Act Smart!: The star in your head vs. the star you are

The star in your head vs. the star you are.
by Colleen Wainwright

Life is more satisfying when you get down with who you really are…and potentially, a lot more lucrative.

In my last day job, there were several of us actor types lurking around. Nothing weird about that: after all, this is Los Angeles, land of people doing one thing while they try to become something else.

We were a little unusual, though, in that we were all pretty practical (for actors, anyway) and pretty…well…not pretty. Which is why, one might think, we were able to be practical: plain-looking people can’t be as delusional as good-looking people.

Or can they?

I remember having lunch one day with a fellow actress who also worked at the company. She was a few years older than I and she’d been at the L.A./acting thing a few years longer, but our profiles and trajectories were eerily similar: late bloomers (i.e. started acting in our 30s), good with comedy, and, I cringe even typing the words, nice looking. As in, were you to plunk us down in any of the other 49 states, or even certain parts of California, we might actually be considered (gasp) “attractive.”

Here in Hollywood, however? “Casual Mom” was the far end of hotness we could expect to book. More often than not, we were cast as the person who was 100% unexceptional.

Anyway.

This woman had the relaxed manner of someone who’d been there, done that, which was great for me since I was just getting started and eager to soak up any bit of information I thought might aid me in my plot of Total Global Domination via Acting.

I’m sure we talked about all kinds of useful stuff, like local theater (we were both interested) and voiceover work (she had done a lot of it and I was definitely interested). But the only thing I actually remember about the whole conversation was her shocking, shocking, I tell you, admission that when she came to Hollywood, it was with the notion that she’d be the next Michelle Pfeiffer.

Hold the phone. Back up a minute, here. Michelle Freakin’ Pfeiffer!?!!

Um, was there something I was missing, here? Because yeah, a few years had passed, but clearly, even on her best day 10 years ago, a day with perfect cloud cover, $20,000 lighting and Gordon Willis behind the Panavision, she was gonna be Michelle Pfeiffer’s maid or Michelle Pfeiffer’s corner convenience store cashier or maybe Michelle Pfeiffer’s Casual-Mom/Before Picture-type friend, but not Michelle Freakin’ Pfeiffer!!!

Worse, she said it without a trace of irony. Just sat there as calm as could be, eating her salad or sandwich or whatever horrible things we’d gotten at Barney’s Beanery that day, and relayed this as an Actual Fact. This perfectly ordinary, perfectly nice looking girl, who looked more like, well, like me. It almost made me angry, it was so ridiculous.

And then it hit me. She was able to say this without a trace of irony because of course it was ridiculous, now. Now she was working. Now she knew who she was, where she fit in and had gotten comfortable with it. Very comfortable. Back when she fell off the turnip truck, however, the way most of us are delivered unto this crazy business, she’d actually believed it. In the movie in her mind, she’d been playing opposite Jeff Bridges and John Malkovich and Batman for years. So why not Michelle Pfeiffer? Why not?

Of course, we all know the answer: because the scale is different here. When “breathtaking” is getting cast as “the girl next door” (albeit, the idealized version), gorgeous becomes the new pretty, pretty the new cute, cute the new plain, and so on down the line. What my amazing fellow actor-slash-coworker had done was get real, which is a very simple thing to do, but hardly an easy one. When the camera rolls in our head, most of us don’t imagine ourselves as second banana, but as the star of the show, which usually means (be honest!) the good-looking one. The hot one, even. The one who gets the girl or confounds the enemy or saves civilization or at least cries (attractively) on cue, not the one who serves toast or delivers packages.

Even the more realistic among us who get down with our inner clown still (be honest! honest, I say!) can become oddly vain at the costume fitting or in the makeup chair or in front of the headshot photographer’s cyclorama. Trust me, the pretty people aren’t the only ones asking to be shot from a certain angle, and they’re not the only ones getting nipped and tucked. Vanity is an equal-opportunity employer, my friends.

The lesson for me, quietly delivered that day with courage and humility and reinforced every time I was able to stop my big, fat pride from getting in the way of things, was this: resist. Ferret out the rogue elements of pride and vanity that obscure true greatness. Be ruthlessly honest with yourself about what you look like on the outside and where that can fit into the story, and then embrace it 100%.

When the breakdown says “no makeup,” show up barefaced. No tiny swipe of “but you can barely see it” lipstick, no “oh, they didn’t really mean it,” quick coat of mascara. And when you arrive on set at 5 AM and (true story) they dress you in the butt-ugliest housecoat on the rack, laugh, and send you to set? Smile and say “thank you.” They’re helping you to play the part you were hired to play. Yeah, maybe it’s not the part you had in mind when you fell off the turnip truck. Yeah, maybe you look like crap on a cracker, but in the context of the story, it’s working.

More importantly, you’re working. A working actor. And that’s something even the Hotty McHot-Hots can get down with…


Colleen Wainwright is an L.A.-based writer-performer-etc. who started calling herself “the communicatrix” when she hit three hyphens. As part of her pledge to use her powers for good and not evil, she now helps actors and other cool entrepreneurial types brand themselves via her design business, communicatrix | designs.