When I was younger, I wanted to be an actor. I did Drama Club for yeats in high schol, and I even majored in Theatre and Television Arts. While I sincerely miss doing scripted theatre — I haven’t done a scripted show since college (and somehow it’s been 12 and a half years since college… when did that happen?) — I had learned during college that I wasn’t all that excited about acting anymore.
Part of it was that I had gone from being a big fish in a very small pond to being a small fish in a slightly bigger pond… and to pursue acting professionally would have made me a guppy (with lots of doppelgangers) in the Pacific. My freshman year of college was my first experience in having an audition that didn’t result in a role. Then, most of the roles that I did get were ones that I found completely unfulfilling. Add in the realization that I’m a better film actor than stage actor (my physical reactions tend to remain in the realm of realistic, and not exaggerated as they need to be to fill big theatres), and I just wasn’t having any fun anymore.
When I graduated college, I had moved on to the idea of being a director, and for a few years I thought about trying to open a theatre just so that I could direct. But even more than being a director, I had found myself enjoying being a writer, where I had a lot more control over how things ultimately went. Turns out I’d rather work solo than collaborate if people aren’t going to use my ideas. (Something I’m glad I know about myself, so that I can set it aside when I have to.)
But in thinking back to what I enjoyed about acting, it was really that I got to play so many fun roles (something I can do at will now that I’m doing improv), and the not-so-fun ones that required hours and hours and hours of studying and work just to do something I wasn’t enjoying had dragged me down.
Recently, though, I’ve been thinking about television actors. So often, actors get tired of playing the same role year after year, and they leave a show. In some cases (Law & Order, CSI, etc) the show manages to go on for a good long while. In some cases, it pretty well kills the series. But what always bothered me when I was younger was why the actors would leave a good show. I always loved the idea of playing a character on a long-running show.
Obviously, I’ve learned a lot since then. There are thousands of reasons to want to stop working on a show — everything from money to exhaustion to rehab, etc. But when I was younger, all I could think was “But you have such a good thing going!”
To jump tracks for a moment — and if I do this right, I’ll manage to dovetail this together and not just get distracted by my own writing — I’m currently watching seasons of 24 on DVD. I’ve never seen it before (despite having borrowed these DVDs from my dad a few years ago), and I’ve been amazed at how many important characters get killed off. Characters who have been with the show since the beginning are killed in later seasons (I’m almost done with season 3 right now, NO SPOILERS PLEASE), and it seems like it was done for the story, and not for the actor. This has kind of blown me away, to be honest.
Because my assumption has always been that Hollywood likes to play it safe. Hollywood likes to create dangerous scenarios for characters, and then rescue them. If you’re lucky, the rescue story will be good. If you’re not, it’ll be a deus ex machina that just barely holds up against scrutiny. Producers like the sure thing, so writers are told not to let the story get in the way of the money.
For 24, so far, it seems different. The story may be overblown and hyperbolic and at times just nearly impossible to believe (although I give a lot of credit to the actors and whoever scored the show, because emotionally I’m involved even when intellectually I’m skeptical), but the story is king. The only character I’m convinced will survive the entire series is Jack Bauer.
And that’s when I realized (hey, I think I’m dovetailing). I never wanted to be an actor on any long-running show. I wanted to be an actor on a well-written long-running show. I wanted to know that it was completely possible for my character to be written out of the show not because I didn’t test well with audiences, not because I was tired of the role or the job, not because they had “done all they can do” with the character, but in fact when audiences liked me, I loved the job, and there was still a lot of potential for the character, but because the story would be better for it.
In real life, we lose people all the time that have huge potential. And those stories shape us.
That is why I’m a writer and not an actor. Because for all my love of performing, for all my love of getting that audience response, I barely ever wanted the accolades. I just wanted to tell a good story.