Let’s start with a gem. Check out this incredible clip of Sebastian Stan, back when he was about to deliver an amazing performance in I, Tonya alongside Margot Robbie. In this snippet of an interview for the Golden Globes, he passes on the best acting career advice he ever received. And we rather like it…
Updated January 18th, 2022.
Look Beyond Your Comfort Zone
Why don’t we break this down a little bit?
It’s probably unfair to suggest that success lies totally outside your comfort zone—you don’t need to constantly look for wilder projects and characters to improve your craft—but it’s completely true that the more skills you try (and try to improve), the more areas you are likely to excel in. Transferable skills are the name of the game in the acting world, and every role gives you the opportunity to bring something individual and fresh to the table—something only you can offer.
Therefore, look for projects that ask a little more of you. As Stan says, “Never arrive at a place where you’re going to feel comfortable.” This isn’t to say that you’ll find that comfort at some point—as your skills improve and you rise to meet the challenges of the job. But this should be your ending point, not where you start out. The best thing about this kind of philosophy is that upskilling your acting abilities becomes, in and of itself, a skill! If you have a whole gamut of abilities and competencies to draw on, you’re more likely to feel confident about taking that next thing on. If there’s one statement that any prospective employer hates, it’s “I’m a fast learner!” Everyone can say this. Be the one who can prove it.
This is not to say that new things can’t be confronting, or even scary. Make sure you don’t fall into a habit of doing something new just because it makes you uncomfortable. You don’t want that practised state of discomfort to come through in your acting! The trick is to find a middling level of comfort in being uncomfortable, in doing something for the first time with the assurance that it won’t destroy you. Consider a reframing technique—this one is especially helpful for stage fright, but can apply to nerves of any kind. Focus on excitement rather than fear. Fear leads to anxiety and pessimism, visualising the worst possible outcomes, whereas excitement encourages a mindset of hope and possibility. Maintain perspective: this thing might be scary now, but you’re working hard at it and soon it’ll be just another feather in your bow.
If we go back to the foundational basics of drama, you might recall that an entertaining story is real life with the boring bits cut out. What makes the non-boring bits so exciting? They’re the moments in the story where the protagonist risks it all to achieve their objective and drive the story forward! A mentor of mine once said that all drama is a fight between Character A and Character B: good drama follows the winner from one fight to the next. In these dramatic moments—in a film, play or even in your own life—we mark excitement by the moment the protagonist steps across the threshold and seeks the discomfort of the unknown. This is what Stan is getting at: and where your growth as an actor lies.
Challenge Yourself As An Actor
So what are some ways you can leave your comfort zone? How can you start, right here and now, to challenge yourself as an actor and widen your pool of skills?
#1: Take A Class
This one’s a no-brainer. Take an acting class! Sign up for a short course, masterclass or seminar. You could even try your hand at StageMilk’s very own Scene Club and submit each month! The right level of training will help you identify weak points in your craft and push you to improve them. It’s also worth thinking about signing up for a class that is completely left-of-field. Ever learned to dance? Play an instrument? Brew beer?
#2: Work With Your Peers
Leaving your comfort zone is scary, but it’s often easier when you make the jump with friends. Lean on your creative community—the actors/creatives you call your friends—and challenge one another! Do some scene studies together, prep for a big audition. You can also take a class with a friend and cheer each other through the course.
#3: Take Up Every Audition Opportunity
Sometimes, we can get into the mindset that we’re not ‘right’ or ‘ready’ for a big audition. “Not this one,” you might say. “I just can’t prepare for it right now…” Nonsense! This is the perfect opportunity to challenge yourself. Take every audition opportunity you can and go for it! If anything, it will help you hone your skills on how to audition and get you more comfortable with the process.
#4: Seek Work In Different Media
Consider yourself a screen actor? Look for opportunities in theatre. Speaking of: have you ever given Shakespeare a go? How about voice acting, or even teaching drama? Some of the best challenges for any actor lie waiting for them in media they wouldn’t normally work in. You might find yourself pleasantly surprised by stepping onto the stage. And you might also have stumbled across a whole new line of work.
#5: Create Your Own Work
While not related directly to your acting, per se: it’s still worth exploring roles such as writing or directing to expand your skill set. It can be hugely beneficial to study your process from an outsider’s perspective, and learn what it takes for a creative to truly support an actor and bring the best out of their work. To start off, we’d suggest directing some friends in a scene, or perhaps thinking about writing a monologue. If you’re feeling extra daring, you might consider writing a vehicle for yourself to produce as a showcase of your talents…
#6 Rethink Your Brand
This is both good advice for leaving your comfort zone and your career in general. Think about the kind of roles you’re seeking—the kind of offers you attract and the image you project as an actor—and ask yourself if it’s right for you. Could you be doing different things? Could you be doing more? It’s very easy, once you find some success down a particular path in your career, to resist exploring. If you’re happy, we’re not here to tell you to change a thing. But if you’re not, and you’re feeling unfulfilled creatively, this could be the reason—even if you’re enjoying success and comfort in your career.
The Best Acting Career Advice
So what makes this the best acting career advice, you might ask? With all due respect to the Winter Soldier, that is…
Avoiding that place of comfort—that zone of career complacency—invites you to look at yourself, your craft and your career. If you want more, and you think you’re capable of it, then it’s a great way to keep you motivated on your acting journey. Our advice is to seek discomfort whenever you can. Identify the things that scare you, the things that hold you back. And make them your project. Rise to those challenges and overcome them, before moving on to the next. Soon, it’ll be a regular part of your creative process.
How’s that for the best acting career advice?