“You know, I never would’ve made it this long if I wasn’t a great fucking writer.” – Jack Nicholson
The quote above essentially sums up this whole blog post. The rest of this reading is complementary.
If you have read Jack Nicholson’s biography “Five Easy Decades” by Dennis McDougal, the best actor biography book I’ve ever laid my eyes on, then you’re aware how Jack knows exactly what he’s talking about when it comes to the acting business. I highly recommend this book, because it will teach you more on how to become a household name in Hollywood than anything else out there.
When I was just preparing to move to Los Angeles, I had a to-do list for my first month in Tinseltown. I’m a big believer in the craft of writing being an essential skill all actors must posses, thus one of my goals was to start working on something – anything – immediately. Now I have that “something” in the works, and I will share this with you in a future post.
5 Reasons Why Actors Must Start Writing
Even though acting and writing are closely related creative fields, these are still two different artistic endeavors.
Nevertheless, the two most definitely complement each other in a big way. Here’s why I think if your goal is to become an a working actor, you must start writing as soon as possible.
1. Writing expands your imagination
If you have ever tried writing your own story from scratch, you know how much stress this effort places on your “imagination muscle.” Creating something out of nothing and putting it into words is harder than any physical workout you’ll ever go through. At the same time, this is one of the best exercises an actor can do.
As actors, we do need to train our bodies, but there’s nothing more important than training our mind and imagination. Like many great teachers have said it before, an expansive imagination is the key to great acting. When you write, you spend most of the time thinking, imagining, and creating. This is your brain at work; it’s being trained, and it’s improving.
Writing as an exercise will give you the necessary toolbox to dig into when you work on creating your character. Even though the urban myth of “creative right brain vs analytical left brain” has already been debunked many times, exercising your creativity through writing does improve some part of the brain that leads to a larger arsenal of creative instruments. This is vital for an actor.
2. Writing trains your focus
Actors who have laser-like focus are destined for success. It’s as simple as that, and we’ve seen this happen in Hollywood over and over. This is not surprising, because being able to concentrate on your one specific goal while ignoring everything around you is how you get the best results. Focus is a vital piece of a puzzle for building a successful career in any field.
One of my favorite writers Haruki Murakami said: “Talent is nothing without focus and endurance.” And after Steve Martin has confirmed it when attributing his success to focus and perseverance, you know it has to be true.
Writers who spend every day creating something out of nothing know the value of a long-lasting concentration. When you sit down to begin implementing images from your head in the form of words and sentences, there’s no skill more important than being able to stay focused on that task. The more you write, the stronger your “concentration muscles” become. Use those same muscles as actor.
On top of that, studies have shown that writing will also increase your working memory capacity – another skill that’s extremely useful for thespians of the modern, ADD hindered world.
3. Writing makes you more empathetic
When you spend time with writers, one thing you notice about them is how quickly they “get” other people. Their level of emotional intelligence is usually higher than anybody else’s in the room.
Writers make their living by literally trying to understand how each one of their characters feel, how they react and what they think. In order to keep their characters realistic, they need to be observant and conscious of other people’s feelings, emotions and actions. This is what professionals often base their fictional characters on, at least partially.
For actors, empathy is just as important. How can you ever create a believable character if you’re unable to comprehend what that person is going through according to the material you’re presented? Natalie Portman talked about the importance of empathy for actors, and so did Thalia R. Goldstein, a PhD in Psychology. Take a pick who influences you more.
Furthermore, we all know that writers read a lot of fiction. This comes with a job. What another study have found is that reading by itself improves the feeling of empathy in people, so you may want to grab that “Five Easy Decades” book after all and get on it.
4. Writing teaches you to listen
Good fiction writers know how to allow the characters and the circumstances dictate the story. That’s one of the best ways to flesh out an interesting tale. Instead of forcing certain actions, a good writer will know how to listen. Writers patiently observe what their own characters are saying, and what situations are being created as a consequence of the previous action. Basically, they allow the story to write itself, which sounds easy on paper, but actually isn’t.
We know how important it is for actors to be able to listen. Many, many great performers have mentioned how listening is the key to truthful acting. A couple of years back, Alan Rickman was on the NPR and talked about the importance of listening.
