Essential Reading For The Professional Actor
To be an actor, you have to learn to “divide yourself” between Self and Other, which has practical application both onscreen and off. On screen (or stage) you have to essentially become a whole Other person, which requires putting Self in a “box” so to speak so that your mind and body can be inhabited by Other. Off screen, however, the ability to divide Self and Other also has practical applications.
The second you display a skill or gift that someone else
can use to make money, you become a commodity.
At that moment, you become two people whether you like it or not. There is the flesh and blood human being that belongs solely and completely to you – and then there is the bankable, marketable “star:” the persona that is NOT YOU. Learning to separate the two is essential for your own health and longevity as an actor.
“They go to bed with Gilda and they wake up with me.” - Rita Hayworth
This is, of course, referring to this “dual nature” of celebrity and the expectations people place on “stars.” They expect you to be your characters, and are disappointed when you are not. Over time, that disappointment not only hurts, but can actually destroy your belief in your own value and worth as a person, not as a “celebrity.”
It is your job to protect your Self – the deepest, truest part of you and to stay true to that. Some of your work as an actor will help you to determine what is Self – who you are, as a person and individual – so that you can protect that, while you don the protective mask of persona - or “Other”- in situations that require it. Some of the best books you can read to help you be a better actor aren’t about acting at all – they are about the essential nature of humanity.
Here is a list of books that will help you not only learn about yourself as an actor, but about the interior lives of the characters you will play that will help you begin the process of differentiating between “Self” and “Other.”
1.) The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty – Dan Ariely
From ticket-fixing in our police departments to test-score scandals in our schools, from our elected leaders’ extra-marital affairs to the Ponzi schemes undermining our economy, cheating and dishonesty are ubiquitous parts of our national news cycle—and inescapable parts of the human condition. Drawing on original experiments and research… Ariely reveals—honestly—what motivates these irrational, but entirely human, behaviors.
People lie. We lie to ourselves and we lie to others. Once an actor accepts this as fact they can begin to genuinely incorporate everything from small lies to massive fictions into their characters, to create real and genuine people. Not only will this book help you understand when, why and how you lie, but it will also help you understand when, why and how other people lie - and that lying is not always a “bad” thing! Not only will this book help you be a better actor, it will help you in both your business dealings and personal relationships and – in general – to just be a better person.
2.) Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No, to Take Control of Your Life – Dr. Henry Cloud, Dr. John Townsend
While this is technically considered a “Christian” book, Boundaries was written by two legitimate, established, licensed psychologists and the book has amassed a huge following in both “Christian” and secular circles. It may be one of the most important books ever for actors to read in regards to how to separate Self from Other and to keep one inviolate.
Boundaries will help actors to understand what others – including the public, your family members, your own managers and agents, as well as Studios and other business owners - have a right to and what they do not have a right to, and to set and maintain healthy and appropriate disciplines that allow you to keep your personal and public life separate. Doing this will also help you maintain a sense of your own value and worth as a person not just as a commodity.
As an actor, you will also find that the characters you play have a greater or lesser ability to set boundaries themselves. Children that grow up in abusive environments have major boundary issues as adults, because they were never allowed to have boundaries as a child, as do people that grew up in overly “religious” environments. People that do not know how to set boundaries for themselves also have no idea how to respect the boundaries of others. This book will help you gain deep insight into any character that comes from an abusive or highly religious background and their struggles to build and maintain healthy relationships as an adult.
3.) Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking – Susan Cain
There are a huge number of fallacies and myths surrounding Introverts and Extroverts, but it’s a hugely important area for an actor to study - both for personal and professional reasons. For personal reasons, it’s important for actors to understand their own comfort zones: what social events/ functions/ situations are they the most comfortable with and which ones make them the most uncomfortable. By knowing (and understanding) their own limitations, they can begin to set boundaries that will help them manage their social resources and use them wisely.
As an actor, it’s important to understand some of the key differences between introverts and extroverts – and that very few people are either extreme introverts or extreme extroverts. The majority of people are ambiverts – meaning there are a number of different conditions and factors, which tend to bring out either introverted or extroverted tendencies within them depending on the situation. Many times people are introverts out of a fear that they long to be set free from or extroverts due to conditions they did not choose that forces them to lead an extroverted life when all they really long for is peace, quite and solitude. As an actor, it’s your job to figure out what is real or “natural” to them, and what is a result of external forces in their lives.
4.) The Highly Sensitive Person – Elaine N. Aron Ph.D.
As an actor, there is a good possibility that you are also a Highly Sensitive Person – as most artists of all kinds are. Artists are people that see what the rest of the world is blind to – sometimes by choice. We see both great beauty in the world and great pain and too much of either one is sometimes overwhelming to us. As both an actor and as a human being, it’s important for you to understand what your limitations are and how your limitations are unlike those of less Sensitive people. Sometimes as an artist you will see things that not only do other people not see, but they sometimes don’t want to see. Artists then, are given two choices: they can either speak truth so loudly that the world can’t ignore them- for which they will often pay a very high price – or they can bury the truth inside themselves, where it will often eat them alive.
Being a “Highly Sensitive Person” does not in any way make an actor a weak person, it merely means that they are like a “human seismograph” – they can “feel” the emotional temperature of a room, they can sense tension or danger, or minute shifts in weather or wind patterns. They often have sensitive taste buds that can detect the tiniest hint of flavors and spices, highly acute hearing that makes them sensitive to loud noises and highly acute vision. Highly sensitive people are often exhausted by excessive stimuli or places where there are bright lights and loud noises, such as at carnivals, concerts, amusement parks and crowded bars. Many times, High Sensitivity is mistake for Introversion and Low Sensitivity for Extroversion.
As the book talks about “highly sensitive” and “low sensitivity” creatures exist throughout all of nature and they both have a very valuable role. Like all the other books, The Highly Sensitive Person will not only teach you a lot about yourself as a person, but give you a whole arsenal of tools with which to develop characters that are very unlike yourself.
5.) Facing Love Addiction – Pia Mellody
While there are probably hundreds of different kinds of addictions – most of which are well known and highly publicized – love addiction is both a much lesser known phenomena as well as a condition that many people that pursue “fame” actually struggle with. Most people in Recovery understand or come to learn that most addicts will ultimately struggle with more than one kind of addiction. Many addicts struggle their way through overcoming their alcoholic tendencies or drug addictions only to discover they have love/ sex/ relationship addictions underlying them.
What makes love addiction so difficult and fascinating all at the same time is that – like eating disorders – love/ sex/ relationships addictions are the unhealthy pursuit of something healthy – which makes them difficult to identify but great material for actors to study.
Understanding addiction of all kinds and the effects it has on the people around the addict is an important part of the work of an actor, as well as an important part of staying healthy in an industry in which all manner of addictions not only abound but seem to thrive.
Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No, to Take Control of Your Life – Cloud, Dr. Henry; Townsend, Dr. John
Facing Love Addiction – Mellody, Pia
The Highly Sensitive Person – Aron, Elaine N. Ph.D.
The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty – Ariely, Dan