The Most Important Thing Every Actor Should Know

You may expect me to say something like, every actor should know their lines, how to audition effectively, how to network, and so on. However, I won't be discussing those elements of the industry today. 

The most important thing every actor should know is who they are. 

I believe the most important lesson an actor must attain is the solid understanding of their true identity.  Every person, no matter their profession, should have a firm grasp of who they are and where their identity comes from. When it comes to an artist who portrays or becomes an entirely different person on camera, they should have this knowing of their true self built within them. 

It may sound like the most obvious, simple advice. Then why do so many geniuses of this craft ultimately lose themselves to destructive influences? We hear too often of actors who took delving into the life of another character too far and thus struggle to return to who they really are. It becomes even more complex when you have such success as an actor that you live your life in the public eye and people are painting images of you that are false. We must learn now to always remain true to ourselves. 

I'm sure anyone who has studied acting has heard the phrase, 'acting is being.'  With the multitude of systems of the craft which has been introduced over recent centuries, it has revolutionized the way actors become characters. There are many schools of thought as to how one becomes the character, but not as much material on how one returns to being themselves. 

It can be a dangerous feat to literally become another person on screen. When production is complete, how do you return to your true self, especially if you don't have a clear understanding of who you are in the first place?

Often times people get into acting because they enjoy the escape. They get to become someone else for a while, say and do things they may not normally do in their real life. Some acting schools of thought teach actors to use memories from their own life as inspiration, or substitution, in order reach a certain emotional place in character. If the actor has not dealt with those personal memories properly, the line can become blurred between an expressive art form and an unhealthy release of repressed emotions. However, please know that I am not stating there is only one right technique when it comes to acting. It is what ever works for the individual actor and the role. 

Your life story and the character's story. 

I believe the greatest tools an actor has is their imagination and observations. You can create a character's entire life story with the written words and your imagination, which motivates your actions and reactions on screen. The character's life story is not your own, unless you are playing yourself, but that's not really acting. If the character you are playing is a drug addict, is it really necessary for you to start using drugs in order to play that role?  

Know your limits, your boundaries, the lines your not willing to cross and the things you are or are not willing to compromise. 

Even if you are just starting out, now is the best time to determine the things you are and are not willing to do on camera regardless of the money offered, because of your own personal morals, beliefs, etc. I've heard beginner actors say there's no role they wont take, or nothing they won't do. When I inquire, they usually confess; 'for the right amount of money.' If an artist truly knows who they are, that would not be their motive. I do believe it is vital to challenge yourself to play characters far outside your own personality. Even more reason to know yourself and know your motives. 

Knowing your motives. 

Why do you want to be an actor?  This is such an important question to ask yourself and be completely honest. Is it for the spotlight, the awards, financial gain, even approval or acceptance?  I personally believe none of these answers are good motives for pursuing this career. But, you have to know the answer for yourself. Once you do, it will be prevalent in the way you conduct yourself as an artist and a professional. It should be a part of who you are. 

As actors it is very easy to be our worst critic. We should never tear ourselves down. You may have been able to give a better performance in a scene which you and an entire audience are now watching. But, you have to let that go and be prepared for the next job. The best way to improve is to learn from your failures.

Stay humble. Yes, even when your acting alongside an Oscar-winning star, you don't want your friends and family becoming overwhelmed with your boastful posts. I want to be the same person whether I am eating dinner with my mom at the kitchen table or siting beside Jennifer Lawrence at the Oscars. Thankfully, I've been blessed with the ability to laugh at myself that she has. Haha. 

Don't compare yourself to others. I can assure you, you are going to face a lot of rejection as an actor. However, don't allow yourself take on every role you didn't get as a personal rejection of who you are. 

When you take a big leap, whether in a scene or in your career, do it fearlessly. Have confidence in knowing this is what you were created to do.

-From an aspiring actor who has discovered the freedom and peace that comes with truly knowing who you are, especially when pursuing a career in this industry.  

'How do you share your life with somebody?'

How the Oscar nominated film 'HER' by Spike Jonze portrays the inherent desire in us all. 

As the 86th Academy Awards are merely days away, a few moments from the cinematically pioneering, Oscar nominated film remains in my thoughts and I pondered the questions they generated long after I viewed it. This is one of those moments. 

I should caution you, this is not a review of the film. But, rather a prompted discussion brought about by the protagonist Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) a lonely writer, his love interest; Samantha (Scarlett Johansson), a lovely voice operating system, and her proposed question about humanity, love, and connection.

"How do you share your life with somebody?"

As humans we have the desire to share our lives with someone. Yes, even those people who proclaim they rather die alone than get married or be in a relationship. There is the inherent desire in us all not live out our lives alone. Instead we desire to be loved, understood, cherished, valued, wanted, and fully connect with another human being. We all search for that sense of belonging. But, sharing your life with someone goes even further than that. 

