Why Generosity & Gratitude Are Keys to Being a Great Actor

Step 7: Spend time cultivating and being grateful for people who appreciate and believe in you. Generosity is the best gift of all.

Actor’s Generosity
The highest compliment an actor can give to another is “they were generous.” 

Many years ago, I worked with a student who had a scene with Michael Douglas. He had a small but intense role with not many lines, his character needed to have a confession beaten out of him. Michael Douglas’ character then enters the scene to extract his justice, and my student begs the Douglas character for his life. It was a very emotional scene that was shot on a cold and rainy day. They captured Douglas’ coverage first and when it was time to turn around on this young actor, Douglas’ assistant was ready to whisk him away and take him back to his trailer. A stand-in would take his place. Douglas said “No! The kid was there for me. I’m going to be there for the kid.” Douglas stayed in the cold and rain and did the scene. To me, this is a quintessential example of being a generous actor. 

We have all heard the numerous benefits of engaging in gratitude and how expressing gratitude and being generous with others has a net positive effect on our health & mental state. The benefits to your ability to be a better (and more successful) actor are not so obvious – especially with social media culture and 30 second dopamine hits of electronic crack. 

I am adding a link HERE to some of the current neuroscience on the subject. It’s been covered by others in a more thorough, effective and expansive way – The Dali Lama, Eckhart Tolle, Brené Brown to name a few. My contribution on the subject is to recognize its ability to help you as an actor. The more that you can embrace and be, the more you can see and do. It increases the range of characters you can play and the depth and breadth that you can bring to each of them.

Every time you work on a scene with a fellow actor, stand on a mark, do an audition with a reader or enter an audition room (virtual or in person), it is an opportunity to be present with other human beings. It is an opportunity to practice the art of being generous and grateful. This can help to melt away the artifice of “role playing”(Ex: playing out the role of an actor seeking a part from the Casting Director who has the power to cast or not cast) and it certainly eliminates the flipping burgers/assembly line aspect of auditioning. 

You can’t reduce people to their job function and still be able to empathize with them. 
If you do, you can’t be open to what is coming at you, (receiving). Nor can you share yourself with them (giving). When the body responds or is alerted to “otherness” it will immediately begin to defend itself and become self-conscious. It will perceive itself to be under threat and trigger the fight/flight reflex. You will have to divert precious human energy to quelling the chemical rebellion that is raging inside you. 

Be present with the people you are with and recognize that you are all just aspects and participating members in the same narrative with different roles to play. When you engage like this, the shared experience becomes more communal and a celebration of our collective connection can occur. An encounter with another human being (regardless of the circumstance and relationship) should conclude with all concerned parties being more energized than when they entered (obviously there are exceptions). 
Too often the encounter is mired and thwarted by the desperate need for validation and acquisition. Generosity of spirit and gratitude should be more than something you tell the world about on Facebook or Instagram but should occur in the moment you are with that person (by your actions). 

Too often the gratitude you feel (or think you should feel) is expressed after the “event” as if it were the morning-after pill. We have all experienced the “give” that was actually “a take.” Don’t be fooled. Most of the time it is noticed, or people are just being polite. They have clocked it consciously or unconsciously. This will have consequences you may never become aware of but will experience consequences nonetheless. 

Gratitude should never be an afterthought. The thank you letter, email, the flowers, etc. are nice and important gestures but gratitude should be something that you can express in the present wherever possible. 

I am not nearly as cognizant or as gracious as I should be. I often catch myself in a tunnel of self-absorption where I forget to say thank you or remind myself just because I feel gratitude in my heart doesn’t mean others know. On occasion I still get nervous when I am about to walk into a room to teach. It is then that I remind myself that this isn’t about me and validation, but about what I have to offer. The nerves go away. 

Unless you speak it or convey it through your actions it can’t exist. It is now time to pull out the tried and true “tree in the woods” cliché. Yada Yada. 

Here are a few selfish and ungenerous things actors often do. If you stop doing these, you will be a better and a more successful actor. You may even be a happier, more fulfilled human being. 
1. Planning what you are going to say and how you are going to say it before you have heard it.
2. Planning your scene with your scene partner in class or on-set, or telling them how to play the scene, without leaving room for their input.
3. Judging the character not empathizing (see blog on Empathy) with them. It will produce a very narrow view of the character.
4. Thinking it’s about memorizing your lines not knowing what you are actually saying.
5. Indulging in your desire in the scene to “feel it” for yourself instead of sharing your story with your scene partner and ultimately an audience.
6. It’s not about you being able to cry in a scene but making your audience cry.
7. When coaching a friend, don’t try to get them to do it your way by telling them how to play it. Help them discover it for themselves.
8.  It’s not your choices that matter, it is the character’s choices. Get your ego out of the equation. 
9. This is most certainly true of the audition room; Don’t enter like Oliver “Please sir, can I have a job?” You become a cheap huckster hustling for a job. Bring yourself to what you do and share it with others. Your characters don’t want to book parts they want what they want. 

