Thank you, Karen [Hensel], for those very kind remarks. The credits were accurate, but I wish that even a tenth of the nice things that you said about me were true. If your teaching is only a mere shadow of the acting ability you just displayed, then these students have indeed been in good hands. I also have to say that I am truly honored to be here to speak to you all today, current students, the distinguished faculty and staff of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and the gathered families and friends who have come to help us all celebrate you, the graduates, on this wonderful day. I am thrilled as well, because in 1932 my grandparents met and fell in love at the New York City campus of this institution. But as I stand here, I’m only left wondering, as I so often am when I’m on stage, who backed out? Who wasn’t available? But let’s move on to more important things.
We all know the saying, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Good advice, particularly for those of us in the dramatic arts. In a 2012 Wall Street Journal ranking of unemployment rates by occupation, actors were listed as number two, sandwiched in between “textile bleaching and dyeing machine operators and tenders” in the number one slot, and “boilermakers” in third place. The journal somehow has the employment rate for actors listed at 35.2 percent. I don’t know who they’re talking to. Using that statistic, we’d have to say that 64.8% of actors are working and having some measure of success. If we look at the Actors Equity Association statistic, which is, I think, a far more accurate number, we have a 90% unemployment rate. So that means that only 10% of actors are having any measure of success. “Wow,” you must be thinking, “this is a gloomy way to start off a commencement address. I thought it was going to be a little more inspirational than this.” Not what you expected at all, huh? Well, I’m here to tell you that I am undaunted by these numbers, and I think you should be as well. I think your chances of success in your chosen field are infinitely higher than 10%. I think they are infinitely higher than 64.8%. I think they are close to one hundred percent, and I’ll tell you why, but first, a little background.
As some of you may know, some of you may not, I grew up in a fairly successful theatrical family. My earliest memory of going to visit my dad at work is hanging out backstage at Broadway’s Booth Theater while he was performing in the hit comedy Luv, by Murray Schisgal. I remember after the show, being allowed to jump off the set of the Brooklyn Bridge into the waiting mattresses, just like my dad did in the show. Really cool. Decided right there and then that I wanted to become an actor. The rest of my childhood was spent on movie sets, and that’s where I learned what an actor’s life is really like. Sure, I learned a lot about craft, about story, about how the rhythms of the day go when you’re making a movie. But I also learned that being an actor is a financially secure career, where big job follows big job follows big job, and there is always enough to take care of your family, to send your kids to private school, to buy the new car that you want.
Then, when my older brother graduated high school just before I entered it, he came out to Los Angeles to pursue his own career, and again, I learned some valuable lessons. I learned that when you get to LA, you immediately start getting guest starring roles on shows like Barney Miller, Happy Days and Hawaii Five-O, and that within a couple of years, you land the lead in a television series. Yet for some reason, all of these incredible lessons about how easy it is to succeed in show business were lost on me. I ignored them all, went to college, went to law school, practiced law for five years, and was miserable. Then I finally gave in, accepted reality. I threw away my wild fantasy of making a living as a lawyer and decided to settle for the safety and security of an acting career. Boy, was I in for a surprise.
Actually, I can’t complain about the trajectory of my career. I’ve been truly blessed, starting out with showcases in New York City, moving up to smaller regional theaters, then to Off-Broadway, then Broadway, all the while slowly but steadily collecting film and television credits along the way. But what was happening inside my head was another story entirely. I knew, although I would never admit it, that if I wasn’t as successful as my older brother, then I had failed. The notion of actually attaining the heights of my father’s career, well, that didn’t even enter my mind, so I was in some sense guaranteed not to succeed. Finally, through enough therapy and self-examination, something I hope you’re taking part in as well, I started to grapple with the idea that I was perhaps holding myself up to a standard too high. Sure, I would tell people that I was satisfied in many ways with my career, which was the envy of many of my friends. I would tell folks that if my dad was a plumber or an accountant, I would already consider myself very successful. So why should I hold myself against the difficult standard of my father’s or my brother’s “success.” I would say all that, but it didn’t really penetrate.
One evening, in 2000, I was having dinner with my older brother, Adam. At the time he was in a very successful television series called Chicago Hope, and he had flown in to see me in the original production of Dinner With Friends. During dinner I mentioned, in one of those rare moments of candor that siblings sometimes have, that I struggled with jealousy over the success he was having. He looked at me and said, “I struggle with jealousy over the success that you’re having.” I couldn’t believe it. I was having the time of my life, mind you. Dinner With Friends was the toast of New York, and I had gotten a Drama Desk nomination, but I was making probably a fortieth of what he was making, and people in the restaurant were recognizing him, not me.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“You’re in a play that just won the Pulitzer Prize. You’re working with one of the best playwrights and one of the best directors in America. I go to work each week and get handed a script, and I’ve got to do it, like it or not. Sometimes it’s a script that, if I wasn’t on the show, if they just offered it to me as a stand alone episode or film, I’d turn it down.” Hearing him say that was a shock to me, and it was the beginning of an ongoing journey to redefine for myself the meaning of “success.”
I knew a young woman who I had recommended for Austin Pendleton’s advanced scene study class at HB Studio in New York. When she was assigned her second scene, she worked with her partner several times, but always delayed putting the scene up. I finally pressed her on the point and asked her what the problem was. She told me her scene partner was terrible, wasn’t doing the scene the right way, and so she didn’t want to put it up, because Austin wouldn’t be able to see her best work, wouldn’t be able to evaluate her properly. I told her, in no uncertain terms, that she was making a big mistake. She was laboring under the illusion that when she got a Broadway show, or a role on a television series, that she was going to be working with brilliant actors. But that’s not always the case. The quality of your coworkers is never guaranteed. You might be working with some of the greats. But these days you’re also just as likely to be working with Snookie.
