Insight from the inside

Becoming an Actor

A perspective by Mari Lyn Henry, co-author of 'How To Be A Working Actor aka The Bible of the Biz'
Two young actors deep in an emotional moment on stage

Becoming an Actor

Dear Actors,

During my 40 years in the industry I have met, auditioned and cast thousands of actors, some who have become major stars and others who chose related careers in the business.

The most important part of any career is preparation which I equate with intelligence, investigation, research, having a plan and most importantly, believing in your talent. Then you can tackle the reality that is necessary for achieving your goals.

Like you, I wanted to act from the age of 10. For me there was no other choice. The love of performing in front of a live audience took precedence over dating, geometry assignments, zoology lab, and other extracurricular social activities.

One of my grammar school teachers cast me in a short skit in which I could wear my mother’s clothes and heels (ouch). From then on I was ‘hooked.  I even had the ego to cast myself as St. Patrick in a short play about him which I also directed. I couldn’t find a seventh-grade boy who was up to the challenge (haha). I wore my dad’s trousers with a belt to hold them up, a hat and ashes for a beard.  Supportive parents understood my passion and a flair for dramatic expression (some call it histrionics) and schoolmates dubbed me Sarah Heartburn. 

After I left high school I found my community when I majored in speech and drama at San Jose State University, four wonderful years of learning how to project vocally on a stage, interpret the text of plays from Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, Moliere, to the works of Ibsen and Chekhov. I always loved the rehearsals, director’s notes, final dress rehearsals, opening nights and the adrenaline rush from an audience’s applause.

Always remember that you are a part of a magnificent ‘tribe’ of storytellers, chapter and verse. Do you recall when you decided to become an actor and why? For me it began with that connection I felt in the fifth grade.  Asking students to answer the questions I posed resulted in the following replies:

  • I felt a rush from watching a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream 
  • Getting a tingling sensation at Miss Saigon “I told my brain I want to do it all my life”
  • On a school trip to see Gift of the Magi at Lincoln Center 
  • Joining a church choir at age five
  • Wanting to tell stories using imagination and creativity
  • Realizing how performing impacts people’s lives
  • Making up little plays for my family in the barn and in the woods, an active outlet for sharing stories
  • The healing power of theatre and its connection with human motives and conditions

For Eddie Redmayne, Oscar Winner, Theory of Everything: At age 11, “It felt close to something real. The addiction to acting is about finding moments in truth.”

The moments of truth ARE worth pursuing. The characters you will play, the plays you will enjoy, the community that welcomes and supports you.   The days when you have to be reminded that you are pursuing your dream can seem endless. But there is always an idea, a story, an inspiring performance that leaves you breathless which reconnects you to the when and the why. How precious are the times when you get on the stage and know you were meant to perform. You are home. The audience is with you. They are engaged. They will respond to your creativity, your joy in sharing the story and with applause for a memorable performance.

When actor Jeff Goldblum was 10, he went to a summer camp with a drama program.  He got a leading role which made him decide that he was ‘hooked’. He could not hide his love of acting in his junior and senior years in high school.  Oscar-winning actress Frances McDormand was 14 when her English teacher had her class read Macbeth out loud. She got cast as Lady Macbeth doing the sleepwalking scene.  In her words: “I found myself alone on stage. It was the power of the words, the silence, sensing the adults were quiet and attentive.  Magical!

These amazing actors also developed technique and the preparation for production from education and training. The actors’ unique path to empowerment, survival and success depends on the never ending need for continuing coaching, classes and learning new skills.  

I had the privilege in graduate school to be on the same stage with the First Lady of the American Theatre—Helen Hayes. Helen’ s career began at age 5.  And when her mother took her to see a show,  she wouldn’t leave her seat but yelled I don’t want to leave the theatre. And she never did!  “Talent,” she said, “is an instinct for understanding the human heart.”

I would suggest that you find a quote that inspires you every day. Mine is from Goethe. 

“Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

I would also suggest that you reflect on the Aha moment you said  

I want to be an actor.

Until next time…


Mari Lyn Henry

MARI LYN HENRY, author, teacher, actor and theatre historian founded the Society for the Preservation of Theatrical History to reacquaint today’s actors with the great actresses and visionaries of the 19th and early 20th centuries. SocietyPTH.com

Her workshops on on-camera techniques, script analysis, auditioning and impression management have been very successful in cities and universities across the country. CAREER INTELLIGENCE Seminars about “The Business of the Business” are based on her best-selling book How To Be A Working ActorHowtobeaworkingactor.com

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