Act Smart! What would Leonardo do?

Whether you’re talking hobbies or heroes, have at least some outside of your profession.

We cannot see what’s right in front of us. Literally!

Okay, that was a parlor trick. (Albeit a cool one, right?)

But what is literally true for your eyeballs because of the way they’re constructed is figuratively true for you, regarding your acting career. Your desire and drive for it converge with such force at some point that makes it impossible to see what’s right in front of you. And there are mini versions of this with each individual aspect of your acting: particular skills you have difficulty learning, truths you have difficulty accessing or expressing, and so on.

As I’ve written about before, one way to do an end run around your particular acting blindness and grow as an artist is to read a book about kayaking. Study some other discipline, and eventually, the lessons you learn there will seep into your acting life (and probably be more firmly ingrained for having taken them in while you were relaxed, rather than an overachieving ball of stress).

But I came across two separate things recently that reminded me of the importance of maintaining a life outside of your acting life.

First, in a book about how to think more like Leonardo da Vinci—by many accounts, the greatest creative genius ever incarnated—came the obvious next step for overcoming actor blindness: hobbies. I’d always pooh-poohed hobbies, preferring to pour my creative energy into my art. But if you think about da Vinci’s life, what made it remarkable (other than, you know, the whole smarter-than-anyone-who-ever-lived thing) is that he excelled in so many different areas: inventing, sculpting, anatomy, mechanics, botany, medicine, and so on. Not only did every single thing he studied make him smarter in general, the study of one thing often fed breakthrough discoveries in an entirely different area. (Even modern-day inventions bear this out: the “invention” of Velcro after studying burrs, for example.)

Even in my own highly unremarkable acting career, I now realize that studying graphic design helped me put together better costumes for my sketch comedy characters and more compelling sets for my own productions. (Not to mention coming in handy for designing flyers and programs.)

Second, via a short post by writer-entrepreneur Ben Casnocha, great advice from Teller (of magic duo Penn & Teller) on how to get there from here, career-wise, as an artist. All of it is great (e.g., want it more than anything and make the commitment to show it; work your a** off; etc.), but of special interest here is his advice to have heroes outside of your profession. He basically calls it the magic of counterpoint, but to translate what Teller says into actorspeak, you’ll never be the next Meryl Streep of acting, but you could end up being the next Ed Ruscha or Joan Didion or Cole Porter of acting. (Can you tell who my heroes are?)

Look at how creative people in other professions express themselves, conduct themselves, feed themselves. What did they read? Whom did they admire? What is their style? Their philosophy? Who are their influences?

And I do mean any creative people in any profession, not the so-called creative ones. It’s as legitimate to admire Sir Richard Branson as it is Lady Gaga, or John Nash and Marie Curie as it is the actors who played them in their biopics.

You’ll learn as much, if not more, by stepping outside of the actor ghetto and exploring the greater world around you. Not to mention you’ll be far, far harder to beat at Celebrity.

* * *

Book of the Month:  Speaking of great books for actors not written specifically for actors, Steal Like an Artist, the book version of a talk-turned-post-turned-PDF by artist-writer Austin Kleon, is both a wonderful and a useful read. And speaking of counterpoint (see that bit about Teller, above) it’s filled with great ideas in interesting juxtapositions that make you see them more clearly. It is also exactly the length it needs to be, and not a word-drawing longer. You can read it in an hour or so (or two or three if, like me, you want to savor it). Juicy, good, and smart smart smart.

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