Are We All Actors Now?


A Former Actress Comes to Terms with the Industry’s History
and Questions Acting’s Future

Maria Prudente


In late 2014 I was hired to play friend #3 in a new online commercial for Garnier Nutrisse, the at-home hair color line. The company would pay me $100 for the day—half of which I spent on a cab to and from the location in a desolate area of industrial Brooklyn that inspired A Clockwork Orange kind of anxiety. This is a risk that many actors have to take, particularly actors who are non-union or work without talent representation. The marketing team had chosen one of the top fashion and beauty bloggers in 2014 over me, a trained actor, to “star” in their commercial. Her mother sat next to me on set.

“Is this something you do for fun?” she asked me.

“I’m sorry?” I said. “I do this for a job.”


Her eyes panned down to the floor, her smile polite and strained. Did she consider me pathetic, or did she feel guilty? I couldn’t tell. The team walked around on set, conversing with the blogger and her mother, bringing them lunch and coffee.


The actual tradition of acting is about marketability, and somehow I’d got it wrong.

I sat with my script of George Bernard Shaw’s play Misalliance in hand while the mother continued to tell me about her daughter’s YouTube channel. Building a website and social media presence was once optional, but, at that moment, it was now a necessity. The more I checked audition listings, the more casting directors asked for our number of YouTube subscribers or Twitter and Instagram followers. There were now areas to attach links beyond our website but to our social media pages in submission portals online. Casting directors didn’t just want performers; they wanted personalities.

The rise of social media wasn’t just impacting actors but also other industries. Writers now feel similar anxiety to amass a following to secure book deals or promote their work. Video features on apps changed the media ecosystem making everyone a guerilla journalist and their feed a news outlet.

I understand that technology is here for good, but how do we define our role as "actor"? I think it’s skill and integrity. But in a culture that values familiarity, “Where have I seen that actor again?” we also value popularity. Will we return to accepting the distance from the actor, creating a mystery for the story's sake? When will we start asking: “Are they (actor) good?”

~

Pamela Anderson didn’t audition for the role of Roxie Hart in Chicago; she was offered the role. Her first time performing would be at the highest level of theatre performance: Broadway. Her career has ranged from television shows like Baywatch to modeling in Playboy Magazine. Mostly, Pam is known for being famous. This year, she told Vogue that she’d “always thought I got away with murder in a bikini. I never had to apply myself to anything, and at this point in my life, this was something I really needed.”

Reading this as a former actor, I can’t help but rage at the entitlement. I’m glad it satisfied or validated something she needed—but what about the cast behind her on stage who are hoping to get promoted to playing her character, Roxie Hart, or any lead part in a Broadway show. Despite New York City actors who apply themselves running from one audition to the next, a woman with no experience or commitment to the performing arts was handed an opportunity without working for it. I can relate to those actors standing behind her at curtain call.


Many point to the pandemic as a turning point where the line between actor and personality muddied. They have become so closely related because all people perform online on some level.

My passion for performing started young, but I decided to pursue acting at 12 following a Shakespeare class, then improv camp one summer and musical theatre the next. At 15, I was rehearsing and performing in my high school’s production of Romeo and Juliet while doing quick changes for actors performing in my local theatre’s production of Angels in America. My first musical was Evita, and, coincidentally, the following year, I performed, and assistant directed Chicago for my high school’s big spring musical. These experiences didn’t immediately lead to Broadway. I would need more training to perform eight shows a week and to perform well. The training was necessary in order to call acting my profession.

“Strasberg uses a great gimmick of intimidating through the psychoanalytic,” said Stella Adler, quoted in a New York Times article, “Can the Method Survive the Madness” from 1979. She is scathing in her attacks on Lee Strasberg’s “method” approach to acting, which encourages actors to become their characters. Both Adler and Strasberg studied under Constantin Stanislavsky, whose system of “the art of experiencing” revolutionized the Russian theatre and formed the Group Theatre in New York City in 1931. Members broke off teaching their interpretations of method acting, but Strasberg’s version was more intense and internal. “I think what he does is sick. Too many of his students have come to me ready for an institution.”

When I was 16, I saw that actors like Robert Deniro and Dustin Hoffman used “the method” and naturally applied and attended the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute. Because I had seen no alternative, actors serious about their craft needed intense training to access emotion but with control. The actors in my class believed this, too. We thought that being “good” would lead us to some success.


The more I checked audition listings, the more casting directors asked for our number of YouTube subscribers or Twitter and Instagram followers. Casting directors didn’t just want performers; they wanted personalities.

