So You Want to be a Movie Star …

James L. Conway

I’ve invited author and director James L. Conway to join me today. In my two part series on the harsh realities of pursuing a career as a singer, dancer, or actor, I didn’t really cover what it means to aim for the stars as a film actor—in other words, to be a movie star.

Conway is a film and television director who recently published his first novel, Dead and Not So Buried. (READ IT, all you aspiring actors and everyone else—it’s clever, hilarious, and suspenseful). His villain (I’m not giving anything away, because it’s clear up front who it is) is a handsome young man who clearly has talent as an actor but fails to get the breaks he needs and ends up unraveling completely.

James, I wanted to ask you specifically about what it takes to make it in Hollywood. I knew a lot of drop-dead gorgeous actors and actresses (particularly actresses) in New York who did one or two national commercials and then fizzled out. Or did a pilot that was never picked up and didn’t get another chance. Does being beautiful increase your odds? How important are other factors such as acting ability, intelligence and affability?

Being beautiful helps if you can also act. There are a lot of beautiful people with no acting ability. who are stiff and nervous in front of a camera, or have limited ability. They may be cast for one or two roles because they look right for the role and it falls within their limited range. But for a long-term career, you need talent.

In fact, character actors (the non-beautiful majority of actors) tend to have longer and more diverse careers because character actors are not usually limited by age. As ingénues age, turn 30, then 40 then 50 the acting opportunities get few and far between. Most starring roles are written for young sexy actors. But opportunities for character actors only gets better with age.

Is it easier for a man than for a woman?

I don’t think it is easier for a man or a woman. It’s tough for everybody. There is so much competition for every role that it takes a combination of talent and luck to succeed.

The casting process is brutal. First your agent has to get you an audition. You get the sides (scenes you’re going to perform) and study them. Then you drive 45 minutes to get to the casting office. Walk into a room with fifteen or twenty people who often look just like you since you are auditioning for the same part. Then you get to read. That can last as little as three or four minutes, or as long as five or ten. You leave having no idea if you got the part. Then if you are lucky, you’ve get to drive another 45 minutes to another casting office for another audition.

Sometimes lightning strikes and you get a part that can launch a career. More often, you don’t get cast, or get cast in a show that takes only one or two days to shoot and then you start the horrible process all over again.

Can you be supremely gifted and beautiful and still fail?

Most supremely gifted actors do succeed, I think. Frankly, there are very few of them and when someone truly stands out, word spreads.

But not all supremely gifted actors come in all shapes and sizes and some are difficult to cast. Gabourey Sidibe, for example, the wonderful black actress from the movie Precious is a fantastic actress. But she is a very heavy black woman and there are very few roles written for woman like her. So a long-term career becomes difficult.

What percentage of the truly talented make it in Hollywood?

I would say a large majority of the truly talented make it in Hollywood. But there are very few who are really truly talented. There are many more competent actors, journeymen professionals who have to fight it out for every role. This is the vast majority of the actor population.

Is there a particular look Hollywood requires which might surprise us if we saw the actors in real life?

Actors always look different in real life. First of all, they aren’t in makeup. We tend to think stars are bigger than they are because their personalities and charisma are bigger than usual. We’ve all heard the stories about short actors like Tom Cruise (5’7”), Ben Stiller (5’8”), Michael J. Fox (5’4”), Dustin Hoffman (5’5 1/2”). Many actresses are small, too. And very thin which makes them seem even smaller. And many actors are very shy in public.

Now there are some actors and actress that burst with charisma on and off camera—George Clooney comes to mind. Robert Redford had that, too. But mostly, they are really just people like us.

Only a lot better looking.

What about tattoos and piercings—a problem or not?

Tattoos and piercings can work for you or against you. As a character actor, tattoos and piercings can help. But you are limited to a small subsection of roles. If the tattoos can be covered, no problem. All three actresses on Charmed had tattoos. Alyssa Milano had seven, I think. But we covered them the first couple of years, then stopped. They were on her wrists and on the back of her neck and no one seemed to mind.

But if the tats are on your face, or sleeves on your arms, you are limiting your possible roles.

