“You just have to look like money.”

That was how a young woman in my acting class responded when I expressed my anxieties about getting a good agent. It remains one of the honest pieces of acting advice I have ever heard.

This young woman, who had been with a modeling agency and acting agency for some time, listened to me doubt my abilities as an actor to stand out amongst the onslaught of submissions inundating agencies every hour of every day. When I asked her how she got her agent, she responded that she had simply marched into an office, pointed to a woman, and said:

“I need an agent. You. Do you want to be my agent?”

I told her that I, a non-model and generally anxious plebeian, would be waiting for an agency to call me in for a meeting instead, and even that prospect made me crazy nervous. To that, she shrugged and said:

“You just have to look like money. You’ll be fine.”

Money drives the film industry. It drives which stories get filmed, where they are filmed, for how long they are filmed, and who films them. It drives how a film is marketed and how widely it is distributed. It drives who can afford to submit indie projects to film festivals. It drives who can afford to upload their indie content to Vimeo in full and with regularity. It drives whether you can afford to feed the actors on your student film project and therefore whether you will have any actors willing to participate in your student project.

There is a sickening amount of money being invested in the film industry, and everyone is betting on how to get even more of it back. And that means you as an actor are a commodity before you are an artist.

Let me illustrate: during my first ever on-camera acting class, I — having rehearsed my scene until it lay bleeding and twitching on the ground — stood before the camera, closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and prepared to unfurl my artistic wings. My coach stopped me. She told me not to get ready like that on camera.

“To a casting director, it looks like an actor preparing,” she said.

I was confused. I was an actor preparing. But that is not what she meant.

Imagine you are baking a cake. You’ve spent a bunch of money on the ingredients and have a whole pile of people arriving in a few hours to eat this cake. If this cake is not done or, worse, if this cake is disappointing, this group of people will never visit you again and you will have no friends. You have mixed together your flour and sugar and salt, you’ve stirred in the vanilla and milk, you’ve measured the butter, and now you reach for the eggs to make sure the cake rises.

But then, one of the eggs holds up its little egg hand (stay with me), sighs, and says it’s not ready to be in the cake yet. It needs to find its inspiration, its essential “egg-ness,” if you will. Meanwhile, your batter is congealing in the bowl, the oven is hot, and your guests are hurtling toward your house. You have no patience for this self-important egg.

As an actor, you cannot be a self-important egg. You cannot be a boiled egg and you cannot be a spoiled egg. You have to be the exact kind of egg the baker needs to bake the cake. You need to fulfill your role as a commodity.

By all means, find creative joy however you can in your work. Write a novel about your character’s life story or decide what your character ate for breakfast. That’s your personal process, and such exercises are by no means devoid of value. But understand that a casting director will not care. If you need time to recall chapter seven of your character’s life story in the audition room, you are wasting everyone’s time.

Imagine if the courier delivering the assortment of fruity facemasks you bought online needed a couple minutes to collect his thoughts before he handed them over. Meanwhile, you’re waiting in your doorway with emails to answer and your pasta boiling over and you just want your damn facemasks.

Another way of understanding this idea is examining how actors audition for a big studio project. As an actor, you will not be told any of the things most acting coaches tell you are essential: who you are, where you are, or whom you are talking to specifically. You won’t know your character’s name or the name of the project. You may not even be given lines from the actual project.

You will be cast not because a huge studio, choking on a profound sense of artistic integrity, has realized you deserve to have your art ushered into the spotlight; but because, for this particular project, you look like money.

Of course, plenty of independent movies do not set out to make money but instead to tell important, often marginalized stories. The casting decisions, however, still revolve around which actor will most successfully fulfill the director’s specific vision, not which actor is the true artistic messiah of emotional honesty.

I am grateful to be acting, to have stellar representation, and support from my family and my first acting studio, which got me my stellar representation even though I'm not on Hollywood's A-list … yet. 

Though if you're considering becoming an actor, know the artistic efforts you put into your craft are valuable and prepare you to excel should you get an opportunity to do so. But know your place. You are one small egg in a big ol’ cake.

Also, be on time. No one likes a late egg either.

[cover photo by DieterRobbins via Pixabay]