Films in the 1970s, like Taxi Driver and Kramer v Kramer, were grittier than the films decades before them. Most modern great actors like DeNiro and Hoffman used a naturalistic style, like Strasberg’s “the method,” on stage and the screen. Emotional availability meant an actor would achieve something close to a catharsis on the stage and screen. Wondering if an actor was losing control in real life or acting like they were losing control became the norm.

This carried into my generation. In the early 2000s, the Sundance Film Festival was changing the landscape of cinema by increasing the visibility of smaller arthouse and independent films. The kinds of films were niche and often uneventful. Sophia Coppola’s 2003 film Lost In Translation was my favorite movie. I felt that I was inside the film because the actors could exist in giant gaps of silence or musical interludes where stories between glances, a shared smirk. Nuance, subtlety, and ease are challenging but necessary.

We tell stories about humans to show people what it means to be human. That is the greatest gift. I repeated this for years to people when asked why I chose acting as a profession. I argued that actors weren’t selfish and acting wasn’t indulgent. Instead, actors were the most selfless because the drama was the highest form of altruism—we were required to go above and beyond what was needed for “normal” people in “normal” professions. This intense marriage to taking on the scary and uncomfortable was why I took on roles in national television shows where I’d simulate sex, violence, and rape. It’s why I allowed my mouth to be stuffed with cocoa powder or my neck sprayed with chemicals I didn’t consent to create strangulation wounds while I lay under mounds of dirt shooting in the rain. To make these choices was a sign of my commitment to my craft because I certainly wasn’t getting paid much. But even if I were, I would’ve done it because I didn’t want anyone to doubt my passion for what I believed I was doing: acting.

~

It was pouring rain when Bette Davis arrived in New York City from Bethel, Connecticut, in 1930, but the rain had always brought her luck. On the first day of acting school, her teachers crushed all romantic ideas of the theatre, painting a pointillist portrait of the actor's life. Acting is work, the teachers repeated. Real actors need no encouragement. One-by-one, students attrited and moved home, but Davis stayed. Martha Graham taught her to use her full body in performance, and George Arliss stressed the importance of simplicity and clarity. In her 1962 memoir, The Lonely Life, Davis writes, “The actor must learn to play a variety of melodies on his instrument.”

I understand that technology is here for good, but how do we define our role as "actor"?

Though she wasn’t traditionally glamorous, Davis headed to Hollywood in 1931 and signed a deal with Universal Pictures. No studio representative met her at the station as planned when she arrived. She was later told that a car and representative had been sent, but they “hadn’t seen anyone who looked like an actress.”

“In Hollywood, stars are represented to moviegoers as distinctively different people, and stardom requires moviegoers to be able to differentiate one performer from another.” writes British film historian Peter McDonald in his 2000 study of Hollywood, Star System: Hollywood’s Production of Popular Identities. During the golden age of Hollywood, he explains, actors were stars, and stars were capital. Five companies—Paramount, MGM, Twentieth Century Fox, Radio Keith-Orpheum, and Warner Brothers—formed vertically integrated businesses with the means to produce, sell, and exhibit films. Studios saw the economic value of star differentiation, which would stabilize demand and raise film prices. They called this organizational mechanism the star system. Studios weren’t interested in classifying stars as types; they saw stars as a monopoly on individuality. Star work didn’t grant the actor autonomy, however. Like Greta Garbo or Jean Harlow, popular identities were created and exploited to produce and distribute films.

Hollywood stars were the first iteration of personalities and social media influencers. Is it fair to say that Marilyn Monroe was the first Pamela Anderson---seen as dumb, blond, and oozing sex?


The version I’ve had of actors may be obsolete, but they are being replaced with a new one, which requires even more of the person playing the part.

According to Variety, tickets to see Pamela Anderson in Chicago shot up by 9%. Much of this we can infer comes from the audience’s interest in Anderson as a personality and public figure, not a performer. A man named Robert Herman in Variety explains that society's ill-treatment of Anderson was his reason for attending the show. “It’s very autobiographical for her---being exploited. Roxie was exploited. Pamela was exploited.” Calling the show autobiographical conveys a para-social relationship, so common online, between the famous and non-famous. There is no boundary between Pamela Anderson the personality and her character on stage.

In other words, it’s easy. It’s easy for the performer and the audience to digest what they see on stage or screen. But for the actor, stunt casting, where producers deploy gimmicks to market shows, is reprehensible. Shouldn’t they hire skilled performers instead?

Hollywood studios didn’t hire stars for skill but for popularity. Studios kept a “stable” of stars they could loan out to other studios without the actors’ consent. Studio heads entirely controlled an actor’s image. Publicity departments constructed identities and spread their images across media. Research companies employed by their studios constantly rated stars.