You see, one of the problems that we are facing in the arts, in our society, at this point in time, is the cult of celebrity. Being rich and famous has become a goal in and of itself, and reality television and the like only reinforce this. Do you want to be on Broadway? The sad truth is that you’d have better odds of getting there by being on a reality show than by studying your craft. But at what price to your own self-respect? We have to guard against that trend, keep fighting the good fight, so that future generations of artists have examples, something to aspire to.
So given this somewhat sorry state of affairs, what do we do with the phrase, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Well, in one sense, as actors, we have to live by it. We have to keep auditioning, keep looking for work, constantly. That will never change. But the challenge that I would like to put to you today is to balance the “try, try again,” with something else: “If at first you don’t succeed, then examine your definition of success.”
What is “success?” One way of evaluating it is by external factors. Other factors are internal. On the external side, it’s clear that so many of us, from time to time, are going to have to find alternative ways of bringing in income. I would encourage you to do so in ways that fill your creative soul, even if they are not what you would be your first choice as an acting gig. I have a friend who is, I think, a brilliant actor. But the world has not yet recognized his talent with the kinds of roles he thinks he should be playing. He has looked on with a mixture of both curiosity and disdain at many of the jobs that I have taken, while he kept donning his waiter’s apron, waiting for something that was fitting for a man of his talents. He is still catering. So don’t fall into the trap of thinking that there is only one way that your creative hunger can be sated. Don’t say, “It’s acting, or nothing.” Creative endeavor will breed creative endeavor, and keeping those juices flowing keeps you better prepared for each opportunity that comes along. Act, teach acting, write a one woman or one man show and tell the stories of your life, direct. Above all, create! It is too easy to fall into the actor’s trap of waiting for someone else to give us a job so that we can be fulfilled. I beg you, don’t give anyone else that power over you.
Many of us are initially attracted to acting because of the charge we get from performing, the pleasure we feel at moving the emotions of others, the thrill of hearing the applause, the attention. For some, it’s a way to find a new kind of home, family, social group. Take the example of my son, He’s a different kind of kid, as I’m sure so many of you are. He doesn’t fit in to any one group. He’s on the Varsity Wrestling Team, but he’s also a writer and an artist. He’s a reader, and a cross-country runner. He’s into fantasy role-playing card games, and into girls, two things that I have tried to explain to him don’t really go together. Then suddenly, because of the insight of one teacher, he was pulled into the high school musical, and now at 15 has just had his first real theatrical experience playing The Man in the Chair in his high school’s production of The Drowsy Chaperone. This was a chance for him to really find himself in a new way, and now the fire has been ignited. I suspect that many of you found your way into the dramatic arts in a similar way. And all of that is great. It’s wonderful to finally find a place where you feel that you belong. But I would like to suggest something to you. The charge you get from performing, the thrill of the applause, even the deep relief and comfort you may feel at finally finding your place in the world … all of that is great. But in my experience, eventually it won’t be enough. All of those ways of evaluating success are centered on what working in our field will do for you. I want you to think about something else. I want you to think about what it can do for others.
Another way to look at “Success” is to break it down into three categories: There is Work, there’s Recognition, and there’s Livelihood. And for each of these, there is a dark side and a light side. Let’s look at work.
There is steady work, and there is work that feeds your soul. Steady work, the kind that you get from a hit television series, can bring incredible financial security. But be careful of this. Remember my conversation with my older brother, where he expressed disappointment at the quality of the scripts he was so often handed. Or my conversation with another friend, who had played the same character for ten years on a police procedural. For most of that time she was bored out of her mind, and now she confesses to me that she thinks she has forgotten how to act, and is terrified of auditioning.
The other kind of career, which may not bring in mountains of money but which pays off in other ways, comes from developing relationships with your peers who are up and coming, as you are. You can experience the wonder of working on new plays, independent films. It may not be for much money, but you can be working with the newest, the best, the brightest, out there on the cutting edge, without the worry of getting fired by the network or the studio if some bean-counter’s bottom line is not met.
Let’s look at recognition. There is fame, and there is the respect of your peers. As to fame, what the heck does that mean, other than getting a table at the hottest new restaurant without having to go on a waiting list? But the respect of your peers? Talk about a thrill. You might not be the one who is getting hounded for autographs, but when Helen Mirren or Anthony Hopkins wants to talk to you after they see you in a show because they were impressed with your work — that’s something that you will carry with you for the rest of your days.
Finally, there is livelihood. There are riches, and there is enough to get by. Again, that big house starts to feel pretty cold and empty if your heart is not filled by the work you do. Nothing beats going to bed at night tired and satisfied, knowing that what you did during the day fed your soul, and lightened the load that someone else was carrying.
Remember above all that we are tellers of stories, and that the stories we tell have the ability to profoundly affect the lives of others. I, for one, know all that I need to know about how things don’t work out. I think the rest of the world is suffering from the same malady. In my work, what I want to do is talk about other things. I think often of the list that William Faulkner enumerated in his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, a list of the only subjects worthy of artistic endeavor: They are love and honor and pity and pride and courage and hope and compassion and sacrifice. As actors, we have the chance to to live in, and share with others, an imagined universe, an alternate universe, a universe where these are the qualities towards which we strive. My challenge to you today is to worry not about whether you are successful in a material way, but whether you are successful in your attempt to make that imagined, alternate universe a reality.
Break a leg on this quest, and congratulations.