Wholly sharing your life with someone without inhibitions or fears is essentially the most vulnerable act one can commit. It's when you share those moments that are typically hidden from the rest of the world. The 'you with no make-up, in your PJs, with your night-guard on' moments. Moments of great pain, slamming doors, and your tears on their shirt. A pain you're more than willing do endure. We share these moments with the person who sees all your weaknesses and flaws, up-close and in person. But it's allowed because they don't judge you for it or use it against you, instead they uplift you. A life shared with the right person, in the right order, comes with the most rewards. However, too often today people rush into sharing their life with someone with no commitment of being a part of that life forever. You see, sharing your life with someone can be incredibly dangerous. Once that person you've completely shared your life with is gone, then that overwhelming feeling of alone comes rushing back in. Alone with the void that person left. People go to great lengths to eradicate that feeling from of their lives. Most of those methods never work, just as we witnessed in Her

This typically happens because we are not fully whole in ourself. Therefore, we seek to find completion in another who is just as flawed as we are. Theodore sought completion in Samantha. Despite being an operated system, she had flaws as well. Instead of healing ourselves and becoming whole, we too often seek the next easy fix. Just filling the space that person left with another imperfect person. In Theodore's case; a voice. Theodore's estranged wife (Rooney Mara) blatantly stated, "You always wanted a wife without dealing with any of the challenges of being with someone who's actually real." Perhaps we should stop taking the 'easy way' and truly work on ourselves beforehand. You must first be whole in yourself, in who God created you to be, before ever attempting to share your life with another person and truly work at it. Two broken pieces can never make a whole one. 

HER, Joaquin Phoenix, 2013, ©Warner Bros. Pictures

HER, Joaquin Phoenix, 2013, ©Warner Bros. Pictures

Often instead of healing, we distract ourselves from the brokenness. The social commentary of this film certainly rings true.  With the onslaught of technological advancements, I constantly question; has the means of connecting us become the very thing that isolates us? Are we so desperate for this fulfillment of common communion with another person that we have turned to a machine? Today it seems like our smartphones and technological devices have become our significant others. Sadly these may be the relationships we nurture the most. We spend the most time looking into a screen, not another's eyes. Holding our phones, not another's hand. Writing a status to hundreds or thousands of 'friends', not sharing a deep, meaningful thought with a loved one. 

HER, Joaquin Phoenix, 2013, ©Warner Bros. Pictures

HER, Joaquin Phoenix, 2013, ©Warner Bros. Pictures

Personally, my writing is the most intimate way for another to discover who I am, the deepest parts of me. As a person whose writing is my greatest means of expression to other people, I found it intriguing yet disheartening that Theodore's very profession is writing personal love letters for other people. That just takes greeting cards to a whole new level. Have we forgotten how to express our love for each other that we need someone else to do it for us?

There was a time years a go when my writings weren't shared with anyone. Then during a time which I shared my life with someone, I released this vulnerable part of me had to be shared also.  Much of my life and myself has changed since then. Now it's necessary for me to boldly pitch screenplays and written ideas to others in order to portray the vision. Although every script, poem, or essay much like this one, is absolutely a deep part of who I am, it seems to no longer be that vulnerable, personal act with one person. I'll admit, I miss that. That person becomes the the one who watch you work at something and encourages you to keep going. Then there's that look in their eyes when you finally achieve it. I believe one day, at the right time, I will share those moments again. But, thankfully I can now share my work with many, in hopes it will touch more than one. 

HER, Joaquin Phoenix, Rooney Mara, 2013, ©Warner Bros. Pictures

HER, Joaquin Phoenix, Rooney Mara, 2013, ©Warner Bros. Pictures

Yes, I too have known what it's like to share my life with someone. I also know what it means to be alone. I even know what it feels like to be alone when you're with someone. Although I may be alone, or single, or whatever term the world wants to call it, I am actually not alone at all. 

Something changes when you have to solely rely on yourself and God. When you're not woken up by someone next to you or the voice of an operating system, but it's you that has to pick yourself up and push forward. At the end of the day, you have to answer for yourself and what you're doing with the life you've been given. No one else. 

As I stated, I am not alone. I am very blessed to share my life with my greatest supporters; my closest family and friends. They may not completely understand what I am working towards; I can't necessarily discuss film terminology with them, but that doesn't change their desire to see me succeed.

Returning back to that enchanting yet intrinsic scene of Theodore revealing his feelings of marriage and the flashbacks which overplayed of those times. I was taken in as similar memories played in my own mind. But then the peace and motivation of the life I currently hold overpowered those memories. I thought, if an OS or even a person asked me that same question, how would I respond? 

I would say by first being truly and wholly okay with sharing your life with just you, in order to completely and fearlessly share your live with somebody, and wait for that right somebody.

