Dare to Dream
We need dreamers now more than ever, but how can you make those dreams become a reality? Actor and Spotlight adviser Justin McDonald offers his advice.
By Justin McDonald
Now more than ever we need the dreamers to step forward. I’ll share my dream. I see a roaring twenties; a healthier, happier, closely connected planet and a booming industry with a record number of productions affording more exciting opportunities than ever. Wow, that felt good! Now it’s your turn…
Keep growing, keep nurturing your craft and eventually you will start making progress. There is no short cut; you have to put in the hard hours growing as an actor, taking risks and making mistakes
What’s your dream job? Aim as high as you possibly dare. When you know what you want, you can start breaking it down and plotting the step by step path to get there.
Set Your Goals
Actors are ultimately the masters of our own careers. By setting goals you can get practical. Go after the skills and tools you need and work out who can help you get there.
For example, your dream is to play the lead in a West End musical, which production is making the most noise in the musical theatre world? Who's the casting director? Who was the casting director's assistant, the choreographer, the MD and the production company? Who are the actors and their agents? Or if it's the film world you're dreaming of then who is your favourite film director? Follow the same formula. TV? You get the idea.
Be a Detective
So much of the job is detective work. To be an actor today you have to be entrepreneurial and now more so than ever. There are so many opportunities and ways of working presenting themselves for actors in new and untried platforms. We are the trailblazers and it’s for you to show the industry what it is to be an actor in this landscape. If it’s your passion, if it’s your dream, then you have to do the groundwork.
Be a Businessperson
To be a successful actor you also have to be a good businessperson. You spend the majority of your career finding ways to have a go and when you do get a chance that’s when your craft comes in. It’s a difficult enough job being an actor, never mind creating opportunities and opening doors. The good news is there is always a way.
Find a Mentor
There have been times in my career when I have needed a fresh pair of eyes or words of encouragement. There have also been key moments in my career when I’ve been lucky to have mentors and they were such grounding and encouraging experiences.
It’s difficult to be objective about yourself. It’s difficult enough for friends and family to be objective, so having a mentor you trust within the industry can often help you to discover things you may have missed and opens you up to new ideas.
Everyone is doing this in their own way, it’s such an isolated and unusual career that we often question what we are doing and how we are doing it. Much in the way that you trust your instincts when performing on stage or screen (or microphone!), you have to trust your gut when navigating the business.
Sustaining an actor’s life is wearing at any level and there are pressures that go with it. The days when you feel positive and energised are the days to be proactive and attack your goals. On the days you’re feeling flat, focus on something else.
Be Proactive but Remember to Give Yourself a Break
There is no magic formula. It’s not really about luck either. It is about synchronicity. The stars have to align for you, but there are ways of improving your chances of that happening. Keep your tools sharp, continue to be creative and stay in touch with people. Gain new material and experiences, update your reels, go to (online!) workshops, work with coaches. If you're creating your own work, writing plays, screenplays or radio dramas, even better. It’s taking control of your own career and making it happen for yourself without relying on outside forces. However, even if you do absolutely everything within your power it’s still impossible to predict your career.
It’s also ok to reject it all sometimes and step away to take a breath and embrace real life. It’s all part of the process and your individual journey. Stepping away and coming back is crucial for all artists. There are highs and lows and that's ok. Sustaining an actor’s life is wearing at any level and there are pressures that go with it. The days when you feel positive and energised are the days to be proactive and attack your goals. On the days you’re feeling flat, focus on something else. You can come back to it.
Find a Passion Outside of Acting
In my experience, it’s really important to find a passion outside of acting. Finding something that you feel passionate about will not only make you feel more fulfilled and happier, it will also mean you'll have more confidence and more to talk about when opportunities do arise.
It also helps to identify with who you are as a person, define what your story is, what you care about, what your opinions are. It’s soul-searching of sorts and it enriches you as a person and an artist. Actors are multi-skilled, multifaceted people and there are many things we can do. Many successful actors have reinvented themselves to become highly skilled in other areas as well.
[The industry] can often feel like an elitist club that you’re not invited to, but I have a secret for you; it’s just an illusion. It’s your club too.
Plant Your Creative Seeds
Keep growing, keep nurturing your craft and eventually, you will start making progress. There is no short cut; you have to put in the hard hours growing as an actor, taking risks, making mistakes, and navigating your way through the business.
Quite often even when you do get the meeting, you won’t necessarily get the job. I see it as planting seeds, where there is no knowing when they might come to fruition. There should be no pressure on having to get the job as there are so many factors beyond your control. Just focus on engaging with the work and sharing it in the room with other like-minded creatives. Be professional, friendly, a team player and have fun with it. The more seeds you plant the more likely you will get opportunities in those circles again in the future.
Ultimately it’s about longevity. There is no knowing when your break might come. And because this is your passion you want to be doing it for the rest of your life. So to keep going you have to be kind to yourself to stop yourself from burning out. Keeping match fit and being aware of your mental health is all part of that.
In most industries, it takes at least a decade or two to get to the top of the tree. This industry is no different, but it so happens that it’s also one of those strange industries where you can catch a break early on. It doesn’t mean it’s not possible if that’s not you. It can often feel like an elitist club that you’re not invited to, but I have a secret for you; it’s just an illusion. It’s your club too. Your future is unwritten.
Now back to that job of your dreams. One small step at a time. Goal by goal. Work on your craft, chip away with the business side of things and embrace life. It’s that simple, but we’re all grappling with it. It takes courage and tenacity.
Are you ready? OK, take a deep breath… you’ve got this!
Justin McDonald is an actor, writer, producer and voice artist. Recent projects include leading roles on the feature film ‘Winter Ridge’ and short film ‘A Modern Magician’ with Brian Cox, which he also wrote and produced. Justin also mentors actors on behalf of Spotlight.
Image by Priscilla du Preez via Unsplash.