inviting.

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