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Artistic Purgatory

April 5, 2016
Living in Hollywood, I’ve seen a number of aspiring actors come and go over the nine years I’ve lived here. Many were zealous Catholics wanting to make a difference in our media culture. Surviving here is difficult though, and many find themselves in the unfortunate state of artistic purgatory – a prolonged time of limbo between fame and bankruptcy.
What does it look like? You have a degree in acting, moved across the country, great headshots, a slick website, an agent, and are regularly going out on auditions. You occasionally book something from time-to-time, seeming to hint that success is right around the corner. But the big paycheck never comes, and most days you’re anxious about how you’re going to pay the rent.  Patience is stretched thin and you find yourself crying out to God “Why did you bring me here?”
If you find yourself in this state here’s a few points I think are worth bearing in mind.

1. God Has Not Let You Down

God may very well have gifted you in the arts, and perhaps even called you to Hollywood. But he didn’t guarantee fame and riches. In fact, He’s probably protecting your soul by keeping you from them. Christ often warned against the dangers of riches and how they can corrupt us. The same goes for fame and power, neither of which is required to be leaven in the world. The real work of evangelization is already happening in your everyday interactions! Even if you don’t go on to be a famous actor, chances are, someone around you will. You’re probably already friends with the future Brad Pitt. Who else will witness Christ’s love to him?

2. Set a Clear Goal

I think it’s very important to be practical about your career, and not over spiritualize it. So my remaining tips are practical in nature, and apply to equally to Christian and non-Christian.
Statistically speaking, the odds are against you succeeding at becoming a paid actor. It’s a good idea to set a clear goal and a time for reaching this goal. How long until you fall back on “plan B”?  Five years? Ten years? Three years? What will constitute success at the end of that period? A leading role in a feature film? Or being able to support a family on acting income? Without a clear goal it’s easy fritter the best years of your life away when you could have been pursing something else.

3. Get a Mentor

If you are serious about getting paid to act, I highly recommend finding a mentor. Find someone who is at a point you want to be in five or ten years and ask them if you can buy them lunch time to time and get their advice. I stress advice – you are not using your mentor for their connections (people smell “use” a mile away and will resent you for it). Share your acting reel and talk about your goals, then ask what you need to work on and do it.

4. Make Your Own Opportunities

Don’t sit around waiting for opportunities to come to you. If you’re not getting cast, start writing your own short film, web series or play that you can star in. Get your friends involved – they’ll welcome the opportunity to act as well. Malcom Gladwell wrote about the “10,000 hour rule” – typically nobody achieves mastery in their field until they’ve practiced it for 10,000 hours. Find a way to start putting in as many of those hours as you can!

5. Do you Have What it Takes?

In a culture that says you can be whatever you want to, this isn’t a popular question, but ask yourself if you really have what it takes to succeed as an actor. You are competing against the worlds best actors in Hollywood. You simply may not have the skill required to outshine them. Ask your mentor for brutal honesty - will you be able to achieve your goals? For the experienced, it’s often very easy to see who has talent, and who doesn’t. We may be deluding ourselves thinking that we just haven’t been “discovered” yet. But more likely, we might not have the outstanding talent required to succeed as an actor in Hollywood.
These points apply equally to any artistic pursuit: writing, composing, directing, cinematography, etc. Having a better perspective on your own artistic purgatory will help you endure it. You might not have any worldly success, but perhaps you simply want to be here to spread the light of Christ. Hollywood desperately needs that kind of witness. Don’t be disillusioned though about how easy it’s going to be. Nobody get’s an automatic “pass” just because God called them here. Our Lord knows that we will become a much better person through any experience of purgation, and Hollywood is no exception.

Mark J. Matthews – our Hollywood Undercover Missionary @HUMissionary
Mark Matthews is a graphic designer and animator working in Hollywood.  Listen to his “What’s Good About Hollywood?” column once a month on  the SLHour.
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