July 7, 2020

The actor’s life and seven things I learned from Jenna Fischer

I had the wonderful opportunity to read Jenna Fischer’s book ‘The Actor’s Life – a Survival Guide’. I know Jenna from The Office fame and in the book, she chronicles her own experience working her way up in acting and how she actually ironically worked a number of administrative assistant / secretary jobs before landing a role as Pam, the Secretary, on The Office.

Acting is something that I’ve always found interesting and mysterious. I remember one of my friends back in University was working as an Extra (and she’s on IMDB too!) and had told me randomly that she was one day in my neck of woods (I told her my family lived in Surrey BC) and that she was shooting a film there. She told me all about how there was a TV show that wanted to use my high school as the backdrop for a shoot and that they needed a variety of extras there to fill in the background. For working one day (approximately 8 – 10 hours of waiting around, walking or talking in the background), she would be paid $800 – a crazy sum even by today’s standards. UBC was all the filming location for a number of T.V. shows and movies and again, I was lucky enough to be exposed to those while studying there but after hearing the story from my friend, I felt that acting was a mysterious job that only the most beautiful or handsome people got.

Jenna outlines the exact steps that anybody looking to act can and should take in order to make it in Hollywood or New York and here is what I learned from her survival guide:

Keep a day job while you act

Jenna built up a nest egg before she moved to LA to pursue her dream of acting and she naively thought that she would ‘make’ it right away but it ended up being almost 10 years before she landed her role on The Office and was able to consistently get work. By keeping a day job while you act, you’re able to turn down some acting jobs that you otherwise may have taken on (because you needed the money) and I think there’s a good translation here on side hustles – if you build up side hustles, you do not rely on a single source of income and therefore, that single source of income does not ‘own’ you in a sense.

She had a chance meeting with Molly Shannon who changed her outlook on acting

Early on in Jenna’s acting career, she had a chance to attend a SNL party (or more accurately, she sneaked in). One of her idols was Molly Shannon and lo and behold, she met Molly who gave her some advice which I’m paraphrasing here:

Stick it out! Acting is a long and grueling path and you have to be persistent.

That advice helped Jenna stick it out longer than her other acting friends. It helped her eventually land a role in The Office. It helped her eventually ‘make’ it as an actor. Again, the similarities to side hustles or entrepreneurship are startling – persistence is a key characteristic of founders and entrepreneurs.

Developing a brand / look

Jenna has taken a number of headshots over her life and she provides some fascinating advice for how to approach headshots. She suggests identifying five attributes that you want to portray and then using those adjectives / attributes to guide your look for your headshot. I recently was asked to choose a few professional pictures from a close friend of mine to use as part of her header photos on her website and I provided some advice and the feeling that I got from a number of photos – from ones where she looked confused (and I thought it would help the audience feel that maybe she did not know everything either) to photos where she was shooting herself (which helped the audience understand that she likes video logging or vlogging).

The look and feel, a.k.a. the branding is a key differentiation for actors and for those working white collar jobs. I’ve discussed this before but in consulting, branding is incredibly important – it’s how you get onto projects and how you can build up a name for yourself in the company but it is certainly equally important in acting and in your side hustles.

Maintaining a relationship with your agent

It might be slightly different with your career though I don’t think so but Jenna highlights the importance of developing and maintaining a relationship with your agent who has access to all of the acting roles and puts you forward for the casting director’s consideration. I can easily see that some of the advice here is applicable to developing and maintaining the same relationship with some of your supervisors or managers in your life. How are the supervisors or managers in your life helping you out? Do they genuinely care about your career? How can you help them do a better job? I’ve been lucky to work with both great managers and some not so great managers and I have learned from each of them – in fact, I remember that there was a study that showed that the single greatest reason why people leave the company is because of their managers. Maybe your manager is a complete jerk but also take a look at yourself – if all of the managers in your career over several jobs have been jerks, could it possibly be how you approach work?

Auditioning and Rejection

I like the advice that Jenna provides here – you cannot possibly get every single job that you apply / audition for so don’t sweat it. It’s the same when you are applying to work or actively trying to do side hustles – not everything will be successful no matter how much time or energy you put in and that is OKAY! I think the key skill here is in recognizing when you have to shoot past The Dip (a concept made famous by Seth Godin) and when it is actually a cliff. Also, Jenna recommends keeping your body of work consistent, at least at the very start of your career, so that you have a certain amount of experience in an area of your life. For example, if your previous acting roles have been a sweet and caring character, there’s going to be a bit of typecasting for your next role. Jenna Fischer, while very attractive and having a ‘next door girl’ look can play Pam on The Office, she would not be appropriate, at least in her words, for a Pam Anderson type role look.

Preparation is key

The amount of preparation to film a T.V. show was to me, a mystery until Jenna described it. There are lots of interesting nuances to a film or show set that I did not really know previously: snack tables, the use of personal assistants, etc. but what really struck me was the amount of time waiting. I also recently watched the Samurai Gourmet and there was an episode where the main character went to a set to film as an extra – it seems that the majority of his time spent was waiting for the scene to shoot. This is certainly not the best way to spend your time but I think the importance of this is to be ready for the time when you are called up to do whatever it is you want to do: act, present, manage a project, etc.

When you can’t find work, create your own

One of the best pieces of advice that I remembered from Jenna’s book was that when she and a few of her actor friends weren’t working, they would go and shoot a short film or practice filming different scenes. This was both in preparation for actual TV or film work but also to develop a related but different skill set that they could then leverage in acting. When you can’t find paid work, see if you can do the work anyway in a different setting. Maybe your dream is to build the next biggest website but you can’t do so at your company or outside of work for whatever reason. Do something related – maybe a simple prototype or through something extremely basic like a WYSIWYG app builder. Maybe your dream is to be a professional speaker. Practice by giving free speeches at church or at work.

Jenna – thank you for your advice! I don’t think I’m ever going to be an actor (well maybe I’ll reinvent my career some time in the future) but your advice was invaluable for my life too.

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