What is an Actor?

I get asked all the time, “Acting? What’s that like?” and rarely have an answer that can both satisfy the curiosity of the uninitiated and truthfully encompass my experience. Holidays with the family can quickly devolve into a volley of well-meant and seemingly innocent questions which nevertheless serve to vex even the most veteran entertainer.

I have resolved to start a blog to make my life more transparent to my friends and family, as well as to help aspiring actors see the pitfalls we all come across and be better prepared for them. In this my first entry, I want to explore the difficulty of answering one of the most common questions you will be asked when meeting new people:

”What do you do?”

This exchange gets awkward really fast: “Oh, but most of your money comes from waiting tables. So you’re really more of a waiter with an acting hobby?” or “Oh, I’m sorry you haven’t made it yet. I hope you get famous someday.”

In the past, I have even given my side hustle as my answer simply to avoid this unpleasant moment, but I didn’t devote my entire life to my craft just to pretend it doesn’t exist nor to be discredited or pitied. I want to be proud of my progress, and I should be. Storytelling is the backbone of society and humanity’s greatest gift, and to be a part of its continued future is to define what comes next for our world.

…But I also really don’t want to preach at people I have just met. It starts to seem defensive if not irritating…

Fortunately, I may have a solution! First, a couple notes:

  1. I do not wish to in any way hide or belittle my work, and neither should you.

  2. It is VERY normal for an actor to have primary sources of income outside the entertainment industry. That does not take away from your acting career but rather enables it.

  3. Everyone will attribute their own versions of success when asking followup questions. Ignore these and define your own success.

So how do I now respond to the dreaded “What’s that like? What have you been in? Does that pay?” bombardment that follows the word Actor? Simple. I focus on the craft.

“What’s it like being an actor?”

I get to make people laugh and cry and hopefully discover something new about themselves and the world we share.

“What have you been in (that I have seen)?”

People are usually expecting to hear something easily recognizable. Maybe you are one of the lucky ones that has an easy answer to this. For the rest of us, we live in a world of “You’ve never heard of it...” I prefer to generalize any recent credits and focus on the projects I am self-producing. If you aren’t self-producing anything, start something. Anything. I got my start in voice-over simply reading classic gothic literature into a microphone and publishing it to youtube (Check it out).

“How much does an actor make?”

For most of us, not a lot. Acting isn’t a good way to make easy money. We fight for our living every step of the way, but we are happy to do it. Each smile and every discovery pays with a life of its own.

These are all just examples, but the rules focus on the craft and define your own success can be applied to just about anything your family/coworker/new acquaintance throws at you. I encourage you to find your own ways to apply these rules to your answers.

P.S. Another great thing to focus on, if you can implement it naturally, is what else you are doing with your life. Acting isn’t just about portraying life; it’s about experiencing it so you can share in that universal bond that makes us all human.

I had the good fortune of visiting the Grand Canyon over the holidays. I spent seven hours driving for a grand total of 45 minutes in the park, but it was worth every moment. No photograph or words can truly put it in perspective, and I highly recommend anyone visit if given the chance.

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Benjamin Shuman is a Los Angeles-based, classically trained actor and singer with experience in multiple mediums. He has held lead roles Off-Broadway, in nationally-recognized Webshows, and as a Voice-Over Artist.