I figured it would be a fairly standard audition. Just a one-day guest shot on a TV show. Basically a “talking head” role. You know the kind. The expert witness in a courtroom scene. Blah, blah. Prosecuting attorney. Blah, blah. Defense attorney and you’re done. I didn’t even want the part all that much. There was certainly nothing to be nervous about. I knew the casting director. I knew the lines. I showed up at the appointed time. None of my competitors looked particularly intimidating. My name was called. I went in. Said hello. Opened my mouth to start my audition. And suddenly, for no real reason, I got scared.
My inability to control my nerves was so obvious that I did something I almost never do. I asked to start over. Unfortunately, it made no difference. By then, my heart was pounding like a jackhammer. As I unconvincingly spat out the lines, I had one of those near-death experiences where my consciousness rose up out of my body and hovered near the ceiling. There, I watched as my audition plummeted and crashed into a sea of jerky mediocrity. Thank God, the character was only in one scene so I was able to flee the room relatively quickly. As I trudged across the studio lot and back to my car, I felt like the world’s biggest loser. What the hell had happened?
God knows, I’m no stranger to fear. In fact, I live with it (in varying degrees) pretty much daily. All creative people do. Most of us aren’t even aware of it anymore. The majority of my work day is devoted to writing and in the pantheon of anxiety-producing jobs, writing ranks up there with shark trainers and people who diffuse bombs for living. Despite the fact that I’ve been hired by some very big deal companies and paid some serious money to write scripts, the first feeling I have when starting a new job is fear. The assignment that had initially looked so easy now seems like a complex and daunting journey through a logistical mine field. Who was I kidding?
When I was a young actor, I don’t remember feeling nervous about auditions. “Keyed-up,” maybe. Excited and jumpy, for sure. But mostly my attitude was steeped in a certain youthful optimism that I was so adorable it didn’t really matter what I did in there. I was destined for the big time. My ticket was stamped and top flight successes on Broadway and in Hollywood seemed imminent. Somewhere around age twenty-nine, it began to dawn on me that perhaps there was more to this whole “success” thing than just being cute. I began to notice that most successful people had taken the time to find out what they did well and had honed their skills in that department. Apparently, my father had been right. Opportunities didn’t just grown on trees and now the clock was ticking. My ego and my naiveté suddenly had a new roommate: Anxiety.
Looking back on last week’s audition, I wish I hadn’t tried so hard to marshal my nerves. I should have just placed them on the altar and offered them up to the Gods of Art and unpredictability. That role belonged to another actor. It just wasn’t my day. Oddly, I forget sometimes that most good work happens when you remove your “self” from the equation and allow the unexpected into the room. In fact, it’s silly (and unwise) to try to plan how events will play out. It's astounding how fast artistic problems can be solved by simply giving something (or someone) our full attention and then responding in an honest way. I once did a guest shot on a TV show with a star who was clearly not in a great mood. We had just finished doing what I thought was a perfectly good take when the star turned to me and said “I’m sorry. I wasn’t listening to a word you said. Let’s do that again.” I was floored. That kind of honesty is pretty rare in a professional situation. We did a second take and it was noticeably better because (needless to say) that time I was listening too.
As masochistic as it sounds, without the motivational power of fear, I most likely would have never achieved anything in this business. Although it has probably taken ten years off my life, it has also made me run faster and jump higher that I ever thought I could. More than once I’ve felt that queasy feeling in my gut right before the director yelled “Action” and was then stunned by how the scene came bursting to life because of it. Similarly, in my writing life, terror has a way of spurring me on. Without the hounds nipping at my heels I doubt that I’d ever push myself to make that stronger choice. Show business is a life of extremes. Some days it’s blue skies and sometimes it Hurricane Katrina. The good news is that if you chose to do this with your life, you are already braver than think. As my main man, Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: “He who is not every day conquering some fear has not learned the secret of life.” Have a good week, Hollywood. Give ‘em Hell!
Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment, Inc.
This essay can be emailed to a friend by clicking on the small “envelope” icon below. David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being distinctly middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv