Theater according to film: an actor's take

Tradition

My friend Randy is a cop, and I often presume things about his job that I have gleaned only from television. I imagine his days punctuated by interrogations and high-speed chases; stone-faced suspects, mirrored rooms and bad coffee. This week I asked him, “How’s the beat?”

I felt stupid immediately.

The feeling sharpened when his reply was, at first, a blank look. He knew what I was referring to, but only because he was as familiar with the fictional portrayals of his job as I was.

“It’s fine,” he replied. Polite. Then, struggling with his own television-supplied understanding of my job as an actor, he asked, “How are your… skits and stuff?”

Our jobs, like those of doctors, lawyers, spies and lobster-fishermen are disproportionately high-profile in TV and movies. Which is not to say that the flickering screens do not occasionally feature the labors of more innocuous jobs – but let’s face it, there ain’t no Backdraft for "Procurement Managers."

While revisiting some "theater according to film" favorites, I found several common and repeating themes among them. For example, everything from All About Eve to Waiting for Guffman to Bunheads agrees that there are a lot of weird, unhinged, drug-addicts in this business. But that’s not all they get right!

I’ve been a full-time professional actress for over 10 years. Here are three of the most common things I’ve seen in the fictional portrayals of my job, and how they stack up.

1. Vicious competition among leading ladies
“That bitch stole my role!” hollers what’s-her-name-in-Fame-who-was-later-in-Footloose. “You better watch your back!” warns the icky brunette to the icky blonde regarding the icky red-head in Smash. I roll my eyes. I suck air through my teeth and mutter various rejections of the premise.

My best friends in the world happen to be other actresses. They are as dear to me as family and the ones with whom I share secrets, joys, adventures and avowed love… But hot-damn, a little piece of me dies every time they book a job.

The truth is that I compete professionally with my friends on a regular basis – if not directly for the same roles, indirectly in the same town. It is inevitable that emotions run high, egos are damaged, and jealously sneaks in. As for stabbing each other in the back and being all-around thieving, lying bitches –I saw just as much of that – if not more - when I was a temp.

2. Actors smoke cigarettes, are prone to alcoholism, and are all fucking each other
Sheila: Can I sit on your lap?
Zach: Do you always come on like this?
Sheila: No. Sometimes I'm aggressive.
-From
A Chorus Line

To this presumption I give a reluctant nod of agreement. From the all-too-frequent backrub circles in high school rehearsals; to the tangled love triangles of a community theater; to the backrooms of Hollywood - it seems all stages of my profession share an especial weakness to temptation. There are many exceptions – countless exceptions – but I would say it is a fair generalization.

I argue, however, that the reasons are mostly circumstantial and not due to an inherent flaw in our nature: We are very expressive, we’re up really late at night, we change clothes together in tiny rooms, and we work in and around bars. Gimme a break.

Yes, theater culture reflects several changes that are happening in culture at large. Everywhere, for example, fewer people are smoking cigarettes. But you count the number of people out for a smoke break at 3M compared to those outside of a rehearsal for A Chorus Line… Please.

3. Broadway or BUST!
“There was my name up in lights… And I sat there and said, 'Remember, you're not a star.' Yet there it was up in lights.” -Marilyn Monroe

In so far as everyone wants to win the lottery, everyone wants to be king, everyone wants to win the game… Fine. I will concede that, yes, like everyone else on earth, actors want the gold star.

My sister works for Valspar. I know that’s a paint company, I know she makes a good living, and I know her job has something to do with labels. But if you put a gun to my head I couldn’t tell you what she does or how she ranks among others in her field.

As for me: Have I A) Made it on Broadway or Hollywood? B) Won a major award (Tony, Oscar, Golden Globe)? If not, the movies tell you, then you must be in your 400 square foot apartment eating ramen and stomping cockroaches while your mascara drips onto the ‘help wanted’ section. There is nothing between mega-fame, and starving artist.

But really, many actors buy houses, put kids through college, take regular vacations and live comfortable lives - and you’ve never heard of them. They’re making training videos that instruct the employees of Target how to safely lift a crate; they’re in independent films you will never see; they’re teaching a third grade class about penguins. And they love it, even if they haven’t “made it.”

In fact, over 90% of professional actors are unemployed at any given time, according to Actors’ Equity. To become an actor and make a living at it at all is both rare and hard work.

However… she sighs as she steps off the soapbox: If I ever win an Oscar or a Tony – it’ll probably be the first time I exhale since the day I wrote ‘actor’ on the occupation square.

We all want to make it, and although the target moves throughout your career, we all know what that target is. ‘Cause I got gigs every day this week, but when’s the last time you read a blog by Meryl Streep?

I rest my case.

(Ain’t that how you say it, Law & Order?)