How many actors have you met who were genuinely nice people? Is it true that most of them are insecure narcissists?

Most actors are terrific people. Many have fun, out-sized personalities and are a lot of fun to be around. Some are insecure narcissists, but far fewer than you might think.

How would you describe (not just physically) the type most likely to thrive in Hollywood? Man, woman, dwarf, circus performer? Dancer? Short, tall, interesting face or perfect features?

Honestly, anyone can make it in Hollywood. Peter Dinklage (Game of Thrones) is a little person, Jimmy Cagney was a dancer, Bogart was far from handsome but became a star.

It helps to have memorable looks—really attractive or really ugly or really evil looking or really sweet.

But with the right combination of looks, talent and luck (tons of luck) anyone can make it.

And that also depends on your definition of making it. Most working actors just get by. But they work enough to make a living. And since acting is there passion they are happy.

If your definition of making it is to become a star with all the fame and money that comes with it, the odds are definitely against you.

What career path is most likely to give a young person an entrée into Hollywood. A degree from a League School? Julliard? Yale? Broadway experience? Success in commercials?

School pedigree means little in Hollywood. It’s all about your talent. A mediocre actor from Yale School of Drama is going to be just as unemployable as a mediocre actor from Nebraska State.

When casting directors, producers and directors look at someone’s resume, they look at credits. Never education. You either have talent or you don’t.

Do actors and actresses still feel the need to hide their sexuality if they are gay? Do their agents encourage them to do this?

Many actors and actresses do hide their sexuality if they are gay. There are so many reasons you don’t get hired—too tall, too short, too thin, too fat, too young, too old—there is no reason to give someone another potential reason to say no.

I think agents want to give their clients the best chance of getting a role. And as wrong as it is, there are some people who are still prejudiced against gays. So most agents would rather you keep your private life, private.

Does pedigree matter? It seems that an awful lot of actors come from acting families—Gwyneth Paltrow, Drew Barrymore, the Baldwin Brothers ….

Pedigree does matter in one regard, connections.  The famous mothers and fathers have got agents and managers and famous friends who can help the son or daughter get an audition. But that’s where it ends. If they aren’t any good, they won’t get the role.

But access is important. So it is a big leg up.

At what age is it too late to try to make it in Hollywood? Is 25 already too old?

If you want to be a leading man or woman, 25 is the sweet spot. You generally look young enough to play younger, sometimes even a high school kid. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone (Spiderman) are both 28. And obviously you can also play your age or older at 25.

Now 30 or more might be a problem. Unless you want to become a character actor. Then any age will do.

What movies do you recommend as giving the most truthful portrayal of what it’s like to try to make it in the movies? For instance, Naomi Watts in Ellie Parker seemed to me to be pretty painfully accurate.

Ellie Parker is a very good portrait. Entourage was pretty good for someone who has made it and juggling stardom.

From what you’ve observed, does the casting couch still exist? Is it worse for men or women? Gay or straight? One of my best friends in New York was a photo double on a movie set, and the producer’s henchman had her delivered to his trailer. This was the eighties. Does stuff like that still go on? And if so, why does it so rarely come to light?

The casting couch doesn’t exist that much anymore. At least, not as blatantly as it once did. One reason, I think, is the possibility of lawsuits. Sexual harassment is a real fear at all the studios. They have all been sued over the years. Before every production begins, someone from Human Resources meets with the cast and crew and goes through all the do and don’ts.

That being said, it does exist to some degree on a more subtle layer. When a powerful producer or director say asks a young actress out, it certainly would help her career if the producer or director liked them.

I think it is definitely worse for women than men. Though, I once worked with an actor on a Movie of the Week. During production the female network executive came to location and attached herself to the actor. It became clear that she wanted to sleep with the actor. The actor didn’t particularly like the woman, but slept with her anyway fearing he might anger her and jeopardize the network hiring him in the future.

What about weight? I’ve noticed that actresses on TV are getting a little heavier. Or is that my imagination? Is it still necessary to be underweight to look good on film? Is having a good body more important than a beautiful face?

