Actor Mental Health – Facing Rejection and Thriving Anyway
It’s something that every actor faces. Psychologists will tell you it’s one of the most emotionally painful things a human can go through. It’s the thing that wears actors down to the point they fall into depression or even leave the business. I honestly think it effects our mental health more than any other facet of the job but it’s also in the DNA of pretty much any creative pursuit. And it’s horribly logical and inevitable.
It’s rejection. And we will be rejected. A lot.
So what to do? How do we stay buoyant under the conditions of rejection? If rejection came at us like it does in the movies, with some cigar chomping Exec saying,’Get out of here kid! You ain’t got a future in this town!’ then it would be easier to deal with. We’ve seen that movie. The hero pulls herself together and proves them wrong! End credits.
But in truth, rejection rarely happens with people saying NO to our faces. More it’s in the silence after an audition. Or no auditions at all. Phone calls going unanswered. No news. Saying to yourself ‘If I don’t hear by Friday, I’ll let it go.’ It can be brutal.
I think there are four traps. To fall into one of these is entirely understandable and completely unhelpful. Hopefully by identifying them it might make your journey easier.
1) The Trap of Taking Arithmetic Personally
I’ve got a very successful actor friend who never seems to be out of work – I asked him how many auditions he gets offers on. His answer was ‘hardly any’. He just auditions a lot. But still gets rejected from most of them.
In a business where there’s more actors than roles, rejection of the majority of people is inevitable. It’s arithmetic. Mathematics is very impersonal.
It’s not just actors starting out either. Rejection will follow you right to the giddy heights of fame and fortune (I hope you get there). Right now, there’s a casting director thinking that Robert Pattinson isn’t right for role – too young, too English. Or Amy Adams isn’t old enough, or funny enough. Actors have won Oscars and then not worked because they’re ‘too famous’. Does that make them less valid as people or artists? Of course not. They’re still artists, actors, poets or singers – it’s just that particular opportunity wasn’t a fit. It’s important to know this in your bones. It’s not you – it really is them – or rather the system. So present your work, celebrate it and move on – because the rest is arithmetic.
If you really feel there’s an issue holding you back – look into it in the spirit of investigation, not to beat yourself up – but to reaffirm yourself. Rejection is due to the unbalanced equation of people vs jobs. So don’t put your heart into the arithmetic. Put your heart into the work – the bit that lights you up. The thing that makes you giddy and got you into this adventure in the first place. When you do that, amazing, odds beating things can happen.
Auditioning is not a fair process (it’s just the best one we’ve got). If it was fair, we would all be working. So don’t worry about that. Embrace the unfairness. Embrace the subjectivity. Accept it and don’t let it rain your parade. Let your work be the focus.
2) The Validation Trap
From experience, I can tell you that seeking validation via landing an acting job is maybe the cruellest trap of all. A wise man once said that auditioning is a bit like dating. You might not want to date somebody because they’re not your type. Does that mean it’s a life of being single for them? Should they look to you for validation and change themselves? Or is it just that we all have different types and they’re not yours? We humans are diverse and beautiful. If we all had to look or act a certain way, then it would be a boring world.
Watch TV and look at the actors. There are all kinds of people on TV. They’re not all ‘beautiful’ or ‘young’ – they’re all sorts of shapes and sizes and ages because that’s the world – and drama should reflect the world. So be proud of who you are, and present it at the audition without shame or doubt. Because you’re a human being and you deserve to be there. You’re already valid, so it’s a painful game to look to ‘landing the job’ to validate yourself. Believe me, you’re good as you are. What happens post audition is not personal.
Have you ever see a kid play? They’re not checking for validation. They really ARE Superman or Rey from Star Wars. They’re not checking that they’re doing a good job – they’re playing seriously. That’s the bit of us we need to channel, but with the perspective of an adult who knows it’s not personal – who know it’s safe to play. The best auditions are the ones where I’ve walked away with a smile in my tummy and my perspective about what it all means intact.
