A hundred years ago, during what I like to call “The Dark Ages,” otherwise known as high school, I got my first job. It was at this cesspool of a steakhouse that was legitimately run by ex-cons out on work release. I remember almost nothing from that experience. I knew it was one of those times in life that was better left repressed or blacked out. However, one thing that has stuck in my mind like a piece of broccoli in my teeth is something that the manager said to me on my first day.
“Do you want to hear a secret?” he said.
It was no secret that he was a strong anti-hygiene activist and likely an Internet troll.
“We only hire girls that can fit into size small T-shirts. We only order size small, so if ya don’t fit, ya don’t work. But you will be fine.” Red. Flag.
America’s obsession with physical appearance and personal image continues to find new ways and places to rear its ugly head. Unfortunately, this obsession with appearance is the elephant in the room – or stage, rather. Whether we realize it or not, we as consumers are conditioned to believe that beauty exists as a 5-foot, 7-inch, 110-pound, WASP-y blonde.
If I didn’t know any better, I’d think that Hollywood’s population consists of white models who are forced each day at gunpoint to spend four straight hours on a treadmill. So, it’s no wonder that theater, a visual art, would also take image into consideration when casting. Actors get two to three minutes to show a director who we are in an audition. Two minutes. We are not afforded the luxury of a 45-minute get-to-know-you interview like other professions. We have two minutes. At auditions, we literally have to present ourselves to a director, and the only things we can control in that situation are our talent and image.
A few weeks ago in a weekly class that includes every theater major, a big-time Philadelphia-area casting director came in to speak to us and impart her timeless wisdom upon us. Funnily enough, she said something strikingly similar to what my piggish boss said to me years before. The casting director said something along the lines of, “If you are larger than a size four, you don’t stand a chance in this industry.” Granted, this casting director deals primarily with film actors and models. But, in a room full of budding or fully-bloomed divas, you can imagine the outrage. I, however, did not share in the public’s outrage and cries for blood. So, while some students sharpened their pitchforks and lit their torches, I chose to write about it.
And, honey, I ain’t no size two. Body image and physical appearance are very delicate subjects for any individual to be confronted with, especially when the subjects are broached with such unflinching bluntness. And the trouble comes when actors’ feelings start getting hurt because they either don’t or won’t separate the distinction between “thin” and “healthy.”
Senior theater major Kyra Baker was one of the many students present during this particular presentation.
Of the issue, Baker said, “It really made me think how the entertainment industry has the biggest influence on society, particularly young people. Being thin doesn’t necessarily mean you’re healthy. In fact, it can often mean quite the opposite. As an actor who has been greatly influenced by physical ideals, I struggle to maintain an image of health and an attitude of acceptance. These are of much more value than the size of my jeans.”
Fortunately, talent and skill are given far more importance in the casting process than physical appearance. To the best actor goes the role.
We have to be realistic about who we are, and what we can do; and conversely, what our limitations are as actors.
Peter Reynolds, head of the musical theater department at Temple and artistic director of Mauckingbird Theatre Company weighed in with his professional opinion and experience as a long-time director.
“For film, I would believe [the casting director was] right,” Reynolds said. “The truth is, film and television automatically put 10 pounds on you. Period. It’s just a fact.”
And I agree with Reynolds, partly because I can’t dispute a fact and partly because there are different considerations and standards used in film casting.
Reynolds went on to add, “For theater, what I believe is more important than a certain size or a certain dress size is fitness. Because in theater, you’re casting someone who has to do eight shows a week. And I’m looking for people who I can look at and say, ‘Oh yeah, he can dance that eight times a week; she can sing that eight times a week.’ I don’t think people understand how much fitness and nutrition shows up. You can look at somebody who eats well and takes care of themselves, no matter what size they are, and directors can see that. Then you can look at somebody who smokes, who eats really poorly and who doesn’t exercise, and that shows up, too. So for me, it’s fitness, not a specific size. The only thing [actors] have control of is what you can do, how you tell a story and your own fitness.”
Reynolds brings up several crucial points that cannot be ignored by actors. It takes incredible stamina to perform in eight shows a week, musical or not. A production of “Grease” can be just a physically demanding and taxing as a production of “Hamlet.”
Our bodies are our instruments. The voice and speech training that we undergo at Temple only go so far once we hit the stage. The rest of the work lies in our own hands.
About a year ago, I was in a show and I essentially lived off of the Pringles-and-Red-Bull diet plan throughout the three-month rehearsal process. During a dress rehearsal the night before our first preview, I was rushed off stage and stripped in the lobby – not as sexy as it sounds – because I was so lightheaded that I blacked out and nearly fainted and vomited simultaneously – not as impressive as it sounds.
I was not taking care of myself, as a human being or as an actor, and it showed. After I put my clothes back on and the director was sure I was stable, she reprimanded me for not taking better care of my body during this time. I should have known better. Lesson learned.
I don’t have to be perfect -looking or have the perfect body to be cast in a show. But I do have to care enough about my image to invest effort in putting forth the best version of myself through fitness, hygiene and appearance. God knows I wouldn’t get cast if I walked into an audition room with taquito breath, sweatpants to hide my taquito food baby, last night’s makeup and uncombed hair sprinkled with bits of – wait for it – taquitos. Hell, I wouldn’t cast me. Appearance matters; effort matters.
“Appearance plays a huge part,” said Elizabeth Carlson, a master of fine arts candidate in directing. “When we see an actor for two to three minutes – sometimes less – in an audition, we are gathering as much information about you as we can in that short time, and some of those things are: How you look, how you’re dressed, how you move, how you speak – both in your audition piece and conversationally. I like to think that, as directors, we are casting actors, not models – but it can be easy to get taken in by how someone looks.”
Carlson added that as a director she may have an idea in her mind about how a particular character should look and that may hinder her judgment.
“All of a sudden an actor walks in who looks exactly how you pictured that character. That can be a trap, because at that moment, part of you tunes down your quality detector because you want that person to be ‘the one’ so badly.”
Carlson gives a perfect example of the power that looks can have over a director. Despite the dangerous temptation of choosing type over talent, Carlson has avoided that trap and directed several outstanding scenes and a production of “Cloud 9,” where she was a co-director with fellow MFA directing candidate David Girard.
Carlson sums up the responsibility of an actor very well: “Part of who you are as an actor is how you look, and you can use that to your advantage, or not. But that’s the way it is. Own who you are and what you’ve got. Confidence goes a long way, as does knowing and working well with the instrument you have.”
Now, obviously, there are unfair double standards that exist in the film industry when it comes to women versus men. Women, generally, are held to a far higher physical standard in Hollywood than men are. And if women don’t fit this model-esque role, they are promptly placed on either the “best friend” or “comic relief” shelves.
Our acting professors stress the importance of young theater artists knowing and embracing their capabilities. We have to be realistic about who we are, and what we can do; and conversely, what our limitations are as actors. Basically, we have to know what kind of actor we are. I know better than to walk into an audition for the role of Lady Macbeth, or for the role of Lisbeth Salander in “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” because that’s not me, no matter how much I wish that was. Sigh.
In the world of theater, we actors have very little control over our fates or the roles that we get, so if there is something that is within our power to control, why wouldn’t we make the best of it? We have to take care of our bodies as much as we do our minds.
To be continued…dun dun dun. Feed me? Actually, don’t. I’m on a diet.
Marcie Anker can be reached at email@example.com.