I don’t think most leading ladies are getting any thinner. There is tremendous pressure on actresses to look good—and sadly in our society, being thin is one criteria. Also, magazines like National Enquirer and People publish unattractive pictures of actresses who gain weight. Remember Jennifer Love Hewitt? She publicly said she liked how she looked, then lost almost 20 pounds.

What you have noticed is that more character actresses are being allowed to star in TV shows. And with character actresses weight is not as much of an issue. So you are seeing more actresses that seem a bit heavier.

What about nudity? Is it still possible for an actor or actress to refuse to do nude scenes?

It is possible for actresses to refuse nude scenes. Natalie Portman has never appeared nude. Neither has Megan Fox, Jessica Alba or an array of others. But nudity is part of many movies and TV shows and actresses can lose a role if they refuse to appear nude.

Once you are a star it is much easier to be picky about nudity. If they want you badly enough, they’ll accept less. But when you are just coming up, if they the role has nudity and you won’t do it, you probably won’t get the role.

By the way, when there is nudity in a role it is in your contract that you agree to appear nude. If once shooting starts and you refuse, you can be sued.

Do you trust one acting method more than another? Does one method work better for film and another for stage? What type of training works best for both? Should actors try to learn different methods for different media? Or in your experience is film acting more about innate talent than training?

There are many different methods taught to actors. The secret is what works best for the actor. I do believe that acting is a gift, much like playing the piano. You are born with a certain ability that can be finessed with study. But if aren’t born with potential, I don’t care how many classes you take, you will never become a good actor. It is not as easy as good actors make it look. Acting is tough.

Do actors need more than one agent? Is it possible to do without representation?

It is not possible to succeed without representation. Agents are necessary to make the deal with the studio, for example. And agents have relationships with the casting directors and studios. A lot of actors and actresses also have a manager. It helps to have two teams out there working for you.

What is the best way to get an agent? Is becoming an agent’s apprentice one way to get in the back door?

There are a number of ways to get an agent. In Hollywood, appearing in plays and workshops is a great way. Agents come to see the plays looking for new talent. Taking classes is also good. Many of the better teachers know many agents and if they come across someone really talented, they will often make an introduction. Also, if you have a friend with an agent you can ask them to give your demo reel to their agent. Networking with people is incredibly important.

I think it’s as hard to get a job as an agent’s apprentice and it is to get an agent. And generally they are looking for people who want to become agents, not actors. If you could get a job working for a casting director would be much better.

What is the best way for actors to stay sane in Hollywood? Scientology? Drugs? Ecstasy? Therapy? How does one avoid becoming a statistic?

Booze and drugs, while fun, can be dangerous. Therapy can be very helpful. But for me, good friends are the best way to stay sane. Friends who don’t encourage your bad habits. Friends who understand the stress and frustration of trying to build a career.

Does a young person need to worry about backstabbing by fellow actors?

To some degree. Betrayal is not as common among actors as it is among cut-throat businessmen, but it happens. I’ve been on shows when the on star plots to get another star kicked off the show. But it’s rare.

Schadenfreude is much more common. The secret hope that your friends fail. Envy is the real four-letter word in Hollywood.

Is making a movie usually fun for the actors?

Making a movie is hard work but usually great fun for actors. A film set is made of about a hundred people who spend all day making sure everything is right for the actor. Building the set, putting them in wardrobe and makeup, lighting them …. And, when the moment comes when the cameras roll and they snap the slate, it’s thrilling.

Also, you have a lot of talented people thrown together for a few months with only one goal: to make a great movie. Actors are at the center of that equation. The crew becomes a big family, with everyone looking out for each other. People forge very close friendships that last a lifetime.

What is the percentage of rejections to successes for most young people starting out?

Rejection is a fact of life in Hollywood. It is very hard to break in. We all hear stories about the actor who gets a role in a TV show and becomes a superstar. An overnight success. But that actor has usually been in the business for 5 or 10 years, barely making a living, waiting for that right role to come along.

Stardom often comes down to just that. The right role at the right time with the right actor. You need so many things to line up for that break out moment. But it does happen. So an actor needs talent, thick skin and perseverance.

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