Screenwriting for actors – “stop asking for permission”
What exactly is it that actors do?
If you are NOT an Actor start reading here
Most people think acting involves memorising some lines and delivering them in a believable fashion. Game over, they’re done. Acting is a much more profound and difficult creative exploration than that.
Let me get one thing straight to start with – I respect the hell out of actors. If you are serious about filmmaking and the craft of writing for film and/or television and you don’t feel the same way, I highly recommend you re-evaluate your position.
Actors, those that take their craft seriously, work their asses off, often with little or no appreciation. If you don’t count any actors amongst your closest friends then you have no clue what they really do. Most people think acting involves memorising some lines and delivering them in a believable fashion. Game over, they’re done. Acting is a much more profound and difficult creative exploration than that.
Most actors spend their time, money and effort working to be as vulnerable as possible in the context of building and inhabiting a character. They do this by revealing who they are while working to create a performance that is authentic and affecting. Imagine constantly being in therapy, attending motivational speaker seminars, reading self-help books and then going out into the world and truly, genuinely opening yourself up to whatever comes your way. It actually sounds kind of inspiring until you realise the other side of what they must do – while being sensitive, open and as vulnerable as possible, they must simultaneously build a very thick skin to deflect the endless amount of criticism, negativity and rejection they face.
A working actor will go out on many auditions each week, sometimes several per day, and they will not book the role for every conceivable reason you can imagine – too skinny, too fat, too pretty, not pretty enough, more cute than gorgeous, too short, too tall, white, black, blonde, brunette … you get the point.
It ain’t easy being an actor. It isn’t fair and it is never in their control, beyond giving everything of themselves to their craft.
If you ARE an Actor start reading here
Now that we are a little more clear about what an actor goes through, let’s get to the point of this post – I believe actors should take control of their own destiny and quit asking for permission and one of the best ways they can do this is by generating their own projects and material.
How actors can take control of their own career
Actors are good liars; writers are good liars with good memories.
Just this morning, Matt Damon was on The Today Show and mentioned he and Ben Affleck share a production company because it is easier to generate material for them as actors. Then he said something that every actor watching should have taken notice of, “we’re also writers”. There you go. He failed to mention they are Academy Award Winning writers but Damon’s a humble guy.
Affleck and Damon are not the only actors who are also able to call themselves writers; Billy Bob Thorton, Robert Duvall, Rashida Jones, Josh Radnor, John Krasinski, Seth Rogen, Sarah Polley, Dax Shepard, Bradley Cooper, Natalie Portman, Mindy Kaling, James Franco, Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy, Madeline Stowe, Sylvester Stallone and the list goes on and on and on of actors who have generated projects to develop by writing or co-writing screenplays.
But my favorite story is that of Brit Marling. If you are an actor and you have not heard of Marling then you need to. She graduated from Georgetown University with a Bachelors in Economics and was offered a job at Goldman Sachs which she turned down to move to L.A. and follow her passion for the arts and filmmaking.
She had no real experience as an actress but jumped in and auditioned for lots of small roles before giving up. Wait, what?! She gave up and you want us to be inspired by her story? YES! Because what she did next was revolutionary – she took control of her own destiny by creating projects for herself to star in rather than play Bikini Girl #2 in whatever sh*tty movie. She enlisted the help of two of her best friends and co-wrote a film with each of them with the end goal being that they would shoot the films for whatever money they could get their hands on. They were going to MAKE IT HAPPEN!
Another Earth and Sound of My Voice each premiered at Sundance in January of 2011 and Brit Marling’s acting/writing/producing career took off. If you look her up on IMDB you will see that she had exactly ZERO ACTING CREDITS before making those movies. Now she is starring opposite the likes of Richard Gere and Robert Redford. Not too bad for someone who quit.
A couple of compromises in a row and suddenly you’re very far way from the person you thought you were.
It has never been easier to make a movie than it is right now. So why would you approach your acting career with auditioning as your only plan to get work when you can generate your own material? You don’t have to be Matt Damon or Ben Affleck to do it, you can be Brit Marling, a girl with no credits who is now in demand only a few years after deciding to write her own damn roles.
Over half of the writers who have been or are currently in my weekly screenwriters group/workshop are actors as well. Some are experienced working actors who have done Super Bowl commercials and appeared on every major television network and some are still working on getting their reel together. One thing they are all doing is working to make their own projects come to life. You can too.
Why actors make great scriptwriters
Actors are well prepared to transition to writing. Most have been taught how to break down a script and build backstory as well as analyse the intentions, conflict and purpose of a scene. Most actors have been given a far better foundation to begin writing screenplays than those who don’t act. It just requires tweaking a few perspectives like how to judge material and story as well as reinforce what they already know about story structure. And if you’ve ever done improv then you have, in essence, written.
Nothing seemed as scary as waking up at 40 and realizing that I had not lived a very courageous life.
Actors appreciate great writers because they give them the platform to exercise all they work for and have learnt. Great writing makes their job a little easier. I think actors also appreciate writers because actors work so hard on their own craft that they understand how hard writers must work on writing.
If you are an actor, no matter where you are in your career, you should be doing all you can to generate your own material, your own roles, your own opportunity. In Hollywood, we are all replaceable. Nobody is looking for you but ,when you build something, a great skillset as an actor or a dynamite screenplay as a writer then they will take notice. It is only a matter of time. If you want to get their attention now, quit asking for permission and go make a project of your own.
I might write a part 2* where I can talk about an action plan to move you from actor to multi-hyphenate talent.
For now, you should take the time to watch Brit Marling’s speech from earlier this year at her alma mater. Trust me, you need to hear what she says.