“Stardom and consumerism both share an element of fantasy and desire,” McDonald notes. Stars were essential to America’s consumer economy, often used to promote products in ancillary markets. Stories of their wealthy lifestyle in the media stimulated consumer desires, too.


To make these choices was a sign of my commitment to my craft because I certainly wasn’t getting paid much. But even if I were, I would’ve done it because I didn’t want anyone to doubt my passion for what I believed I was doing: acting.

The tradition of acting is not what I have long believed. Fantasy, desire, consumerism, ratings, and product markets sound similar to the function of social media today, not the creation of good art. Studios prioritized stars with popularity because they had more significant influence, like James Dean wearing leather jackets which signaled to their audiences to go out and buy the same kind. How is that different from a personality promoting a skin-care product, offering discount codes for them at check out, and the skincare company seeing a rise in profit and the personality a surge in online value? The actual tradition of acting is about marketability, and somehow I’d got it wrong.


~

So, what if the idea of “actor” as a profession is a myth? What if Adler was right that serious, often punishing, theatrical training was part of a gimmick? Maybe the generation of actors and the few before mine bought into it, and by resisting the change of technology’s influence on acting, we are further mythologizing the “actor.” I can’t decide if it’s a worthy cause. So, I sent around a google survey to actors on Instagram about the future of acting.

“Actors seem to become more and more obsolete. It seems to be getting truer every day,” said one user who identified as a screen actor and comedian. Another user agreed, harkening back to the Pamela Anderson and Roxie Hart logic, “Casting directors are solely looking for the closest thing in real life to the character in the production.” Many point to the pandemic as a turning point where the line between actor and personality muddied. They have become so closely related because all people perform online on some level. One user said, “After a decade of influencers penetrating the entertainment industry, producers have successfully trained their audiences to not even know the difference between good and bad acting.”


“I think what he does is sick. Too many of his students have come to me ready for an institution.”

But don’t we need actors to give us good storytelling? According to one user, we do. "A trained actor knows how to bring humanity to tell a story and expand a mind. An influencer is a walking billboard.

Actress Eliza Hayes Maher decided to be both a personality and a performer. “I created a TikTok because I was sitting at home during a global pandemic, feeling sorry for myself, and I got sick of it. In this industry, you spend 99% of your time waiting for people to say yes to you.” Maher graduated from SUNY Buffalo with a BFA in Musical Theatre in 2009. She remembers a time when social media followers didn’t play a part in getting auditions, but “By my senior year, I remember making sure that every time we did a cabaret at school, there was a camera running so everyone's songs could be recorded and uploaded to YouTube & Facebook.”

For Maher, creating a Tiktok was more than just something done out of boredom during the pandemic. The app’s rise in utility and popularity was making it necessary. “The actor must take care to maintain some sort of presence on the internet/social media so that when CDs type their name into a search bar, something other than a college newspaper article from 2008 pops up.”

Since joining TikTok, she says she’s landed some comedic roles in commercials, and she enjoys that it gives her some sense of control in an otherwise uncertain career. She understands that casting directors may see three actors for one role and choose a million followers on social media. “And while I don't think a social media presence is a replacement for training, natural talent, hard work, (…) it's certainly helpful when figuring out how to punch through the ceiling in this industry.”


So, what if the idea of “actor” as a profession is a myth? What if Adler was right that serious, often punishing, theatrical training was part of a gimmick?

Speaking with Maher reminds me that actors today must wear many hats in 2022. It’s not so different from what actors learn in training, like setting or striking a stage like a stage manager or prioritizing and maintaining the morale on set like a producer. Technology and social media have made it so that there are no more excuses. There is no excuse for being unable to edit voice reels or videos. If you aren’t doing everything you can to make it, like creating a presence or content online, your odds of making it are lower. There was lower demand for actors in the years of the Hollywood System, and, in the 1970s, having unique acting abilities like those learned from “the method’ was a novelty until it became the norm.

The version I’ve had of actors may be obsolete, but they are being replaced with a new one, which requires even more of the person playing the part. Perhaps a far more complex version of “the actor” Bette Davis described as having to play various melodies on one’s instrument. And while wearing many hats does not indicate that training is entirely necessary or that the quality of content an actor creates will be better than a non-actor, it is undeniable.

Says Maher, “Turnaround times are fast, and the actor has more responsibilities than ever. But as the times change, so must we, right? There's no going back. We've learned that. So, we have to adjust.”



Articles:

Variety

The New York Times

Washington Post


Books:

McDonald, Paul, The Star System: Hollywood’s Production of Popular Identities, Wallflower, 2000

Davis, Bette, The Lonely Life, Hachette Books, 1962