Once the audition is done, let it go, treat yourself and rest up soldier, because you don’t know when the next one is coming in.
3) The Trap Of Really Needing The Job
When I performed in my drama school showcase I NEEDED it. I was convinced that unless I got an agent, it would be over.
I didn’t get one.
Many of my fellow students got signed up as I sat by the bar nursing a flat Pepsi and wanting the ground to swallow me up. I came to the conclusion I was a poor actor. In truth, I was so nervous (and needy) I probably wasn’t very good. But the point is, I got up and started looking for jobs myself. After several rejections (of course!) I was cast in a fringe play and got my first agent. So my daft head was wrong. Another chance was coming. A better one with less pressure, as it turned out.
I know that feeling of ‘needing’ the job well. Why do I need it? To prove to myself, or my parents (alive or dead), or friends or my agent that I’m a ‘proper actor’? Or maybe it’s more basic than that – I simply need the money.
A few years back I was deep in my overdraft, unemployed, anxious – and then I had huge money advert put in front of me. I walked into the room needing it. All I could think about was all the things I could buy with the payday – I could feel that tugging desire in my stomach. Painful. Please let me have this one! Surely I’m owed just one? But how much I needed it had zero effect on the audition. In fact, it had a negative effect. It got in the way of the process because it created extra, emotionally charged tension.
So now I make the character important. And the joy of playing it. Even if you don’t get the part, your version of that character will live and breathe in front of a camera for a few minutes. Honour that. The character has no idea that I’m in my negative bank balance. The character doesn’t know that I’ve not acted for ages and really ‘need’ the job to feel better. The character is involved in their own wants and desires, so I try not to let mine get in the way.
Here’s some good news. You don’t have to be a blank faced automaton without desire either. But I think ‘needing’ the job is very different to ‘wanting’ the job. It’s perfectly natural and useful to want something – but once it tips into needing my whole physiology changes. I’m stressing about something I can’t control – because I’ve forgotten again and put my heart into the unfair arithmetic.
When I ‘need’ a job, in comes tension. Then my brain starts to convince me I can’t remember the lines. I worry about messing up and losing what I ‘need’ via a public humiliation. The less attached I am to a job is often when it comes in. The classic example is booking a holiday – and then landing a part. Why did it happen? Because you were relaxed thinking about your holiday. You didn’t get in the way of yourself and your character shone through. So the solution to needing the job is again, perspective – and I get perspective by focussing on the character, not myself. You don’t need the job. But go ahead and want it – otherwise why would you even audition?
4) The Trap of Giving Away Your Power
Finally, and most importantly – what if the phone isn’t ringing? What if your agent hasn’t called, or you don’t have one, or you’re submitting your stuff and not getting anything back? I’m certainly not the first person to suggest this – but you can circumvent the whole audition/ rejection cycle by making your own work. You can get it in front of an audience without a single gatekeeper. A few years ago I wrote and directed a play – the funny thing was, I was so focussed on it, so in love with it – that I ended up auditioning more in that period than the whole previous year. I sometimes wonder if there’s a mysterious force at play when it comes to creativity – that’s when we’re creative more creativity comes our way. I could be wrong – but that stuck with me. And even if the castings hadn’t come in – I was still happy. I didn’t land any of them but didn’t care. It was a very free time. And no waiting for a phone call insight.
These four traps are all really about us giving away our power – looking to others for it. The killer of an acting career is bitterness, and bitterness is natural byproduct of giving away power – which is then not given back. Relief is in the utter acceptance of the unfairness (that unbalanced equation) and the remembrance of our own side of the street – our prep, our love for it, our courage. As Han Solo said ‘Never tell me the odds!’
Do vocalise to your friends and family that it hurts – get it out of your system – but don’t stay there. We’re holding a small, but very bright flame, us artists. The business can extinguish it if we focus on the darkness around it, rather than the light it supplies. Avoiding these traps, knowing the terrain and keeping that flame held high can help us move through a tough industry… and we can light it up, rather than let it beat us down.
Ben Mars is an actor, writer and voice over artist based in London.