Why Acting Is So Horrible

Originally posted Dec. 5, 2013

I had a revelation a couple of months ago. It wasn’t a big revelation. I had suspected it for some time: Something awful always happens when you act.

By chance, I happened to be working on three jobs at the same time. This is not because I was popular. I had gone several months at the beginning of the year without an audition. This was bad timing. I had to do a night shoot on a movie in Los Angeles, shoot a project in Virginia, then fly back and shoot a pilot. This was all supposed to happen over a seven-day period including travel.

It meant no sleep. Stealing food off of craft service trucks. It meant eight days of panic. I kept saying to myself, “If only I had time!”

Working on the first movie, “Men’s Group,” we had to shoot nine to 10 pages each day to make our schedule. It was relentless. Again, there was no time.

One evening we got into a long scene featuring Tim Bottoms. Tim gave an effortless and powerful performance. Cast and crew congratulated him afterward. The problem was, because of the schedule, we could only shoot the master that day. We had to pick up his close-ups starting at 6:30 a.m. the next day. It seemed like cruel and unusual punishment to force an actor to stay “in the zone” of a difficult scene overnight. Tim shrugged it off. He said, “You gotta do what you gotta do.”

It made me think of all of the times I was upset having to do my close-up first thing after lunch. Or last up at the end of a day. Acting with a dog in “Garfield.” Acting with a C stand and a piece of green tape when certain stars preferred to stay in their trailers. On “Deadwood” they never washed your costumes. On “Heroes” you had no idea what you were doing. On “Glee” you had to dance. Horrible.

The revelation: You never have the right circumstances to do your job. The horrible isn’t the exception. It is the rule.

Crisis management is never part of the acting curriculum. That’s too bad. Rolling with the punches is key to success in this business. It’s not whether you can cry on cue. It’s whether you can cry on cue, in a windstorm, while drinking a fake beer out of a dirty glass.

How do you do that? I’m not really sure. Grab onto the story like it’s the mane of a runaway horse? That helps sometimes. The one thing I do know: It happens to everyone. It’s not just you. Recently, I have tried a mental adjustment that seems to work: Don’t look at calamities as a wall between you and your work. Think of them as little surprises life is giving you to keep it fresh.

The unexpected is like a jacket you buy at a garage sale. It never seems to fit when you first try it on, but somehow, it becomes what we love the most.


  1. David on January 31, 2014 at 6:15 am

    Thank you.

  2. Mark Olmsted on February 2, 2014 at 10:33 am

    Have you seen “That guy who was in that thing?” Great doc on Netflix about actors who are known by face but not by name, about acting in general.

    • Stephen Tobolowsky on February 2, 2014 at 8:22 pm

      No I haven’t. People know me often as Ned or Sandy or Stu or even…the guy who tells the stories. That is OK too.

  3. Mark Olmsted on February 2, 2014 at 10:34 am

    Oops, forgot to be ask to notified of your answer!