- Jennifer Joy O'Grady

the art of working with what you have

As aspiring filmmakers we can easily fall into the if only mentality. You may have an inventive indie screenplay that would be sure to get noticed at Sundance. But, how do you get it there? More importantly, how do you make it in the first place?

We are prone to make the excuses: 'if only I had a bigger budget, if only I had that camera, if only I had that location, if only I had that crew, if only I had that actor,' and so on… This mind set will become a road block to your creativity. When you dwell on what you don't have, it will stop you from moving forward and that script will most likely not come into fruition.

When you start to focus on the resources you do have, this begins a momentum that will bring that film to life and ultimately onto the screen.

So how do you make a film with the little you DO have?

First, the foundation must be solid: the screenplay. If the script isn't good, neither is the film. It's a rookie filmmaker mistake to jump into production as soon as they've typed the last page. The best stories are developed, reworked, and rewritten. Get critiques from fellow screenwriters you trust. They will see something you missed. I know this takes time and like the rest of us you want to start your career already, but, as the old saying goes: good things come to those who wait. In this case, a better film in the outcome. Always study your craft. Read screenplays which have a similar style to what you wish to achieve.

Learn to adjust. Write specifically for the resources you have. I've encountered having to rewrite scenes because the location I envisioned it taking place was not feasible at the time. Instead of letting this stifle your production, let it become a creative challenge. With your imagination and skills you are capable of conquering it. The scene may turn out better than you initially envisioned because of your adjustment to the locations you do have.  

Once you feel the screenplay is perfected and your blueprint is mapped out, now it's time to gather all the crew and the tools necessary for this construction- the production. In order to lead a team to build a solid film, you must have a vision, a motive, and a goal. Why should this particular story be told? If you don't believe in your project no one else will. Getting others to understand, believe, and want to see that vision come forth is one of the most important aspects of directing. 

Build a team. It will take many years to find essential crew members you want to work with for the rest of your career. During every project your currently work on, connect with those who have mutual respect and similar motives with their work. I've been blessed to meet a few fellow filmmakers who I can call friends and work with me to achieve the vision of my project. 

Value those who do work with you. You never want to take those who are helping you for granted. This means doing more than supplying them with coffee, food, and compensation. If you genuinely care about those working with you, they will care about their job of piecing your film together. The director should know exactly what they want to achieve and be able to communicate that. But, I'll go even further to say when the director becomes selfless instead of selfish about their project, they are capable of accomplishing much more.

That's why you must learn to be a servant before you lead. Those who understand how it feels to work as a PA for 14 hours on a shoot with no pay, will treat their crew with the same respect they desire. As the director you should take all responsibility, even for mistakes that weren't your own. You are the captain of the ship, and the captain goes down with the ship. As an aspiring filmmaker I can assure you the first attempts will not be smooth sailing. However, you will reach the destination if you have the right mentality and approach.

You cannot accomplish this alone. Mother Teresa once said; "You can do what I can not do. I can do what you can not do. TOGETHER, we can do great things." I believe this also applies to filmmaking. Remember, your job as a director is to convey the vision to those you work with so that they can help you accomplish it with their skills and abilities.  A leader inspires and encourages their team to act.

Ur Allure Media Production shoot

Ur Allure Media Productions shoot with Ali Happer, Maria Ramirez, Vanessa Figi, and myself.

Start small. I'm sure you've realized your first project may not be a action thriller feature with car chases and explosions. Unless you somehow procured a Michael Bay budget. Personally, I am a fan of simplicity. I'm sure you have heard 'less is more.' Perhaps, try starting off with character-driven short films that take place at only one location. You are sure to learn from each project no matter how small and build upon what you've learned. This doesn't mean to let go of your big ideas. Save them and continue to develop them for when the right time arises. 

Don't be afraid to ask for help. Many filmmakers go the route of raising funds for production on or Once again, your vision has to be attainable for others to believe in, to the point that they will invest in it. Family and friends want to help you accomplish your dreams. Don't be afraid to ask them if they know someone with a camera, equipment, or a location you could use. But, be sure they are reliable. Demonstrate you are reliable with their resources as well. Out of everyone, you have to be willing to invest the most time, energy, work, and money into your project. 

Don't compare. Don't always be a perfectionist. Your short film shot on a DSLR may not have the same look as a major motion picture with a multi-million dollar budget. Although, if you know what you're doing you can accomplish something very close, maybe even better. I desire to do everything in excellence. Many times I have to remember this is the best I can do with what I have and I can't wear myself or my team down about the minor things. I continue striving to do better with each project, and it should remain that way forever.

I may not have a long list of credits on IMDb or an Academy Award. These are just the thoughts of one aspiring filmmaker to another, sharing what I've learned so far. As soon as I stopped focusing on all the things I didn't have, I was able to accomplish much more than I once believed. I am simply working with what I have. One step at a time towards the destination. I hope I can encourage you to do the same. The world is in need of new artist to rise up and shine.