Go ahead, watch the Academy Awards tonight, but you’ll never win an Oscar yourself. Acting’s most celebrated prize is not within your reach. Ever.
Hopefully you’re not telling yourself that.
I watched the work of two of the first-time Best Actor nominees this weekend: Bruce Dern in Nebraska and Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club. Both gave moving performances in their respective dramas. Dern’s been acting for more than 50 years, often in dynamic supporting roles. McConaughey made his film debut a little more than two decades ago and he’s built a solid career as a leading man in a mix of genres. One of these respected artists could take home an 8 1/2 pound statuette tonight.
If you’re like many of your peers, you’ll be watching the broadcast on ABC and imagining giving your acceptance speech someday. It may be a list of everyone who deserves credit or it may be a simple thank you. If you’re bold, you may thank everyone who stood in your way. I have a few of those folks in mind.
I really don’t spend much time thinking about what I will say when that moment arrives for me. And it will arrive. I do think about the lessons that are necessary to make that acceptance speech possible. Of course, I haven’t won an Oscar yet so you’re entitled to think, “how could this fool possibly know what he’s talking about?” Fair enough. But read the list, reflect on what each one means to you, and draw your own conclusions.
YOU’LL NEVER WIN AN OSCAR UNTIL—
1. You make it a goal. You won’t win by accident. It’s the culmination of a series of decisions starting with your first choice to be an actor. Pick a year for your victory.
2. You freely invest the time. The work on set is a fraction of the preparation. Every time you audition in person or tape an audition or talk about acting or watch a film or read an acting book or do virtually anything connected to your craft you are taking a step closer to a victory.
3. You seek growth. The actor you will be in ten years won’t be recognizable to you today. If you allow yourself to embrace new experiences and challenges, you may find growth happening much more rapidly.
4. You’re willing to take risks. Understand there is always risk involved in choosing which projects and roles to pursue. The film you wouldn’t give a second look to now could be the one that got finished, found an audience and led to fruitful new relationships.
5. You develop a brand. Whether you go on to become a leading lady or leading man or you work steadily as a character actor, your brand will be how producers and directors immediately recognize you. Your professional image is an important aspect of your brand. The quality of your work and the choices you make onscreen and off will be fundamental parts of that brand as well.
6. You work as a collaborator. The best actors in the business elevate the work of everyone else around them. That’s because they remain present and connected in every scene, especially when they’re listening and not talking.
7. You recognize the 3D quality of your characters. Every character you play becomes a real person with a past and a present. The script only provides lines, suggested wardrobe and dialect notes. You give the character everything else, including a pulse.
8. You build your team. No successful actor is a solo artist. While you may feel like a free spirit in your personal life, you need many “connections” to make it to a higher level as an actor. A good support system is helpful and so is the ability to secure a strong agent and manager.
9. You love what you do. If you don’t love it, acting becomes just work or the inability to get work. Either way, you feel like you’re suffering and may not have a career with any longevity.
10. You get lucky. Yes, there is a great deal of luck involved in having everything fall into place: the right script, the right role, the right year, etc. Talent is never enough. The long list of nominees who never won an Oscar yet earned the eternal respect of their peers know this all too well.