Featured Columnist: "Thoughts From The Third Coast"
I am not famous.
I know -- you’re shocked, right? Shocked!
I’m going to tell you a secret -- I’m shocked. I was quite sure I’d be famous by now.
When I decided to become an actor at age 18 and go to college for theatre, I had dreams of stardom one day. At 24 when I enrolled in a top-rated grad school to get an MFA in acting, I assumed I was queuing up on the runway to success and possibly fame. I was told time and again that as a character actor I wouldn’t really start working until I was 40, so I was patient. I figured it would come sooner or later. Even if fame didn’t come, at least I would work consistently and make my living as an actor without having a side job.
Well, here I am at 43, working on my art in obscurity, with a full stable of side jobs. I think it’s safe to say that I probably will never find fame as an actor.
It sounds ridiculous to even write that. But in this business, fame is sometimes part of the deal.
So what happens when it doesn’t happen?
The numbers paint a grim picture
First of all, let’s state the obvious. Most working actors are not famous.
While there are no reliable statistics about the percentage of working actors who are famous, a couple of people have taken a stab at calculating the number.
Wired published an article in 2013 that attempts to calculate the total number of famous people in the world. They took the number of living people who have Wikipedia pages and divided that number by the total global population of English speakers. I’ll spare you the details of the calculations and tell you that they estimated somewhere between 1 and 5 people out of 10,000 are famous.
Chron took it a step further in 2018 and applied these findings to actors. Of course, it’s difficult to do, given that there are a higher percentage of famous people in the industry than in pretty much any other line of work. Given that discrepancy, they figured the best way to calculate the number of famous actors is to tally how many you can name off the top of your head in five minutes.
Wanna give it a try? Or is that too depressing?
I think Secret Agent Man at Backstage illustrated it best by suggesting that the likelihood of an actor hitting it big is akin to “…a long shot running in the third race at Santa Anita with 90-to-1 odds.”
Now don’t get me wrong -- there is a chance you’ll become famous. It happens. It’s hard to predict to whom it will happen, though it helps if you’re the offspring of a celebrity, young, and terribly good-looking. It also helps if you’re independently wealthy so that you don’t have to devote time and energy to a side gig. And, of course, we all know that being male, white, and straight gives you a leg up with nearly everything. These are all things that work in your favor, though they aren’t prerequisites.
Notice I make no mention of talent. That seems to have little bearing on the whole fame issue.
What if fame never happens to you?
Ultimately, life as an actor means wrestling with the idea that the success you desire may never materialize. I think we can all agree based on the evidence that you have a better chance of getting a seat on the first manned mission to Mars than you do of booking a lead in a Marvel franchise. So the question becomes – is that OK with you?
Are you OK with remaining unrecognizable for the rest of your career?
I know for many folks (not all), there is an undeniable allure to the idea that someday strangers might want to take a selfie with you. That you can score courtside seats to a Lakers game or a table at (insert latest trendy restaurant here) with relative ease.
We all want to be validated in our work and there’s nothing more validating than being widely known, featured in magazines, and gossiped about on the Internet. Attention often feels good. And there’s nothing wrong with wanting some attention. Or some free stuff (hello, swag bags).
But if attention is what you desire most, you may be setting yourself up for a lifetime of disappointment.
Fame is the measure of success
Fame is really the yardstick by which our culture measures which actors are successful. Can you think of any other career where this is true? OK, maybe sports figures and musicians. But how many famous plumbers do you know? Or famous elementary school teachers? Or famous tax accountants? Or even famous CEOs? Sure, there may be a few outliers who are famous, but most of those who are successful in their given fields don’t become household names because of it.
As the years wear on, it gets harder to live in the world as a non-famous actor. Your family, once supportive, may begin to suggest that it’s time to throw in the towel and get a “real” job with more financial stability. Your spouse may start to feel the weight of being the primary breadwinner. Your friends will likely begin to out-earn you, making it tough to keep up with their increasingly expensive social activities. People who don’t work in the arts will look at you and question your choices.
Do you have the courage to live firmly with those choices, even with the disapproving glare of those around you? Our society is not particularly sympathetic to unknown artists. To most, being an unknown artist looks like failure.
Do you have the strength of character that it takes to work in obscurity for a lifetime?
Do you have the guts not to be famous?
What drives you?
Ask yourself – what is it that compels you to be an actor? Are you seduced by the chance of fame and a luxurious lifestyle? In a depressing study conducted by UCLA in 2012, the most popular life goal for 10- to 12-year olds was to be famous.
Why? Why are so many young people in our culture driven by the desire for fame?
Scientific American reported on a study that suggested people seek fame for three reasons: to be seen and valued, to have high status, or to use fame to help other people. They also cited research that shows a link between creativity and the desire for fame. They ultimately concluded that current research seems to suggest, “the appeal of fame is rooted in basic human needs, and differences in the desire for fame are associated with the extent to which such needs are satisfied.”
That’s a lot to chew on, but I think the gist of it is – what does fame mean to you? As artists, can we dig deeper, and go beyond the basic desire for recognition and focus on what that recognition means?
Recognition can mean connection. It can mean understanding. It can provoke an intense feeling of belonging. And aren’t these all things we can accomplish in our work without being famous?
That’s what you need to grab hold of - the desire for deeper connection, deeper meaning.
Let go of the desire for a yacht, or an invitation to the Oscars. Have the courage to defy expectation and continue to live and work in anonymity as an artist. Being unknown on a large scale does not make your work any less meaningful or masterful. In fact, being not famous can elevate your work to a level that it might not ever reach if you’re widely known.
Anonymity is a gift
“Enjoy your obscurity while it lasts.” – Austin Kleon
One of the secrets that few people tell you is that as an artist, anonymity is actually a gift. As Austin Kleon says in Steal Like an Artist, “You want attention only after you’re doing really good work. There’s no pressure when you’re unknown. You can do what you want. Experiment. Do things just for the fun of it. When you’re unknown, there’s nothing to distract you from getting better. No public image to manage. No huge paycheck on the line. You’ll never get that freedom back again once people start paying you attention.”
For some, there’s the belief that fame restricts, kills or otherwise endangers creativity. Here’s a smattering:
Van Morrison: “Being famous is not great for the creative process. Not for me, anyway.”
George Clooney: “There’s a funny thing about fame. The truth is you run as fast as you can towards it because it’s everything you want. Not just the fame but what it represents, meaning work, meaning opportunity. And then you get there and it’s shocking how immediately you become enveloped in this world that is incredibly restricting.”
J.K. Rowling: “…you don’t expect the pressure of it, in the sense of being bombarded by requests. I felt that I had to solve everyone’s problems. I was hit by this tsunami of demands. I felt overwhelmed. And I was really worried that I would mess up.”
So – do you have the guts?
As I sit here typing away on this article at my home in Gary, Indiana, I know the chance of many people reading these words is pretty slim. And I’ve asked myself if I’m OK with investing this much time and brainpower and heart in something, knowing that it won’t bring me enormous financial reward or throngs of adoring fans. Shit, I’d be surprised if I even get a new Twitter follower because of it.
And the answer is – yes, I’m OK with that. Because writing this article helps me understand myself a little bit more. And my hope is that maybe for the few souls who read it, they understand themselves a little bit more, too. That’s why I decided to be an artist – to connect, to find deeper meaning, to lead a richer, more observed life. And I’m making peace with the idea that I’ll be doing it just like this, with a small audience and from a place outside the centers of our industry. It’s taken me some years to get here, but it’s kind of an exciting place to be, because I feel like the possibilities are limitless.
I hope you feel the same, too, because our world needs you, whether you’re famous or not.