1. Smile and acknowledge every crew member. Not just those you think can advance your career. 
2. Genuinely thank those you work with. Be specific. It shouldn’t be said in a generic way. Anyone can do that. Thank them for what they actually did. It means you really thought about it. 
3. Clean up your own mess. Hang up your wardrobe and leave your cubby/ trailer the way you found it.
4. If you see a young actor or older actor (or any actor for that matter) struggling…offer to run lines with them.
5. Recognize you are not the only one with needs. Everyone has problems (see complaining blog). Wait your turn. At least read the room before you start sucking the oxygen out of it.
6. Be careful – there is the saying “be careful who you kick on the way up because you are likely to meet them on the way down.” 
7. Offer to run lines, work scenes, PA a short film a friend might be shooting.
8. Surround yourself with people who appreciate you and don’t be shy to stand up for yourself when they don’t.
9. Set up “energy exchanges” with people. 

I have found that when I do express gratitude, I often see surprise as if it were unexpected. I feel the return glow of appreciation back. It’s a better dopamine hit than looking at someone’s dinner or a picture of themselves looking in the mirror on Instagram. 

There are words, phrases and concepts that enter the acting lexicon every now and again: they trend. One of the most prolific of them right now is “likability.” Likability is a key ingredient to being cast. It is central to a series’ staying power. We have to care about the person (it is more than a sweet smile and a bubbly personality.) The concept of likability is probably its own blog (stay tuned), but here are a couple of examples that pertain to the issue at hand. 

Scenes often end with the protagonist nodding their head with a grateful smile in appreciation for what was said or done for them. This is most prevalent in medical, legal and cop shows. 

Example: The Series Lead saves a life (in one way or another) and by the end of the story arc the Guest Star or Day Player expresses gratitude towards the Series Lead. One maxim is “if you want to book a guest star role…make the lead look good.” My theory as to why this works so effectively is that most of us (at one time or another) feel under appreciated. It is reassuring and cathartic to see someone who was generous be met with gratitude. It is why so many scenes end with that “thank you” and the grateful smile. 

One of the key building blocks of constructing a Film or TV show are three little letters from the alphabet: P.O.V. It is also one of the criteria for selecting who will get the best actor, director, editor etc. awards: These three magic letters equal Point of View. Unlike in the theatre where the audience can choose where they want to look, in a film or TV show an audience only sees what the Director wants them to see. It’s a tool for advancing the story and showing the developing relationships between the characters. There are countless examples, but one of my favorite examples is Billy Crystal’s work in “When Harry Meets Sally.” The way Billy Crystal looks at Meg Ryan tells us why we must fall in love with her in spite of her craziness and “high maintenance” behavior. A generous actor knows when to “throw” the scene to their partner and knows their function and responsibility to the bigger story being told. 

The POV also tells us who to like or hate. It can tell us who to suspect or fear and who to trust. It can throw us off the scent or lead us to the truth. It tells us to forgive or to seek revenge. When we see a character begging for mercy, and then cut to the POV of the cruel sadistic face of the killer we become terrified and empathetically beg along with the victim. Silence of the Lambs and many scenes from Game of Thrones have great examples. Sorry I got a little dark there. This is also true in comedy. Every great comedic actor needs their straight shooter (the device of “deadpan” comes to mind.) The Second Bananas are often the unsung heroes of comedies. Like in basketball, it is the power forward that gets the glory on the highlight reel while the point guard gets the respect of the team for setting up the pass or ally oop. 

Many years ago, (another lifetime ago) I built a 1500 seat amphitheater in Earl Bales Park in North York. Our inspiration, (Jeff Cohen was my partner in the early years) was the Delacorte Theatre in New York City in Central Park. It was built by Joseph Papp (who also went on to have the Public Theatre and many hits on Broadway (Hair, Sweeney Todd, A Chorus Line, and many more). We wrote a letter requesting to visit him in New York (back in those days you had to write a letter and mail it with a stamp and wait for a reply,) and we received one back!! I can’t remember exactly how the arrangements were made, but Jeff and I went down to New York and met the great impresario!

We travelled to New York hoping for advice from Papp and to gain insights into how they ran their operation. Many adventures ensued, but the core of the experience and what is relevant to this blog was the lesson we learned from him. “Never walk into a room wanting anything. Walk into the room with something to offer.” I don’t think we appreciated the wisdom he was sharing at the time. It’s hard to believe now how a Broadway Impresario like Joseph Papp had the time for two young ambitious dreamers from Toronto. Looking back, it’s so clear that it was the gift of generosity. 

I unfortunately was not “sentient” enough at the time to be as grateful as I should have been. Joseph Papp’s generosity of time and shared wisdom changed my life forever and set me on a path that has led me to where I am today. He implanted hope, confidence and a means to achieve my dream. We may never know the effect of our generosity on others. They may never know the effect of their generosity on us. I know I will always remember to be grateful for his generosity and I try every day to acknowledge it when it comes my way and offer it when I can. 

LB Acting Studio is an offshoot of Joseph Papp’s gift of time and wisdom to me. We can change the lives of people around us (friends, family, acquaintances and strangers) by our willingness to engage in the ebb and flow of Generosity and Gratitude. As a result, we can change the world and ourselves one person at a time. Generosity is a seed planted in the desert landscape of a world that is unfortunately too often barren of good will, courtesy and basic decency. It can make the desert bloom. If generosity is the seed, then gratitude is the nurturing soil that helps things and people grow. 

Artists help people grow. Artists don’t break people down. Be grateful for yourself, those you love and love you. Step back every now and again and let yourself experience the wonder that is your life. It won’t come again.