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GUEST POST BY RHONDA MUSAK: On Annoying Questions Asked of Actors

January 18, 2012

Today’s post is a guest post brought to you by the lovely Rhonda Musak, of Art & Soul Acting! Rhonda leads a busy life, managing both an acting career and her own acting studio. She runs a book club for actors, coaches high school acting students across the country, and is by far one of the most generous souls I’ve met in the industry. Please give a warm welcome to Rhonda!

Questions Better Left Unasked (Or Handling the Annoying Ones with Grace)

A few years ago, I was chit chatting with a businessman on the Metro North train.  Upon being asked what it was that I do, I could already feel myself bracing.  I took the plunge and as the word actor came out of my mouth, I could already see the worst of my fears manifesting before my eyes: “What might I have seen you in?”

I’d had it.  Up to here!  I decided to fight back.  I turned the question around and served it up to him.  “You’re in business?”  I inquired, “Now remind me please what magazine cover might I have seen you on?  Fortune or Forbes?”  Lucky for me, the gentleman I was speaking to had more grace than I, his face lit up as he said with a knowing look, “Oh, I totally get it.”

These soul-cringing questions seem to come hand-in-hand with having chosen to be one of the bravest spirits on this planet.  And often, they come from people who truly care—people who would feel absolutely awful if they even had an inkling of the sense of inner panic that their well-intended questions provoke.

What is it about these questions that put actors into fight or flight at their mere mention?  I did a survey via Facebook & Twitter to get a better sense of actors’ favorite least-favorite questions of this nature:

So, you’re trying to be an actor?

But what are you really going to do with your life?

Wait…you’re an actor?  Why don’t you live in LA?

You’re an actor?  What movie can I see you in?

When do you think you’ll win that Oscar?

When are you going to be on Broadway?

And, of course, the all time favorite: What have I seen you in?

All right, everyone please take a deep, cleansing breath.  That was brutal, I know.  But it’s time to crack the code on these questions and find empowering ways to answer them.  Ways that will leave your spirit flying high and your relationships in good standing.

The first thing to consider is the underlying intent of these questions.  Truthfully, the person doing the asking is not trying to be painful (and if they are trying to be painful, it’s a completely different issue from what I’m addressing here).  People who ask these types of questions are attempting to connect in the best way they know how.  They are saying, I am present and listening and I want to know more about you.  They are also quite possibly saying, I don’t know anything about the world of an actor–what is it like?

So, in terms of answering, starting with the end result in mind puts the focus on the main goal: to create a deeper connection with the person asking by revealing something personal.  And isn’t that exactly what powerful and truthful acting always requires?

The key, however, is to transform the logical question being asked into an answer that you love to give and one that meets the goal stated above.  Even if you think your work currently flies far beneath the radar, please consider that your task in answering these questions is also to honor yourself and what it is that you have already created.

Let’s look at what you are immediately going to take out of your answering repertoire by way of example.  I recently joined a group of actors and writers for a dinner after a friend’s show.  My friend had given a wonderful performance of his solo show and everyone was in a great mood.  At this gathering was an actor I had not seen in a handful of years.  On the way to the restaurant he told me about some of the projects he was working on, all of which sounded fantastic.  So I was surprised when at dinner someone else in the group asked him–yes, that dreaded question: “What might I have seen you in?”  And what did this working actor say?  “Probably nothing.”  I was stricken, mortified.  Did he really just say that?  In that moment, he literally took every bit of his good work, fortitude, artistic ingenuity and credibility and completely flushed it.

As always, a little preparation goes a long way.  By taking some focused time to think about these questions in advance, actors can answer both with self-respect as well as gratitude for the person who is attempting to connect.

Here are a couple of alternatives to answering these questions logically:

  • The Assumption Flip: “What might I have seen you in?”  The secret to powerfully answering this question is to flip the assumption.  Instead of assuming that your recent projects are so small, answer this question by assuming that the asker has seen everything.  Jump in, tell them what you’ve done and let them sort out for themselves if they’ve seen it or not.
  • The Compelling Ignore: Once again, take control. “When do you think you’ll win that Oscar?”  Skip that question altogether by coming up with something even more compelling.  “Speaking of the Oscars, did you see such and such new movie???”  Let your positive energy override this truly unanswerable question.
  • The Teach: This method needs to be approached with lots of love and a more serious tone.  You are asked, “You’re an actor!?!  Why don’t you live in LA?”  This question is going to be asked by someone who is really quite unfamiliar with the business in general.  They know that lots of movies are made in LA and so you should be living there too.  So again, with lots of love, take an opportunity to tell them a little more about the life of an actor: “The wonderful thing about acting is that there are several different communities and as many paths within those communities.  Here in Chicago, there definitely may be less film and TV options, but my opportunities to perform are limitless.  I’m really focused on comedy and…”
  • Favorite Show/Role: Again, you are asked “Have I seen you in anything?”  Instead of answering that question, answer honestly: “I’m not sure what it is that you enjoy seeing, but some favorites roles I’ve performed have been…”

The truth about this business is that everything for everyone comes to an end: plays, musicals, soap operas, films etc.  As a result, we can feel like our accomplishments have a short shelf life.  That need not be so.  Throughout Julia Child’s work, she makes the case that cooks should never apologize for their food and actors should do no less.  So yes, some of those questions are quite terrible, but why back them up with terrible answers?

And what would you love to know about your fellow actors?  I share with you my most favorite question to ask actors a question that empowers them as well: “What do you love to create as an actor?”  The next time you run into an actor you don’t know so well, try it and watch their face light up as you meet them at the very center of their joy.