Marily Brooks of Grand Valley State University wrote about how writers need to be good listeners, and how they work on improving those skills. It all comes back to regularly writing, reading and working those “brain muscles.” I firmly believe that as an actor, if you incorporate daily writing routines into your training, you’ll be ahead of most other thespians trying to make it in the industry.
5. Writing provides more opportunities
On top of what has already been said, another reason to begin writing your own material is to create opportunities for yourself, and put something on your acting resume. Many aspiring actors start pursuing this career choice thinking they can get to to the top of the ladder only by auditioning. It’s possible but highly unlikely, simply because of how competitive show business is.
You can’t wait for luck. There have been more than enough cases where actors got their big break only because they dedicated time and effort to write their own stuff. I’ll list some of those below. In 2015, the market is too saturated to simply get out there and look for auditions. Today, budding actors must not only be performers but also writers, directors and producers of their own content.
Fortunately, we’re now living in an age where writing and producing your own material is much easier than it ever was. Find the time to sit down and write a short five minute film, or a few episodes of web series for YouTube, or maybe even a sitcom pilot. There’s absolutely no excuse not to do that.
If the above five reasons didn’t inspire you to start writing, then this paragraph WILL. Remember how Vin Diesel got Steven Spielberg’s attention with his short film “Multi-Facial” and went on to become an A-list movie star in Hollywood? There’s no mistake here: Diesel’s ultimate success was the result of a one short film that he himself wrote and produced for $3,000. It was not an accident. He planned it.
Actors Who Wrote Their Way Into Hollywood
You may or may not have been fortunate enough to see Billy Bob Thornton’s alumni ceremony speech that he gave in 2014 at Joanne Baron/D.W.Brown studio. One of the best advice he’s given during that speech was the importance for actors to start writing their own material.
Thornton, who got his break through writing his own film “Sling Blade” (1995) said the same thing years before during the “Inside the Actors Studio” interview with James Lipton. Take this as yet another example of why you must start writing today while I list more actors below who did the same thing.
Below I will list actors who made it, or hit it bigger, in Hollywood thanks to writing their own material. They’ve done it either early on in their acting career or after they’ve been around for a while but weren’t happy with the parts they were receiving (or not receiving).
- Charlie Chaplin, everything
- Lake Bell, “In a World…” (2013)
- Ed Burns, “The Brothers McMullen” (1995)
- Simon Pegg, “Shaun Of The Dead” (2004)
- Tina Fey, “30 Rock” (2006)
- Jon Favreau, “Swingers” (1996)
- Paddy Considine, “Dead Man’s Shoes” (2004)
- Nia Vardalos, “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” (2002)
- Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, “Good Will Hunting” (1997)
- Brit Marling, “Another Earth” (2011)
- Vin Diesel, “Multi-Facial” (1995)
- Seth Rogen, “Superbad” (2007)
- Steve Carell, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” (2005)
- Sylvester Stallone, “Rocky” (1976)
- Mindy Kaling, “The Office” (2005)
- Sacha Baron Cohen, “Borat” (2006)
- Billy Bob Thornton, “Sling Blade” (1995)
- Emma Thompson, “Sense and Sensibility” (1995)
- Woody Allen, too many to name, but let’s go with “Annie Hall” (1977)
- Kristen Wiig, “Bridesmaids” (2011)
- Owen Wilson, “Rushmore” (1998)
- Kevin Smith, “Clerks” (1994)
- Ben Stiller, “Zoolander” (2001)
- Will Ferrell, “Anchorman” (2004)
- Lena Dunham, “Tiny Furniture” (2010)
- Orson Welles, “Citizen Kane” (1941)
Oh, and if you want source for the above Jack Nicholson’s quote, here it is.
Is anybody out there?
I’m only trying to take this blog off the ground. If you enjoyed this article, please let me know your thoughts in the comments below. If you didn’t, feel free to leave your criticism and tell me why you disliked the post. Finally, if you have any questions that I can answer, drop those in the comments section as well and I’ll try my best to answer either from my own experience or from all the research that I’ve done on the subject.
I hope you guys connect with me, and we can start pursuing this journey together!