Thanks so much for sharing your fabulous insights on this important issue, Rhonda! Please leave her a comment, and feel free to check out her website and follow her lovely tweets!

16 Comments leave one →
  1. January 18, 2012 8:02 am

    Great advice! I was wondering myself what to answer to these questions and I found it especially hard since I’m only starting out professionally, it feels like when you are trying to explain something, as if you are making excuses. But I suppose one has to just accept it, everyone was starting out at some point, no matter how far they made it by now.

    • January 18, 2012 10:54 am

      Thank you, Lenka! Everyone does start out at some point. Using the analogy of a small child learning how to walk, we spend our time cheering that child on and encouraging them to get up on their feet and do it again. What we don’t do is tell them that their efforts are paltry because don’t they realize that there are other kids actually RUNNING!!! It would be cruel if we did so.

      I encourage all who are starting out in acting to nurture themselves in light of the actor that they will someday be rather than chide themselves for not yet playing Hamlet! It’s a powerful difference that actually generates a willing energy to continue to move forward and grow as an actor.

      • January 21, 2012 3:04 pm

        Love the comparison with kids. So true. Great tip, thanks, Rhonda!

  2. January 18, 2012 8:54 am

    Thank you so much for sharing some concrete advice on the subject, Rhonda. I know this is something that many of us struggle with. Great post!! 🙂

    • January 19, 2012 1:09 pm

      Many thanks, Miss Red! It is a pleasure to be here.

      Always a good reminder, too, that we end up living on some level what it is that we speak about ourselves. Best to make that speaking powerful!

  3. California Triple-Threat permalink
    January 18, 2012 1:31 pm

    Yes yes yes!

  4. January 19, 2012 3:49 pm

    OOhhh my goodness I could barely contain myself reading this lovely article. I couldn’t wait to finish, for after paragraph #1 I knew it was a ‘jewel’ to share with so many others.. Amazingly written and such great insight. Actors crave reads with such heart and honesty. Thanks so much for sharing. Nikiva Dionne

    • January 21, 2012 2:11 pm

      Nikiva– I’m so glad that the piece resonated with you. And I really appreciate your calling it a “jewel”! Thank you so much for sharing, too. Have a wonderful time answering these questions in ways that both serve and honor you and all that you have thus far created (for your answers plant the seeds of all that you will create).

  5. January 19, 2012 10:03 pm

    Rhonda, this is excellent! Thank you. It really is true – for the most part, people outside of the biz simply don’t understand and for some reason actors feel threatened by this and belittle their own work!

    • January 21, 2012 2:22 pm

      It’s so true, Ms. Newbie! Yesterday I ended up having a whole conversation about this article with someone who is not in the business. When I started speaking about the premise, they immediately jumped in with surprise that actors would have a reaction to these types of questions. I think actors are always walking a thin line between courage and heart: it takes a tremendous amount of boldness and fortitude to be in this business, but the work itself takes an amazing amount of heart. The truth is, an actor can easily go to 6 months of auditions and book nothing…that after having done a national tour…a Broadway show, etc. And who wants to get into a conversation about being in a slump! But if we remember that these questions are asked from a true place of interest and connection, we’ll be good to go to answer them whatever might be going on in our careers.

  6. January 19, 2012 10:16 pm

    Fabulous suggestions, Rhonda.

    I’ve seen too many capable actors stumble when a non-actor asks about the craft, what they’re doing now, what they can be seen in, etc. We’re a cookie cutter to those who have not studied or practiced the art.

    I really like the idea of flipping the energy around (about winning an Oscar or any award) and keeping them excited and allowing you to engage with them about something they’re personally passionate about. =)

    • January 21, 2012 2:25 pm

      Gary–thank you so much for your comments!

      Yes, the energy is so different when actors are able to enter into the conversation from a place of strength. And for actors who may be overhearing another actors answer, it is enormously empowering. It sets the stage for the value of the work that is done at every point in our careers.

      Have a great time using these tools!

  7. January 19, 2012 10:55 pm

    Yes! reading this post was slightly uncomfortable as I pictured myself doing the “foot-shuffle, look at floor, trying to think of something to impress the questioner act!” So thank you for these great ideas and thoughts. I think you are so right… people don’t ask that question “what have I seen you in” because they want to catch you out.. they ask because they really care or are just being polite.

    Often, though, I’ve found in answering that question….what as actors we might think of as “insignificant” is what others not-in-the-biz find totally fascinating. For example, I do the occasional background work to help pay the bills. While I may not find this exactly artistically challenging, people who aren’t actors are totally intrigued by stories from the set. And I realize that I take for granted the unusual world we live and work in as actors, so I entertain them with endless stories from being an extra, (which are actually quite funny tales) rather than bore them with a synopsis of my latest off-off-Broadway show.

    I guess when it comes down to it, we are in show business, and we can even use that opportunity–the dreaded “what have I seen you in” question– as a way to entertain our audience!

    Thanks again for a thought-provoking blog post.

  8. January 21, 2012 2:46 pm

    Lady Granted – Yes! Thank you so much for your response. I so love your turnaround…indeed, most of the world is not living the life of an actor and probably has no idea how one even goes about it. So regaling your captive “audience” with tales from your background work is a wonderful way to create that connection.

    And yes, because TV ends up in and on everyone’s homes and computers, a one day background stint on “Boardwalk Empire” may end up being much more of a conversation connector then having just booked an independent film. It’s a great reminder that we need to relax in these situations and flow with the joy of the moment.

    Thank you again for your comments!

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